A few times a year, The Retailer presents “roundtable-style” articles that focus on particular segments of interest within the music products industry. Because April is our annual Guitar Issue, it’s only natural, then, that we here offer a conversation with three prominent guitar manufacturers. It was our goal to speak to guitar makers that touch different parts of the market and that represent organizations of different sizes and longevities. With each manufacturer addressing the market from its own unique position, it’s fascinating to see where their views converge, where they diverge and whether common conclusions can be drawn.
Our roundtable participants could not be better qualified to discuss the contours of the guitar market, and they readily share their knowledge here. They are Mario Biferali, Vice President, Sales & Marketing, Godin Guitars; Shogo Hayashi, President, Hoshino USA, Inc.; and Roger Sadowsky, President, Sadowsky Guitars.
Agree with our panelists? Disagree with them? Join the conversation by e-mailing me at email@example.com.
The Music & Sound Retailer:
Identify and discuss some of the most powerful trends currently influencing the guitar market. Whether it’s particular designs, specs and features that people are demanding, or whether it’s popular music trends that are influencing guitar purchasers, what forces are shaping the guitar segment most strongly in early 2015?
Shogo Hayashi: Since Ibanez covers all categories of guitars, we have been seeing continuous strong demand for acoustics…especially parlor and/or smaller-size body shapes. I assume this demand comes from female players and teenagers, which is very encouraging for the industry, and there are many ways to channel them to other guitar categories, such as electrics. For example, I’m seeing a steady trend toward Ibanez smaller-size semi-hollow electric guitars. I believe there are still plenty of would-be guitar players looking for a vehicle with which to make music, but the right products (in design, specs and features) for them are limited.
Advanced and intermediate players’ demands are getting more specific than ever, in every aspect. They’ll accept no compromises. For instance, in guitar finishes, everybody has their favorite. One player may express a deep affection for red guitars; he or she maybe only owns red guitars. But even though that red guitar, in terms of specs, is perfect for one player, that red finish might be a complete turn-off for the next guitar shopper. This applies to any other key instrument specs, such as neck shape, body materials and so on. To meet the challenging demand, we have been doing more frequent “limited models,” and that works well for us.
In terms of experimental approaches, we responded to the EDM trend with an RG and SR that included the Korg mini kaoss pad during the 2014 holiday season, and it’s been embraced by the younger “i-generation.” The digital realm is now providing new avenues to music making. We should maintain awareness that, even though a kid starts out as a DJ, or he or she is a bedroom producer of music mash-ups, he or she might hope to become a guitar player, too.
Roger Sadowsky: I think one of the problems with the guitar market right now is that there are very few trends. It seems to me that some of the large guitar manufacturers are coming out with an insane number of “new models,” none of which is unique. They’re just throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. The abundance of “signature models” has grown so great as to render them meaningless. I feel it is approaching the point where some companies are diluting their brands by trying to appeal to everyone, rather than focusing on the market niches they already have. The only trend I see is for everyone to be going increasingly down market and trying to have product in every possible price point.
Mario Biferali: In acoustics, we’re seeing smaller-body acoustics doing really well. I think this is due to the fact that they record very well and, these days, lots of guitar players are obviously recording themselves in their own home studios.
The venues where musicians perform have changed, as well. A lot more coffeehouse-type gigs and smaller, more intimate venues…even house concerts…have created a demand for instruments that are way more versatile. Our Godin A6 Ultra electro/acoustic is a good example of that. It combines electric and acoustic sounds that you can blend or use independently. It has an acoustic “vibe,” but, if need be, it can also be cranked in bigger venues without worrying about feedback.
Customers do their homework and really know what they want before even walking into a dealer. Due to online groups and social media in general, such as YouTube, they can research and appreciate what goes into making a quality guitar. So, it’s not so much about price but, rather, about what’s offered and the features and benefits…overall value. Customers are not afraid to pay more if the instrument meets their needs, because they see it as an investment. They are asking smart questions about the types of woods used; the scale, which affects the sound and string tension; and where the instruments are made. We often hear all those questions.
As for trends, we try to serve the musician and music making first, as trends tend to be short-lived. The feedback to our world instruments has been huge. The MultiOud, the Inuk and the A10 have all been very well received and highly regarded as being innovative. An example is the release of the Godin MultiOud, which Oud players from all over the world regard as revolutionizing how this ancient instrument could be played, especially in a live setting.
As for electric guitars, we’re seeing both ends of the spectrum: from innovative designs to more classic designs. For example, our Godin Montreal Premiere thinline, semi-hollow body with built-in Fishman TriplePlay system with wireless capabilities for computer and synth access, as well as our new Summit Classic CT, which is a modern “Classic.”
In the minds of many popular-music observers, the era of bands whose famous musician members are idolized has come to an end. Without contemporary guitar players who, like Jimmy Page and Keith Richards, are globally idolized, what can the MI industry do to encourage and nurture the guitar players of tomorrow?
Biferali: Although we have many high-profile Godin users who influence the players out there, we take a grassroots approach to encourage and nurture tomorrow’s players, starting from the ground up. Over the last year, we have introduced a dulcimer-inspired, four-stringed instrument called the Seagull Merlin. It is tuned to open D or G, depending on the model, and it’s fretted diatonically, so there are virtually no wrong notes. In order to encourage music making—especially to youngsters—it needs to be fun and easy. Instant gratification is key. If they can easily hold, fret and strum the instrument and sound musical right from the get go, you have a greater chance of leaving them inspired to play more and, thus, inspiring future musicians. These kids hopefully can graduate to a guitar, bass or drums; start a band; etc. Music is more than just learning an instrument. When you create music, it forces you to listen, to compromise and to have patience, and it helps the player “fine tune” his or her own personal level of focus. In the end, that’s a great attribute when playing music, as well as in all areas in a person’s life.
As for guitar heroes, we can’t wait around and hope for the next Jimmy Page, Keith Richards or Eric Clapton to inspire a whole new generation of guitarists. We need to take that responsibility into our own hands. We are planting seeds to help inspire newcomers to develop their skills as guitar players, and we hope to cultivate them in the years to come. When new bands start and progress, they themselves become “local heroes” to many young players. Being inspired is a powerful thing!
Hayashi: This is a more serious problem for the music industry than for MI, so I would like to hear what the music industry thinks about it. However, one interesting observation to consider is the “YouTubers” trend, which has been getting popular in many industries—fashion, media and others—that target the younger generation. Many of them are not professional insiders, but they prove to be appealing to hundreds of thousands—sometimes millions—of people in a very short time. For me, they are the 21st century’s global idols. We are living in the world of “I to I” (individual to individual), where the everyman can be Jimi Hendrix or John Lennon on YouTube…at least for a while. How much does the MI industry pay attention to it now? I don’t know, but I believe there are a bunch of great hidden musicians out there, and we can see them on YouTube for sure.
Secondly, because the trend toward music downloads and streaming forced musicians to change their business model and working style, we have seen more aggressive touring/live performance activities than ever before, which is beneficial to the MI industry. This provides music fans a real “physical connection” between musicians and their instruments. MI retailers and vendors have to come up with some ideas for leveraging live-performance events. And I don’t mean the practice of providing free in-store clinics by artists on tour. That model has become more and more difficult to execute, because artists and their tour managers create very tight schedules to ensure that touring is profitable. They have to; it’s their primary source of income now.
Sadowsky: I like organizations like Little Kids Rock, School of Rock and similar organizations that get young people away from their cell phones and computers, and expose them to the fun and cooperation of playing music together. Contributing to these organizations with financial support and gear donations is one of the best things the industry can do. The other is to support music education in schools that do not have the funding for these programs.
What specific, actionable advice can you give to brick-and-mortar music products dealers that are trying to sell their guitar inventory and their guitar-related accessories more effectively? What could your dealers do tomorrow that, in your mind, would give their guitar sales a substantial boost?
Sadowsky: I think the most important thing a brick-and-mortar store can do to sell guitars is to keep them properly maintained. This means well adjusted with good strings. Check all instruments in winter for sharp fret ends due to low humidity. Keep guitars clean and properly set up. Check them regularly to see if they need truss rod or action adjustments. A guitar—no matter how special—is worthless if it doesn’t feel great and play well.
Biferali: A good way to go is to offer lessons and rentals in the store…anything that allows the consumer to “experience music making” firsthand is a step in the right direction. Brick-and-mortar stores have the opportunity to qualify and guide the customer, matching him or her with the perfect instrument. By doing so, they have the opportunity to build a long-lasting trust and loyalty with the customers.
It’s a huge challenge—and it’s by no means easy—but I believe that successful shops regularly sales-train their staff. Not only on the products themselves, but also by teaching the staff how to interact with customers. Having sales chops and asking the right questions sell accessories. If you know the kid who just bought a guitar loves to write songs, you might be able to show him how a capo can lead him into a cool new world of possibilities. That is huge for a kid just starting out! It’s about getting back to basics and instilling the passion.
It’s also important to focus on certain brands and believe in what you’re selling. Becoming experts on those particular lines is key.
Make sure customers can try out the instruments. They need to get excited; they can’t feel intimidated. I am sure we all have stories about being a kid in a music store and either being encouraged or totally being intimidated by the sales guy. Making your customers feel at ease can be a major plus for both sides.
Hayashi: Well, I truly believe music retailers are more familiar with consumers’ behavior than vendors like us are, so I don’t know what advice to offer. The only thing I can do is let them know what I see out there.
It seems that certain brick-and-mortar dealers don’t derive enough business from e-commerce, even after doing it for many years. MI e-commerce is now into its second or third stage, and one of the key elements for success is differentiation from other retailers. A common factor I see in successful independent Internet dealers is their brave decision to go “narrow and deep.” Standing on their own passion and strength, they focus on developing relationships with consumers who hold similar values. Once that reputation has developed in a specific area of guitar interest, the market is no longer limited to a city: it’s nationwide. There is less need for generic music stores on the Internet.
Going back to the subject of boosting sales at physical stores, I think it is time to revisit the importance of good, experienced salespeople. After the U.S. economic crisis in 2008, our industry lost many of them, which put brick-and-mortar dealers in a tough position versus other channels. In every industry, the first-class customers need “human-touch service”—particularly at the point of purchase in selling high-ticket items. Brick-and-mortar stores can provide that in a way many other MI channels don’t or can’t. A good salesperson should not be considered a cost but, instead, an asset.