This article originally appeared in the April/May 2021 issue of Canadian Music Trade magazine.
By Michael Raine
Just going with the flow and keeping up with the times,” begins Nori Wentworth, the VP of sales for Wentworth Music’s three locations in British Columbia. “I keep having people say, ‘Do you think things are ever going to go back to normal?’ and my response is always like, “Well, there’s never a normal; yesterday wasn’t normal compared to today.’ So, this is just an anomaly that happened and we were able to pivot with the times and tomorrow will be a different day.”
Thus is life for all business owners in 2021, though Wentworth’s attitude feels especially calm and positive. It may have something to do with the fact that his print music department’s sales – despite all the doomsaying about retail in the last year, and print music in the last 15 years! – is currently up about 10% year-over-year. “I don’t have specific numbers for each department within print music to say which went up or went down, but from what I’ve been re-ordering, it’s been everything.”
We won’t lie, when CMT reached out to a few well-regarded print music dealers from across Canada – including small, medium, and large businesses – to find out how print music was faring, we weren’t sure what to expect. The challenges print has faced during the digital era aren’t news to us or you, but the pandemic has thrown yet another curveball at this segment of the MI market. And while no one is planning an IPO based on the growth of their print departments, the overall feeling is that print has settled into a strong and stable market. Print music sales maybe aren’t what they were two decades ago, but they aren’t continuously declining anymore either. And in fact, the pandemic may have given it a bit of a boost.
“In the early days [of the pandemic], I wasn’t sure if it was really worth me being open, because whatever lessons we could do were going online, and the few guitar strings or accessories that I could sell were barely worth me being in the store, but printed music was really like a shining light,” recalls Ryan Harte, the general manager at Music Makers, an independent family-run store that’s been serving Calgary’s musicians for 42 years. “When I think back to April and May , it was really slow. But then I started getting emails and curbside pickup and it gave me an opportunity to really show up for our customers and I was out delivering books. It was by no means paying the bills, but it kept the home fires burning with our customers and the music teachers. I mean, our sales overall are down, but they have come back now that lessons are happening, so printed music was good for us.”
“Obviously there were declines in all areas. But print, we’ve moved the majority of it to our online store and it’s doing quite well there,” adds Francis Domingue, the manager of music and books at The Sound Post in Toronto, which specializes in violins, violas, cellos, basses, and related sheet music, accessories, and repairs. “I think print is an important part of the classical music industry, in particular… so the demand is kind of always going to be there in some way.”
As Music Trades pointed out in its comprehensive report on the American MI market in 2020, the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 has had one important and unique feature compared to “normal” recessions. Whereas the typical recession, like that experienced in 2008, are indiscriminate and tend to negatively impact all music product categories, the living conditions caused by the pandemic created a type of yin-yang effect. On the one side, any product category aimed at public performance, such as PAs, was devastated. On the other side, however, anything focused on playing music at home got a boost. The large sales increases for home recording gear and entry-level guitars and keyboards has been widely acknowledged in the industry. Print music, of course, falls into this category of tools for home-based learning and playing.
“We saw a surge in the teach-yourself-to-play stuff – whatever your interest was, whether it was guitar, ukulele, and piano, or home recording equipment – it went crazy during that period,” reports Long & McQuade’s print purchasing manager, Bob Kohl. “But there were different components within print music that saw a spike, and others that just bottomed out. It’s been interesting to see how that’s all factored. I think private lessons have continued to fare well, and I think that hobbyist music is doing remarkably well. But school music is really where we’re suffering, as well as just the choral component in general.”
Kohl also notes the interesting transformation that school music programs have undergone over the last year in order to adapt to the considerable safety concerns. Gone are most choir and band programs because of concerns over aerosols (i.e., people spreading COVID-19 by projecting their droplet-filled breath), as well as large congregations of students. But in their place, a lot of school music teachers have launched bucket drumming and other types of percussion-based lessons and programs, or, if they’re lucky enough to have the instruments, switched to orchestral strings.
“They found ways to continue classroom music so that there is still the band experience, so to speak, but in a new revised format. Percussion stuff has gone crazy because they’ve been able to do bucket drumming and body percussion and that sort of thing because it is safe and you can effectively distance and that sort of stuff, while still giving a pretty meaningful music education,” says Kohl, with a sense of admiration for music teachers’ adaptability and determination. Of course, he notes, changes in music programs often have a positive trickle-down effect on the print and educational music market as teachers need new learning materials for those programs. “In fact, what was interesting was that as the pandemic started to happen in spring of last year, specifically within the band market, there were a group of composers and educators who got together to do the Creative Repertoire Initiative. This was to create ensemble repertoire, and what is known as Flex Series. So, it’s flexible instrumentation where you didn’t necessarily need a balanced band to be able to effectively perform this repertoire. It’s great because the composers just went straight to work on it and created great works. But the dilemma was that the publishers could not necessarily keep up with the production end of it. So, they were only available as a digital edition and not available as a printed edition.”
In B.C., though, Wentworth says his stores have indeed been selling a lot of scores for concert band this year. He speculates that this is because music programs, at least in some school boards, have actually received a larger budget because funding is being redistributed from dormant sports programs. “It’s ultimately up to the principal on where they defer their funds to. So, I’ve been noticing and in speaking to different teachers, the arts have actually been getting a bump in the funds compared to what they would normally see. So, they’re using that to their advantage to pick up things, to get instruments, get repairs done, but definitely in the purchase of scores. That seems to be a big thing right now.”
“Our summer method book special orders that we normally do were definitely down. But what we have found, especially with the public schools, is that there still is money there,” adds Daniel Koning, the owner and store manager at King’s Music in Abbotsford, BC. “There still is money to spend, and the government is still putting money into the school band programs. It’s just being spent more intentionally this year. So, instead of a teacher walking in and just going, ‘I’ll take two of those and four of those,’ they have to run it through some checks and balances first before they’re allowed to spend the money. You know, that’s fine with me, especially as a taxpayer. I love to hear that money’s being spent more effectively. But we have found avenues to generate revenue that weren’t there before, but not all in print.”
Of course, many stores’ print music departments work hand-in-hand with private music teachers. Wherever there are a lot of students taking private music lessons, print music is surely being sold. Like their classroom counterparts, the majority of private teachers have proved resilient and determined to keep their lessons going, often by transitioning to video platforms like Zoom. And in fact, that transition to video lessons has created an interesting, though temporary, boost to print sales for many of the dealers CMT spoke with.
“We’ve seen a bunch of situations where teachers who normally teach in-person have ended up having to buy a lot of their own copies of books that their students have,” says Koning.
“Yeah, teachers realized pretty quick that they needed second copies of their students’ music because flipping back and forth on a screen or taking pictures just wasn’t working,” agrees Harte. “And they were already trying to learn how to do online lessons, because many of them never had, so we saw a bit of a boost in sales from that. And another trend that has been interesting is a lot of adults of all different ages coming in and saying, like, ‘I used to play piano’ or ‘I used to play guitar and I got nothing to do while I’m at home.’ So, we saw a little boost of sales in adult educational or just people getting back into playing again.”
Wentworth says his stores have definitely experienced the same uptick in new or returning musicians picking up print music for their new hobby, and that it’s introduced them to new customers of all ages. “It was all over the place, right up to we had an 80-year-old come here and be like, ‘You know what? I’m retired now and this pandemic has really kind of inspired me to learn something new.’ So, obviously they’re going to pick up a Songs of the ‘50s and ‘60s-type of book, versus the newer players who generally don’t know what music they like, so their parents will have a good say in what would appeal to them. You know, trying to get the kids into playing music that they like.”
Interestingly, despite the popular music having shifted in a more digital sonic direction with rap and R&B’s takeover on the charts, Wentworth says he’s noticed a shift towards acoustic instruments in their print sales, such as music for ukulele, acoustic guitar, and banjo.
As well, for the older musicians, whether they’re professionals or hobbyists, a few of the dealers CMT interviewed noted that the high-quality texts continue to do well. It seems there is just something about a well-crafted book that people like to have in their hands.
“There’s a nostalgia-type feeling to having your favourite Beethoven urtext book in your library, just like you might think of with your favourite novel or something. I think people will still always like to have a physical copy somewhat,” says Harte.
Domingue agrees, saying, “I think there still is a desire amongst students, serious amateur players, and even professionals to have high-quality publications and editions, such as Bärenreiter, Henle, and that sort of thing. With that trend, you would maybe expect a decline, but at the very least, it’s holding steady. So, it is still an important part of what we do, because even though the electronic and digital framework have been growing, there still is a real keenness to have a good publication — it’s a solid thing that people like to have.”
So, according to the five print music dealers CMT spoke with, print music is actually in a pretty good place right now, staying steady and even growing in some areas. But, of course, with everything in retail, you get what you put into it, and a few of them had some good practical advice on how to keep print departments strong.
“Listen to your customers, especially your music teachers,” Koning says immediately when asked if he has any advice to share. He remembers, not too long ago, asking a local music teacher who was in the store what methods she currently liked best. The teacher mentioned a few things that King’s Music carried, but then added that she had checked out the Piano Safari books and loved their approach. “My dad who started King’s Music, he’s got a degree in piano pedagogy from U of T, and he got a sample of this stuff and was just blown away with it. We would have never heard of that if we didn’t listen to one of our teachers make this suggestion,” Koning continues. “But we sell a ton of it now, and that’s a situation where just keeping our ears open and listening to somebody who’s a professional and who understands what they’re talking about, them suggesting a product has generated tens of thousands of dollars-worth of sales for us.”
As well, Koning says that if you’re diligent, there are often opportunities to save a few percent here and there on your purchases. For example, he shares, “We did some buying where another one of our local stores here, they are kind of small and didn’t have enough buying power to get the discounts they needed, so we just included their music into our buy. We were able to offer them a better discount than they could get on their own, and it helped to bolster our numbers a little bit. So, look for those opportunities to save a few percent here and there. Because if you do $100,000 in print music sales, and you save 5% on the entire thing, $5,000 is a lot of money.”