Alfred Music Publishing at 90
Once upon a time, a small publishing company opened up offices in order to help get a few Tin Pan Alley compositions out into the world, maybe get a few scores sold, and make their humble author a bit of cash. Times were simpler then – music was still largely a live form of entertainment and sheet music presented a primary means of discovery for many performers across the country of new and newly arranged pieces.
It was 90 years ago that Alfred Music Publishing first opened its doors for business, and that translates to three generations in the Manus family.
Since then, the public’s exposure to music of all forms has come from countless new directions that 1922 publishers could scarcely foresee. The phonograph had barely come into existence at that point, and the radio was on its way to becoming a standard tastemaker. Then came hi-fi systems, film soundtracks, television, rock concerts, cassette tapes, MTV, CDs, and finally mp3s. And let’s not forget video games.
The decades have also brought generations of expertise to the Alfred offices. After founder Alfred Piantodosi sold the company to Sam Manus in 1928, the business trucked along for over 20 years as a reliable publisher of popular music. When Manus’s son, Morty, began working with him in 1950, the company began to focus on educational materials, an approach which has served them well to this day.
Morty’s sons, Steven and Ron, began working with the company in the ’80s and, since then, sales have grown from $12 million to over $65 million. Steven served as CEO for fifteen years until his retirement two years ago, when Ron took over from his old post in the music instrument books department, which he continues to work for as much he can. Ron’s first love is playing guitar and to this day he maintains a band with coworkers and organizers from Alfred affiliate and girls-in-rock advocate Daisy Rock.
In the meantime, the company has not slowed down. Under Ron Manus’s fresh leadership, Alfred has not only begun an initiative to make all of its operations and products more sustainable, but it’s also rolled out its first major new partnership in the form of a series of published music licensed for Nintendo, riding a growing wave of interest in the video game maker’s vast catalog of original soundtrack music for games dating back to the original Super Mario Bros., which was in turn the first title offered in the series. They quickly followed with The Legend of Zelda, with more on the way.
In all, the company has maintained a spirit of adaptation that dates back to its early days in New York. MMR recently spoke with Alfred’s newest CEO, Ron Manus, about the company’s 90th anniversary, its rich history, and the challenges of taking over such a successful operation.
Ron Manus: Well, the “Alfred Cares” initiative was one of the first things I did when I became CEO and it’s been a big thing. I want to make sure that we’re being environmentally responsible. We’re now publishing 95 percent of our products on 100 percent recycled paper. That’s obviously a big deal. It’s the same thing with our DVD production. The cases are eco-packs, which have 30 percent less plastic. It’s like when you hollow out the inside wood of a guitar to lighten it – same kind of concept with these DVD packs. So we can use less plastic and keep it still strong and high quality.
We also recycle a lot of old products at our distribution center. Wherever we can make a choice in that direction, we do. We even put water-free urinals in our building in L.A. when it came time to upgrade. The lighting at our distribution center has been changed out for a new system that uses less electricity. The savings for everything were substantial and it ended up paying for itself quickly.
MMR: Beyond the sustainability push, have you worked toward any more changes for the company’s business?
RM: We’re always finding ways to do things better or more efficiently, and I’ve been making sure we’re always working in that direction, but as far as any fundamental changes, there hasn’t been a major change, really. The CEO change didn’t happen because the company was faltering – it happened because my brother wanted to retire. So I just try not to screw things up! And that – that’s a joke, but it’s true. This company is great. The products have been excellent and superior for a long time and I get to focus on our strength, music education. Music education is how Alfred became the company it is today, and how it will continue to grow.
MMR: You’ve basically worked at Alfred all your life, right? How did your parents first get you involved?
RM: The first time I remember working at Alfred was when I was six years old. Our warehouse was in Port Washington, N.Y. (this was around 1969 or 1970) and, as a way of saving money on summer camp, I imagine, my parents brought me to the warehouse and pretended that it was my job for the summer. So I’d just be in the warehouse trying not to get run over by trucks. [laughs] But I’d try to pick orders and pretty much would get sidelined by the copy machine when I realized I could put my face on it. But every time summer would come, I would be at Alfred helping out. All through college, when I attended San Francisco State, I’d come back to L.A. for the summers to work in the sales department all through the ’80s, helping out during stock order season. Then I began working full time in 1988.
After being in sales for, I think, three and a half years – I’m a guitarist and had seen that, other than Alfred’s Basic Guitar and a handful of other books that were doing all right, there wasn’t really a focus on guitar education. So I started writing a couple of books in that area and they starting doing pretty well. I had asked my dad if he thought that I would be a good guitar editor. He was very supportive, so I became the guitar editor and the MI team leader as we went into teams in the mid-’90s.
Alfred’s Basic Guitar Method is, to this day, our best-selling guitar book. It’s our flagship guitar book and we take care of it like a prized possession. Over three million sold! We are constantly improving and updating it. For example, we just put color inside the book. Like a garden, you need to prune and water, we are always tending to the titles in our catalog that make up our core business.
MMR: So what happened after you began heading up the guitar section?
RM: I ran the MI division up until I became CEO in 2009. When I started as MI team leader, our sales went from about $250,000 in that area and I grew it to $5 million in under eight years. By focusing our attention on that market we were able to identify where our catalog was missing products. Just by putting a focus on it, that helped. We have a really good team of people here and we started doing books with National Guitar Workshop, which is a great partnership for our company.
MMR: Timing must have played into that, too, with the ’90s guitar boom and shifting audio technology.
RM: Yeah, it was great and still is. I mean we had at the time the advent of the changeover from cassette to CD, which was great because packaging became a lot easier. With some help along the way, we were able to take advantage of that boom and shift in audio technology to produce some really cool products.
MMR: Are there any new foci nowadays beyond guitars?
RM: The MI area, when I took it over, encompassed anything that was sold to an MI store – guitar, bass, drums – all pop hobbyist-focused products like vocal books and pro audio. Alfred’s longstanding strength has been our relationships with our teachers. We continue to focus on the great connection we have with Piano teachers and also the institutional educators working through schools and churches. Alfred spends a great deal of time and energy focusing on clinics and conventions so that we are able to connect directly with the educators. But our hobbyist area was somewhere we hadn’t focused on, so that became my focus.
MMR: And now you’ve got the Nintendo license for a new audience.
RM: Yeah, one thing we’ve worked on for five years now is getting a deal with Nintendo and we were able to get the Super Mario Bros. books out. It’s the tip of the iceberg, really. We just had The Legend of Zelda come out too, which is kind of the second wave of Nintendo products we’ll be doing. So that’s a really big deal for us—something that really worked out for us.
Another direction in the consumer market we’ve gone is bundle packs of guitar products. We work with Penguin on a lot of Complete Idiot’s Guides products, so we did an Idiot’s branded guitar box set, which is an entry-level guitar box that comes branded with some of our educational material. We’ve done a full-size acoustic guitar pack for that. We’ve also created starter packs based on our kids’ guitar courses, which we came out with five years ago and are great. It’s become our second best selling guitar method in a very short period of time. It’s great because it’s all in a box – everything you need to start playing guitar. It doesn’t require the store to be a full-line guitar store unless they’re already doing that. We also have a ukulele pack that we branded with our Teach Yourself series, so it’s a Teach Yourself Ukulele pack. And that’s been huge in the fourth quarter.
MMR: Looking back on the generations of leadership at Alfred, do you see a distinct change in each reign?
RM: Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. I can’t be Steven and Steven couldn’t be Morty before him. Luckily, I’ve still got Morty here so that’s great. This is Morty’s life and love, and he’s here four or five days a week still cranking out great piano products and helping guide me and guide the company. But Steven had some amazing strengths. We built a new state-of-the-art warehouse in upstate New York, which Steven helped design, and he was able to conceive all the programming needed to put it all together. Steven was really brilliant at programming and designing infrastructure, so he built this company to a place where I now feel really comfortable focusing on product.
MMR: What was it that Morty changed about the company when he began running it?
RM: Morty is the embodiment of the true entrepreneurial spirit. He grew the company because he had a vision and passion of what products he thought the market needed. Morty co-wrote Alfred’s Basic Guitar. He also co-wrote Alfred’s Basic Piano Library – he is our star editor and our star writer. He makes every book he touches better. Under his leadership, the company quickly grew from nothing to a good-sized company. By the mid-’90s, already busting at the seams, we really needed someone to take us to the next level. That was the point where Steven came on board.
Morty’s been here throughout, maintaining that entrepreneurial spirit focused on product development and in what our core business is: To help people experience the joy of making music. You need both things in tandem. It was the perfect time for Steven to step in and he did a great job.
MMR: What was the company like before he began working there?
RM: His dad, Sam Manus, bought the company in 1928 from Alfred Piantodosi, who started the company. Piantodosi was a songwriter, a contemporary of Irving Berlin. He started his own publishing company in 1922. In 1928, he sold it to Sam Manus. Sam kept it going. The catalog featured a lot of songs from the silent movie era. Some of the early hits were songs like, “Waiting for Robert E. Lee” and “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” and lots of stuff that is now referred to as The Great American Songbook. When Morty got involved, he had some success with the song “Tell Me You’re Mine,” by the Gaylords.
Pitching songs is a tough business unless you’re a pure salesman. Morty is more of an artist and musician, so he said, “What else can we publish other than chasing after these pop songs?” He started looking at music education and started working with Willard A. Palmer, and they came up with the Palmer Hughes Accordion Course. Soon after, Morty started working on Alfred’s Basic Guitar Method, and the timing was perfect with rock’n’roll taking prominence on the charts and people wanting to learn guitar. So he kept going, doing book after book and laying the groundwork. He launched Alfred’s Basic Piano Library in the early ’80s, which incidentally celebrates its 30 year anniversary this year, and it’s still our number one piano method.
MMR: Is it tougher now with school programs facing so many cuts?
RM: Surprisingly, we’ve done very well in the band and school area. Even with so many of the programs getting cut, thankfully there is usually a music store that gets involved and helps start an after-school program that comes in to take its place, . A lot of times it’s not the greatest or not what you’d hoped for, but music survives. The people in this industry have such a passion for it that we do find a way to keep the music in schools.
Our Sound Innovations method for Concert Band and String Orchestra are doing really well. We launched those a little over a year ago and it’s been well received by the music education community. Born from time-tested educational concepts, the method series is very unique in that it allows for customization: song selections, enrichment pages, pedagogy—all while following state and national standards. Even the book cover can have the band director and school’s name printed on the cover! It’s really astonishing, and I’m very happy with its acceptance in so many school districts.
MMR: You must see some changes in store in the coming years for the publishing industry.
RM: I hope so! It’s exciting. We like new things and change – it keeps our jobs exciting. So we embrace the Kindles and iPads, but right now I don’t think anything beats sitting down at a piano with a method book that’s printed out that you can lay open and turn the pages.
MMR: What’s been the toughest thing for you in the last couple of years since taking over?
RM: Dressing up for the banks. [laughs] I’m a rock musician at heart, so putting on a sport coat and a button-up shirt doesn’t come natural to me. For me, maybe the hardest part is doing the things that I’ve always watched my brother and dad do.
I can say that within the realm of leading the exec management team, sitting down with the financial people was a learned science for me.
MMR: You’re also known to surround yourself with people who really know what they’re doing.
RM: Right, we’ve got Paul Vindigni, who is our CFO, and is amazing. Without our remarkable COO, Bryan Bradley and Vindigni, I couldn’t do this job successfully. Adding our great team leaders Andrew Surmani and E. L. Lancaster, an amazing head of IT, Dan O’Toole, and the incomparable SVP, Human Resources, Patrick Wilson – I’ve now named all of Alfred’s brilliant upper management team. [laughs]
You know, I’ve always heard that there are some people, certain types of managers, who surround themselves with inept personnel so that they look better. To me, that just seems like way too much work.