Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

by Alan Friedman, Friedman, Kannenberg & Co., PC

That famous Mark Twain quote, an all-time favorite of mine, has taken on new meaning as I routinely ponder the fate of both print music and the music products retail industry at large. As some of you might remember, I gave a “Ted Talk” type presentation at RPMDA 2017 answering the question “Is print and music retailing dying a death of a thousand cuts?”  When Christie Smith asked me to write an article discussing Senseney Music’s recent decision to exit the print music business, I jumped at the opportunity to set the record straight…or at least “my version” of the record.

Yes, the news and headlines were indeed startling…“Popular Wichita music store phasing out printed sheet music”, along with President Lori Supinie’s personal e-message to their music educator customers…“Senseney Music will be exiting the print music business and we will no longer stock most types of printed music, including choral music, concert band, orchestra, jazz band, and marching band music.”Compounding the shock is Lori’s long-time membership and contributions as past-President of the Retail Print Music Dealers Association, among many other prestigious music retail trade organizations.  I’m quite confident some of you even asked yourself “How can she make this decision and turn her back on servicing her long-time customers, employees and the print publishers who rely on her financial commitment to selling print music?”.  After all, isn’t banding together and supporting one another what we all should be doing at all times during difficult, challenging and changing economic swings in the music retailing landscape? Uh…no.

Like flight attendants tell you before takeoff, if oxygen masks fall during flight, put yours on first before tending to children or helping others; simply put, you can’t help others unless you help yourself. Here’s what I know about Lori Supinie, Senseney Music and the industry in which she and the rest of us operate. Lori is a CPA…not that being a CPA makes her the smartest person in the room; but it does elevate her credibility to know she’s been trained to generate, interpret and act upon accurate financial data. That, plus her store’s longstanding successful tenure in music retailing, proves she knows how to manage a music retail operation and stay in business. Now let’s take a quick peak at just a couple of the many challenges in the music retailing industry, as follows.

Like I highlighted in my RPMDA presentation, we are undergoing a seismic shift in who’s buying music product and how they like to buy it. My generation (the baby boomers) consists of millions of die-hard, emotional, sentimental, nostalgic, mall-shopping, non-tweeting, discretionary-income-spending aging musicians who are facing two things for the first time ever…retirement and death.  We can’t tell you who today’s guitar heroes are because there aren’t any…or certainly none the way we’ve come to define a guitar hero. We no longer care what’s in our guitar closet…we care what’s in our 401k. Most of us leave it to our kids to tell us what’s hip…I’m pretty sure Instagram is a breakfast cereal that you add boiling water to. There’s an absolute glut of musical gear on the open market and, unfortunately, much of it is still hanging out in music stores costing music retailers way too much in acquisition, shipping, warehousing, merchandising, flooring and labor costs.  Like legacy retailers like Macy’s, J. Crew and Sears, most retailers are suffering because they’re late to the mobile e-commerce game. Even forward-thinking retailers are struggling to predict the next hip thing like Warby Parker has somehow successfully done. Things are changing, like they always have…but with the demise of baby boomers so goes the demise of the old retailing model.  Senseney Music figured this out as it related to print music and did something about it.

But here’s where (in my not-so-humble opinion) information gets poorly communicated – Senseney Music is NOT exiting the retail of print music… Senseney Music is exiting the “stocking” of print music. Why? Because Lori was smart enough and looked long enough at all of the costs I just mentioned and determined these print music inventorying costs outweighed the profit benefits.  Furthermore, those costs were hampering their ability to grow other profitable segments of their business, like B&O instrument rentals and music education. Is print gone from Senseney music?  NO!!  Senseney Music still buys plenty of print music, including piano, guitar, B&O and other method books that support the music education segment of their business.  Should you do the same? Well, that depends on a number of different things. But this much I know for sure…as smart as Lori is, your music store and your customers are not in Wichita, Kansas, nor does your business have the same customers, marketplace and financial structure as Senseney Music. The decision to stock and/or sell print is not a “one size fits all” or an “all or nothing” decision. Like Lori, you too must look at the cost / benefit relationship and make your own analysis to determine if you maintain, pull back or go deeper into selling print.

While it’s nice to think we’re a unified industry that will always be there to help one another during tough economic times, that’s a pipe dream.  Unless print publishers, your employees or NAMM start covering your operating costs, tough decisions need to be considered and ultimately made.  While it concerns me that a longstanding music retailer like Senseney Music is no longer stocking print, my concern has more to do with whether retailers and publishers will together find new and improved ways to profitably deliver and sell print music to the print music buying public. I, for one, applaud Lori for having the guts to make a difficult decision that she deemed was appropriate for her business.

I hope this gives everyone food for thought and helps ensure a fruitful and healthy new year for all in 2018.  See you in Anaheim & Minneapolis…:>)

3 thoughts on “Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”

  1. First of all, Lori IS one of the smartest people in the room (not because she’s a CPA, just because she is). But this is also a great example of how “news” can easily be mis-reported. Musical Innovations is a Print Music Dealer. I’ve been an active member of RPMDA basically since 1998. But we don’t keep a ton of print music in stock either. And because of that we’ve been very successful in keeping our print department profitable. By stocking less print that hasn’t been moving, Lori will be able to improve her GMROI as she improves her stock of what is needed by her customers and what does sell in her area. That does not mean she’s “exiting” the print music business – it means she’s getting better at it!

    Kudos to Lori, and to others who are willing to take an honest look at what is profitable in their stores and what’s not; and shame on any media outlet that slants the truth (whether in our industry or otherwise) to create a “buzz.”

  2. A very wise music industry member gave me the best management suggestion to cope in these uncertain times. “Do what is best for your family”. I salute both retailers and publishers who took action in face of adversity.

    Applying this principle makes hard decisions very easy these days.

    Thank you Alan and Lori for your continued friendship and leadership! I’m definitely coming to Minneapolis this year.

  3. I should probably clarify that I agree with Alan 100% and my issue is not with him (or with Lori) but with those who misrepresent and sensationalize things that may not be what they appear.

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