Bryndon Bay: The Future of Print
Bryndon Bay sits down with an espresso in an upscale coffee house on bustling Washington Avenue in downtown St. Louis. He’s 40 miles and a world away from Pacific, Mo., the sleepy town where the company he’s president of is located – for now…
He’s a million miles away from how the print business was when his father, Bill Bay, took it over from his grandfather, Mel Bay.
Friendly, quick with a smile, and refreshingly blunt, the 37-year-old discusses the future of print music. “The old business model is gone,” he states. “People are choosing to learn differently, and less are choosing methods. Kids just aren’t buying these books.”
He says that there’s been an intense evaluation of the company and the market over the last two years. And now a whole new Mel Bay company is emerging, and he is the first say it’s been a painful period of gestation.
‘No Customers Are Coming In’
Bryndon and his brother, Collin, who is in charge of product development and artist relations, are the third generation to run the company. Grandfather Mel passed away in 1997, but his legendary larger-than-life personality is still revered. Their father, Bill, is now semi-retired. “They say to successfully retire you have to have something to retire to,” he smiles, noting that his father still has a passion for the business and is in the office a couple of days a week.
“It’s so challenging,” he says of business today. “I was with the company for a few years before becoming president, but from the beginning of my tenure we’ve experienced a decline in print sales, at least in North America. Dealers are telling us they don’t have any customers coming in, so I’ve spent the last two years trimming – in some cases butchering – our expenses.” He acknowledges that the company has painfully let go of veteran employees, some who had been working at the Pacific headquarters for more than a quarter of a century.
The changes he’s orchestrated have been head-spinning: Mel Bay had long been envied for having their own in-house printing operation, and for decades it meant advantages over other publishers. But the Bays realized they were in fact running two businesses – the press and the publishing, and the former was saddled with aging equipment in need of replacement. So they outsourced their printing to New York. They managed to sell all their presses, something Bay is grateful for, and now the building has been put up for sale, as they are down to 30 employees.
The sales staff has been transitioned out. “The days of an inside sales person calling on a store to try new items out or taking a huge stock order are over. People with us for years were suddenly unable to leverage their relationship to increase business. It wasn’t any fault of theirs, but the business has transitioned. Most dealers go online to place orders or fax. It’s more data-entry/customer-service oriented and that’s just a reflection of how things are today.”
It’s no secret that the print industry across the board has been down, but Mel Bay might be taking a bigger hit because their large, respected catalog is almost exclusively aimed at the hobbyist. There offer no piano or band and orchestra methods, products that have proved relatively resilient in this new era.
As for the long revered Mel Bay Guitar Method, sales have been down and the explanation is more than just a sour economy. “It used to be that a majority of those sales came because of the recommendation of a teacher. But today there are fewer guitarists even going to teachers, and whatever material they are using, they aren’t necessarily paying for it. They are getting it online or watching something on YouTube.
“Today’s younger people want instant gratification, and working toward book seven of a guitar method is not instant gratification!” he laughs. “I don’t mean this negatively, because getting a quick sense of accomplishment or having fun with a friend is important, but I do wonder what this means for the future of guitar playing, I really do.”
A key to the future of Mel Bay is producing e-books. Of their recent collection of new titles, almost all have e-book versions, too. While noting that the sales aren’t that high – yet – he points out that total e-book sales are up to 15 percent of the whole book market. “I do wonder if music is as transferable to e-readers as a standard novel, and so we might not ever achieve that percentage.” But they are committed, saying that soon over 5,000 titles from their back catalog will be available.
When they first stuck their toes in e-books seven years ago, they so feared piracy that a complicated and frustrated system was developed yielding complaints. “Users felt persecuted for the sake of a few who would abuse the system.” Bay took it upon himself to research a better system, and today he’s pleased that theirs is “very friendly. You can log into your account anywhere you are. You can access your purchases any time, and you can print it out as many times as you want.” Their password is linked to customer’s personal information like their credit card, so sharing the password is unlikely. “We gathered that a certain level of trust needs to be given, because there are people who are going to cheat no matter what. And today we’ve had no complaints with this new system. And we charge full retail because it’s worth it.”
Interestingly, they’ve experimented with releasing only an e-book version of some titles, and that has not been successful. And there’s one place you won’t find a Mel Bay book on: Kindle. “Their discount policy is appalling and I’m not going to do it. Apple takes 30 percent, and that seems reasonable. But I’m not prepared for 55 percent plus. Besides, we’re not getting a lot of request for having our books on Kindle so I’m not sure people are using it for music education.”
So where’s this leave the dealer?
“While it’s been scary for us, it must be terrifying for them,” he says. “Stores with school accounts are doing better than don’t, and those with a strong web presence seem more robust than those that don’t, but some of the traditional old print retailers are barely hanging on.”
The business model has “totally flipped, and it is a reflection of our community today. [Traditional retailers] were so mad when we started selling to online accounts, but we have to be where our customers are. And today’s customers are powerful, able to choose what they want and how they want it. For Mel Bay, we changed the way we do business and just acknowledged that this is where the business is.”
There are bright spots over the oceans: Since Mel Bay has opened a London office five years ago they’ve continued to experience around five percent growth a year. Then over the Pacific, there’s Asia. “Our books are selling really well in China,” he says. Around 50 titles are going strong, mostly the basic methods, but he says some finger picking and rock titles are doing well too. Surprisingly, star finger style guitarist Tommy Emmanuel’s titles are strong.
Their story of growing success in Asia has an unlikely source: pirating. During his father’s tenure, the focus was largely on North America, and those in China not concerned with the nuances of intellectual property rights were counterfeiting Mel Bay products for years. But, because of that, the Mel Bay name is well known in the country today, paving the way for their legitimate efforts. “Our brand is extremely respected and it has put us in a good position.” Acknowledging the oddness of what he’s about to add, he grins, “I’m almost grateful…”
Back here, their personality-based books continue to be strong to the point of defying the economy. But artist like Emmanuel are out giving concerts plugging their products. Authors doing well today are out selling their books, keeping a strong web presence, and are effectively using social media. “We can print it, we can make it available,” but a big part of the burden is now on the author.
Looking to the near future, he says that if the economy comes back, he thinks print will come back five or even 10 percent, but “we’re not going to see a recovery of print to what it was even five years ago. At this point, people have learned to live with out it or found another way to get it.”
So will Mel Bay still be around in 10 years?
“I believe so, but we’ll be a vastly different company. I wish I could tell you what we’re going to be! Print will stay alive but will be a small part of the future. We will remain in music education, and our product mix will mostly stay the same. What we sell will look different. We’re kind of a slave to whatever new device is developed next.
“Music has been turned into a commodity by companies like Apple and Google. These companies have cheapened intellectual property. It’s funny, the new CEO of Apple [Tim Cook] declared that they still love music, but they sure haven’t treated music lovingly.”