By Dan Vedda
The fall school band season was interesting in our market. For years, it was about dealers jockeying for position. The traditional “school music dealers” would use their influence to lock down parent meetings, whereas smaller operators fought to get on “recommended” lists, undercut rental rates, or leveraged their student population and neighborhood convenience. That old school way of doing business is still in place, but its foundation is rotting.
Not long ago, the big scare was Chinese instruments showing up in chains outside of our industry or streaming in via the Internet. Although a $99 flute seemed like a boon to consumers, it was soon painfully obvious even to “n00b” band parents that a hundred bucks doesn’t buy you anything but a relationship with your local repairman. I’ve made more money fixing many of these horns than the profit I’d have made selling the customer one of mine.
The big boxes washed their hands of us quickly, realizing that high returns do not a profit yield. Incredibly, though I still see a lot of questionable Internet horns, more parents shy away from them than I had expected. Thank the band directors’ steady campaign against them, paired with enough horror stories circulating on the parent grapevine.
But, this year has been far more disruptive to the band rental scene as we know it, because we’ve seen the opposite problem: lack of rental horns. Both the “shortage,” such as it is, and the fallout from it are grist for the disruption, and it’s not yet clear what that will do to the “tradition” of school music. But I don’t think we can count on business as usual there any more than we can ignore the Internet.
The school music market is less than a hundred years old, and it’s always been challenging, whether you talk about recruitment, school budgets and serving isolated areas, or the newer challenges of the Internet. However, this season, although not exactly a “perfect storm,” contains elements that may start things on a different path.
First, while I relate conditions in my market, dealers, manufacturers and band directors I know around the country indicate that we’re not alone. The reason dealers ran out of horns starts with increased interest from the school kids. It seems the recruitment worry is off the table: Band directors are complaining—complaining!—that there are “too many kids.” As a former band director who only made sure the kids could fog a mirror before I signed them on, I don’t have a whit of sympathy there.
But that increased enrollment comes at a time when the many smaller dealers cannot get the fall dating terms they once had. Throughout the industry, you can hear complaints about truncated credit lines, personal guarantees and prepays. I had a conversation with a band instrument exec and he used the phrase “many of our prepay dealers.” The idea of prepay for band instruments—where dating amounts of $30-$100K or more were once common—hints at the huge gap. And he was speaking of these dealers as a significant group, not a mere handful of accounts.
Although there are still dealers with the financial muscle to wrangle a quarter-million-dollar note from a bank or finance company, there are fewer than ever. So those of us without that capacity buy what we can, coast on used horns and fold the hand early.
Windfall for the big B/O stores, right? Not so fast. Although they benefit, they don’t automatically get the rest of the pie, which is what makes this interesting. Large dealers can still have limits, and their capacity is tested when the neighborhood stores bow out. Just because you’re big doesn’t mean you’ll win the customer, either. I’ve had customers come to me to buy a horn because of ill treatment at the hands of a store with plenty of rentals. Far more are buying on craigslist, tapping into the thousands of horns we’ve allowed to go into closets because we haven’t taken any responsibility to keep people playing. Leaving the job up to the band directors is coming back to bite us. We’ve done so many horn refurbishings this season that August and September were our best repair months ever!
There’s also a credit crunch for consumers. I’ve been approached countless times by people denied a rental because of the credit policies of the bigger companies. I can’t fault the businesses completely; we all know the problems we can encounter with bad rental accounts. But it makes the decision an algorithm, whereas a neighborhood dealer might have taken a chance to get a kid playing. This skews music education toward those with the best credit record. I know teachers in comparatively affluent schools who are already trolling for donations so they can get instruments for kids denied the opportunity. Be warned—they tend to see the problem as our industry’s lack of empathy for the plight of the families.
Even the giant chain that has a satellite dealer here—and can supply them with a virtually unlimited stream of horns—doesn’t come off unscathed. People don’t always like the business that represents them locally, or their location, or the fact that an obviously corporate machine administers their account.
Fall band recruitment is an incredibly hands-on event when done the way people now want it. They want things explained, they want things smooth and, increasingly, they want their kid to succeed. Gone are the days when half the parents grudgingly rented a horn and looked forward to the day they could turn it in. The dealers need to be in touch—not be remote—and not just seeing the band directors.
My issue here is that we finally have legions of kids who want to be in band, and parents who (mostly) support them. Yet the band directors try to cull “excess” numbers, big chains turn away droves of hopefuls and the small dealers are not empowered to close that gap. The system is fractured, if not broken. Sure, programs can seem successful and at capacity, but the hidden damage is the number we turn away. Don’t whine to me about growth when we waste an unknowably large market with a shrug.