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Selling to Students by Mike Sorrentino

Selling Merchandise to Students, by Mike Sorrentino

Musicians generally despise the notion of “selling”.  To some, the very mention of “sales” as part of our jobs can instantly create feelings of anxiety and distaste.  After all, we’re creative and people whose talents should speak for themselves, right? I certainly held that belief for many years, and I’m as guilty as anyone in that regard. Another common misconception is that anyone who is selling something, whether a good or service, is trying to take advantage of you.  While it is unfortunate that this sometimes is the case, it isn’t always true.  Let’s add another source of discomfort to the mix – selling to your students. Let’s examine your reaction to that last sentence right now. (I can hear the grunts and groans from here!) Did your stomach get queasy? Did you immediately become indignant at the thought of selling something to your students, who look to you for guidance and an impartial opinion of gear, books, and music?  Maybe you thought about the value you could add to your teaching practice by providing a higher level of service to your students and their parents.  Maybe you immediately thought about the extra money you could make by selling books, sticks, DVDs, etc. The focus of this article is not to say that one way of thinking is better, but rather to explore the thinking on all sides.  For outside and balanced input I enlisted the help of two friends. Dom Famularo is the global drumming ambassador and is one of the world’s leading drum teachers. His private studio in Port Jefferson, New York is on the leading edge of technology and his practice mainly consists of intermediate to pro level drummers.  His students travel from around the world and usually book single lessons generally for several hours (sometimes even days!) at a time. Jeremy Hummel is an active teacher in Pennsylvania.  A regular columnist for Modern Drummer magazine and an active player with the biggest bands in his area, his teaching practice includes a mix of students with a wide range in age and ability.

Dom Famularo

Can you sell to students?

If you have decided you want to explore the possibility of selling to students, the first consideration is if it’s even possible.  Do you teach in a drum shop that has plenty of stock available? If so, it is your obligation to encourage your students to purchase whatever they need at the shop, provided the shop is able to get what they need. To do anything outside of that is unprofessional.  Do you have an agreement with a local shop that refers students to you? Then the same rule applies.  Make sure the store stocks what your students need and send them there to buy. Do you teach in a school setting, college or university, which would violate the integrity of the school if the teachers were selling to students? Again, don’t do it. By the way, when a student asks what sticks, heads, cymbals, drums, etc. you play, your answer is a form of selling.  Don’t be shy! That’s why companies arrange endorsement deals!  (That’s also why it’s important to endorse what you like, but that’s another article..)  Selling is made easier if you handle your teaching as a business. Dom’s studio is set up as “…a business with a tax ID number and I pay taxes.” Jeremy keeps “…a simple book of the items purchased, and how much it sold for. No one enjoys extra bookkeeping, but even if it helps to cover my monthly Starbucks bill, that is a good thing.”

Why sell to students

When I started my career as a teacher I was lucky enough to teach at the Long Island Drum Center.  There I had access to any book, drum, stick, cymbal, DVD, gong, drum machine, you name it, that I could possibly want.  It was very easy to walk out after a lesson with a student, help them pick out what they needed and see them to the counter to help them get a student discount on the way out.  When I began teaching privately I was often frustrated by how often students would show up without what we agreed they would get. I finally began buying books and actually a small backup supply of sticks just to keep the students on track! When the idea finally dawned on me to be the source for books for my students it was just easier for me, even if I wasn’t making any extra money on the deal.  And when I did, it was actually kind of nice to know I was helping them out and saving them money at the same time. It also helps you to raise your “business chops”.  In Dom’s words a teacher must “learn the balance of art and business”.  Addressing the concept of speed and convenience, Dom adds “having the products in my studio helps us to reach what the student wants faster”.

Jeremy Hummel

What can you sell?

My answer to this is kind of personal, but I would suggest anything that enhances your value as a teacher that is not easily attainable at the local drum shop.  For example: you have had success using Baby Steps to Giant Steps by Peter Retzlaff and Jim Rupp and you would love to get your fourteen year old student who just joined the jazz band at school in it right away. But the nearest drum shop is 30 miles away.  His parents have kids in drum lessons, baseball and ballet and they just don’t have time to get to the store.  In my experience they are more than happy to see you offer the books and DVDs you use with your students even if it is just to save them the trip.  I’m sure the parents reading this can relate on some level.  It is helpful to the parents and increases your value as a teacher. Do you teach mallets that the local shop doesn’t carry and won’t special order? Do you teach a special needs student whose materials might be difficult to find? Maybe you teach in a group setting and you need eight copies of a book or piece of music while the local store only stocks two or three. In these instances, it can be seen as a very ethical situation to provide these goods to your students.  If you have endorsement deals be very careful – sometimes the language in the contracts states clearly that you are not to sell any of your products that you got from that company to anyone, especially below a retail price.  You can find yourself in a very bad spot, and it is best to avoid that whole situation altogether.  Different teachers may find they are comfortable with selling a very limited selection of items while some are comfortable with a broader selection. Jeremy Hummel sells sticks, heads, books and DVDs, I only sells books and DVDs , and Dom has a wider variety on hand.  According to Dom “I use the products like a doctor uses drugs, always asking what is the best medicine for each student’s challenges? I want to be aware of all that is out there. A good doctor has to know all the products.  Only knowing some of them doesn’t guarantee getting it right for the student!”

Ethics questions

One of the most frequent statements I hear from teachers when the subject of selling to students comes up is “I am already getting paid for the lesson.  I feel bad making more money by selling them something”.  That is a valid point, and was my own philosophy for many years.  It becomes a question of ethics, which can only be answered on a personal level.  Let’s address specifically what would make a teacher uncomfortable with providing an extra service to a student.  I believe it is the extra profit and not necessarily providing what the student needs that causes the anxiety.  One way to alleviate this problem is not to make any money on the transaction.  WHAT!? Follow me: Initially I got around this by charging the student what I paid for a book. (I only sell books and DVDs that I use in my curriculum, by the way.  I don’t sell any gear) I bought the book at a local drum shop (Long Island Drum Center or Sam Ash)at a discount, then charged the student the same price. It was a wash cash-wise for me but my students appreciated it. (and early on, I felt awkward about making extra money on the sale).  Another approach I’ve seen work is to simply give the books to the students.  Some teachers see this a value added means of being able to charge a little more than the next teacher, or as a way to separate themselves from the competition.  The expense of buying the book is a tax write off and they are OK with that.  If you have a large practice this is very cost prohibitive, and not recommended.  (Side note – from a publisher’s point of view, we generate revenue at the wholesale point, not at the point of retail purchase.  Once a reseller- in this case the teacher – pays for the book, it is entirely up to them to retail price it as they see fit.  Even if that price is zero) The third, and most popular, approach to reselling to students is to charge somewhere between cost and full price.  Teachers who follow this route are confident that they are providing a service that the student or parent will gladly pay for, and by saving them a trip to the store or time and shipping costs by ordering online. Again to quote Dom: “Students and their parents always thank me for the convenience. With gas prices so high, this helps them”.  Jeremy concurs: “…the convenience factor. If a student needs new sticks, especially for a lesson, it saves them or their parents a trip to the music store.  With books and DVDs, there are staples in my curriculum I like to have readily available. I am serving the student and also making a little extra for myself.”

Another source of hesitation for teachers when it comes to selling is that they don’t want their students to see them as salespeople.  They prefer to be seen as a source of information, inspiration and education.  This is a very valid opinion.  Some teachers may see the idea of selling as creating a weird kind of tension in the teacher/student relationship.  When asked if this was ever the case, Jeremy raised a very valid rebuttal: “No. In fact, it helps because it opens up conversations about gear and educational material”. Dom adds: “they (students) are grateful to see and are inspired by new products”.

It is not my goal with this article to convince every teacher to become a one-stop shop for their students, and compete with the local drum shops for retail business. You can’t and shouldn’t! However you feel about selling certain products to your students, I hope you have a better understanding of the thinking from different points of view. While it may not be practical or desirable for everyone, some teachers may be able to provide a greater service to their students and ultimately earn a better wage from teaching.

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