One positive of the pandemic was a wave of new guitar players, with dollar sales rising an incredible 15 percent.

The COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, been incredibly unfortunate for many reasons. The past year has seen a staggering number of deaths caused by the coronavirus, and in addition to the sheer amount of lives lost, we have also lost so much about our daily lives that we had previously taken for granted. The pandemic has also had a devastating effect on many aspects of the economy, both in the U.S. and around the globe.

This economic devastation has included many segments of retail. MI retail has not been immune, hit by school rental declines, a drop in sales of live music equipment and more. But, if you’re looking for a bright spot in all this darkness, guitars must be mentioned first. Stated simply, the guitar segment is on fire. Overall guitar sales in terms of dollars rose by 15 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, according to MI SalesTrak. And this increase is even more impressive when considering overall dollar sales rose 5.1 percent in 2019 vs. 2018 and 5.3 percent in 2018 vs. 2017, according to MI SalesTrak.

Perhaps as impressive is that sales of guitars do not appear to be slowing down. January 2021 was yet another banner month in terms of dollar sales. “2020 started out with guitar sales growing early in the year. Then in March, with the pandemic rolling out across the country, sales tanked,” Jim Hirschberg, president of MI SalesTrak, told the Music & Sound Retailer. “But at the same time, consumer data showed that people who were locked down at home were starting to spend more on hobbies, including music. And starting in April, the retail point-of-sale data began to show big gains for musical instruments that could be played at home in isolation. While other ‘play-at-home’ instruments including keyboards saw sales take off, guitars stood out for their explosive growth. MI SalesTrak reported 2020 dollar sales of guitars up 15 percent, the highest year-over-year increase we’ve seen in our nearly 20 years of reporting. And, as of early this year, the surge in guitar sales is continuing.”

Looking at the 2020 data month by month in terms of dollar sales and in comparison to the same month in 2019, January 2020 saw an overall guitar sales increase of 4.1 compared to the same period a year prior, and February enjoyed a 15.7 percent increase (as the chart on page 24 shows). Then, in March 2020, when shutdowns occurred throughout the country, overall guitar sales dropped by 11.3 percent vs. March 2019. A turnover occurred in April when year-over-year overall guitar sales increased by 5.6 percent. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. May and June of 2020 were likely two of the greatest months in the history of guitar sales, with overall dollar sales increasing year over year by 39.9 percent and 40.8 percent, respectively.

The remainder of 2020 was extremely impressive as well. On a year-over-year basis, overall dollar sales rose by 25 percent in July, 12.1 percent in August, 19.7 percent in September, 18.1 percent in October, 7.4 percent in November and 13 percent in December. January 2021’s aforementioned great start specifically enjoyed an overall guitar sales increase of 26.4 percent vs. January 2020.

“While retailers experienced difficulties with store closings in the Spring of last year, they were quick to ramp up their online marketing. And guitar enthusiasts, from beginners to high-end collectors, responded by clicking the ‘Buy Now’ button. Like comfort food, people were craving guitars,” said Hirschberg. “Production and supply-chain issues caused some spot shortages. But a byproduct of that was that dealers had an unprecedented opportunity to clear out their existing inventory.”

In terms of dollar sales by type, 2020 saw electric guitar sales increase slightly compared to their acoustic and acoustic-electric brethren. Electric sales came in at 48 percent of all guitar sales in terms of dollars, according to MI SalesTrak, with acoustic (no pickup) achieving 18.6 percent of sales and acoustic/electric accounting for 33.2 percent of sales. This compares to 45.9 percent for electric sales in 2019, 19.9 for acoustic guitars and 34.2 percent for acoustic/electric. We should point out, though, that, as the chart in this story shows, 2020’s dollar sales in terms of type of guitar were highly similar compared to 2018’s results.

In terms of acoustic guitar unit share color trends, natural was the dominant color throughout 2020 and January 2021. At its lowest point in November 2020, natural finishes accounted for 72.5 percent of all acoustic guitar unit sales. Natural reached a zenith at 80 percent, or four of every five acoustic guitars sold, in August 2020. Sunburst was a distant second, ranging from 11.5 percent to 15.7 percent of all acoustic guitar units sold depending on the month. Sunburst was at its nadir in September and its plateau in November. Black came in third, ranging from 4.5 percent of all unit sales to 7.5 percent of unit sales.

Conversely, black was quite popular in terms of electric guitar unit share trends. For the 13-month period presented in this article from January 2020 and January 2021, black finished only slightly behind sunburst. However, according to MI SalesTrak, black accounted for the most electric guitar units sold in November and
December 2020 as well as January 2021, accounting for 19.6 percent, 22.5 percent and 20.2 percent, respectively, during this period. Black was also No. 1 in terms of unit sales in April 2020, when it achieved 18.6 percent of sales vs. 18.4 percent for sunburst.

Blue placed third in electric guitar unit sales, ranging from 10.8 percent to 14.3 percent of all sales. “For electric guitars in particular, we’ve noticed an uptick in blue and black guitars, perhaps fitting the mood of the pandemic,” said Hirschberg.

The Manufacturer Viewpoint

Now that we took a look at the data, let’s get the word of some guitar manufacturers. We asked several questions of our panel, which includes Tammy Van Donk, executive vice president of sales, Americas and EMEA, Fender; Ernie Lansford, head of U.S. operations, Tagima; Jaqueline Renner, president of C.F. Martin & Co.; and Evan Rubinson, CEO and president, Armadillo Enterprises.

Let’s start with manufacturers’ take on guitar sales in 2020. “Yes, 2020 was an excellent year for guitar sales,” said Van Donk. “We experienced the highest demand growth in our fretted instrument product lines than any time in our history. People were at home, and we heard them loud and clear. They wanted to learn a new skill, and playing guitar is where many of them turned. While entry-level product performed extremely well, we also experienced double-digit demand growth in higher price points like our Fender Custom Shop products. Our omni-channel and ecommerce-only dealers reported the greatest growth happening through online transactions. I think consumer behavior is still shifting, and having access to a much broader selection of product online is making it easier for consumers to say yes to the purchase.”

“Yes, 2020 was excellent for guitar sales for all brands from our perspective,” responded Lansford. “In the end, the brands with inventory served their dealers best.”

“At Martin, demand for our guitars and strings skyrocketed in 2020, but due to government mandates, we had to shut down production for nearly three months, making it difficult to keep up with the increased demand. And when we did get back up and running, we faced challenges in ramping up our manufacturing while keeping our colleagues safe during the pandemic,” said Renner. “With everyone sheltering at home, we saw a marked increase in guitar playing. Whether it was a distraction, a way to relax, or a way to unplug from constant Zoom calls and screen time, more people picked up an acoustic guitar than ever before. In addition, we found that many people who were forced to cancel their vacation plans put that money toward a new guitar. We also saw how many artists were writing music and streaming live acoustic performances from their homes. And the instrument of choice appeared to be the acoustic guitar, which likely influenced budding artists. The living room became the new stage. And, in response, we created the Jam in Place social media concert series to share these great performances by Martin players, and in the year since it launched, it has become incredibly popular.”

“It certainly was an unexpectedly great year for the music industry, and we were no exception. Our sales, across Dean Guitars, Luna Guitars and ddrum, were up 23 percent in 2020, and the trend is continuing even stronger into 2021. I think a big part of this trend is attributable to people seeking a silver lining within what was, and still
is, a very difficult period,” stated Rubinson. “Not much travel, not much going out to dinner, not many fun activities for people to look forward to and fill their time with. There’s only so much Netflix you can watch. So I think that a lot of novices decided it was a good time to learn, aficionados took the opportunity to hone-in their talents, and parents tried to encourage their kids to do something more stimulating than just playing video games and watching TV all day. Despite the effects of this terrible pandemic, I am really encouraged to see so many people focusing on playing music.”

As mentioned, a lot of the growth came from new guitar players. But now that MI has added these players, how, as an industry, can we keep these people playing guitars once we achieve a post-pandemic period?

“I raised this question internally at our company a few times over the past year because I think it’s very important to be realistic with forecasts and expectations,” answered Rubinson. “I do think there will be some drop off in musical instrument sales and demand as the global economy gradually opens back up with travel, brick-and-mortar shopping, and dining. That being said, although we are prepared for a potential correction going into 2022 as the vaccine rollout continues, we have seen no signs of a slowdown throughout the first quarter of 2021.”

“The best way to ensure that the new players continue to play post-pandemic is to keep them engaged,” said Renner. “Providing more ways to learn and improve, giving them a community to interact with, and delivering excellent customer service can help turn the newcomers into repeat customers. We are also excited for the return of live music, so anyone that made a purchase in 2020 can see their favorite artists playing those instruments on stage once again. And finally, for Martin, we cannot wait to be able to welcome visitors back to our Nazareth facility for factory and museum tours. There is no better way to connect with our instruments than to see how they’re made.”

“New technology like YouTube and other social media platforms are commonplace now,” answered Lansford. “Dealers with teaching studios should offer YouTube teaching classes, master classes and other relevant issues to keep players engaged. We encourage dealers to build deep long-lasting relationships with their new customers (new players) to keep them engaged with their store as well as set the stage for upgraded instruments (similar to band and orchestra step-up horn programs). Guitars always need accessories too. Then there’s the effects pedal opportunity for increased sales. The idea is to think long term vs. clerking or seeing a new customer as a one-time transaction. We encourage our dealers to build a monthly outgoing ’things to know’ email to their customers. Incentivize the customer to opt in by giving them a set of strings at the time of their first purchase. Music instrument sales, in general should be viewed as multiple transactions rather than one and done.”

“The Fender Play Through free offer we launched about a year ago introduced more than one million new players to our digital lessons,” said Van Donk. “We recognized this needed to happen to help new players on this learning journey. We also developed our New Player Gear Guide to help select the right guitar if they happened to be a first-time buyer. New subscribers are joining Fender Play and remaining active every day. We see Fender Play as a critical intersect to this engagement in a post-pandemic world, and it’s totally aligned with our mission of creating lifelong players.”

Having all these new guitar players is truly fantastic. But at the risk of sounding greedy, how can MI add even more new players to the marketplace? “The $1 million question for sure,” stated Lansford. “Word of mouth always works. YouTube allows anyone to be a rock star even with two subscribers. Dealers should consider encouraging their new players to make a YouTube video or social media post about how much fun they are having playing their guitar. Determine how to ’sponsor’ the post to add a logo.”

“We are doubling down on our investments in Fender Play,” said Van Donk. “We saw tremendous interest in learning guitar in 2021, and we don’t see this trend slowing down. Hence, we are going to invest even more in Fender Play. We are also encouraging our dealers to invest in the beginner-oriented product we present in our New Player Gear Guide so we can direct consumers to their online and physical stores.”

“We have seen an increase in female players and are working to make sure women and girls are celebrated and featured in our media and on our website,” stated Renner. “Ensuring our content is inclusive will help eliminate that intimidation some women feel when they consider playing guitar. We have also created some amazing entry-level instruments with a focus on playability that makes learning so much easier. In addition, we are expanding our line of ukuleles. Ukes are fun to play and a great gateway to the guitar.”

“Retaining the players that we have gained during the pandemic and adding even more new players are somewhat intertwined,” noted Rubinson. “Separate of COVID-19, there has been a subtle paradigm shift toward more and more people playing music at home, and as an industry, we have to understand that. The inspiration behind people picking up an instrument in the ‘80s and ‘90s was stadium rock bands, guitar heroes and the allure of the rock star lifestyle. Up-and-coming musicians nowadays have slightly different motivations and influences: learning how to play a solo on YouTube, taking a virtual lesson with their guitar hero on Zoom, ‘attending’ a virtual NAMM show or concert. Despite being a pretty traditional industry, I believe it’s imperative that we adapt to what younger generations demand so the art of playing music doesn’t fall by the wayside.”

Moving Forward

As we look ahead to what we all hope is a post-pandemic future, we began by asking our panelists to describe some of their companies’ recent product launches.

“At NAMM this year, we launched the 00L Earth Guitar, which is the first acoustic guitar that is both 100-percent FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)-certified and 100-percent plasticfree. It features a stunning artistic rendering of the Earth on the top, reminding us all of the goal of sustainability: protecting our planet. And I’m proud to say that even the gig bag is sustainable,” said Renner. “Martin has been making ukuleles for 114 years, and in fact, were the first company in the U.S. to produce them. This year, we added three new ukes to our lineup: the 0XK Ukulele, the T1 StreetMaster Ukulele and a 100-FSC-certified Concert Ukulele. The fun, lighthearted sounds from ukuleles bring joy whenever they are played, and who couldn’t use a little more joy in this challenging time?”

“We released a widely varied assortment of new products covering multiple categories and price points,” noted Van Donk. “There’s the new Acoustasonic Jazzmaster (see “Under the Hood” in the March 2021 issue) with great new sounds and design, the highly collectible 75th anniversary guitar and bass models, and the already-in-high-demand Mustang Micro headphone amp with Bluetooth streaming capabilities. In addition, we launched several signature models, as well as the Ultra Luxe guitars, featuring stainless-steel frets. There’s truly something for every type of customer!”

“This year has been a huge year for our company in terms of new product releases,” relayed Rubinson. “The standouts for the Dean brand include the new Exile in satin black with Fishman Fluence pickups, the Kerry King signature V, and the Zero and Vengeance models, complete with stainless-steel frets, Evertune and Floyd options, and light-upside dot markers. The limited-edition Kerry King V has been one of the most indemand guitars we have ever seen, so I’m really glad we can finally release an affordable, high-quality import version.

“On the Luna front, we recently launched the Vineyard series of ukuleles, which is our crème de la crème, high end concert and tenor models with a solid koa top, Fishman’s Kula preamp, and a nice bevel for comfortability,” continued Rubinson. “We also released a variant on our ultra-popular Vista series, called the Vista Stallion. This design concept spans ukuleles, travel guitars and full-sized acoustics. As for ddrum, we have placed a renewed focus on the electronics line with a new five-piece mesh-head e-kit, a new sampling multi-pad, and a facelift for our iconic triggers and trigger interfaces, all to be available later this summer.”

“We had a total revamp of our Tagima Acoustic Series. It offers improved quality with walnut back and sides that appear to be rosewood (each guitar is clearly labeled with walnut back and sides), lower pricing on Canada Solid Top Acoustics ($299.99 MAP, no EQ version), and the new Café Series solid top, back and sides with Fishman Infinity EQ system,” said Lansford.

Lastly, let’s get our respondents’ take on their main goals for the remainder of 2021 as well as the future, when we hope to move on from this pandemic.

“Our No. 1 goal for 2021 is to keep our employees safe as we expand production. After that, we are working feverishly to catch up to demand for both guitars and strings, and we continue to work to expand on our sustainability initiatives,” relayed Renner.

“I have stressed the importance of adaptation within our company during this pandemic,” said Rubinson. “No one truly knows what the remainder of 2021, and into 2022, looks like, but I believe there is always opportunity, irrespective of circumstance. We have pivoted in certain areas and expenditures to better meet the current needs of our partners, consumers and artists alike. That, to me, is a very important part of running a company in any industry. After a record month in January, we are looking forward to carrying that momentum forward into the remainder of 2021.”

“Our primary goal this year will be to continue supporting our retailer network with bestin-class sales support, product innovation for committed players and an expanded commitment to bringing more players into the industry through Fender play. We believe this will grow our industry and drive the purchase of physical products,” said Van Donk. “We are also uber-focused on finding capacity to satisfy the strong demand we see continuing through 2021 and even into 2022. The commitment to our dealers remains top of mind as we support the evolution of their business onto ecommerce platforms and the return of traffic to their retail stores. And personally, [I plan to] go to a ton of concerts! I am very excited to welcome back live music events.”

“We are running our own race. We’re competing against ourselves,” Lansford concluded. “We work daily to live by our ‘H.I.T.O.P.’ mantra (Humility: We aren’t arrogant. We’re here to serve. Integrity: We will do the right thing regardless of cost. Level playing field pricing. No off sheet deals. Truth: Always tell the truth. If we mislead unintentionally, we apologize and make it right. Observe: Ask questions if something doesn’t ‘look right.’ Use the Air Force pilot ‘O.O.D.A.’ concept: observe, orient, decide, act. Perform: We must perform to serve well. We must work to outperform ourselves daily, even if by one-tenth of one percent. Each day is a day for improvement from the day before. Each relationship can grow deeper with each transaction.) Yes, there are other runners in the field, which we acknowledge and honor, but they too are running their own race. We’ve met the competition and we’re it.”

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