In keeping with the November issue’s focus on accessories, bags and cases, The Retailer sought out a particularly successful accessories manufacturer for this month’s “Five Minutes With” interview. In securing a one-on-one conversation with Brian Ball, President of Ernie Ball Inc.—maker of strings, picks, straps, guitar hardware and more—we definitely hit the mark. It’s an incredibly exciting time in the Ernie Ball universe, what with a product portfolio expansion, numerous marketing and branding initiatives, and merchandising and sales programs that should pay dividends with respect to both dealers and end customers. In short, it’s the perfect time to delve into the details of how Ernie Ball grew and developed, where the company is now and where it’s heading in the future. Brian Ball, who became President this past January but who’s spent a lifetime in the music products industry, is very forthcoming about why—more so now than ever before—Ernie Ball is a company to watch.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Let’s begin with your background. Trace your family history, as well as your personal history, with musical instruments, music products and making music. Touch on what initially captured your attention. During your earliest years, what steps did you take to pursue that initial interest?
Brian Ball: I’ve always had a great deal of pride in, and passion for, the company my grandfather Ernie created and that, to a large degree, my father Sterling built. From a young age, it was normal to have artists and industry icons in our living room. It was a fascinating and really exciting time, especially when I was in high school in the early-mid ’90s. We were making both Eddie van Halen and Steve Lukather’s signature models and, between the two of them, they were the equivalent of the guitar rat pack in Los Angeles. Especially “Luke,” who is as connected as any player in L.A. with actors and other musicians. Looking back on it, I probably didn’t pinch myself enough, considering what my surroundings were. I thought it was normal, but I also knew that the artists who supported our family were special. I’ve been hooked ever since.
I got my start through osmosis, to a degree, learning from my dad. I remember, as a kid, I would eavesdrop on his phone calls with artists, dealers and suppliers. (He was on the phone a lot!) There is not a better mentor I could have asked for than my dad. He’s an incredible leader, product designer, entrepreneur and marketer. My start with the company was at 13 years old with my first job. I was measuring the diameter and thickness of the strings with a micrometer. I loved that my dad and grandpa made my brothers and me start on the production floor and work our way up through the ranks only after we’d mastered the process of manufacturing our products. Next was the volume pedal assembly line. Eventually, I moved over to the shipping department, which gave me a great understanding of the velocity of our products, both domestic and international.
After high school, I went to Foothill College in northern California, then Cal Poly to get my degree in marketing. Shortly after college, I moved back and went on the Vans Warped Tour, and I did some artist relations and product promotion alongside our longtime Artist Relations Director, Derek Brooks. That’s when I found my niche within the company and my passion for marketing and artist relations. I started coordinating and running most all of our marketing in my mid-to-late- 20s. And, eventually, I started overseeing product development and most of our key sales accounts into my 30s. Early this year, I became President, with my father Sterling serving as CEO.
The Retailer: Ernie Ball is clearly a well established and well respected company. Tell us a bit about its founding, history and development. Is the company markedly different today as compared to how it was in, say, the ’70s and ’80s?
Ball: Ernie was a true pioneer on a lot of fronts: not just manufacturing rock ‘n’ roll guitar strings, but also creating the model that is still followed to this day in selling and merchandising guitar strings. He began as a guitar player turned retailer. He finished the Korean War and, like most people leaving the war, he had to figure out what he was going to do. He had a passion for the guitar, and he played in bands around the area. He was the lead guitar player for KTLA 5, a news channel in Los Angeles, when they actually played live jingles before going on air. Eventually, he opened his own guitar retail shop. At the time, big band was prevalent in popular music, but he didn’t want to sell horns, reeds and clarinets. He wasn’t passionate about that. So, he opened the first guitar-only shop in Southern California.
There was probably a reason he was the first! [Laughs.] Guitar hadn’t crossed over yet. This was pre-Beatles invasion, and people just weren’t interested in buying guitars at the time. He went bankrupt three times, before he landed in Tarzana CA, opening a teaching studio in the back of a guitar store. At that time, his shop in Tarzana gained popularity among artists like The Ventures and Merle Haggard, who came to Ernie to have their guitars set up. Over time, as guitar started to become a more prominent voice as a lead instrument in music, and as the popularity of the instrument grew, he noticed that the kids he was teaching—kids who wanted to learn these songs—didn’t have the strength or the dexterity in their fingers to do it. So, he set out to make a lighter-gauge guitar string. He was really close with Leo Fender and he pitched the idea to him and a few other companies that were making strings at the time. Thankfully, they all said it was an average idea, and he should just do it himself.
He started private labeling banjo strings in packs of Ernie Ball rock ‘n’ roll guitar strings. That’s how Slinkys were born. Over the next few years, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend and Jeff Beck started playing Ernie’s Slinky strings. When Bud Eastman created Guitar Player magazine in 1967, Ernie then had a medium and artists to promote his product, enabling him to close his store and focus on being a manufacturer. Fast-forward more than 50 years and, through the ingenuity of my grandfather and the dedication of my dad, my brothers and the Ernie Ball family, we’re proud to be one of the most successful and respected manufacturers in the music industry. We manufacture millions of guitar strings for players around the world, including guitar icons like Page and Clapton, who helped make Ernie strings a staple.
The Retailer: When you look at Ernie Ball as a company, what would you say you’re the proudest of right now? What makes the company stand apart not only from direct competitors in your product categories and market segments, but also from companies in the broader MI industry? What’s the “secret sauce” at Ernie Ball?
Ball: My grandfather was a maverick. He strived to be innovative in everything he did, from his iconic dayglo packing, marketing and brand identity, to developing a range of pioneering products that gave musicians the tools they needed to be successful. What I’m most proud of is that we’ve been able to continue his passion by continuing to develop new products, patents and technologies that, 50 years later, are pushing the boundaries of what players can expect from a guitar string, guitar, accessory or amplifier. Plus, they’re still made right here in California, by the Ball family, where Ernie started it all. I like to think that he’d be proud.
Employees at work at the Music Man factory.
The Retailer: In recent years, a large number of dealers have told me that the accessories product category has become their single most important money-making category. Ernie Ball, as a company known for strings, as well as picks, straps, guitar hardware and more, would seem to be in a perfect position to capitalize on that. Do you agree that accessories are in ascendance?
Ball: Definitely. Now more than ever, accessories are vital to retailers, as they are a traffic-driving mechanism. We all know e-commerce has been one of the biggest, if not the biggest, shifts in the music business in the last decade. For brick-and-mortar retailers to keep bodies coming through their doors, they need to ensure they’ve stocked a wide selection of everyday, low-cost consumables, such as strings, picks, straps, cables and general accessories. Customers often want these items in hand and prefer to avoid shipping fees and wait times, which can be inconvenient. Retailers also have much more flexibility to be promotionally active with accessories than with a $1,500 or $3,000 instrument, especially given high velocity of turn. Ernie Ball Slinkys, Volume Pedals, PolyPro Straps and others move really, really, really fast. So, the frequency with which customers are buying these products helps retailers with one of their biggest challenges, that being traffic.
The Retailer: Are there any new initiatives or efforts—whether they’re to do with the company itself or maybe an exciting product launch—that Ernie Ball has recently undertaken? Is there any major news in Ernie Ball’s orbit that you’d like to discuss?
Ball: A big goal of mine the past eleven months has been to develop a long-term strategy for the company and build our team to be as strong as it can be. We’ve made some huge strides this year, which is positioning us to do some really big things. Bringing on industry veteran Dustin Hinz as our head of marketing has been a big boost to the company, and it’s given us another leader with huge aspirations. On the product side, it is difficult not to divulge too much, but we’re continuing to be the leader in string innovation, in addition to building out our product assortment on the accessory side. There is going to be a greatly expanded portfolio on the accessory, guitar, amplifier and new product side for Ernie Ball, in addition to continuing our path of innovation in strings. (Ernie Ball has been granted three patents on guitar strings over the last four years.)
On the marketing front, we’ve recently launched an “iPlaySlinky” campaign that features some of our most iconic and influential endorsees, including Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page, Metallica, St. Vincent, Slash, Angus Young, Brad Paisley and more. It’s by far our most ambitious and noteworthy brand campaign. What I love most is how our customers can participate in the campaign by crafting their own iPlaySlinky ad on our Web site. Those artists and relationships speak to the power of our brand, our product quality and the affinity we’ve created with artists who consider themselves members of our family.
Ernie Ball Music Man is entering an exciting new era, with a recommitment to a brand, marketing and product-development campaign built to drive growth and interest in the line. We’ve recently teased the introduction of the two new guitar models—the Cutlass and Sting Ray—which are original Tom Walker and Leo Fender Music Man body designs, reimagined by our award-winning engineering team. They have fused the innovation and craftsmanship Ernie Ball is known for with the classic Music Man designs. New models for that will broaden the appeal of the Ernie Ball Music Man line and give our dealers another high-quality instrument that’s priced to move.
We also recently launched a signature model with Grammy-winning artist St. Vincent, who is the first female artist to design a completely new body style. We have Hunter Hayes and Joe Walsh Cutlass artist series models in the works, as well as others that will arm us with the artist brand power and products to reach a new set of customers. On the bass side, next year marks the 40th anniversary of the Sting Ray bass, which we will commemorate with a unique model that celebrates one of the most iconic instruments of all time.
All this comes with two new Web sites next year, a loyalty program, a recommitment to our dealers and a slew of other marketing, merchandising and sales programs that will continue to generate demand among millions of players around the world. 2016 is going to be a phenomenal year here at Ernie Ball.
The Retailer: Discuss Ernie Ball’s commitment to the brick-and-mortar MI store channel. Is working collaboratively with brick-and-mortar music dealers a key part of Ernie Ball’s bedrock, fundamental approach to doing business? Expound on your dealer-focused philosophy.
Ball: Our roots as a company are as an independent, brick-and-mortar retail store, and we haven’t lost sight of that. We’ve watched the trend of buying online grow, and we’ve made a concerted effort to make sure our core dealer base has an equal opportunity to succeed. I watch pricing in the marketplace closely, and I try to ensure our products are positioned in a way that allows all dealers to profit. It’s a tough and competitive marketplace on the string side. Some brands discount heavily online with strings. That’s unsustainable for the brand, but also unfair to smaller retail stores. I have zero interest in that, and it’s a conflict of interest for us to be the cheapest string on the wall. We can’t market Ernie Ball strings as the pioneer—the strings the legends choose to play—and be positioned as a cheap or discounted product.
Personally, I don’t think there’s ever going to be a replacement for the experience you get when you walk into a music shop, pick up a guitar and plug it in. When you get to feel the neck, weight and balance of an instrument and get to survey the different accessories you might want to buy. As a consumer, I still love that experience of going into a brick-and-mortar store. I also love the feeling I get when I buy local. So, fundamentally, for me, it funnels all the way down to our dealers. It’s not just corporate speak. We really, truly create a fair playing field. We are very connected not only to chain brick-and-mortar, but also to independent brick-and-mortar. That channel will always be a huge priority for us, because I don’t think it’s going away. I’m not alone in thinking that customers are always going to want to have that experience, because it’s an exciting experience.
The Retailer: Is there anything the dealer channel could do that would be helpful to Ernie Ball as a company? Do you have any suggestions for the dealer channel that would help retailers, in addition to helping your own company?
Ball: The most important question to ask yourself is this: “How best can you connect with your customer and entangle them in your experience?” Price and selection are important, of course, but experience is king: from the guitar-selection process, to the expert staff that helps customers navigate the endless options, to programs that help them further their passions (such as community events where they can meet other like-minded players). Guitar is just like any other passion-driven business, from motorcycles to skateboards. How many times have you driven by a local skate park packed with kids, adults and families, or a local Sunday motorcycle meet up? These activities, like guitar, are passion- and community-driven. So, if you give players a reason to play, you’ll see your business grow and you’ll generate some invaluable goodwill.
Some dealers, such as Chicago Music Exchange, are doing an incredible job on the experience side. It’s a comfortable, unique experience when you walk in their store…from the rugs, to the couches, to the hardwood floors, to the way they light guitars. They’ve created an experience that compels you to pick up a guitar. They’ve also done an exceptional job of delivering their experience online through product content, which has expanded their reach globally at a minimal expense.
We need retailers to put the same effort into their retail experiences that we put into developing products and brands. All good manufacturers are working to drive interest in their products to serve both dealers and themselves. But, ultimately, they rely to a large extent on the dealer to craft the final customer experience. It’s why I’m putting a big focus on developing merchandising that helps improve that experience at the local level.
The Retailer: What does the future hold for Ernie Ball? What can company-watchers expect over the next year…five years…10 years?
Ball: Growth. I have an ambitious plan over the next one, three and five years. On the intellectual-property side, sales programming, content, promotions, merchandising and product assortment, we’re going to create opportunities for consumers and retailers to experience the power of the brand and the products we create. We’re telling a big brand and product story, and growing our share of voice and shelf.
The Retailer: You’re someone who has been associated with music essentially since birth, and you’ve been affiliated with Ernie Ball since you were a teenager. With that in mind, what keeps you motivated and engaged? What makes you excited to get up and go to the office?
Ball: Every morning, I walk up the stairs to my office past a large Ernie Ball eagle with my grandpa’s name on it, and it reminds me of the legacy I’m upholding. So, when I work on a product or marketing campaign, I know I’m putting my family’s last name on something that we need to be proud of and stand behind. I’m incredibly protective of preserving the legacy my family has built. Secondly, I’m not content with the status quo. I push myself and the team to innovative, improve and discover new ideas, technologies and tools that can grow our business. I’m not content with just selling Slinkys. They’re an integral part of what our company was built on, and I’m proud of that, but I’m not going to sit back and be fat and happy with what we’ve done. I’m focused on where we’re going next.
The Retailer: Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask about, which you’d like to discuss?
Ball: Making products in California has gotten substantially more difficult over time. It’s in our DNA to be here. This is where my grandfather founded our company, and it’s where my dad and my brothers call home. I certainly don’t want to go anywhere. So, it’s a commitment of mine to discover ways to ensure that doesn’t change, like investing in new robotic technology that helps keep American-made products competitively priced. I take a great deal of pride in the fact that we are responsible for employing over 500 families in California, and we’re developing products that are made in the U.S.A. for musicians. I don’t have any interest in, or passion for, making products overseas and then waiting for the container to come in.