Saturday 5 November 2011

Music Retail Declared Dead by Publishers

As a fan of Gilbert & Sullivan, Abba and Anglican Chant, I often feel like a dinosaur. Even so, the announcement by Faber Music of the launch of, has left me gasping in disbelief.

Ever since the first music publisher sold the first piece of music direct to the end-user rather than through a music shop, the music retail trade has been insidiously yet relentlessly undermined by its own suppliers. As a consequence, traditional music shops have been closing at an alarming and accelerating tempo, and most major towns and cities in the United Kingdom are now bereft of such establishments.

Where they do still exist, such as in York or Norwich, they are largely owned and managed by Music Sales under the brand, and the buying power accorded to the managers is severely restricted. When I last went into Banks Music (aka Musicroom York) they had seven vocal scores of a a Wagner opera (a Schirmer/Music Sales publication), but couldn't buy stock from other publishers because the budget was exhausted. I'm not being funny, but how many opera companies are there in York performing Wagner? Seems odd to me.

Well, now Faber Music has taken the bold step of declaring the music retail trade officially dead. With the launch of they have abandoned all pretence at supporting their dealers and are making the boldest of pitches at the end-user, the choir director. How long will it be before, and hit the online high street, and where will all this leave those remaining dealers struggling in an already difficult economic climate?

These publishers, who have built their businesses and made their profits on the backs of professional, knowledgeable and dedicated retailers are now investing those profits into a web-shaped two-finger salute to the trade. "Thanks guys, for your assistance in building our brands, but now we have the internet your services are no longer required".

There are a few notable exceptions. Barenreiter have a website every bit as good (if not better) than Faber - the search facility is certainly more reliable - but at the point of checkout the customer is asked to select a retailer through whom to place their order. This continues to support a nationwide network of retailers who pay high rents and rates to provide shelf space to display new releases and keep building the printed music industry, to the benefit of all the stakeholders, publishers, retailers and musicians alike. But these exceptions are rare - the trend seems to be toward cutting out the middle man. Rake in the maximum profits and stuff the retailers who helped us get where we are today.

Ten years ago, we began to adapt the way we did business. We closed our Canterbury shop of 55 years and moved over to an entirely mail order operation. We were accused by some at the time of wanton corporate vandalism. Now it seems we were setting a trend which others have followed. Yet our customers still tell us after all this time how much they miss the ability to browse through our products. There is simply no substitute for holding the product in your hand and assessing its suitability for your student or choir. We have had to compromise and adapt, and will continue to do so in order to survive.

But it seems to me we shall be surviving despite music publishersbest  efforts, and not because of them. That seems to me to be a particularly graceless way of doing business.