With all due respect to Meghan Trainor, it apparently isn’t “all about that bass.” Granted, she wasn’t talking about guitars, but we are.
Acoustics had a banner year in 2014, with sales—in terms of dollars—rising 4.6 percent versus the prior year, according to MI SalesTrak.
Electric guitar sales weren’t too shabby either, rising a strong 1.2 percent last year as compared to 2013. All in all, the guitar segment of the MI industry had a tremendous year in 2014, rising 3.1 percent, with more good things expected this year.
“Guitar sales continued to grow last year,” said Jim Hirschberg, President of MI SalesTrak. “Overall, dollar sales gained 3.1 percent in 2014. Electric guitars saw sales increase 1.2 percent. Acoustic sales continued to outpace electrics, showing growth of 4.6 percent.”
As for why guitars sold so well last year, hot product launches, a greatly improved U.S. unemployment rate, and low gas prices in the fall and winter are likely three of the top reasons. In fact, gas prices dipped below $2 per gallon in many states, enabling Americans to save millions in late 2014, as compared to what they’d paid at the pump just six months earlier.
Although some consumers might have used this newfound money to pay down debt or take a vacation, what’s better than spending that cash on something that can bring years of enjoyment…namely, a musical instrument?
Looking at guitars more closely, electrics accounted for 45.2 percent of all dollar sales last year, with acoustic-electrics accounting for 32.3 percent and acoustics for 22.5 percent. Hence, it’s important to point out that, although acoustic guitars by far account for the most growth in MI guitar sales, MI retailers saw many more dollars spent on electric guitars last year.
Shifting gears to color trends, black overtook sunburst in the last two months of 2014, but both remain quite popular with regard to electric guitars. Red ranked third in terms of electric guitar sales, but trailed the two aforementioned colors by a wide margin.
“In electric guitars, black is back,” said Hirschberg. “Sunbursts were more popular in eight of the past 12 months. But, in December, you couldn’t go wrong with basic black.”
Natural finish again ruled the day relative to acoustic guitar color trends, dramatically outselling sunburst and black, which placed second and third, respectively. All other colors were mere blips on the radar screen, with only blue and red accounting for more than one percent of all acoustic guitar sales last year.
“About three-quarters of acoustic guitars sold last year were in natural finish,” noted Hirschberg. “Sunburst was the second most popular, with black the number-three choice for acoustics.”
To better review 2014 and to look at the rest of 2015 in the ever-important guitar segment of the MI industry, The Music & Sound Retailer turned to three well-respected retailers: Mike Moser, Owner of Columbus Music, which has served the Columbus NE area for more than 60 years; Parker Daniels, Store Manager at Funky Munky Music, a full-service retailer founded in 2004 in Shawnee KS; and Jim DeStafney, Owner of Blues Angel Music, a stalwart in the Gulf Coast city of Pensacola FL.
Acoustic Is In Ascent
All the retailers we interviewed confirmed acoustic guitar sales were quite strong at their stores in 2014.
“We completed our first full year as a Taylor Guitars dealer and far exceeded our sales expectations with that brand,” noted DeStafney. “I’m kicking myself for not bringing them on sooner.” He continued, “Why are acoustic guitar sales so strong now? Certainly, they reflect the desire of the player to emulate what music he or she is listening to, or wants to play. Roots American music is very popular among the young. We’re situated in the Bible Belt, where there are literally hundreds of churches within a 20-mile radius. Many of them, if not most, have very active praise and worship bands, and many of those bands use multiple acoustic guitars.”
Daniels remarked that the economy was another main reason acoustic sales soared in 2014. “I think sales are trending up with the market as people have more expendable income,” he said. “The desire for the product has probably been present during the economic downturn of the last several years. Now that people are ‘catching up,’ though, they are able to act on those desires.”
There are some other reasons for the ascent of acoustic guitars, added Moser. “Lots of groups are playing them in videos and live situations…even in indie rock and ‘new country’ groups,” he responded. “In your living room, they sound good and they’re quick to pick up and play, without having to get out the amp and cable.”
As noted, although they did not see the same growth as acoustics did, electric guitar sales also had a solid year in 2014. Market conditions are a big factor when Columbus Music considers the ratio of electric guitars to acoustic guitars that it sells in its store.
“The acoustic-to-electric ratio for us has been about 90 percent/10 percent and, now, it’s gone to about 75 percent/25 percent,” said Moser. “I think that is a cyclical adjustment. For many years, electrics were king.”
No different from with acoustics, expendable income is huge, “but it’s also easier than ever to find your unique voice with electric guitar,” noted Daniels. “There are literally hundreds of boutique amp and pedal companies that make extremely affordable, high-quality and unique tone accessible. It’s just too easy to be unique and create your own voice with electric guitars not to.”
Bringing on the Fender electric guitar line was a major boon to electric guitar sales at Blues Angel Music. “We invested heavily in Squier and Fender electrics, and the sales exceeded our expectations,” said DeStafney. “It seems to be in vogue lately to ‘bash’ Fender. I’ve read about the dealers who have ‘fired Fender’ in the last year or two because they didn’t like their programs. My experience during our first year with Fender was extremely positive, and FMIC went above and beyond to help us get the ‘Fender ball rolling’ here at Blues Angel Music. There is still incredible power in the Fender brand and, so far, it has enhanced our electric guitar and amp sales.”
Online sales of electric guitars also helped the bottom line, DeStafney continued, with his store having achieved double-digit growth for electric guitar sales via its eBay store.
All retailers whom The Retailer interviewed agreed that, overall, 2014 was a solid year in terms of guitar sales. Sales of Taylor Guitars instruments rocked in the Kansas City area, where Funky Munky is based, recalled Daniels.
“The Taylor 200 Series guitars are always a huge winner in our store,” he said. “It’s a great price-point-to-value ratio and it seems like beginners can always stretch their budget for a name like Taylor. Musicians looking for another acoustic think it’s a high enough quality guitar for the price to be ‘just another’ guitar in their arsenal.”
Taylor guitars also struck gold at Blues Angel Music, DeStafney reemphasized. “We had a particularly strong sales year with Taylor, as well as Eastman acoustics and electrics, and very strong sales with Fender acoustics and Squier electrics,” he said. “All Taylor models—from the Baby Taylor to the new 800 Series guitars—sold very well. The GS Mini was virtually impossible to keep in stock this year. Ditto guitars (and mandolins) from Eastman. Eastman is one of those brands that does extremely well both in the store and online…. We’re also big fans of Gretsch guitars and plan on increasing our Gretsch Electromatic and Pro Series inventory in the coming year.”
Moser doesn’t track guitars separately from other combo sales, but he suspects guitar sales were up slightly. “Our bestsellers were the Seagull Rustic Series and the Yamaha Gigmaker solid-top packs in acoustics,” he recalled. “Assorted Les Paul-style electrics under $200 were also excellent sellers. We also closed out some ‘famous name’ guitars, because buying 150 guitars a year wasn’t enough to keep them happy.”
NAMM Show’s Best
The NAMM Show is often the best place to learn about the hot new guitar products set to hit the market. This year was no different. All three retailers plan to make purchases of products they saw at the big January show.
“One of the most exciting new products I saw at NAMM was the totally redesigned 600 Series guitars from Taylor,” DeStafney stated. “This is conceptually similar to the complete redesign done by Andy Powers on the 800 Series models last year. The science behind it is amazing, and the fact that Taylor is seeking a way to make maple a more universally appealing tonewood, thereby reducing the ‘stress’ of excessive harvesting of rosewood forests, is itself commendable.” He continued, “I was also blown away by the DigiTech Trio. This is an astounding ‘band in a box’-type pedal.”
Ibanez had some cool new finishes and good price points in the Talman Series, Moser recalled. “We will be stocking up on Ibanez and Yamaha,” he added.
Daniels added that he also found boutique guitars and amps to be of specific interest. “Brands like Supro Amps and Morgan Amps are making unbelievably good tone really accessible,” he enthused.
2015 In Focus
Thus far, MI retailers are optimistic about 2015 in terms of guitar sales. To enhance sales even more, Moser is changing up his approach.
“So far this year, we are up a bit over last year, but we could still do better,” he emphasized. ”We will be diversifying a bit away from the Strat-style emphasis we’ve had for the last 40 years.”
Daniels added that he is definitely optimistic about guitar sales this year. “I think there is a combination of pent-up ‘spending angst’ from the last few years, along with the fact that there is a plethora of exciting and quality instruments being made right now,” he said. “From exciting redesigns of known brands like Taylor’s 800 and 600 Series guitars to new(er) or new-to-the-scene companies, like Reverend Guitars, putting out awesome gear, to pedal makers like Strymon and EarthQuaker Devices making your instruments more fun to play, it seems like there is a lot more to be excited about than ever before.”
DeStafney concluded that he is excited about guitar sales not only for 2015, but also for the next several years. However, he does have one concern: the aging of Baby Boomers. He jokingly noted that he is one of the “gray-haired” musicians who belong to that group.
“I think one of the reasons the guitar market has stayed robust is the fact that players today don’t have just one or two guitars,” he said. “They have six or eight or 10 guitars…acoustic and electric. Will the next generation have the same habit? Time will tell.”
The Owner of Blues Angel Music added that he is a big fan of Taylor Guitars’ “Find Your Fit” and “Roadshow” programs, and that he’d love to see more manufacturers adopt those marketing models. “In my opinion, a strong lessons program is essential in order to have strong in-store guitar sales,” he opined. “We are growing our guitar lessons program as much as possible. Hiring superior teachers is essential to the longevity of your guitar students, who are also guitar gear customers…now and, potentially, for years to come.”
He continued, “Finally, this month is International Guitar Month. We’re planning on a strong social media blitz, a series of weekend guitar-maintenance seminars and a series of free group guitar lessons. We have a similar ukulele lesson series that has been hugely successful in creating new customers.”
And it would be hard to argue that anything is more crucial, in terms of achieving a strong, growing guitar market, than creating the customers of tomorrow.