This article originally appeared in the April/May 2017 issue of Canadian Music Trade.
In an ever-homogenizing music retail environment, lesson programs are becoming increasingly attractive and important as a means for individual businesses to establish competitive advantages and truly differentiate themselves from their local and regional competition.
Administering a lesson program is no walk in the park, as the hundreds of retailers across the country simultaneously running music schools can attest; however, the pros of a well-run program should far outweigh the cons. On top of being a consistent, predictable revenue stream, a strong lesson program is an MI sales generator and essentially an incubator for loyal customers. It goes a long way towards establishing your reputation as a musical hub in your community, beckoning to people of different ages, skill levels, and backgrounds.
Even at a quick glance, one will notice how the educational programming schedules at events like The NAMM Show or upcoming RPMDA Convention are ripe with presentations and seminars specifically about lesson programs. That says a lot, considering that such events have reputations for presenting timely and topical subjects at the forefront of major industry shifts.
Here, we’ve invited a few successful retailers who’ve stimulated significant growth in their lesson enrollment in recent years to share some ideas about how they’ve done so, and how they ensure their lesson programs are ever in the public eye, top of mind for anyone looking to develop their skills and enrich their lives.
Engage Them Early
When Nick Hamlyn first joined the team at Gary Bennett Music in Corner Brook, NL, it was 2011 and its Yamaha School of Music had about eight or nine teachers. In the years since, that number has more than doubled and the school now welcomes nearly 400 students on a regular basis. That’s especially impressive when you consider that the city is home to fewer than 20,000 people, though owing to the population density on the west coast of Newfoundland, some of those students are driving for 30 minutes or more.
Hamyln says that one of the biggest advantages of having a Yamaha School of Music onsite is its various youth programs – Tunes for Twos, Music Wonderland, and the Yamaha Junior Music Program, for example.
“Typically, students can’t get into private lessons for piano until they’re at least five or six, and often don’t get into guitar or drums until they’re seven or eight,” he offers, drawing from his own experience. “But these [programs for young people] introduce basic rhythm, melody, dancing… We’re getting students through the door at two years old, and they often carry right through for several years.”
He says as the students get older and progress, they’ll discover which specific instrument appeals to them and then keep going from there. Even if you’ve developed your own curriculum for your lesson program, there’s no reason you can’t launch a program targeted at younger learners, just to introduce them to the joys of music making.
“The programs are just so well presented and so much fun,” Hamlyn enthuses, reporting that his offi ce is actually right next to the studio where they hold their Tunes for Twos classes, and it’s one of the highlights of his week listening to the sweet sounds coming from the room. “It’s just so adorable.”
Engage Them Twice
About five years ago, Gary Bennett Music began hosting summer music camp programs in addition to their regular individual lessons. “So we did one voice camp that ended with a cabaret-type performance after a few weeks, and a rock camp that ended with an outdoor concert in the park,” Hamlyn offers as examples. “This year, we added a traditional music camp, with the final performance happening in the store.”
The camps, which run for several weeks through the summer months, are open to the general public and advertised fairly heavily online and in the local paper. The idea is to immerse students into more social group settings, and then hopefully have them stream into regular individual lessons once the camps have concluded. These have not only been successful in generating a healthy number of new music students, but also led to existing students starting a new series of lessons on a second instrument.
The reason behind that is in rock camp, for example, there were typically six or seven students placed in each band, so if one of those groups had two drummers, one of the drummers would try an alternate instrument. “So without getting more people, we were getting more lessons,” Hamlyn notes. “That was unexpected, but really cool.”
Engage Them Onsite
Carol Cook is the co-owner of The Music Room in Palatine, IL, a northwestern residential suburb of Chicago. She was down at The NAMM Show 2017 in Anaheim to present the very first Idea Center session of the event. Called “7 Ways to Supercharge Your Lesson Program,” her presentation shared advice sourced first-hand about engaging and retaining students who come into your store to inquire about lessons.
The first two ideas she presented as part of it involved starting and developing a dialogue with your potential enrollees to put yourself in a power position and to try and figure out what they’re seeking from music lessons and, subsequently, how you can help them realize those goals.
“When somebody walks into our stores and they inquire about lessons, it’s usually because they want to sign up, whether it’s for themselves or a child or family member,” she begins. “They’ve already done all the heavy lifting; they’ve put a lot of thought into it and kind of already made the decision that they want to move forward, and here they are.”
In such a scenario, she recommends that your first step be to interview that individual – to drop what you’re doing and get somewhere that you can comfortably have a conversation. “Ask questions,” she advises. “Ask a lot of questions and put them in the position of doing the talking.”
Citing Chris Voss’ book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It, she says getting someone to talk about themselves puts you in a position of power.
Ask things like: Why are you here? What do you want to play? Do you have any previous experience on an instrument? What kind of music do you like? “It gets them talking and gets them to engage with what you’re selling,” Cook says.
Again, much of the hard work is already done. “People come into our stores because they want to enhance their lives; that’s what music can do,” she says, so really, all you have to do is guide them towards the decision they already seem to know is in their interest.
She recommends that you avoid simply rattling off prices and policies. “If you start your presentation about prices and policies, that’s what they’re making their decisions on,” she offers. Instead, appeal to why you know they’ve come in the first place.
After you’ve extracted as much relevant information as you can out of your potential enrollee, she says to go ahead and ask for the sale. Invite the person to sit down and talk about the program itself in more detail. “They came in for a reason,” Cook offers as a reminder. “Don’t send them out without getting them signed up.”
This part of the process is called “scheduling a personalized appointment,” which, if possible, should happen right then and there. “It might seem like overkill, but this works for us,” Cook shares. “This is an investment. People are paying money to invest in this part of their lives, which is going to enhance their lives.”
You’re basically continuing the interview, though can now delve more into the specifics of your lesson program. They’re relaxed, engaged, and you’ve established a trustworthy connection. Talk ab out how your program is designed, though continue appealing to their sense of convenience, fulfillment, and personal benefit at every opportunity.
“Remember,” she says, “you want to get them involved and get them talking about themselves so that you can tell them how you’re going to enhance their lives through your lesson program.”
Hamlyn tacks on a bit of advice that he and his colleagues at Gary Bennett Music have found to be very effective in enrolling and retaining students: focusing on fluidity, and allowing the students to learn what they want to learn.
“So if someone is clear they don’t want to read music, that’s fi ne,” he says. “We’ll teach you kitchen party guitar.”
Of course, your teachers should still be well trained and able to offer more advanced instruction, but as Hamyln shares, “That’s not for everyone. We teach people what they want to know and put an emphasis on keeping them interested.”
Engage Them Elsewhere
The staff at Cosmo Music in Richmond Hill, ON, are currently gearing up for the 2017 edition of CosmoFEST, the store’s annual gear exhibition and live music celebration. Last year’s event drew 10,000 attendees in a single day and featured over 200 product experts representing over 120 top brands under a 12,000 sq. ft. expo tent, clinics and masterclasses with the likes of Tosin Abasi and Omar Hakim, and main stage performances from Big Wreck, Brass Transit, and Yukon Blonde.
Headliners announced for this year’s edition include Mother Mother, Honeymoon Suite, and The Beaches, with workshops set to feature Nita Strauss, Dennis Chambers, Alain Caron, and more.
Denise Chan heads up the Cosmo School of Music and has a lot planned to promote her program during CosmoFEST.
“First of all, we’ve got a pretty big area this year,” she says of the 60 x 20 ft. tent that will become the Cosmo School of Music’s Kidz Zone. In and around that site will be a stage exclusively featuring performances by students and teachers, on-the-spot group lessons on instruments like ukulele and hand percussion, and plenty of fun physical activities to engage young people and their families.
Even though it happens on Cosmo Music’s property, CosmoFEST is essentially a community event that appeals to an audience beyond the store’s typical customer base – and that’s saying a lot, considering the size of this destination location mega-store. That’s worth noting because one could easily employ a similar approach to engagement and promotion at any community-targeted event in your area.
Chan and many of her teachers will be onsite answering people’s questions about the lesson program, and can even bring them into the school for a walk-around if need be, as lessons will be going on during the event. She also plans to have several iPads open onsite to get people’s information for later follow-up.
“It’s a great event and all of our teachers love to take part,” she says. “It’s really about giving back to the community – it’s not just to advertise the school. We want everyone to try out the instruments and meet some of our teachers and see what we can offer as far as rewarding musical experiences.”
Your lesson program doesn’t have to be everything to everyone to be successful. Instead, focus on what your community wants and what you’re good at. The important part is to recognize the enormous potential that comes with a reputable lesson program and how it can benefi t virtually every other aspect of your business.
And as with all of those aspects, avoid complacency at all costs. As Cook said to begin her session at The NAMM Show 2017, her approach is always evolving. “We’re always reinventing, trying to make ourselves better in this arena,” she says, and that’s a sure-fi re approach to success.
Targeting the Seniors Market
From “A Golden Opportunity” – CMT December/January 2015
Tammy MacEachern is the administrator for Long & McQuade Charlottetown’s music school. She reports that her lesson program has experienced an infl ux in interest from older learners (aged 55+) in recent years; in fact, it turns out she had just changed the lettering on the big sign in front of the store to let people know that L&M can accommodate lessons outside of the usual morning and evening slots that appeal to school kids – “so, like, 10:30 or early afternoons on weekdays when people [over 55] might have some free time and our school isn’t as busy.”
This seems like a no-brainer for stores whose lesson studios are empty during these hours – extracting more return-on-investment from existing facilities, with the only additional overhead being the wages for instructors.
On that same note, MacEachern was also amidst the process of printing out some promo materials about her lesson program to bring down to a brand new active seniors home that had just opened nearby. “I saw that as a huge base of potential students,” she says. And she’s not alone. There’s an increasing number of forward-thinking retailers that recognize the growing potential of servicing this lucrative and largely untapped market segment.
Put Your Students in the Spotlight
From “New Ideas for the New Year” – CMT February/March 2017
A repeat recipient of NAMM’s Top 100 Dealers distinction, Wentworth Music has three locations serving musicians in British Columbia. Its flagship store in Kelowna has seen lesson enrollment surge in recent years from 90 to 900 students. The growth was so impressive that NAMM invited Noel Wentworth, the company’s VP of education and media, to present an Idea Center session at the 2017 show on how they achieved the feat.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Wentworth begins, “but I can say that constant activity in and around your business is crucial – basically, getting your name mentioned by doing things in and for your community.”
His NAMM University session was largely centred around one very successful initiative: putting on rock concerts that feature Wentworth Music’s students as the stars. “There’s really no better way to market your lesson program than to put on a dream-like performance,” he attests – and there are several reasons for that.
The shows happen twice a year at the Kelowna Community Centre, with a complete production package including 24-ft. stage risers, a huge PA, an impressive moving light rig, and some special effects. Each one features upwards of 200 students performing for a sold-out audience (as each student typically sells a handful of tickets to family and friends) and all proceeds from the event go to various local charities.
“We initially gave the proceeds away for no other reason than it felt right and were hopeful of a small thank-you in the paper,” Wentworth admits. “Then the hospital foundation suggested we start working with other likeminded businesses who would donate to the hospital under our concert name in exchange for recognizing them as title sponsors and strong community supporters during the promotion of the event, at the event, and at the cheque presentation. That’s when it took off.”
Since, Wentworth Music has greatly benefitted from media and community support. “Because of these two concerts alone,” Wentworth adds, “our name is mentioned in one form or another in the media for six to eight months out of the year. And the more your name is mentioned or visible, the more you’re top of mind.”
The results speak for themselves and enrollment is still growing. As Wentworth explains, it comes down to the power of a good story, and dozens of music students of various ages becoming rock stars for a night in support of a good cause is a great one.
Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief of Canadian Music Trade