Inspired by the Future:
A conversation with Hal Leonard CEO Larry Morton about the evolution in how we—as a world—will continue to play music.
by Chuck Schiele
This story takes place with the influence of the Covid-19 virus in the full momentum of early 2020. As societies across the globe scramble for their public safety while trying to maintain their economic stability a lot of us find ourselves in the abysmal, middle-of-nowhere state of quarantine culture. Some of the things that define us and foster our wellness and happiness are sidelined indefinitely. Some didn’t or won’t make it off the sideline.
The resounding question “What now?” permeates its way into what feels like the new Twilight Zone of daily life. It’s inconvenient for sure. Concerning. For many, scary. There will be emerging opportunities as society learns and makes it’s public health and cultural shifts. (For instance, I can see how the “bow” could supplant the “handshake…” when sharing respectful greetings.)
Through all of this, music will persist as it has always done. Like water, it will always find a place to flow even if it has to determine a new course. Also like water, it is necessary to have life. Not physically of course, but spiritually. After all, music is the one thing on the planet where we can all share fellowship regardless of religion, politics and these days geography.
And with social media growing in its ability to share, we can see the mouth of a new river emerging in the music word. As a lifelong musician, this is particularly interesting to me as it will profoundly affect my music life, my life in general, and everyone else’s.
I wanted to speak with someone who has a global perspective on music — all the aspects of it, including the business of it. In the following interview, I have the honor of speaking with Larry Morton, CEO of Hal Leonard, the world’s foremost sheet music company. They as a “music” company have become much of the fabric that puts musicians everywhere on the same page, so-to-speak. In our conversation you will see how music is a real salve at times like these. We will see a little bit into the future with the advancements Hal Leonard has made to remain authentic, relevant, and accessible in our ever-evolving world.
MakingMusicMag.com would like to first thank Mr. Larry Morton for taking time to speak with us.
Chuck Schiele: Hello Larry, Congratulations in advance on your forthcoming anniversary as CEO. You’ve certainly entered that role while entering a dynamic time of unique challenges.
Larry Morton: Hello Chuck. Yes. Thank you. I’ve been with the company for 29 years and I’ve been president for 20 years. So, this is a great new chapter as CEO, notwithstanding the challenges of the day. The company’s doing well. Overall, the market is exciting. I feel like Hal Leonard is positioned quite well to take advantage of the opportunities.
Chuck Schiele: What do you think distinguishes Hal Leonard.
Larry Morton: What a great question. We are a company of passionate music makers. Our DNA as a company is composers, arrangers, teachers. That’s who we are. As a publishing company, we do not publish books on rock climbing or gardening … and have some music books, too. We’re a music company through and through. The two brothers Hal and Leonard—who founded the company with their friend Rodger—were all dance band musicians during the 1930s and into the ‘40s after World War II, when they became music teachers and music retailers.
So, it’s permeated our company since the very beginning the idea that music can make your lives better. And what our real job is, is to use music to make it a better world. We make the tools and resources so that you can play music to make your lives better. The thing that distinguishes us most is our passion about that.
Chuck Schiele: Sheet music has been around for a long time. what do you think is the enduring factor?
Larry Morton: You become a better musician by reading.
If you think about the original way that music is performed—the original way to enjoy music— was by reading sheet music and playing it. Before there were records. before there was radio. Before anything else. That’s the way it’s been from Bach and Beethoven up to the turn of the 20th century. That was how you got to play music. So, a piece of sheet music would sell a million copies—very commonly—because everyone had a piano in their homes and everyone played. Of course, then came the phonogram and the phonograph—then talking pictures, and everything else. Still, the original way of making music was putting those notes on the staff. And that’s still what we do.
I think in terms of scores… it’s interesting: physical vs. digital…. we launched the world’s first digital sheet music website. We launched Sheet Music Direct in 1997. It was 5 years before iTunes. so it’s pretty cool when you think about it. It’s not like we looked at iTunes and thought, “Oh, we should do that.” We actually came up with this cool concept. We built it. And back then I thought that digital would completely replace things like physical phone books and all that. Certainly digital is a huge part of the business, and it’s growing quickly. But there’s something unique about that physical touch between musicians and their music books. There’s something about that relationship. if you’re learning a difficult piece and you’re really scrutinizing that score… you know we have nearly all of it available digitally. People still want to touch that page.
Even people who like to jam and play by ear, we still provide a lot of great digital and physical tools. Whether it’s lead sheets, chord songbooks, play-along tracks, technical tips on how to improve your technique, scales and modes. It’s all there.
Our view at Hal Leonard: we embrace and serve the entire spectrum of music makers. If you like playing music we like finding different ways to enable you to play more.
Chuck Schiele: What artists are most popular to the people:
Larry Morton: Well, you know it ranges. It depends on what people are into. For us, it depends on a great melody. Adele and Taylor Swift have had some huge hits, so, that’s been very popular. Broadway has been big for us, with hits like “Hamilton.” And movie musicals are always a big hit with us — “the Greatest Showman” was one of the biggest hits of all time. We also represent Disney throughout the world, and Disney just consistently shows up with great movies and music.
With rock and roll it’s hit or miss. Some come and go. Some are steady forever. You know, Jimi Hendrix Eric Clapton, The Beatles … more recently the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana… those kind of bands are bands that everybody is going to want to learn. Those kinds of artists, including Elton John and Billy Joel are just kind of forever popular.
Chuck Schiele: Convenience itself has become its own product in our world where instant gratification is part of the learning and engagement process when it comes to music. What do you think prevents people from playing, or playing more? And how does the Hal Leonard product line address this?
Larry Morton: I think one of the challenges is that we’re all busy. If you’re a young kid and you’re in a school and you’ve got a structured environment and you’ve got supportive parents, they’ll enroll you in lessons and get you on you path.
When you get out of school and get going in life, you get a lot of distractions. It’s hard. It’s hard to say, “Hey, every Thursday night I’m going to drive over to this place for guitar lessons.” You know the reality in many cases is that they’ll go to Google and search the song they like. They’ll find a bunch of free ‘tab’ and some YouTube videos and they’re gonna get going. And that’s all fine. We embrace that. If that will get them going, we’re all for it.
Hal Leonard’s role is that we try to step-in with the tools you need when you’re ready to get to the next step. There’s a lot of free stuff on the internet. Not all of it is good. But it’s free. But, when you get to a certain point, you want to actually get better. We create many publications that are physical books. And inside the books they have unique codes. The codes take you Hal Leonard “My Library.” When you enter that code, you gain access to all kinds of digital content: play along tracks, additional songs, video, audio—all kinds of things you can do to get better. That’s on the physical side.
And then on the digital side one of our most popular sites for in-users is www.GuitarInstructor.com. That’s been a hit because you can play at a certain level, and when you’re ready to get to that next step you say, “ah, I keep hearing these licks and I don’t know what that scale is.” Or, you want to learn Stevie Ray Vaughan’s technique. You can subscribe monthly or annually and you get audio, video, notation all of which is really high-end stuff. So when it comes to instant gratification, you can go online and find some of it, but if you pay just a little bit, you can get the legit, hi-end stuff.
The other part is Sheet Music Direct PASS. Of all the things we’re doing, this is one of the coolest things we’ve done. And it’s been totally accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis because we created the first “spotify” of sheet music. It’s subscription-based with over 200,000 pieces of music in every musical format, genre and style. It’s cloud-based and mobile.
In the past this is something we would have been hesitant to be aggressive about. But, because people are home and because they want access for everything right now they can get PASS. Regardless of the song you’re looking for, you’ll find it for guitar, piano….. you’ll find it for banjo, trumpet, saxophone… we actually have it for chorale, band and orchestra music, now.
Chuck Schiele: Considering the influence of this covid-19 era, along with the digital age notching-up it’s game to facilitate the people in social distancing posture, what do you see in the future for music and for Hal Leonard?
Larry Morton: I wish I had the magic answer. We’re worried like everybody is. We’re worried about the crisis’s effect on music retailers. But, first and foremost: music is resilient. It’s forever. Go through history: two world wars, the Great Depression, plagues, conflicts…. music sticks around. Everyone still wants to play music. Sometimes they want to play it more when times are bad. I think the desire to keep playing is strong. so, the real question becomes, “how will people want to get those tools and resources. And I think it will move online, more. When the crisis is over I don’t think it will go back exactly to what it was.
Unfortunately, I think some the bigger retail chains will get bigger and some of the small one might not make it. So, we’re concerned about that. I think people are trying more things than they have in a long time. I think people are experimenting with more kinds of music while in quarantine than maybe they otherwise might have. So, there might be an opportunity to expose people to more kinds of music.
Chuck Schiele: Where there is chaos there is opportunity. Necessity is the mother of invention. With this in mind I see a small renaissance happening under the influence of the Covid-19 era. It seems like everybody had downloaded Zoom and other like apps, and crash-coursed it in order to socialize with family and friends and other musicians. I imagine that Hal Leonard is making adjustments.
Larry Morton: Definitely. You know, it’s interesting you make that connection. It’s true. We’re communicating differently. We’re sharing information differently. From a musician’s point of view, that’s not going to stop. There are so many musicians jamming remotely right now and collaborating on recording remotely. You see virtual choirs and ensembles. I don’t think that’s going to go away because it’s a new way to express yourself and connect with others.
Chuck Schiele: What a great venue for sheet music, right? What a great way to get together on the music since you can’t be in the same room and what that situation offers.
Larry Morton: Yes. One of the companies we own Note-Flight based in Boston is kind of like a “Facebook” for musicians who compose and arrange. What’s cool about it is that you can create your score online and then you can share it publicly with people or you can link it to people in your group. You can let them make modifications. So, it really lends itself to working together with other people on a music score. We’re seeing a huge upswing during this crisis because of it.
Chuck Schiele: Has all this shifted how you work with schools and education?
Larry Morton: Well, we host a little over 200 workshops each summer for music teachers. so, we’ve always had that kind of relationship. Because of the digital age I think we’re doing a lot more direct business with schools, because of cloud-based programs. For instance, a whole group a second graders can have their music lessons remote through our new website and services. So, I think we’ll get a lot closer with schools because this removes a lot of barriers.
Chuck Schiele: Can you please share with me us a brief history on Hal Leonard’s success?
Larry Morton: There’s a strong feeling and sense that we are a “musician’s” company. And that’s really who we are. And if I look back on our growth—at least during my last 29 years—we’ve grown tremendously by focusing on what musician’s really want. We really focus on the idea of breaking things down and creating a logical path of levels: Note-for-note tab, classical guitar, easy guitar with tab. And we keep expanding our formats accordingly. The same with band, choral, and orch
estra. Rather than just put out a middle of the road version, we’ll do a professional orchestra down to a small string ensemble that a junior high school can play.
The other side of the equation is that we’re focused on making it easier to play. We, literally, publish the #1 Learn to Play method for every single instrument. We do it the traditional way, and then we have hundreds of methods that ignore that. So, two notions have really been the thing that make us grow. One notion is to just keep making songs more accessible in all the formats people want. And, the other notion is to help more and more people start playing and keep them playing.
Chuck Schiele: Do you have anything to say in general to the quarantined community?
Larry Morton: I would say this: I am an obsessed lifelong musician. I’ve never considered doing anything else. My life has been devoted to music from day one. One thing I’ve learned is that you can start music any time. It’s never too late. People wish that they had started when they were younger. But that doesn’t matter. You can start music any time. So give it a try.
For people who do play, it’s kind of like sports in that you always want to keep working at it to get better. You know there are a lot of bad golfers in the world, but they keep taking lessons and buying better clubs. And they keep swinging.
Chuck Schiele: Wowwww… I love that.
Larry Morton: You have to keep chipping away at it. Keep working. Surround yourself with people who support and encourage you. Just keep playing.
Chuck Schiele: I’m very glad I asked that question, thank you. So.
Did you play piano, today?
Larry Morton: No. Not yet. I will later. I play every day.
Chuck Schiele: What do you think you’ll play?
Larry Morton: Typically, I’ll just sit down and start improvising. Whatever my mood brings. I’ll get a little hook and creatively mess around with it. Then I’ll segue into a favorite jazz or pop standard or two that I enjoy… whatever comes to mind in that moment. And then I try to get a little classical in. I like to play Chopin. I try t do that because it kind of makes you belly-up to the bar. When you are improvising you can make it as simple or as hard as you want to do. Whereas if you play to a score someone else set the rules and you gotta stick to it. it forces you to be honest. Sometimes we get busy and it’s hard to play every day. But try to make a quest every day to play… even if it’s for five minutes. It’s not that hard to find five minutes. Sometimes, on the weekends I can really hunker down and can go for two hours.
Chuck Schiele: So, when you’re not being the Head Honcho and you’re just a man, a musician, and you go into that place — I call it “the room” — the state where only you and the music exist, what does it mean for you to go into that room?
Larry Morton: For me it means “my happy place.” I love that moment when I can block out all the business side of it because it reminds me why I got into this to start with. It reminds me why I even care because the work connects to music. So, that’s always been a great feeling for me to get into the music that far and forget all the other stuff.
Chuck Schiele: One of the things that is critically interesting in our COVID time now is the human consideration… right? health as it relates to the effects of the virus, versus the realities of business and our country’s economics. It’s hard as we try to find a way to balance these things that is smart, good for everybody, and good for the future of our nation. Some people take up yoga. Some get on the horn and do more business. People are doing things professionally and personally. If it’s not too personal, what are some of the things you do in the face of your set of challenges?
Larry Morton: One of my hobbies is actually Triathlon. I took it up in 2012 just after my 50th birthday
Chuck Schiele: Oh yes. I read that. Did I read that you went all the way to Iron Man?…
Larry Morton: I did. Yeah! Four years later I did my first full Iron Man. By now, I’ve done over thirty over thirty 30 different triathlons. I’m often among the slowest, but I love doing it. There are a lot of parallels between music and business and triathlon. The whole idea of being disciplined…. you know you can’t just show up to a triatlon and expect to make it on the first time out. You have to work for it. You have to earn your way there. Just like in music—you don’t show up for the gig and say, “Hey what are we playing?” No. You prepare.
The whole idea of business is accepting that you start with a plan, but, nothing ever goes to plan, so you have to adjust as you settle into the long haul. Triathlon is like that. Triathlon is not friendly to the idea of getting it all “right now.” Business is like that. You have to work at it and take your time. You have to learn to handle the pace of it. And that you can handle the pain and discomfort of it. It applies to triathlon as much as it does to business.
Chuck Schiele: What would you say to the kids wanting to get into music; and what would you say to older folks wanting to get back into music.
Larry Morton: Often times, you don’t know what you don’t know. I just think that getting some instruction early makes all the difference by giving you a solid start and move faster. That’s for people who have no played at all.
With older folks interested in returning to music, remember that it comes back faster than you think. Muscle memory associated with sound is unbelievable. You can hear a song and remember where you were when you first heard it. Muscle memory works for you much this way. And so, playing your instrument comes back much easier than one might think.
Go ahead and pick it up.
Chuck Schiele: Thank you very much, Larry. It’s been a delight to talk with you. So, nice to see you again.
Larry Morton: I’m delighted to be involved Chuck. Thank you for giving a chance to tell our story.