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Striking the Right Notes

For nearly 90 years, Alfred Music Publishing has provided sheet music and other instructional aids for aspiring musicians, teachers, and band and chorale directors. For much of that time, the company has been guided by a member of the Manus family and today has its third-generation member at the helm in Ron Manus. The company has also during that time adapted to change in both the presentation of its instruction products and overall company operations. For instance, the Alfred Cares program started in 2009 to reduce the company’s carbon footprint by using recycled paper for its books, reduced plastic in DVD cases, and LED lights in its New York State distribution center. Alfred Music publishes 60,000 active titles in paper form, with additional other titles available in digital only. The company works to secure rights to music owned by other publishing companies and with artists directly, including Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, and Led Zeppelin. In getting through the recession, Alfred has done better than the industry as a whole. There are certain business areas that are stable, such as piano instruction and sales to schools and churches, said Chief Operating Officer Bryan Bradley. The success of the Fox Television series “Glee,” about a high school choir, has also proven successful for Alfred. “When you see them in ‘Glee’ looking at music, that’s our stuff,” Bradley said. The Business Journal spoke with Manus, Bradley and Chief Financial Officer Paul Vindigni about the company. Question: Why not start by describing your roles at Alfred Music? Ron Manus: I’ve been here 21 years now, I am the CEO. So I see my role as shaping the direction and the creative approach we’re taking; kind of steering the ship. That’s what I enjoy the most. I really like the creative part, the products we create. I was the head of the MI (musical instrument) division of the company; kind of the hobbyist market. Paul Vindigni: I’m the chief financial officer. I’ve been with the company nearly four years now and my role in essence is to steer the financial stewardship of the company. I work a lot with the banks and other financial oriented people outside the company. I’m also responsible for the distribution center, which is located in New York, where everything comes in and out before they go to customers. Bryan Bradley: I’m the chief operating officer. I oversee all of the rest, all of the operational stuff: sales, marketing, business affairs, which for us is almost like raw goods procurement because our business affairs team will go out and get the licenses and copyrights that we use to make our products, business development and all those types of functions. Q: Ron, you became CEO a year ago. How has the first year gone and was it a smooth transition? Manus: It is very interesting. I’ve learned a lot in the last year. It’s really looking at the company from a different perspective. It changes the landscape of what you’re seeing and they way you are looking at things. From what I’ve seen one year in, so I may still be an amateur at this, I’m really well suited for this role. A lot of the job is championing direction and where we are going; in a sense being a cheerleader but on a higher level. It’s not just empty words. You have to help drive and push things and encourage. It’s been great. I’ve really enjoyed it. Vindigni: I’ve seen the growth in Ron’s perspective on the business from what he had been doing previously when (older brother) Steve was CEO to what he does now and how he’s grown into that role quite nicely. Q: The change in management style was easy to deal with? Bradley: Yeah, I think it was. I think Ron honestly is better suited to be CEO than his brother was. If I were to sum up what Ron said his strengths are what he really means when he’s saying cheerleader is that he’s good at knocking down the barriers down that prevent people from doing their best. That’s what makes him a great leader. One of the strengths of this culture that Ron has fostered is the ability to be entrepreneurial, to follow a passion or an idea to conclusion and Ron’s very good at supporting you to make that happen. I think the culture here has thrived since Ron took over because it is a very different style from the previous leadership. Vindigni: Ron likes to empower people to think strategically and if it is an idea that makes sense for the business as a whole to run with it. He doesn’t allow people just to think about it and then have somebody else run with it. He’ll let you do the whole thing. He’s good at supporting and removes barriers. He wants to make sure everyone has a clean playing field to reach the end zone. Q: What do you want people to think when they hear Alfred Music Publishing? Bradley: The number one music education publisher in the world. Manus: That is who we are, who we’ve always been. We’ve always been about helping people experience the joy of making music. It changes your life, and it changed my life, and it’s changed so many people who’ve worked here. I know from personal experience, I was lost in junior high school until I found the guitar and now all of sudden I had a place to fit in and I felt connected. It gave me something to connect with. I think the majority of the people who are here, even our CFO, realizes how music touches you on such a level. That’s what really drives us. Everything we do is built around the idea of helping people experience the joy of making music and getting people excited about playing, keeping them playing their instruments longer. It’s not just a money making proposition. Q: What are the product groups that Alfred puts out? Manus: We have three main categories that we sell into; three teams as we call them. One is MI that I mentioned earlier; the rock and roll hobbyist musician, guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, pop sensibility. The second team is the keyboard team, aimed at piano teachers and education. We market directly to them, we focus on speaking directly with our teachers helping them understand the product that is released. The third area is band, orchestra, percussion; it really is the institutional market. That would be marching band, school band, concert band, chorale music, church music. In those areas, we have core big products. In the school market we released our new band method and string method. It’s called Sound Innovations. You come out with a new band method every 15 or 20 years or so. That is a major launch. There is very limited choice based on the books that are available. We did something revolutionary this year. We’ve come up with a system where band directors can sign in to a website and create their own method based on our core curriculum. They can say ‘I want to include more pop songs in my method; I don’t mind paying a little bit more for it. I am going to add extra features that make the book a dollar or two more expensive than if I bought the prepackaged version.’ Bradley: Band directors historically had to settle with whatever method was closest to their style of learning. In the past maybe a teacher thought starting a concert on B flat was better, maybe they liked to start on C maybe D. They wanted to start teaching on a whole note first, others wanted to start on a quarter note. You never had a choice. You’d find a method, it would have most of what you wanted but if you wanted to change it you were on your own. We’ve gone ahead and made it perfect. This is how I visualize it. You are standing in a field and above you are hundreds of pages of content on how to teach your students. You can turn around and grab whatever pages make the most sense to you to total 64 pages. This is the book I want. Bam, you hit the magic button, the digital press prints it all out customized for your instrumentation, for your school, with a CD with play-along tracks that match page for page what you just created out of thin air essentially. Q: There are a lot of changes in this industry. How do you keep up with it and know what music teachers and band directors want? Bradley: We do over 400 events a year; clinics, trade shows in music stores, on school campuses. We are constantly interacting with our customer base. What we really are in essence is a content company. We create content. We don’t care how you want to consume it. You may want it on your iPad, visually you want it on DVD, for audio you want it on CD, you want to see it book form. We’ll tattoo it on your back if that’s how you want to get it. That’s what we do in essence, and we are constantly refining that content. We release roughly 100 new products a month, and so you learn with every one of those. Manus: The key is you have to be able to listen to your customer and be in a place where you can interact with your customers. We try to get out there and have the lines of communication working both ways. Q: The type of content you put out is that always changing. Or will there always be the simple, basic music that will never go out of style? Manus: That’s not as easy as you would think, deciding what is instrument friendly and print friendly. Obviously hip hop doesn’t translate as well in piano depending upon the song. But you have to listen to it. One of the rules that we have in the pop area, we have these rights and these catalogues we work with but we have to make good decisions what songs we arrange and produce. That becomes an important process of being able to listen to the song and know what it is. You don’t typically say, ‘It’s at the top of the charts, boom, put it in the machine and crank it out.’ There is finesse to what we do and that’s to listen to the song and go, ‘You know what, we could do an arrangement for it that would be successful and be really inspiring for a musician to play.’ Q: Is there a financial consideration in play here as well? Vindigni: Always. Manus: There are only so many passion projects you can have. Vindigni: That’s right. Because passion projects sometimes don’t turn out to be as profitable as others. But there have been some that have been profitable. We look at everything. We look at the cost of print, we look at the cost of royalties, we look at our projected sales and we make decisions based on that. Some of it gets emotional, some of it is the feel for the business but at the end of the day it all generates an acceptable return for us. Q: Where do you see the company in the next three to five years? Manus: Growing and continuing to do what we do. We’ve been in business for 88 years making educational music books and will continue to do it. The things that will continue to change, we’re going to deliver it in different ways and more exciting ways; applications on the iPad and iPhone and delivering things digitally and working on new products that music stores will embrace. Trying to stay ahead of technology and staying on top of everything as much as possible.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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