Farewell to Frank’s Sheet Music

Published On:
March 3, 2015

There was an article in today’s Wall Street Journal, New York’s last classical sheet music store to close. While that is sad news as another era seems to be coming to a close, I wonder why it had to be this way.

I am always surprised when businesses like this do not seem to evolve and find themselves shutting their doors. This is somewhat similar to what happened to Barnes and Noble. B & N grew to enormous size by displacing all of the mom and pop bookstores all over the United States. B & N saw that the future would favor the big box store. They brought this model to bookselling. Yet, they failed to see how Amazon.com would destroy them. They were a late entrant into online sales, and could never quite figure out a model that leveraged their physical presence with their online presence. Online purchasing was complicated, delays in shipping were common, and Amazon just seemed so much simpler and often less expensive.

But, if anything, Barnes & Noble had a greater challenge than Frank’s Sheet Music, since they had so many physical stores. Unless they made an early and conscious decision to grow their Internet business enormously while simultaneously shutting down stores, I could understand how they got into their predicament a little more so than I could understand that with this sheet music store.

Envisioning your business a different way allows you to keep your existing clients, add new clients, and evolve the services you provide.

They were one of a very small number of stores in New York City that supplied probably an enormous percentage of all the sheet music that musicians still require. Yet, they kept the sheet music in physical form only and were probably losing sales every which way to Internet startups that were supplying exactly the same product immediately on demand.

There is a famous Harvard Business School case called “Marketing Myopia”. That case, originally written in 1960, discusses how businesses rarely realize what business they are actually in. Because of that, they tend to go out of business when market conditions change. One of the classic examples in that case study was companies that supplied kerosene for all the streetlamps of New York City. They never realized that they were actually in the streetlighting business; instead they thought they were in the kerosene business. Once the demand for kerosene streetlights went away these companies folded and new companies supplied electricity, light bulbs, wiring, and service.

In my own consulting work I often advise my clients to rethink what their business product and market actually are, and to focus on the customer relationships they have built, in order to find further growth opportunities for themselves. I was recently speaking to an air miles broker, who was concerned about how that market was changing and how his business might not exist in a few years. I suggested to him that he wasn’t really only in the air miles business — perhaps his real business product is providing affordable travel to his customers and exchanging air miles is just one way to do that. Or perhaps his business should be providing other sorts of broker/agent services to his same clients or new clients. Envisioning your business a different way allows you to keep your existing clients, add new clients, and evolve the services you provide. If you are having trouble thinking this through for your own business, find a good business advisor or management consultant and ask them.

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