Sweetwater’s First Year in B&O

Mike Lawson • February 2024UpClose • February 19, 2024

It has been a little over a year since Sweetwater launched their band and orchestra (B&O) initiative. When the news hit, I thought, “Wow! Game-changer. If Sweetwater can do for the local band director and students what they have done so well for other musicians, that’s a big deal.” A year ago, we did an interview with Sweetwater, and talked about the challenges they will face trying to crack into this market that has followed the storied musical The Music Man model for over a century. We recently sat down with Sweetwater’s Vice President of Band and Orchestra, Jeremy Mueller, to talk about how things are going, and what they have learned their first year.

Sweetwater’s Vice President of Band and Orchestra, Jeremy Mueller

SBO+: The Music Man, traveling to schools, promoting instrument sales, that’s been an enduring model, so how does an Internet/mail order company do that?

“It’s a model that’s so interestingly dated, right? Obviously, there’s been some modernization there, but generally speaking, that model still sort of exists today, where it’s the music man going from school to school, from town to town. A lot of this launch has to do with finding ways we can modernize, what is potentially a really sort of old, classic model.”

SBO+: Owning both MMR magazine and SBO+, I have a good perspective on the retailer and educational sides of these things. The music man was going into back-to-school nights, singing about trouble in River City, and getting these parents to sign up. I’m sure you’re not sending a Sweetwater rep to every school out there. What’s been the strategy to have your music man in there virtually?

“I think it’s kind of a two-tiered strategy. We do believe there are key markets across the U.S. where you do need to have a boots-on-ground type person. We’ve been hard at work over the last year and a half, hiring those in-market, we call them school relationship managers, who are doing exactly what you’re saying. They’re helping recruit for the program; they’re being the connective tissue between the band class and Sweetwater. By the end of this year, we’re gonna have about 24 of those people that are directly in market, and that’s something that we’re gonna continue to scale up.”

SBO+: In the old model, you had band directors who were married to the local support, the repairs, the rental program. Do you think the generational change in the people who are teaching band and orchestra now has contributed to the relative ease of coming into this market?

“I think that’s a fair question. I also think COVID changed things in general; everything is more virtual. I think there’s a whole new series of things that are becoming more normalized, where having a digital relationship for something like a rental wouldn’t have been thought about pre-COVID, but post-COVID it seems a lot more palatable. 

SBO+: During COVID, I was steering a lot of teachers to Sweetwater for tech, because they’re gonna have a support team over there. Let’s talk about that support side in the B&O world for a minute. A year ago, I was hearing how you were gonna have kind of an instant replacement program for repairs, and online support, and even video. How has that all translated in reality? Let’s talk about first in the support, and then we’ll talk about the repair side.

“I think it first starts before the product even hits our doors. One thing that is a real differentiator, and we took it sort of from the guitar playbook… you brought up the guitar example there. When we took up guitar, we wanted to say, “How could we do things differently?” And so, you know, part of what sets Sweetwater apart from other folks carrying guitars is it goes through a robust 55-point inspection. And so, we wanted to take a play from that book when we were looking at the category as a whole, and saying, ‘Okay, how can we ensure everything that’s leaving our docks and headed to a customer is in absolutely perfect playing condition?’ And so, we looked across each instrument category and we created a very, very robust 40-point inspection for all woodwind instruments, for all brass instruments, for all string instruments, to ensure each thing that’s coming in, it gets thoroughly inspected, adjusted, so it’s ready to go out.

“And what we found in that process is lots and lots of instruments fail. Just because it’s a new instrument doesn’t necessarily mean it is gonna play out of the box. We’ve found a lot of that data through this process, but we’ve also helped the manufacturers, from a manufacturing perspective, too, to really point these things out, so hopefully, whether we sell that trumpet next time or whether somebody else sells that trumpet next time, it’s gonna be in better playing condition because we’re thoroughly inspecting everything.”

“So, that’s one part of our service. Another part of our service is we are now matching all these customers, in a one-to-one way, with a dedicated sales engineer (SE) who’s specifically certified for band and orchestra, and specifically certified for rental. So, we now have robust training programs we’ve developed. I’m sure you’re familiar with our Sweetwater University 13-week training course. We’ve now inserted band and orchestra multiple days, multiple classes, involved in that Sweetwater training. So, every SE who comes now into the fold is getting a baseline of band and orchestra training, but in addition, there’s the ability to become a specialist on certain instruments. So now, if you’re a saxophone player, you’re getting matched up with an SE who is an absolute pro on that instrument and can be a perfect resource for you going forward. And then we also have certification in rental, because there’s a lot of complexity with rental that’s different than sales. It’s really important that folks, like, mom and dad, when they’re renting, they get matched up now with an SE that knows exactly what the rental program’s all about, and can really speak to that and be a great resource for them. There’s a big difference between a trumpet and a clarinet, right? So, even within the category itself, there’s nuance from one instrument to the next. It’s really important to have that trusted advisor… this company was built on that kind of concept, of a trusted advisor.

SBO+: Nobody wants to have an instrument shipped, open the box, and find out there’s a problem. 

“Our process is to advance-ship a replacement. So, the parent lets us know now when that instrument goes down on a Tuesday that there’s an issue with the clarinet. We’ll contact the customer to make sure it isn’t something like a minor fix right now. But assuming it’s even just a regulation issue, we’re gonna advance-ship a replacement clarinet with the return label already on the box. And it’s the same brand, same model, same everything clarinet. So, that’s a seamless experience for the student. And they’ll stick their broken clarinet in that box. And so, within two days, we’ve now effectively switched that clarinet out, we’ve exchanged it, and really there’s no non-playing time in class. So, we’re taking that three-week downtime, and we’re shortening it down to one or two days.”

SBO+: What does the actual rental program inventory choice look like compared to what’s for sale?

“Think about it in two different buckets. There’s a student-level series of products, and then there’s an intermediate series of products. And those things are vertically integrated. So, if we carry a student-level Yamaha trumpet, we’re gonna carry an intermediate-level Yamaha trumpet. On the student line, it’s what I would consider student premium products. They are the best quality student-level product you can buy on the market today. The intermediate model is the industry-standard intermediate that aligns with that student product.”

SBO+: I’m impressed that Sweetwater has pulled off the rental thing via mail. I’m not gonna say I was skeptical a year ago, but I was morbidly curious. I know that market so well it was just like, “Oh, how are they gonna do that? How are you gonna deal with the back-to-school nights?”

“I’ve been in this industry for so long, specifically dealing with beginners and the K-to-12 space, the education space. That’s my background as an educator. We’re adding a bunch of features to our rental inventory that, what we call kind of ‘hot-rods’ it. Every clarinet comes with a hard rubber mouthpiece and upgraded ligature. Every saxophone comes with a top-end mouthpiece and an upgraded ligature, standard. We believe putting a better mouthpiece, and matching that with a beginner player, is going to make the entry point instrument just that much better. They’re gonna sound that much better. They’re gonna feel encouraged faster. They’re gonna be less likely to wanna drop out due to frustrations. I feel like there’s almost a moral obligation for us to provide that.” 

SBO+: I think the genius move there is to be able to have that relationship with a band director, who says, “Look, 20 bucks a month, and we can get you this fabulous trumpet, if you really wanna play trumpet, from Sweetwater on a rental.” What is the average cost for a rental of a trumpet?

“We start all our rentals with a trial period, and it’s dynamic pricing based on the market, but that trial period for a trumpet’s only five bucks for the first month, so it’s really a low barrier of entry to get started. The rental rates will vary depending on what market you’re in, but it’s only $20 to $30 max for a trumpet. We wanted to make sure this was super-competitive with the businesses that are out there, but also just super-affordable for the customer.

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