Unless you're one of the shrinking number of vinyl record purists, it's a forgone conclusion that the present and future of music is digital. But, just as vinyl still spins, some music companies have managed to thrive providing a physical product.
Even one in that most prematurely mourned medium, print. Since 1947, Hal Leonard has been making sheet music. Today, this Milwaukee institution, with sales of over $250 million, dominates an outdated industry.
What Hal Leonard does is refreshingly easy to understand. The company represents recording powers such as Sony, EMI, Disney, Universal, and BMG, says CEO Larry Morton: "When they find an artist, then our job is to transcribe and arrange that music. So Taylor Swift's new album comes out, we get the rights through Sony, and our creative team goes to work at creating every kind of arrangement we can with that music, from professional orchestra down to what kids use in their piano lessons, school choirs, everything in between." Hal Leonard manufactures music, in other words.
The company was founded by the Edstrom brothers, Harold "Hal" and Everett "Leonard," who, along with co-founder Roger Busdicker, were successful big band musicians in the 1930s. After World War II, the three became music teachers, opened a music store, and quickly grew the licensing business by writing music arrangements for a broad range of consumers.
Hal Leonard has used two strategies to thrive. The first: Work backward from what musicians might need, such as online coaching to accompany the sheet music. So if a musician feels there's something that the printed page can't provide, "having that code link to [our] library means they can get information that's correlated with what they're seeing on the page," says Morton.
The second strategy is a golden oldie: Attack yourself before someone else does. "We look at things and say, 'Well, this is a really cool idea,' " says Morton. " 'And, yes, if we do it, it's going to hurt some parts of our business, but let's go after it.' " One result is Sheet Music Direct PASS, the Spotify-style sheet music subscription service Hal Leonard rolled out in 2019.
Like the co-founding Edstroms, Morton is a musician--a pianist with degrees in music theory and composition who still plays daily. Perhaps that makes him uniquely qualified to lead what he calls "a passion industry." Certainly, a CEO with an MBA could do his job, "but not like I do the job," he says. "We're in an industry that changes lives. What we really do is help the world be a better place through music."