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Move over Netflix, audio streaming is now king. Boosted by hit albums by Beyoncé, Drake, Rihanna, and other artists, music-streaming services like Apple Music, Pandora, and Spotify have overtaken video streaming as the leading mode of content distribution.

That didn’t take some of the publishers of music education content by surprise. Jeff Schroedl, executive vice president at Hal Leonard Publishing, which began connecting come of its educational titles with streaming in 2014, observed, “Once we saw that laptops weren’t being made with disc drives anymore, we could see where the market was going.”

Media Evolution

Book titles bundled with CDs were common by the end of the 1990s, as CD replication costs plummeted to a few cents apiece, and the thin discs added little in the way of weight or bulk to books, allowing them to be displayed in standard retail racks. (Books packaged with audio cassettes had been a market for years before that, though the cassette was indeed bulky, often bubble-packed with individual books.)

The category became a winner for music education, allowing readers and students to easily listen to what was being taught on the printed page. Now, streaming is making its presence felt on the MI publishing side, offering not only to completely eliminate physical media needing to be bundled with books, but also the ability to update and append content from the cloud. Second editions can now also be called 2.0.

Hal Leonard has been including media in one format or another for decades, going back to the Flexi Disc, the bendable records that were once stapled into magazines and used as premiums. (The Beatles sent them out to fan-club members at Christmas in the 1960s and Mad magazine included them often in the 1970s.)

Historically, audio media connected to lesson books has been popular as a teaching tool, says Schroedl, who devised the GUI for Hal Leonard’s MyLibrary, the company’s streaming product, which debuted in January, 2014.

“Being able to hear what something is supposed to sound like is critical for teaching,” he says. “But transitions [between formats] have never been easy.”

Seeing disc drives disappear from laptops was the cue for Hal Leonard to move towards streaming, but many retailers were still caught by surprise. “Some consumers and stores just weren’t ready, while others were ready to move to streaming a year earlier,” Schroedl recalls. That means that some titles will still be shipped with CDs and others will use a combination of discs and access codes printed in each book to access the title’s related audio media, just as the company once had to ship some titles with either CDs or cassettes 20 years earlier. Some titles will have the streamed media as an option, at additional cost, which requires creating separate SKUs.

Other challenges include making the streaming site compatible with multiple browsers (Firefox was just going live as we spoke), and the need to print unique access codes for each copy of a book, which will also somewhat complicate the issue of returns, since those codes will have to be invalidated to prevent piracy.

The big task, he expects, will be going back into tens of thousands of titles and updating them from CD to streaming, as well as working on new titles.

“We publish about 2,100 titles a year and about half of them use audio,” he explains. “A lot of the audio files that were originally recorded in analog have already been converted to digital for CD, so we just have to adapt them for streaming and downloading now.”

But that kind of housekeeping is more than offset by the advantages of streaming, Schroedl stresses. In addition to not having any physical media to manufacture, ship, package and  bundle, streamed audio isn’t limited to the 79-minute running time of a CD. “And we can also embed video and .pdf files in the stream, to,” he adds. Audio quality can also vary, using either basic MP3 or higher-resolution AAC files.

Hal Leonard’s first streaming-only audio title is Soul Fingers: The Music & Life of Legendary Bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, which was released earlier this year. The book includes online access to over an hour of audio demonstrations and play-alongs, featuring sound-alike tracks with guest appearances by the legendary Memphis sideman’s son Jeff Dunn, and bassist Will Lee using Duck’s actual bass. The audio is accessed online using the unique code inside each book and can be streamed or downloaded.

The audio files include PLAYBACK+, a multi-functional audio player that allows users to slow down audio without changing pitch, set loop points, change keys, and pan left or right. The split-channel tracks separate the bass part so it can be heard soloed or muted so students can play along.

The recordings for Hal Leonard’s audio content will continue to be made as they were for CDs and cassettes, in the company’s recording studio at its Milwaukee headquarters, or by individual book authors who create their own audio content. Schroedl says the streaming environment is one of constant tweaks. A new feature that was added earlier this year are markers that show the viewer exactly where they are on the sheet music or tablature page. A future feature upgrade will be the inclusion of stems – groups of instruments, such as drums or guitars, that will let students remix tracks and position themselves in a custom mix they play along with.

Data Could Change Everything

Alfred Music has also seen streaming titles gaining traction after a slow start, now with about 60 titles since they launched the project in 2014, an initiative tentatively titled Alfred Music Online. Alfred began with the company’s DIY series of self-teaching series of books, a strategy that was calculated, says Alex Ordoñez, vice president of Marketing.

“That series is aimed at the hobbyist, a customer more inclined to learn on his or her own; we thought that would be a good way to gauge interest in the idea,” he explains. Since then, streaming has been added to more traditional teacher-student course series.

Alfred Music has seen acceptance of streaming options on educational book titles vary by retailer, a reflection of a consumer market – mostly teachers – that still prefer either conventional media or none at all. As such, Ordoñez expects they’ll be commissioning CD manufacturing for some time to come. However, streaming may open new doors that could radically change the entire industry. Beginning this year, Alfred Music is also offering the option to stream audio with many of its catalogs, both physical and digital. (The catalogs will likely be the first products to completely eliminate CDs.) This, from a marketing and production standpoint, is potentially a game changer, as a result of highly granular data and analysis derived from the stream.

“We now have the ability to understand and analyze usage of each track which results in Alfred Music creating better content for both teachers and students,” he says. “For example, if we have 30 different tracks but only 20 are being played multiple times, this may be an indicator of its effectiveness and popularity, which we can take into consideration for future products.

“When you sell a CD, you can only hope they listen to it, but you never know how it’s being received,” he continues. “But with streaming, we can know what tracks were accessed, how long they were listened to, and so much more. What if a track was played for five seconds and then turned off? Do we need to create better intros? We can really look at what people are listening to.” (These are the same kinds of granular analytics that Apple just let their podcasting users have access to.)

That data analysis could let the company much more precisely tailor its educational- audio content to what the market responds to. In the past, says Ordoñez, Alfred had to rely on feedback from their retail partners, who in turn were getting their input from individual customers. By being able to go to the source for unfiltered customer reaction, Alfred Music would be in a position to provide analysis to its retailers, something he says is part of its long-term strategic plans for streaming. As would collaborative filtering, which would be used to make customers aware of other products similar to ones that data shows they liked.

“Retail is our most important ally in education,” he says. “Streaming is still in its infancy in this area and still small as a percentage of our overall catalog, but we can already see how it can deepen the connection between us, the retailer, and the teacher and the student. If we can keep more people engaged with music, that’s a win for everyone.”

Connecting streaming audio with other educational modalities has been going on nearly since streaming has been a commercial proposition. Universities with subscriptions to music libraries like Naxos for classical and jazz genres have been able to access streaming music that’s used in conjunction with classes that teach instruments. YouTube has morphed into the leading music resource that’s not behind a paywall. Educators have used it for applications that include creating instrument and software tutorials, evaluating group and individual performances, and sharing content between teachers and students. But MI’s two leading publishers are the first to directly connect it with published book titles. That sets the stage for what will likely be looked at, in retrospect, as a significant inflection point in the music- education market.

Data analysis of the education publishing market is one immediate benefit of its migration towards streaming. However, it could have much longer-range implications, including entirely new categories of titles, especially as music production and pro audio move deeper into networked and laptop domains, and as music distribution further taps social media and other online avenues.

It will take time for retail and educators to embrace the idea – after all, some of the first songs many new students still learn were written in the 18th century – but the economic benefits to publishers, from lowered manufacturing and shipping costs to data-driven product refinements and new-product development, suggest that the publishers will be taking the lead on this one.



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