Fifth-generation sheet music business thrives in Dayton

Well before iTunes — and just barely after phonographs came into use — Lorenz Corp. was making sheet music in Dayton.

People are sometimes surprised to learn that the fifth-generation family business is still actively printing and shipping sheet music out of its historic brick building at 501 E. Third St., and assume the Lorenz name painted on the side is a remnant from the past.

“Sometimes I’ll be going to Dayton Beer Company and I’ll hear people say ‘I wonder what they do in there now?’ Same thing we’ve always done,” said Kris Kropff, Lorenz president of music publishing.

CEO Reiff Lorenz said the Dayton sheet music business, which dates back to 1890, has had several major transformations over the years including when World War I broke out.

“For most of our music, the lyrics were in German and suddenly nobody wanted anything to be sung in German,” Lorenz said. “It’s easy to look at the modern day and say ‘how will digital distribution affect a publishing company?’ But you have to look back and realize that every generation faced challenges and had business transformations that needed to be addressed.”

The company has more than 20,000 different musical works as products and employs about 70 employees in Dayton and 15 Nashville.

The vertically-integrated company works with composers, edits, records demos, prints sheet music, designs the cover art, warehouses, and distributes to churches, schools and retailers. Lorenz also distributes for third parties.

Since around 1940, Lorenz has been at its current home along East Third Street, across from The Cannery and next to St. John’s United Church of Christ. On a tour of the five-story building, the journey of their product was on display as Lorenz showed a small recording studio for certain demos, creatively decorated offices where the designers sit, and a humming press spitting out eight pages a second, surrounded by giant spools of printer paper as well as digital printing equipment.

Both Kropff and Lorenz joked about how they sometimes lose track of what year it is, since in their world they are always advance planning so churches and schools can have months of rehearsals ahead of a holiday.

“We’re shipping for Christmas, and manufacturing for Easter and editorially planning for Christmas of 2020,” Lorenz said.

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The composers the company works with aren’t household names, but they are known to their customers, who are often seeking out works by specific composers.

“They want a Mary McDonald or a Lloyd Larson,” said Kropff, giving examples of composers.

The stair well is lined with copies of church music produced by Lorenz over the last 130 years and the first floor shows family photos of different generations who led Lorenz, starting with founder E.S. Lorenz, a German Baptist and circuit preacher who expanded from writing music to publishing a successful music magazine that the business was built on.

Lorenz has grown over the years and is renovating its building now to make more room. Two years ago, the company acquired Nashville-based Word Music & Church Resources, which expanded the company into serving Evangelical churches.

He said the speed of business has increased and some businesses are starting to cross industry lines, which can shake up the supply chain and the competitive landscape. Retailers are dabbling in publishing. Some composers are using the internet to directly market, publish and sell.

“That’s a big part of our business is proving to the composers that we can create value for them and showing the customer that we’re the best place to look to buy,” Lorenz said.

But there are also things that have stayed the same.

“The biggest use for the digital downloads in choirs is directors who want a sample and want to preview it, or where you’ve got a 30 member choir and rehearsal coming up and then one person joins and you need more copies,” he said. “We’re not seeing choir switch to digital music very quickly.”

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