By Dan Ferrisi
Never does a year go by without, either at the NAMM show or maybe out in Nashville at Summer NAMM, one or several companies announcing a milestone anniversary: 20 years…30 years…maybe 50 years every once in a while. It is definitely rare, though, to see a company marking 90 years in business, which makes Alfred Music Publishing a rather remarkable case: a company whose lineage traces back to The Roaring Twenties and, yet, whose story continues to be written to this day. The Retailer had the opportunity to sit down with Ron Manus, the company’s CEO, to learn more about the history of Alfred Music Publishing, while also touching on Manus’ own career. We also discuss key releases, dealer strategy and differentiating characteristics, as well as Alfred’s—and Manus’ personal—profound passion for fostering music education.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Alfred Music Publishing is commemorating its 90th anniversary this year. Share some of the highlights of the company’s history and development. What major evolutions has the company undergone along the way?
Ron Manus: Well, as you can imagine, a lot has happened over the last 90 years! I do want to say first that I’m really proud of Alfred and all the people we’ve had the privilege of working with throughout the years. Without our amazing authors, employees and partners, we wouldn’t have made it this far. And I’m also proud that we’ve remained a family business, ever since my grandfather, Sam Manus, purchased the company in 1928 from Alfred Piantodosi, who started the company back in 1922. Sam focused on publishing music for silent films and original pop compositions like Waiting for the Robert E. Lee and Ragtime Cowboy Joe, and he did pretty well. In 1950, my father, Morty, started working full-time for Alfred, and he really focused on education, which to this day remains our core expertise. Morty co-authored many of our staple bestsellers, including Alfred’s Basic Guitar Method in 1956, and Alfred’s Basic Piano Library in 1982. At Alfred, Morty met my mother, Iris, who started working on Saturdays helping her mother in the accounting department around the same time. My brother, Steven, started working full-time at Alfred in 1975, eventually becoming our CEO in 1996, and I joined full time in 1988 and I became CEO in 2009. So, we have a rich family history that runs deep, and I think that’s a very special thing to be a part of. There are too many highlights throughout our history to name them all, but some things that stand out include moving our offices from New York to Los Angeles in 1976; opening our international offices in Australia, Singapore, the UK and Germany in the ’90s; partnering with Daisy Rock Girl Guitars in 2002; purchasing Warner Bros. Publications in 2005, which more than doubled our size; and releasing Sound Innovations, the world’s first customizable method for String and Band, in 2009. I know that’s a pretty quick recap of the last 90 years, but those are some of the things that stand out to me.
The Retailer: Speaking about yourself specifically now, share a bit about your own background in the music products space. Trace your career for us, starting from its beginning and going right up to the present day.
Manus: I remember hanging out at Alfred as early as age six or seven. My parents would bring me to work and I would run around the warehouse, doing what I thought was helpful: packing boxes and stuff, but, really, I think I was just trying not to be run over! I started really working, part time, in the sales department in the early ’80s during the summers while I was attending San Francisco State, studying sound engineering. After graduation, and a couple of years putting in long hours as a 2nd engineer at a recording studio in Hollywood, I started working at Alfred full time in 1988—again, in the sales department—and I learned a lot. To be honest, I started working at Alfred at my Dad’s suggestion, just sort of a job to have until I figured out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Six months after starting, I knew that I loved this business and this industry. The people you meet and work with make it a very special industry. In 1992, I became really interested in writing guitar books. So, I asked my Dad if I could do more as a guitar editor to help grow our business, and if that would be something he thought I could do. He was very supportive and, in just eight years, I grew our MI division, which included guitar, bass, drums and keyboards—kind of our hobbyist market—from $250,000 to more than $5 million in annual sales. I continued as the MI Team Leader, eventually becoming Executive Vice President and, later, CEO.
The Retailer: In terms of what you accomplish day-to-day as CEO of Alfred Music Publishing, what are your key duties and roles? What do you most enjoy doing?
Manus: My strengths are definitely in team building and in producing great products. I try to surround myself with the best authors, employees and partners in the business and, together, we push ourselves very hard to make the very best educational products on the market. I also have to dress up and meet with the bankers and financial people and keep that side running, because that’s important, too, but my heart and soul always is in the products. I’ve really guided myself by thinking, “What kinds of products would I want?” and then I strive to accomplish that and even try to make them better.
The Retailer: Having already explored the lineage of Alfred Music Publishing, provide a 10,000-foot overview of the company as it exists today. If somebody were completely unfamiliar with Alfred, how would you describe the company to that person?
Manus: Alfred Music Publishing helps people learn, teach and play music. At our core, we are an educational music publisher, and that’s what we do best. If you want to learn any instrument, or improve at an instrument you already play, Alfred is your best resource. We have more than 90,000 titles, spanning every instrument, style and skill level. Alfred is music education.
The Retailer: When you look at Alfred as it currently exists, what would you say you are the proudest of? What makes the company stand apart not only from competitors in the market, but also from all companies in the music products industry?
Manus: I touched on this earlier, but I’m really proud of our accomplishments in music education. Music is probably the most important thing in my life. It’s been there for me through my best and my worst times. I’ve played in bands for as long as I can remember, and still play to this day. Music has helped me get through some of the toughest times of my life and has provided me with a way to express myself. Without music, I’d probably be in jail or worse! [Laughs.] So, I’m really proud to show up to work every day and help bring music into the lives of others around the world. Every day, I get to help people experience the joy of making music, and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s that spirit that permeates Alfred. Most of our employees are active musicians. Working at Alfred is more than just a job: It has real, meaningful purpose to us. I think that really sets us apart from so many other companies that are just profit-focused and don’t really care about the quality and the bigger picture of what they are or why they exist. Alfred is a family business made up of musicians who really, genuinely care about bringing the gift of music to as many people as possible. That’s the core of what makes us great, and what, ultimately, has made us the world’s largest educational music publisher.
The Retailer: Shine a light on some of Alfred Music Publishing’s most recent releases. Going forward, what is the company going to be marketing most aggressively? Why are these releases significant contributions to the market?
Manus: We’re always coming out with new products and finding new ways to help make learning easier or better. New technologies have been very helpful to us in that regard. For example, we released Sound Innovations in 2009. It’s the world’s first customizable method. Teachers can go to www.alfred.com/soundinnovations and choose a method for strings or band, start swapping out standard songs for pop tunes, put note names in the note heads for the first page or few pages—whatever they feel is best—customize the cover and so much more. Once they are finished, the books go to our digital press, are printed and bound with a custom CD that corresponds to their book, and all of it is shipped out within a couple of weeks. It’s really quite amazing, and nobody else is doing it. But, teachers are loving it and it’s been really successful for us. We’ve also made some great deals recently, like one with Nintendo in which we are the exclusive publisher of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda songbooks in the U.S. These have been a huge hit for us. I am really excited about our new Led Zeppelin Guitar Method, which is the first of its kind. In the piano side of our business, we continue to build on Premier Piano Course and Alfred’s Basic Piano Library.
The Retailer: What is your philosophy when it comes to working with the music store channel? Would you say that working closely with MI retailers is a big part of Alfred’s approach to business?
Manus: Alfred has longstanding relationships with independent music retailers, dating back 90 years now. Our philosophy has always been to support and promote the independent music retailer, and that is visible in every program that we run throughout the year. It goes from in-store educational music clinics that we sponsor; to our Web site, alfred.com, which enables independent music retailers to locally fulfill and profit 100 percent from orders that we collect online; to our full participation in and support of NAMM and RPMDA, which have wonderful programs that educate, benefit and advocate for independent music retailers and the music community that they serve.
Working closely with MI retailers—the lifeblood of our industry, as well as music communities everywhere—is critical to our success as a publisher and manufacturer. We work on our relationships daily, and every program and promotion we implement at Alfred is created with the success of our retailers in mind.
The Retailer: Is there anything that the dealer channel could do that would be helpful to you, as a company? Do you have any suggestions to give the channel, which would help it sell Alfred releases even more effectively?
Manus: The industry is healthy when the dealer channel stays vibrant. One of the ways we’ve identified and tried to help the dealer channel in that regard is through more active participation at the local level. That could mean well-promoted in-store or local music association events and clinics that serve music educators and students alike, who, in turn, feed the local dealer. It could also be having relevant Web sites, with digital content and social media presence to attract the local musician. Alfred has a variety of programs for the dealer channel to participate in. These will be vital to the local musicians, the dealers, our company and our industry as a whole.
Our suggestion for the music dealer channel is to continue to take an active role in the entirety of the music community. Not only the customers we all currently serve, but also those who are still potential customers. Let’s never forfeit the music education of beginners and enthusiasts to free streaming video, free-traded tablature and mass dealers that have no investment beyond the initial sale. Vibrant music lesson programs, community education programs, Web sites, advertising, social media and continually being the leading resource for music education to the community will continue to keep our industry relevant and healthy. Alfred is ready and willing to partner with you in any and every way to help achieve that goal.
The Retailer: What are your thoughts on the strength of the MI industry at large at this time? Do you feel like 2012, when all is said and done, will be a stronger year than we have seen during the past few? Are you feeling positive about broader trends?
Manus: I believe that the worst is behind us; music survives and finds a way. I feel very optimistic about the MI industry. We had a great crowd at the January NAMM show. We had a lot of new dealers come into our booth, and that is a great sign.
The Retailer: What does the future hold for Alfred Music Publishing? Do you foresee any changes or shifts in terms of releases, business relationships or company strategy? What can the industry expect to see?
Manus: Alfred is putting all of its focus on what we do best, and that is music education. Any ancillary business we might have dabbled in that doesn’t focus on music education is one that we are pulling back from. We have the world’s best authors, educators and an incredibly talented team bringing their products to market. My job is to let them do what they do best and remove any distractions and obstacles that get in the way of helping us produce and deliver the world’s best educational music products. I know that, when we remain true to our core strengths, we excel in everything that we do. The future is bright for Alfred, and the sky is the limit.
The Retailer: What closing thoughts would you like to share with our readers?
Manus: I want to thank my parents, Morty and Iris. They have done so much not only for me personally, but also for the company and all the people we have touched. They are a true example of greatness in every sense of the word. I’m honored and privileged to continue the family business in their footsteps, and will do everything in my power to make them proud. In true Alfred fashion, we are going to have a great time doing it, too! I’m proud that Alfred is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, and can’t wait to show the world all the great things we have planned for the next 90 years.