Grow and Scale a Music School
I didn’t have a plan when I started my music studio. I wanted more students. That was the extent of my business and marketing plan. In this episode I discuss how to grow and scale a music school.
How to Start a Music Teaching Business
A lot of music studios cut right to Facebook or Google ads when they want to start up their studio or ramp up their marketing. That really should be the very last thing you do as you build your marketing strategy. Facebook Ads and Google pay-per-clicks are just delivery systems for your message. Crafting your message and crafting a message that resonates with your audience is where you’re going to see the most traction. This is where you’re going to see the results you’re looking for. Before you can grow and scale your music studio you have to start with a message.
I love this idea that I learned from Danny Thompson about the importance of backward engineering your music studio. First, identify, how much money would you like to make with your music studio. Not how much money would you like your studio to generate, but how much money you would like to take home each year.
The nice thing about owning a business is there’s no limit to how much money you can make. You just have to figure out your path to getting there.
Your Music Studios Main Objective
The number one objective of your music studio is to meet your current and future financial needs first and your financial desires second. Small business burnout can become a reality if you feel that you’re constantly spinning your wheel’s working harder and harder and never making personal financial progress.
The nice thing about owning a business is there’s no limit to how much money you can make. You just have to figure out your path to getting there. The first step I would do is sit down with your spouse or your partner if you’re married, and identify your 5 and 10-year financial goals for yourself; not your business. If you’re single, you have the freedom to figure this number out for yourself. If you hope to get married in the next 5-10 years you should budget with this objective in mind.
Make a Plan For the Future
Let’s say you’re 30 years old today, recently married, no kids. The amount of money you need to survive and pay your bills and invest and save is a different number than what you might need in five years or 10 years from now. So step one is to identify what you ideally need to pay yourself both now and in the future. Before you can focus on how to grow and scale your music studio you need to identify how you’re going to grow and build your personal life.
It’s easy to identify how much you need to pay yourself now, but how do you identify how much you need to pay yourself in the future? Easy, reach out to somebody who’s further down the road than you, who maybe lives in a part of town that you would like to eventually live in and ask them. Not how much money they make but how much money do they feel that someone needs to make a lifestyle that’s similar to the lifestyle they lead.
Let’s say you want to move one day into a nicer school district. You look online to see what the median household income is in that area but get that number first. Let’s say your spouse makes $40,000 a year currently, and you identify that you and your spouse need to make a combined $150,000 a year in order to have a couple of kids, have them in school, and all the different expenses that come with that lifestyle. So you need to be making at least $100,000. Let’s say your spouse has a job where he or she gets an incremental pay raise each year. You can figure what they’re going to make roughly in five years and let’s say 150 is what you would identify, that’s the number that you need to be making. So $100,000 is your first financial goal for yourself.
Grow and Scale Your Music Studio in Reverse
Start with that number first and work your way backward, reverse engineer it. Identify what your school’s going to need to look like to be able to afford to pay you that type of salary. So you need to put together a profit and loss projection.
Let’s say you’re currently just teaching out of your home at the moment, but you know you want to open a standalone studio with multiple teachers. You’re going to project what your expenses are going to be and what your income needs to be, or what your sales need to be. Well, that’s hard to do, right? Because you don’t know what those expenses are. Reach out to a music studio owner in maybe one of these Facebook groups and ask them for help, ask them if they would share with you their P&L, or at least the categories of expenses that they have their rent, utilities, insurance, office supplies, payroll, taxes, common area maintenance fees, cleaning. And go into research mode, try to work in those numbers.
Find a Music Studio Mentor
If they’re telling you that they’re paying $5,000 a month for rent, it’s important that you figure out, “Okay, well, how much space do they have? How much square footage do they have? Are they in an industrial park? Are they in a strip mall?” Then you need to figure out how you are going to first service those expenses? How many students you would need or how much you need to generate in sales. You’ll want to figure out much you’re going to have to pay yourself on a monthly basis to reach that $100,000 a year mark. Make it all work on paper, figure out how many students are you going to need to achieve that? What are you going to have to charge?
Let’s say you go through this exercise and you realize that the numbers you’re working with can’t get you to that $100,000 mark. Perhaps you’ve got to look at how you’re pricing your lessons. Maybe you’re pricing them too low. At this point, don’t get caught up in the, “no one’s going to pay this amount.” Figure out how much money you’re going to have to charge for lessons. Decide later whether that amount is reasonable or not.
Maybe you’re going to have to change your business model to make it work. Perhaps the only way to get there is by going heavy on group lessons and group classes. You’re better off trying to find a pathway to that $100,000 a year on paper. Better to figure it out now than three years into your business and you realize that there’s no way to get there. No way to get there without dramatically changing up your business model or increasing prices so dramatically.
Why You Might Need to Change Your Business Model
Maybe the answer for you is a combination of looking at your business model, making adjustments, looking at your pricing, but also looking at your expenses. Perhaps you realize that you want to pay $6,000 a month for that high visibility strip mall space, but you could cut that price in half if you go into an industrial park, that’s going to change your marketing strategy as well. Maybe you realize through the act of going through this exercise is that your payroll’s too high. That you budgeted paying your teachers $30 an hour, and you got to that number because you want to hire trained, experienced music instructors. Is it possible to cut that hourly rate to hiring instructors at $20 an hour and still deliver a high-quality experience?
With this approach, you would have to hire inexperienced teachers that would require a training program. That’s what I did in my studio. I hired inexperienced music instructors, but experienced musicians and I would train them on how to teach. I was able to keep my payroll costs down that way.
Make Your Future Work on Paper
By doing this exercise you can identify certain challenges that you will ultimately have to face, but what’s nice about this exercise is there’s no emotional investment at this point, you just are trying to make it work on paper. Identify how much money you want to make first and then find the pathway to get there. The pathway through your expenses and your business model structure but you need help with this. Reach out to someone in the Facebook groups, reach out to a music studio owner who’s been in business for a substantial period of time. Maybe they have 400 students or 300 students in their studio.
Question of the Week
This week’s question comes from Joe Chila, the owner of Rochester School of Music in Rochester, MI.
Aside from booking enough students and trying to get these people excited about music. My biggest challenge is building value in what we do in music lessons so much so that people view music lessons as a priority. I get, as I’m sure everybody in the business gets so many people coming and going. We have students who come in for a month or six weeks and then, “Oh, baseball starts.” Or whatever the case may be and I’m really challenged by that because we lose a good percentage of students every month due to mostly schedules, and some sports thing or loss of interests and all that kind of stuff.
The 4 issues that I’m hearing from you is
- How do you get people excited about music
- How do you get them to prioritize music lessons
- How do you create more value
- How to improve student retention
Understanding Your Two Customers
You’ve got two customers in your business. You’ve got the student and they’re the influential buyer, they’re the ones who are going to be reporting back to mom as to what their impressions are of their experience. And then you’ve got mom, who’s the economic buyer.
Mom’s writing the check. If the kid’s happy, if the kid wants to keep coming back, if the kid’s having a good time, mom will keep writing the checks. You have to treat each of these customers differently. They want to hear different things. Mom’s primary interest is her child; not music lessons. If your music lessons aren’t perceived as fun, the child is going to want to quit. If your students feel like playing an instrument is hard to do, they’re going to want to quit. If a student doesn’t feel like they’re good at playing an instrument, they’re going to want to quit. And if any of those feelings are occurring, a student’s going to share that feeling with mom and mom’s going to stop writing the checks.
Work as a Team
Ideally, your staff is made up of employees and you sit them down and you say, “Team, I want everyone to go around and share with us what you do in your lessons to make them fun. What do you do in your lessons to make playing the instrument easy and accessible? What do you do to help kids feel successful in their efforts?” I think that’s a really first good place to start.
Kids want instant results. If your students can leave that first lesson being able to play a section of a song, they’re going to feel good about themselves. What do your students dream of before they come to the first lesson? What’s their fantasy?
- Playing the piano for their entire family
- Showing their friends this cool guitar riff that they learned.
- Playing at the school talent show
Understand What Your Students Dream About
Their fantasy is not cracking open a method book and struggling through an exercise that they can’t play yet in time, that’s not their fantasy. Fun will occur when your students feel like they’re on that path towards their dream. By focusing on the fun factor, kids will get excited about music. Make it fun through games. Make it fun by making music accessible and instantaneous.
We all have that friend who taught us how to play Smoke On the Water on guitar. We all have that friend who first taught us how to play Chopsticks or Heart and Soul on the piano. We all have that friend who taught us the We Will Rock You drum beat.
Most likely the friend teaching us wasn’t even a musician. Maybe they weren’t even taking music lessons; somebody else showed them. Kids teach each other little musicals motifs on instruments. They trade and share it like social currency.
Prioritize Experience Over Information
This is a great way to initially teach your students. I think a lot of music teachers get caught up in trying to impress the student’s parents. They want to show the parent how rigorous the lessons are and how much information they’re trying to teach their child. It’s often common for an instructor to feel compelled to impress the parent with how knowledgeable of a teacher they are.
Mom’s primary interest is her child; not music lessons. If your music lessons aren’t perceived as fun, the child is going to want to quit. If your students feel like playing an instrument is hard to do, they’re going to want to quit. If a student doesn’t feel like they’re good at playing an instrument, they’re going to want to quit. And if any of those feelings are occurring, a student’s going to share that feeling with mom and mom’s going to stop writing the checks.
That was certainly how I initially approached teaching. I was trying to impress the parent, but the parent is not the influential buyer, the child is. The parent will be impressed with your teachers if their child is smiling and is happy and gives mom a thumbs up after the lesson. If the child perceives the lessons as fun, you’re on your way to better student retention.
So how do you make the lessons more fun? Share notes with your staff. about that. Ask them what games they implement in their lessons. How can you streamline your lessons at your studio, so that all of your teachers are implementing these fun strategies?
Have Your Instructors Learn From Each Other
One of the things I did with my instructors is I wrote out a little survey. Each teacher would sit in and observe the other teachers teaching in the studio. The survey included questions such as…
- What does this teacher do to make the lesson fun?
- Did the teacher focus more on playing or more on talking and instructing with the student?
- What did the teacher do to help build rapport with the student?
- What unique musical experience did the student have in the lesson?
- Are there any aspects of this teacher’s teaching style that you would possibly want to incorporate?
Each lesson should contain fun and exhilarating musical experiences. Those experiences are likely to happen when playing in time; not when struggling through a passage of sheet music.
Let your students feel how good music feels to play. If the student is a beginner, try to peel away the layers of complexity. Do whatever it takes to remove any musical barriers so the student can sit down for their first lesson and within 1-2 minutes, be up and playing real music! It will blow their minds.
How to Empower Your Music Instructors
These are important conversations to have with your teaching staff. Summons a staff meeting and ask the questions below. Sit back and watch your staff open up and share ideas.
- How do you make playing music more accessible, more fun, and more easy?
- How can you create a fast path towards success?
- What barriers need to be removed to accomplish that?
Making Music Easy
People come into lessons thinking that playing an instrument is going to be hard. They think that lessons are going to be rigorous and that there’s a high likelihood that they will fail.
The parents in your studio who took lessons as a child probably had a negative experience. The reason why most people quit music lessons is that they’re not fun. Joe talked about wanting parents and students to view music lessons as a priority. They’ll prioritize it when music lessons are something that they can’t wait to get back to next week.
Kids will prioritize music lessons when they feel that music provides an experience that they can’t get anywhere else in their life. Playing music in time is a hypnotic experience. It puts you in a trance, it elevates the spirit. It makes you feel like you’re entering another dimension because you are, so let kids experience that. Get out of the book, close the book. Open later. Open it once a child has had that mind-blowing experience of playing music in time; ideally with their instructor playing along.
By focusing on character development in music lessons you build up a child’s confidence. The path towards good musicianship comes after a child believes in his or her ability.
Close the Book and Play
Playing music out of a book is like performing in a play while reading the script. As long as you’re glued to the script, it’s that much harder to tap into the essence of your character. As long as a kid is reading from a book, they’re focused on the notes on the page and not on the essence of the music. As long as a student is reading from the page, their brain is caught up in the details. When the book is closed a student can focus on the sound of the music and the emotions it makes them feel. These feelings can be expressed in your marketing. These feelings are really what you’re selling; not music lessons.
Video is Proof of Progress
One of my teaching and marketing strategies was to have the student’s mom record on her phone the final minute or so of the lessons. I’d have my students put on a performance for mom. Whatever we were working on that day. I’d accompany the student to create an even more dynamic and full sound. Mom now has that video as proof of what her child is capable of. She might watch it again during the week. Text it to her parents or show off and post on social media. I would encourage parents to “share with your friends and family on Facebook”.
Parents only care about the impact that music is going to have on their child. They want music lessons that will help their child feel more confident, more happy, more successful. How can your music lessons build character, build confidence, give a child a sense of success? By focusing on character development in music lessons you build up a child’s confidence. The path towards good musicianship comes after a child believes in his or her ability.
No one signs up for music lessons because they want their kid to be a musician. They simply want their child to be a better version of themselves. A more mature, intouch, empowered version of themselves. The desire to be a better musican can ultimatley has to come from the child.
The Secret to Student Retention
Joe also talked about the challenge of retention. People dropping out each month; they talk about scheduling issues and new sports starting. That’s not why they’re dropping out. They tell you that because they don’t want to hurt your feelings.
How many of your students initially sign up thinking, “We’re going to do music lessons, but just for three months.” Maybe some do. Maybe they sign up in January thinking, “In March, baseball’s going to start. So we’re definitely going to drop out in March.” Most of them are coming into this with the mindset of, “I hope my child really enjoys this. If they do, we’re going to continue doing music lessons.”
Music lessons are not a seasonal sport, and the parents in your studio understand that. If their child really loves their music lessons, and if the parent really sees the impact that it’s having on their child’s life; they’ll find a way to stay year-round – for years.
If they saw their child feeling a greater sense of confidence, a greater sense of pride, and that they accomplished something that seemed initially impossible. If the parent is amazed at how good their child sounds, playing music, they’ll find a way to work around the scheduling conflict.
It’s easy to blame sports for dropping out when baseball practice does indeed occur at the exact same day and time as their music lesson. But there’s certainly is most likely another day in the parent’s schedule that they can free up some time. As the old adage goes, “If there’s a will there’s a way”.
The Real Reason People Quit Music Lessons
It’s to the studio owners’ benefit to say to themselves, people are dropping out because they’re not happy here. Even if some of them are truly dropping out for a scheduling conflict that they just can’t workaround. If they were truly happy, they would drop out and they would come back a few months later. The better you understand your customer’s hopes, dreams, desires, and fears and build your music lessons based on that, the better your student retention will be.
Ask the parents in your studio what their hopes, desires, dreams, and fears are. Ask them what success would look like for them. They’re not going to talk about music. They’re not going to talk about their child being able two octaves of a C major scale. They’re going to talk about their child’s emotional well-being. They’re going to tell you that their fear is that their child will have a similar experience that they had as a child, that they will perceive playing an instrument as something that’s hard to do, that’s not fun and that at-home practice will feel like a chore.
A child’s not going to have any interest in getting good on an instrument until they feel like playing the instrument is fun and easy and that they’re successful at it. So focus on the lesson experience
Ask Yourself This Question
Ask yourself, what can you do to eliminate that fear? How can you reposition practice in your music studio, if you’re putting pressure on your students to practice, and mom and dad are putting pressure on their child to practice? Guess what? Music lessons aren’t going to be fun. They’re going to feel like homework. Kids do not have to practice at all in order for music lessons to be fun. They do however have to practice in order to get good.
A child’s not going to have any interest in getting good on an instrument until they feel like playing the instrument is fun and easy and that they’re successful at it. So focus on the lesson experience and have mom make those videos to help build the child’s confidence and sense of pride. Tell mom it’s okay if the child doesn’t practice initially, “That’s not my objective right now.”
The moment you layout to the parents in your studio, what your plan is, what your objective is and why the more likely they are to trust you. If you say to the parents in your studio, “Look, your kid doesn’t really have to practice. Let’s just get them up and playing.” That might rub them the wrong way because they assume that practice is a part of the expectation. But if you say this, your parents, “I want your daughter just to come into her piano lessons. I want these lessons to be fun. I want her to feel like playing the piano comes naturally to her and that it’s easy. The practice will eventually come”
How to Build Trust with Parents
Share with mom that kids in the early stage simply don’t know how to practice yet. That’s a skill in of itself. That’s something that you’re going to be working on in the lesson. I would tell my students “Here’s what I want you to practice. Show me that you have a basic comprehension of it. Great. I’m going to step out of the room for three minutes and when I come back in, I want you to play it for me.” You come back in three minutes later and you offer them some feedback, some guidance. You could ask the student…
- What did you do during this 3-minute practice session?
- What part did you find challenging and how did you practice it to improve it?
- What are some other practice techniques you could try to master in this section of music?
You’re teaching the child to be independent. You’re teaching the child about self-discipline and explain this strategy to mom and remind mom on a regular basis, “Look, mom, I’m not concerned with practice at this point. My objective is to get your daughter to fall in love with playing an instrument. I’m going to be continually working with her on how to practice. It’s going to take time and patience.”
If mom comes in to the end of the lesson each week and makes short 2-minute videos, she’s going to see that the video from week six sounds very different from the video from week one. If mom hears progress, musical progress occurring in the lesson and sees that her daughter is happy and is excited to play the piano and looks forward to her weekly lessons, mom will stop applying pressure to her daughter at home to practice. Most likely in time, the child will begin to naturally practice at home. The solution to Joe’s problem will be found in the lesson itself. It’s not about teaching better, it’s about teaching differently. It’s not about turning students into musicians, it’s about helping kids be better people.
How to Add More Value To Your Music Lessons
Joe brought up the issue of value. How can you add more value to your lessons? You can add more value by focusing on what happens in your business beyond the lesson. The lesson and the recital are two places where you can have an impact on a child and their parent. There’s the feeling that a parent experiences when they hear their child playing in the final minutes of their lesson. If you can identify other opportunities in your studio to add additional experiences, the more value you add. Again, experiences outside the lesson, outside the recital. Some ideas to consider are…
- Take their students on a field trip every few months. To a radio station,
- Recording studio or a touring band’s soundcheck.
- Have a movie night every other month on a Saturday night.
- Host a year-end barbeque for your families
- Host an open mic night
Events to build community. Culture and community is the obvious way to add additional value to your lessons. You’re not realizing the full potential of your business if you only focus on the music lesson or recital. Create more experiences, focus on culture, focus on community. Think about how do people feel when they’re in your studio. How does the decor in your studio impact your customers? What impression does your decor make? When people step into your studio for the first time are their senses lit up? Does it feel like they’ve stepped into another world? Look at how Starbucks tries to make you feel you’re stepping out of suburbia into a quaint Italian coffee house.
What brands, what type of design, and images do the moms in your studio respond well to. Ask them, they’ll tell you. With a little creativity and not a lot of money, you can make the physical space of your studio make your customers feel like they’ve been transported to another world. Perhaps it’s a recording studio, a musical playhouse, a seventeenth-century parlor.
Everyone’s looking for their own community. Everyone’s looking for their own tribe. Create a framework for culture and community to exist with good music lessons in the middle. Your business will grow as your retention improves.
“Question Mark” Photo by Emily Morter