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Book ‘Em! The Bookracks in MI Retail are the Face of a Powerful Engine for Wider Sales

Dan Daley • April 2019Features • April 4, 2019

The death of print, like that famous premature obituary that Mark Twain once joked about, has been greatly exaggerated. The collapse of iconic marquee brands, like Borders Books and Books-A-Million, in the last decade or so have masked a more important sustainability in books as products. In fact, between 2009 and 2015, more than 570 independent bookstores opened in the U.S., bringing the total to more than 2,200, about a 35-percent jump after more than a decade of decline.

One place where printed matter remains robust is in MI retail, where racks have remained steady or have become more crowded with titles, although those titles are increasingly connected to web and cloud-based content.

“What we’ve realized is that everyone wants to learn differently,” says Jeff Schroedl, executive vice president at Hal Leonard, MI’s largest book publisher. “Some customers want conventional books, some want online instruction, some with more text than video, some with more video than text, or no text at all. As a result, we have to offer more options for them.”

Publishers agree that the book trade is important for MI retailers.  “Books build skills, and as musicians become more proficient, they come back and buy more and better instruments,” says Schroedl. However, the traditional business model also requires that retailers buy the books they display, which can be burdensome. “Regular bookstores operate on a returnable goods basis, meaning they can send back what they don’t sell; MI retail doesn’t operate on that basis,” explains Mike Lawson, one of the founders of ArtistPro and MixBooks (and currently the editor of MMR sister publication School Band & Orchestra). “That’s a peculiarity that goes back to the days when people would buy sheet music, copy it, and then return it.”

Lawson says that means that individual stores must carefully tailor their inventories to their particular mix of customers, who have become savvier buyers in recent years, thanks to all of the content available on the internet. Adds Schroedl, “It also means that we have to provide a very wide range of content.”

The use of online links has changed the instructional process; using internet portals allows publishers to keep more consumers within their own ecosystems, as more individual instructors and teachers go online themselves, building brands as they go. But the shift to online connections has also provided some advantage to traditional book publishers, who are now able to move away from the CDs and DVDs that as recently as five years ago had become part of a standard multimedia package for instructional publishing.

Even though CD manufacturing had shifted from the industrial-replication manufacturing model of the 1980s and ‘90s to a tabletop duplication model in the aughts, the discs still had a base cost and added to shipping weight, as well as requiring inserts for the books they accompanied.

Schroedl says Hal Leonard discontinued the use of CDs about five years ago, instead now using a unique code printed at the beginning of each book that lets users access one of two dozen or so instructional portals it operates. But it also underscores how publishing has to try to address the many individual interests – between musical instruments and pro audio sectors – at as wide range of skill levels as possible. The strategy now, says Schroedl, is to create content centrally and focus the complexity on the access parts.

Not that content isn’t complicated. Schroedl says the company has to constantly look to create more value for users, which includes more frequent updating of songbooks, to reflect popular music’s own increased diffusiveness. Popular songs drive half of the entire publishing business, he says; last year’s biggest titles came from the film “The Greatest Showman,” which joined new and perennial titles from Disney and Broadway. The base of the publishing pyramid is also widening, as entry-level customers look for instructional content on instruments like the ukulele, or for bluegrass banjo techniques. Other newer wrinkles include providing music tracks in the form of stems, allowing students to turn on and off entire sections of tracks, such as drums or guitars, so they can fill in those gaps themselves.

That same blended-media approach is being applied to pro audio publishing. It had to, says Schroedl, because music technology changes on an almost monthly basis. To buttress that, Hal Leonard last year acquired Groove3, a leading website specializing in music technology tutorial videos, and then developed a dealer program around it that encourages subscription sales to the website’s pro-audio tutorials.

Trends within MI also can lead to new publishing categories. For instance, Hal Leonard has recently been publishing titles focused on stomp boxes and last year issued its first looper pedal songbook.

Two Main Players

The sum of several years of consolidation, the MI publishing universe has been bifurcated into two major players: Hal Leonard, which had diversified its focus across a wide range of MI-related interests, and Alfred Music, which, according to Alex Ordoñez, Alfred Music’s vice president of sales & marketing, about five years ago refocused its strategy on education and music educators, after experimenting with titles in related areas such as pro audio. “We tried to be all things for all people, but it didn’t work, mainly because our brand is so strongly associated with education,” he explains. “So we decided to realign ourselves with that perception.” (Hal Leonard in December sold over 3,000 of its trade imprints and titles, mostly in areas such as classical and opera, and theater and cinema, as well as technical titles around performing arts, to educational publisher Rowman & Littlefield for a reported $4 million.

Jeff Schroedl told MMR that the deal doesn’t change Hal Leonard’s commitment to publishing. “We will be publishing less pure trade books, [such as] biographies, but not stopping in that area altogether, either,” he says.)

Alfred Music remains dedicated to print, Ordoñez emphasizes, but is increasingly linking that to digital resources, something he says is supported by access to music-technology portal MakeMusic, owned by Peaksware Holdings, LLC, which acquired Alfred Music in April, 2016. MakeMusic, which markets products such as music notation software Finale and interactive accompaniment library SmartMusic, share a practice-heavy philosophy with Peaksware’s other portfolio partners, which focus on athletic training.

The common element, says Ordoñez, is access to expert instruction and guidance. That strategy of interactive learning – the company asserts it now has access to one million students and 20,000 teachers through MakeMusic – is combined with a continued aggressive acquisition that now sees over 150,000 active titles in its inventory.

One of the ways that’s translated into support for MI retail is an on-site print-on-demand service that lets retailers quickly fill orders for specific instrument parts for band, orchestra and choral arrangements.

“The demand is still strong but we’re seeing the ways customers consume educational material is changing,” he says. “Print isn’t going away, but digital is going to play an ever-larger role in education. So the synergy in the Peaksware acquisition is significant. We can provide the expert guidance that students need to learn and progress. MI retail is the portal for the books, which become the portal to the larger online learning experience.”

Retail Perspective

Aaron Dunn is category manager for general accessories and media at MI’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer, Guitar Center, and it’s an apt title. “Books are accessories,” just as picks and strings and sticks and cases are, he says. “And musicians need books at every level, from just starting out learning an instrument to as they progress through different levels, to learn theory and new techniques. They don’t outgrow books.”

Dunn says demand for categories of books have remained fairly constant, with instructional titles leading and followed by songbooks.

“The chords don’t change but the music does,” he says, underscoring the predictable annual churn in the latter and the stability of the former. In fact, he says, instructional books are often the only alternative for customers who cannot afford or don’t have time for lessons. And even in the online era, physical books as portals to online education websites means that publishing products will remain a staple of GC’s 291 stores, he says, the largest of which position relevant titles near different instrument sections of the stores – guitar books with guitars and pro-audio titles with software and technology – while their smaller stores will group racks in a central location, like most other retailers.

Ink and paper will continue to have an impact on MI retail, both as an educational resource for customers at all skill levels, and as an aspirational and even inspirational locus in a store. Expect to see more signature-type books, using celebrity authors and live appearances to stimulate sales – Schroedl notes that drummer Gregg Bissonette has recently done new videos and live workshops for Hal Leonard – as well as more interaction between print and online content. But browsing the bookshelves of MI retail will continue to be an available passion for customers, because as with any bookstore, you never know what you’ll find.

DIY Publishing

Some authors have gone the DIY publishing route, and it’s remarkable to the extent that their narratives parallel those of the indie musicians they’re often writing for. Bobby Owsinski’s pro audio textbooks were published by a number of major trade published over the last 20 years, most notably his Handbook series – The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook, and others aimed at recording and mastering engineering aspirants, which were under the Mix Books imprint. But as those publishers were acquired by larger ones, many of his seminal titles were no longer being carried by them.

That compelled Owsinski to enter the DIY publishing universe, and like music artists who’ve opted to forgo record labels and market their music themselves, he’s found that social media and the internet have given him enough reach to make up for the loss of conventional publishers, making perhaps less revenue overall from his titles but keeping all of it, which is actually a net increase. “I use my online education courses and blogs to promote the books, and vice versa,” he says.

It’s also a lot of work – he’ll write two blog posts day on average, in addition to developing new titles. Not having access to the MI retail ecosystem is an issue, but not a fatal one by any means, he says. “[There] now seems to have fewer SKUs than ever for titles,” he says. “And that makes it harder to get into stores. So I was really pushed into the [DIY] market. It’s not easy, but it’s working.”

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