Reviving Band Instruments
One of the Pandemic’s Hardest-Hit Categories is Bouncing Back – but There’s Work To Do
This article was originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of Canadian Music Trade magazine.
By Michael Raine
Overall, the pandemic has been pretty good to the MI industry. As we’ve covered at various points over the last two and a half years, many product categories saw a significant boost from the extra time and cash that people had during the months of lockdowns and other restrictions. The money they typically spent on activities outside the home – trips, restaurants, concerts, etc. – was being redirected to more housebound activities. For many, this meant picking back up that instrument that had been gathering dust for years, or for dedicated musicians, splurging on some new gear. We all know that anything to do with guitar and home recording sold exceptionally well in 2020 and 2021, as did keyboards, drums, and even banjos and accordions. In the U.S., Guitar Center reported an 85% increase in overall instrument sales in August 2020 and Sweetwater experienced a 50% increase in customers. The many conversations I’ve had with retailers, distributors, and manufacturers back up the assumption that things were equally robust in Canada. There is one corner of the instrument market that got hurt bad, however, and that is band instruments. With school music programs and concerts shut down or extremely restricted, the foundation of the band instrument market was ripped away. But that was then and this is now. School programs are more or less back, concerts and events have returned, and there’s plenty of reason for optimism again. But with the diminishment of one massive challenge has come new headaches in the form of inflation and major supply chain issues.
With all this in mind, it’s worth taking a look at what happened to the band instrument market during the pandemic, the current health of the market, and what can be done to help its recovery.
“The pandemic had a huge impact on wind and brass instrument sales and rentals. The first year of the pandemic saw drops of over 50% in those categories,” reveals Long & McQuade’s Director of Band, Print, and Educational Sales, Adam Stokholm, to Canadian Music Trade. He adds that woodwind and brass instruments were the worst hit, but orchestral string instrument sales remained fairly steady throughout the pandemic. “The initial drops in band business were fairly uniform across the country, but as time went on, some regions were able to integrate modified band programs into their schools using distancing and various PPE options, such as
bell covers and musicians’ masks. Ontario band programs were the most affected and still remain highly compromised as this school year winds down.”
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic story is largely the same from everyone Canadian Music Trade spoke with on both the supplier and dealer sides. For example, Buffet Crampon’s Inside Sales Manager for Canada, Jack Dring, notes: “Overall, band sales were significantly down [during the pandemic]. I don’t think that comes as any surprise to anyone operating in our industry. Especially in the band segment, I think that was hit particularly hard due to the lack of in-classroom music lessons on the student side of things, and then economic and budgetary limitations on the pro side of things. Symphony orchestras weren’t allocating the same budget, and the military weren’t doing the same spending on the higher-end stuff that we would normally see.”
And the hard data continues to back up the rough story of the pandemic for band instruments. Steve Butterworth, Yamaha Canada Music’s VP of sales and marketing, notes that “I prepare the Canada import report for NAMM every year and I can tell you from the import point of view, that based on imports to Canada, it would seem that the demand for new instruments was less than half coming into the new year  for band instruments, specifically.”
And it wasn’t just band instrument sales that suffered, but rentals especially. Many stores have spent years, even decades, serving school teachers and students with instrument rentals and that suddenly disappeared.
“I think in the earliest days of the pandemic, especially, let’s say, April to June of 2020, there was so much uncertainty for the customers, for the teachers, the parents that were renting instruments, especially. Then for the dealers, if band isn’t happening, [customers are saying] ‘I want to return my rental; I want to get out of this.’ And so, how do you handle pickups? And then at the same time, the dealers had to refund a whole bunch of rental money in a time when cashflow was really tough for them,” Butterworth adds. “Some dealers do rent-to-own programs and they even had families that were bailing out of rent-to-own programs that had lots of equity in their instrument. So, they had to try and convince them and say, ‘Listen, it’s going to be normal in September and your kid’s going to be playing the saxophone again, so don’t return it.’ So, there was a lot of work by the dealers behind the scenes to try and keep the instruments in the customers’ hands.”
“We had so many instrument rentals out there, the biggest fear for me was that because it was March, so close to the end of the school year, that people were going to start calling and saying they had to return their horn. And so, that rental revenue that we rely on to get to get through the summer to the next season, we were very nervous that it was going to be severely affected,” recalls David Sabourin, owner of Tapestry Music’s three stores in British Columbia. Tapestry has really built its business on selling and renting beginner- and mid-level band instrument to teachers and students. “We just had to roll with the punches with the teachers. Again, those relationships really kicked in, because the community really rallied. They knew that if 30 or 40 kids decided to stop, not only is it going to affect their program and the feeders, the longevity or the natural progression of their program, it’s going to affect us. We didn’t hesitate to tell people that. We weren’t trying to push panic buttons, but we were letting people know that if there’s anything we can do… we’ve got road reps that are out and about working with kids, and of course, they weren’t allowed into the schools. But we started promoting more individual song books for kids, play-along books, anything to keep a kid motivated and excited to play their instrument.”
As things stand currently for band instruments, thanks to school programs and concerts coming back, demand is rebounding. But how fast and steady that rebound will ultimately be, though, is still to be determined. In part, that’s because of the backlog of band instrument inventory dealers have that was purchase pre-pandemic.
“The biggest challenge, I would say, probably for band instrument companies is to try and figure out how fast the demand is going to come back. You’ve got to think about how much inventory the dealers already have that’s new, how many instruments they have in their rental fleet that are not being used right now? Of course, the dealers, for their own best interest, they have to put out the instruments they already have invested in, and then the manufacturers will have the chance in the future to supply instruments when they deplete their current inventory,” explains Butterworth.
At Long & McQuade stores Canada-wide, Stokholm says they’ve seen a slow but steady recovery of band sales and rentals over the past year. But, he adds, “The return to pre-pandemic levels will likely be a slow process. There are students in elementary grades who have missed two full years of band class who are about to enter high school. That gap in experience may make them hesitant to opt for optional band courses. This could create a bubble effect of simply fewer students enrolled in high school music programs, which could take years to correct. Of course, ongoing funding challenges for music programs may well be exacerbated by pandemic-related expenditures as well.”
Much of the same is true at Richmond Hill, ON’s MI superstore, Cosmo Music. “Business for repairs and rentals are starting to rebound, as many schools are looking to next fall. Schools are already sending in instruments that have been dormant for the past two years to be cleaned and repaired, anticipating a return to normal activities,” comments Tim Bond, the store’s educational services division manager. “Likewise, there has been interest from many schools about our instrumental rental program, as more schools return to playing band instruments.”
Stokholm adds that the other impact of COVID, because of the complete disappearance of live music, including orchestral and jazz concerts, was “reduced demand for mouthpieces and reeds and other consumables, as well as less upgrading of instruments and fewer repairs.”
Getting back to the current recovery and near-term projections for the band instrument market, Dring at Buffet Crampon says that the U.S. market may provide a four- to six-month peak into the future. “For us, our U.S. and Canadian operations are very closely aligned, and I don’t think it’s a secret that through pandemic measures and restrictions and the economic recovery, the U.S. is kind of four to six months ahead of Canada, speaking with a very broad brushstroke. So, it’s interesting for us to be able to watch what’s happening there and that informs our decision-making for what we might see in the Canadian market,” he says. “It’s not all doom and gloom. We’re seeing a really quite strong recovery in our U.S. market and things are trending in a positive way for the industry, particularly in the school instrument segment. So, I have high hopes for the recovery of our industry. But in terms of how quickly or slowly that will happen, that’s the golden question at the moment, as lots of our retailers still have strong stock levels from before the pandemic. So, it might take up to a full year for us to really understand where the market truly is, because they’re selling products we sold to them two years ago. It’s much harder for us to keep an accurate read on how much product is turning over on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis.”
For Francois Kloc, president and CEO of Buffet Crampon USA (who joined Canadian Music Trade on the Zoom call alongside Dring and Al Maniscalco, director of sales and marketing), “The interesting thing – if there is an interesting thing in these two years – is the fact that it sort of reset the industry.”
He brings up the interesting point that the combination of purchasing cycles being thrown out of whack by the pandemic, plus all the current logistical, cost, and delivery issues in the supply chain, has forced everyone to rethink the old way of doing business. Buffet Crampon manufactures many of its product at its own facilities in France, and even then, timelines and costs have increased massively in recent months. The company’s factories are operating normally, Kloc explains, but says whereas before it took one month for a shipment of instruments to reach North America by sea, it can now take four months.
“Now we have to ship everything via air. So, one container before was costing $4,000 and now it’s $17,000 for the same space. And what you moved by air before that cost you $17,000 is now costing you $51,000,” he says.
The result for dealers, according to Kloc, is “it obliges you to change the way you purchase and the way you stock. The [previous mode] of it being in-stock now, ready to go, and I can call the manufacturer anytime and I’ll get the thing yesterday — well, that doesn’t happen now because we don’t own FedEx or all those entities that we took for granted before,” he says. “Now, we realize how lucky we were, actually, that the supply chain worked. But in a way, the sad thing is that the supply chain was not working. But it was just organized in an unorganized manner and we realize that now. I think there’s a lot of lessons learned, not just from us as manufacturers, but also from the dealer’s standpoint, that this instant ‘I click on the button and the thing comes to me tomorrow’ — that is over, or at least for the time being.”
Kloc says that current realities are forcing manufacturers and dealers into older ways of doing business — “Of having sufficient stock and building your stock based on not only what the market requests you to have, but also have a sales team to redirect the market toward things that maybe they weren’t thinking about anymore.”
On that point, Bond at Cosmo Music says that clear and consistent communication with their suppliers has been crucial, especially lately. “I think that improved communication with our suppliers throughout the pandemic has been helpful in keeping us up to date on the availability and arrival times for many of our products. Due to supply shortages, delays were more common, but having this knowledge is important to manage expectations with our customers.”
So, what does this all mean in terms of what dealers can do to revitalize their band instrument sales and rentals in such challenging times? It’s worth reiterating that things are trending in a more positive direction now. The return of band programs and concerts has had the expected effect of reviving the market. But there remains a lot of challenges and uncertainty and it’s not a smooth and straight road to recovery.
“I think there’s no secret formula to their situation. We’re helping our dealers to continue offering the great customer service that they’ve always offered in order to be successful. They’ve always had great customer service. So, in this day and age, customer loyalty is the key piece of the puzzle. I’d encourage dealers to focus in on the quality of the services that they’re offering,” says Dring, speaking from his experience visiting hundreds of stores. “I think we’re in an interesting moment right now because of the pandemic, but customers kind of understand the nightmare that retailers have been through recently. And I think, even in this inflationary economic situation we’re in, there’s a willingness to support your local retailer, even though you know it’s at a somewhat higher price point than just turning to Amazon or other online retailer, to be able to feel that sense of local support and belonging. I think that you’ve got to lean into that. The public understands what music stores have been through, they get it, and you don’t have to be the cheapest guy on the block. But if you just do really, really well by your customers, support them, be their one-stop-shop for all things music and music making… they’ll put the phone down and listen to the human being they’re talking with rather than a website screen that we’re all fed up with. That’s the magic. Make sure you’ve got the most beautiful storefronts, have everything looking like a showroom, like the music stores that we were all used to pre-pandemic. Just really lean into that and be the best or you can and that’s the trick to it, I think, from going to a lot of stores.”
Asked for his advice to other retailers, Bond says that “in the absence of regular band programs, offer alternative ways of creating music, such as percussion, strings, songwriting, and recording. It is important that we build relationships with our school music educators and show that we are partners with them. A boost in band instrument sales comes from a long-term commitment to providing the customer with sound advice and support.”
It’s obvious that any sustained long-term revitalization of band instrument sales and rentals is highly dependent on the long-term health of music education in schools. Sadly, the current state of music education varies widely from region to region, and sometimes even from school to school within the same school board.
“Right now, the most critical issue is the state of music education in schools,” says Stokholm. “[Long & McQuade] have maintained contact through our educational sales reps with music teachers and administrators throughout the pandemic. Often programs pivoted to other forms of music making, where they could, in lieu of band programs, or they required unique items like musician PPE equipment, which we sourced for them. Now, as we are hopefully turning the corner on the pandemic, maintaining that connection with music teachers is more important than ever. We need to find ways to creatively assist them in recruiting and reaching out to students who have missed out on the amazing experience of band programs. Obviously online sales grew tremendously, particularly in the early part of the pandemic. It seems new levels of online shopping will remain in perpetuity, so it will be vital to be able to provide sales and rentals effectively online for those customers who prefer to shop that way. We have seen a sharp increase in our online rental usage in the past 12 months and keep working to improve that area of our business. Essentially, understanding that we are all moving through an accelerated time of change, which is creating new opportunities to creatively adapt and grow our businesses. Hoping for a return to how things were could leave you wondering where your customers went, down the road.”
Much of that sentiment is echoed by Steve Butterworth at Yamaha Canada Music. He estimates that around 80% of the band instrument market is school-based. “So, fewer students continuing on in band means they don’t go on to get their first wooden clarinet that they would play in honour bands, and that they would play in the local community orchestras for those kids that are getting really serious. And then they won’t purchase that pro- or custom-level instrument that they go into university with. So, the foundation is school music.”
That is why Butterworth’s biggest advice for retailers and everyone else in MI, and it’s really more a call to action, is to support the Coalition for Music Education in Canada.
“They have a tremendous capability to lobby governments, to lobby influencers, to promote access to quality music education in schools across Canada. So, I think if the industry wanted to rally behind one cry and one call, it’s to support the Coalition for Music Education. Some companies may have paused their sponsorship or it kind of faded away, but I think this is the one organization in Canada that the industry should get behind,” he continues. “NAMM backs it and some of the larger industry players are part of it, but even a small dealer, providing some financial support, even at a time of hardship, will help get more kids in school band and it’ll encourage more educators to continue and to want to inspire to create a great program for kids. There are teachers out there doing that, and organizations like the Coalition for Music Education in Canada, the provincial MEAs, the provincial band associations, they’re all working to provide support and create an environment where school music programs can thrive.”
So, even after all the challenges of the past two and half years, and all the challenges that remain, when it comes down to it, much of the old tried-and-true advice for band instrument dealers remains valid — build relationships with and support music educators, fight for music education in schools, and keep good and consistent communication with your suppliers. Though how you do that, and even the urgency of doing it, may have changed a bit. Things are rebounding, though, in the brass and woodwind market, and that is good news. We’ll gain clarity in the coming months as students and educators prepare for maybe the first normal(ish) school year in a long time. So, work hard and keep your fingers crossed.
Michael Raine is the Editor-in-Chief of Canadian Music Trade.