Where have all the beginners gone, long time passing?
General mountain dulcimer or music discussions
Marketing always boils down to three questions:
Who are the people ready and willing to become your customers?
Where/how do you find them and get their attention?
What can you offer to meet their needs/wants?
You want to target beginners, but that's a big group and not clearly defined. Let's do some market differentiation.
Total newbies: Do not play an instrument, do not own a dulcimer. They show up at festivals or club meetings because a friend brought them, or they stumbled across an event that looked interesting. Where are they? Everywhere, but it's hard to find a lot of them at once. What do they want? They want to see, hear and (ideally) get their hands on a dulcimer. They haven't fully bought into this, so they can be scared away if you make dulcimers look too difficult or too expensive.
What can you offer them? Maybe an online concert. Maybe a 1-hour class where you show a few dulcimers, play a few tunes, talk a little about how to play, and answer questions. Make it free and easy to register. This audience is not motivated to scroll through a half-dozen web pages about festival schedules, workshop descriptions and registration forms. The kiss of death: "This is too hard, I'll just skip it."
Folkies: Whether they play, sing or just listen, we know they are actively interested in folk music. Where are they? Folk festivals and websites. What do they want? They probably have a vague idea what a dulcimer is. The message they need to hear is 1) they can learn to play one and 2) they can use it to play music they like.
What can you offer? They might pay to attend online concerts, especially with name performers and a mix of instruments. I've met a lot of folk music fans who profess no interest in dulcimer because they think it's too limited and can't play with other instruments. I would be sure to show them a wide range of playing styles and mixed ensembles. After the concert, point them to an online festival where they can learn how to play. The kiss of death: "I should learn guitar instead."
Musicians: They already play other instruments. Where are they? At the music store, the coffeehouse, online forums for their instruments and music genres. What do they want? A new instrument that's fun to learn... or expands their musical horizons... or ideally both.
What can you offer? As noted, the usual beginning dulcimer class isn't a great fit. At the Old Town School of Folk Music here in Chicago, they offered (pre-Covid) a popular one-session class called "Fear of Commitment Mandolin Workshop" for guitar players. Attendees borrow a mandolin for the duration of the workshop -- and they can buy mandolins after class ;-) Lots of people sign up because what have they got to lose? A few bucks and an afternoon, and it might be fun. The kiss of death: "This is a waste of time."
Unfortunately, all of these groups share a big problem: They Do Not Have a Dulcimer. What can they gain attending an online workshop? In live classes you can provide loaners, but how do you put a dulcimer into their hands over Zoom? It's relatively easy for people to find a guitar to borrow, and a beginner ukulele costs 50 bucks. Dulcimer availability is a major issue that limits how much outreach you can accomplish online. This leaves one more group of beginners who are, I believe, your best target audience:
People who have a dulcimer but aren't playing it. They bought it on a whim, they inherited it, or a roommate has one that looks good on the wall. Where are they? Could be anywhere, start with the folkies and musicians and maybe retirees. Contact sellers and ask who their buyers are. What do they want? Encouragement and a path to follow.
What can you offer? Super-easy classes and a supportive environment. Not a huge time commitment; if they were motivated to spend time on dulcimer, they'd know how to play by now. A single-afternoon workshop? A four-week introductory session? Drop-in play-alongs that do not require advance signup? The on-ramp can't be steep or they'll go away. The kiss of death: "Nah, this is for real musicians, not a duffer like me."
If you've managed to read this far, you're probably noticed I didn't recommend a full online festival for any of these audiences. I might be wrong, but I suspect that newbies are overwhelmed by the usual festival offerings. It's one thing to navigate a busy festival in person; online everything looks harder. The website, the downloads, the class schedule grid, how will this work, do I need a webcam, will my internet connection be up to snuff, am I a "beginner" or a "novice" and can I trust this site with my credit card number? Really it's a lot to handle.
I think it's possible to design a beginner-friendly online festival. It would need a super-simple website and registration process. Heavy promotion on well-targeted social media and websites. Great instructors (of course). At ukulele festivals, full membership can be expensive but there's usually a beginner class that's free and does not require advance registration. Just show up and we'll get you started. That's probably the best promise we can make.
updated by @lisa-golladay: 02/21/21 05:28:24PM