“Why be the cow when you can be the farmer?”
I’m not sure where this quote originates, but I heard it in a Leverage episode from season 3 titled, “The Studio Job”. The context in this case was to ask, “Why write songs yourself when you can steal others’ songs and sing them?” In other words, it’s more profitable to let others work for you than to do the work yourself. This abuse can surely be found in every profession, but I’d like to discuss one way it manifests in the context of private music lessons.
Many years ago, I was one of very few teachers in the United States to have their own website, and this isn’t an exaggeration. I had a website in the days when there was no such thing as “graphical web browsing” – one had to use the Unix lynx command to surf the web with arrow and enter keys. Today, it has become so easy to put up a website that a Tibetan monk could do it using a limitless supply of website creation services and templates, many of them free.
So, try doing a Google search for piano lessons in a random city. Given the ease of putting up websites, one would think a search like this would yield search results of all the tons of piano teachers who have websites. This is simply not the case. Let’s take Atlanta as a random example.
When I searched on 9/27/12 for “Atlanta piano lessons” on Google, I got a total of 13 matches on the first page of results. Not a single one of the results is a private piano teacher. Two of the results were bricks and mortar music stores that rent out studios to teachers and who therefore offer lessons. The other 11 results are places like inhomemusicteachers.com, takelessons.com, musikalessons.com, etc. These websites do not specialize in Atlanta piano lessons; they “specialize” in piano lessons everywhere. This isn’t exactly a “niche” market, although they would love for you to believe it is when you see their sites. You’ll find these same domains coming up in search results for pretty much any city in the U.S. For example:
- inhomemusicteachers.com has a subdomain for various areas, such as atlanta.inhomemusicteachers.com
- musikalessons.com has a webpage for each area such as
In other words, you’re still being connecting to the same website no matter which city you’re in. The only purpose of these subdomains and subpages is to make search engines and visitors unaware of the fact that these websites are nothing more than glorified national databases of teachers. They are NOT local websites.
So, is there only one private piano instructor in Atlanta who has their own website? Of course not. It’s just that the people running these directories know how to play the search engine game better than piano teachers do. Some of them even spend thousands of dollars per year in advertising. All of this search engine optimization and paid advertising bumps legitimate piano teachers down in web search results.
If you owned a piano store, and suddenly a bunch of “piano store referral” businesses started popping up on your street, constructing signs that are so big and tall that people can no longer even see your own store (and buying Yellow Page ads that are so numerous and large that you can’t afford to compete), how would you feel about paying these businesses for referrals? This is no different from paying the mafia for “protection” against themselves.
Adding insult to injury, the value of piano teacher referral services to consumers isn’t even high enough to be considered neutral – it is actually negative. Without these services, consumers would be connected directly to teachers’ websites. These services are doing nothing more than acting as an unnecessary middle man between students and teachers.
Somewhat recently, Google’s Flight Search Sparked Antitrust Fears. Using Google, people are now being directly connected to airline flights instead of going through middle men like Expedia or Kayak, and this is making these services very unhappy. Google is not competing with these services; Google is eliminating the need for them, because Google doesn’t connect you to themselves. Google connects you directly to the airlines, and Google doesn’t charge you for it. Ford motor vehicles eliminated the need for horse-drawn carriages. Did carriage companies sue Ford? I’m sure they were upset to be put out of business, but even they couldn’t dispute that society was being advanced by innovation. People adapt. Transaction fees are typically around $11 with services like Expedia and Kayak, but they’re only about $1 when done directly on the airline’s website. When the airline middle man industry says, “This is costing us billions,” remember that this is just a dysphemism for, “This societal evolution/adaptation is saving consumers billions.”
Even if all of these music teacher directories were free to everyone, they’d still be a disservice to the matchmaking process between student and teacher because of the middle man effect previously described. But it gets worse, because they’re not free. Most of these websites either charge teachers a monthly fee or a per-student referral fee for the disservice they are providing to society. Some of them even take a percentage of the tuition each month, which you might call an “eternal finders fee”. If such a referral were to produce a 10-year teaching relationship between student and teacher, this unnecessary middle man makes an untold number of hundreds or thousands of dollars because they did nothing more than connect two people together who probably would have been connected anyway had the Internet music teacher mafia never come into existence in the first place.
Some of these websites claim that setting up your own website is a daunting task, and that they level the playing field by making it so anyone can establish a web presence. This is not true – it is fearmongering. They don’t want you to know that Google Places allows any bricks and mortar business to easily establish a legitimate business identity that will show up when people search for piano teachers in a given area. Best of all, it’s tied in directly with Google Maps, so that when you search for “piano teacher” on Google Maps, you’ll instantly see a bunch of pins placed where all the nearest piano teachers are. Having a Google Place listing isn’t exactly a website, but it’s still an extremely powerful web presence for any business to have – arguably enough to justify not having a website at all.
We already added insult to injury, but let’s now add annoyance to insult. These piano teacher directories persuade teachers like you and me to sign up for their service by submitting our bio, profile, rate, etc. Suppose you signed up for 10 of these directories. Well, instead of just having your own single website to update to whenever you need to change your photo, teaching philosophy, address, etc., you now have ten. A simple three-minute task of updating your contact information becomes a major chore.
The real kicker? There is already a free nationwide database of teachers that is far superior to any of these services. And no, I’m not talking about Google, although Google and especially Google Maps certainly would qualify, wouldn’t they? I’m talking about a directory that, unlike other teacher directories, does not allow teachers to be listed unless they have met certain competency and professionalism standards. It is the “Find a Teacher” section of the MTNA Certification website. For-profit teacher directories have every incentive in the world to make it as easy as possible for every teacher (even those who are severely underqualified to teach) to be listed in their directories. This is not the case for the MTNA Certification directory, and in fact I’ve personally seen some teachers try and fail to get certified. It’s a process that encourages growth since teachers get feedback about what areas they need to work on.
There is also, of course, your local area’s music teachers association website (sometimes there is more than one, such as in my area which has both MTNA and NFMC presence), which very likely has a searchable database of teachers. Not all teachers found this way are MTNA Certified, but it is true that there are a lot of non-certified teachers who are still good teachers. Certified or not, the fact that a teacher joins an association at all already shows me that they do not wish to stagnate as a teacher, and that they’re confident enough in their teaching to expose their students to musical events that have others’ students in them (many teachers who don’t join associations unfortunately realize that they might lose students once in a while when their students are exposed to students of higher-level teachers, so they sacrifice long-term gains to themselves and their students for short-term bread and butter income). But I still like to strongly encourage teachers to certify.
My next article will discuss a second way that certain business-savvy “farmers” strive to turn independent music teachers into cows.