Despite the uncertainty caused by COVID-19, percussion manufacturers see a bright future.
For the entire MI industry, the need to survive and adapt has never been more necessary. Percussion manufacturers have certainly needed to do so. For example, this year’s school music market, for percussion and all other segments of MI, was unlike any other. And the market for gigging musicians is slow, to say the least. However, play-at-home instruments have seen an uptick in demand. But is this also the case for percussion products? And how have percussion manufacturers weathered the storm brought on by COVID-19?
We ask these questions, and several more, of our seven respondents, in what proves to be a true all-star panel:
- Scott Donnell, vice president of global marketing, Drum Workshop (DW)
- John Palmer, sales strategist, TAMA
- Steven Fisher, director of marketing, Yamaha Percussion
- Eric Ricciardi, leader of the percussion business unit, D’Addario
- Andy Zildjian, president and CEO, SABIAN
- Dave Cywinski, MI product division sales manager for drums, Hal Leonard
- Adam Gomes, director of marketing and artist relations at Luna Guitars, Ukes & Percussion (Armadillo Enterprises).
Let’s start with what steps each company has taken to weather the storm during the uncertain times of COVID-19.
“When operations came to a full stop, it was obviously cause for concern. Of course, none of us knew the enormity of the situation or what sort of timeframe we were going to be experiencing. We still don’t really know what the next few months will bring in terms of the overarching economic impact,” responded Donnell. “That said, it was decided to continue on with some key research and development initiatives as to not slow our progress. We were also very cognizant of supporting our employees during this very uncertain time. We were quick to gather knowledge about government programs and have been watching overall revenue and spending very closely.”
“No doubt, the beginning phase of COVID-19 caused a lot of uncertainty, especially to our supply chain and operations,” responded Palmer. “In March, the state of Pennsylvania mandated we close our business, and of course we complied, but we didn’t know how long the shutdown would last. During our shutdown, we continued to employ all of our staff and communicate with our retail partners to stay abreast of consumer demand and other market conditions. We realized online consumer response was strong, and overall MI sales were fairly solid with some category variation. We continued to work with our retail partners to process orders and worked internally to establish a reopening plan. When we reopened in May, we were able to bring back our staff, which helped us recover as quickly as possible to process sales orders and ship product. Our operations team had to work responsibly under social-distancing measures — which we continue to do — so we had to find creative solutions that allowed us to maximize our ability to fulfill orders as quickly as possible. Our supply chain was also disrupted by the global nature of COVID. We were able to react quickly to this dynamic and are doing all we can to mitigate any supply-chain challenge.”
Answered Fisher, “Besides the obvious limitations of cutting back on travel and in-person tradeshows, we’ve been focused on ensuring our dealers have all of the information and support they need to get by while they’re weathering the same storm. Communication and the way we do business externally and internally have certainly changed, but we have discovered new tools to accomplish our business needs. In many ways, it’s helped us be more efficient and prioritize what is important.”
“COVID-19 has certainly presented a series of unprecedented challenges. Our priority first and foremost is the safety of our employees and their families. Because of this, we were forced to halt production, and with it our work on future product developments. During this time, our team was able to put their heads together to find a way to utilize our resources to develop and produce face shields utilizing our drumhead film,” said Ricciardi. “I’m incredibly proud of the efforts of this team and our determination to find a way to help during these times.”
“We were lucky that the Canadian Government took the pandemic seriously early on and gave us not only advanced warning, but also definitive directions on how we should proceed,” noted Zildjian. “The government had a plan to take care of those not working. Under their direction, we sent home most of our staff and crew, took initial precautions to avoid infection in the workplace, and got to work safeguarding cash flow and helping our retail and distribution partners around the world. Since this was a global problem, everyone was well aware of the situation, and the amount of cooperation and care was excellent. We prepared for an extreme drop in demand, but were lucky enough to have ended up in a much more positive position than we could have been. We used finished goods inventory and a skeleton crew to satisfy all demand with very little change in our delivery time. Recently, demand has grown enough that we have brought back a solid core of our manufacturing craftsmen. Sales have been handled by a core staff with no noticeable decline in service. Marketing has completely changed, as we immediately stopped our old activities and fast forwarded into our strategy of direct consumer communication and social interaction. Keeping very tight overheads and costs has been the focus of everyone here. The people involved have all gone from one primary job to many. Having done almost every job at SABIAN myself, I am a fan of our people cross training and having many skills. The ability to integrate efforts, team build and raise quality standards by people understanding and doing many jobs is a core philosophy of ours.”
“We were lucky as a distributor and publisher in that we were early on deemed to be an essential business,” noted Cywinski. “We were quickly able to have our sales and marketing teams work remotely via Teams and other online communication tools.”
“So far, 2020 has been about readjusting the playbook to meet the demands and oversee a dramatic shift in priorities that have been impeded by this pandemic, all while trying to be a beacon of light during a time of a lot of uncertainty,” responded Gomes. “After COVID-19 started making the rounds, we had to accept that restrictions and precautions were being put in place solemnly to keep the public safe against a virus we knew little to nothing about. For many dealers and musicians that rely on public settings, this was devastating. Our job was to be a force of positivity for the dealer network, artists and our consumers. First and foremost, our initial concern was the well-being of our artists. These creative individuals relied on group writing sessions, live gigs and appearances to make a living. Motivation was a challenge for many musicians, so we found ways to help boost their platforms. For example, we have done product giveaways for new EP/album releases to entice followers, partnered with nonprofits and guitar symposiums looking to spread some light during tough times, and donated to online ‘tip jars’ during livestream sessions.
“Second, we had to completely rethink the best way to offer product promotional materials that will help support dealers that are struggling to keep their doors open,” Gomes continued. “As more people were stuck at home, we saw an increase in instrument sales across all categories, and eventually it was difficult to keep some stores stocked. Third, our consumers were spending more time on social media than ever. We ramped up social media efforts, including inspirational quotes and art on our Instagram story and contests on our monthly newsletter. It’s pivotal that during these challenging times we had to help keep spirits up for the Luna Tribe and anyone else watching.”
Next, we asked if — although sales to gigging musicians and perhaps schools have declined — manufacturers are seeing more demand in the at-home percussion market, which is a trend other areas of MI have seen. “Yes,” asserted Hal Leonard’s Cywinski. “At-home drum sales are happening, from add-on toms for Gretsch to full-room-filling racks from Gibraltar. We’re really finding that the items being sold are not what you would normally gig with.”
Cywinski added that one area of consumer interest came as a surprise: “The head scratcher is cases,” he said. “Buyer enthusiasm for practical percussion instruments has increased tremendously during the pandemic, especially if the instrument is accommodating to indoor spaces,” responded Luna’s Gomes. “After the initial shock of the new reality, musicians used the extra time to catch up on creating music, while adapting to new methods of online performances. Online sales for Luna ukuleles and guitars skyrocketed as more interest kept pouring in, and percussion saw a significant bump as well. We’ve seen percussion consumers go from buying a cajon to take on radio tours and crowded gigs, to purchasing a cajon for home studios and practicality purposes. The cajon is easy to play, learn and is perfect for laying low indoors during lockdowns. You still get that traditional percussive sound in the absence of a full drum kit.
“Many artists had to come to terms with the simple fact they didn’t have a drummer to jam with, and they may have to take on that responsibility themselves,” Gomes added. “Overall, when you look at the variety of smaller percussion instruments, they are fun and easy to learn. You can easily relieve stress playing a percussive instrument.”
“At home sales have seemingly grown, but mostly in the Quiet Tone range of practice cymbals. What we have seen is that players are focused on value. Our cast-cymbal demand has never been as strong,” noted SABIAN’s Zildjian.
“Certainly, large-scale events and ensembles have declined, but we have seen many individuals utilize this time to improve their chops at home. We’ve seen educators adapt by offering remote lessons, and there have been surges in searches for online video lessons. This has also been a great opportunity for people to get around to changing the heads on their kit (acoustic or electric) and experimenting with different sounds, whether that’s via new playing implement or new drumheads,” answered D’Adddario’s Ricciardi.
Yamaha’s Fisher had this response: “There’s been a noticeable growth in electronic drums and recording equipment, but we’ve also seen our acoustic drum sales begin to increase. We’ve seen a dramatic increase in demand for products like the EAD10, which allows users to mic up their set in seconds and simplifies a complicated setup that typically requires microphones, cables, mixers and PA expertise. The EAD10 instantly transforms your acoustic drum kit with studio-quality digital effects and sampled sounds, while the Rec’n’Share app allows you to play along with your favorite artists and record and share the audio and video directly to social media. It’s a solution product for many applications, and it is now being discovered out of necessity for what drummers are wanting to do, due to the current situation. It’s not only great for home recording, distance collaboration and making videos with your acoustic drums, but it’s also a great tool for those drummers that want to teach online lessons.
“There’s also been a trend for acoustic drummers using mesh heads and silent cymbals for quiet practice since they are stuck at home,” Fisher continued. “The EAD10, with the free V2 firmware upgrade, allows you to trigger the mesh heads by adding our DT acoustic drum triggers and mic the cymbals, turning your acoustic set into an electronic kit with all the benefits of recording, practicing and making videos with the EAD10.”
“We have seen pretty strong demand for our acoustic drums and hardware, which has been a little surprising,” relayed TAMA’s Palmer. “People have rekindled their joy for their selfmotivated hobbies during the pandemic, and music is a part of that. I recall seeing a well-respected drummer respond to a question about what it’s been like for him during the stay-at-home distancing, to which he merrily responded that it is pretty much same as his ‘normal’ lifestyle. We know the electronic drum category has enjoyed very strong interest and sales during this time. But our acoustic drum category has experienced consistent demand. Electronic drums are very useful, no question. But drummers also need to have the authentic acoustic experience to really reach expressive fulfillment.”
“We don’t sell direct to drummers, other than our artist roster, and have never really been deep into the scholastic market segment, so that wasn’t necessarily on our radar,” said DW’s Donnell. “We’ve absolutely seen the impact of a live music/ touring shutdown, but this is to be expected. Ultimately, we’re fortunate that our brands are well-regarded and represent the entire price-point spectrum these days. Having instruments and accessories for beginner to pro during this time is certainly an advantage. Once we safely resumed production, we saw a fairly steady flow of orders from both online retail and indie dealers. We’re also watching our overall monthly product mix carefully — not only in terms of supply chain and inventory, but also profitability.”
As a follow-up to the last question, we asked, have the people buying percussion products changed? And are our panelists seeing a lot of new players who want to play percussion products?
“Many of our dealers have told us that they have seen an increase of new players as well as existing customers upgrading their equipment with the additional time they have at home,” noted Fisher. “Due to the lack of live music venues and canceled tours, many of our artists have turned to teach lessons online and are collaborating to record virtually, while practicing social distancing. The EAD10 does a fantastic job of facilitating this, especially for those players that might not have a well-equipped studio with recording gear, cameras and software.”
“I think it’s been a mix,” responded Palmer. “Demand for our Imperialstar solid entry-level series has been super strong. We have also seen strong demand in our Starclassic and STAR lines, which are high-end professional and boutique drums. Although there has been a huge reduction in live music, drummers seem excited to continue to refine their setups, and are even stepping into their dream setups.”
“I feel like our core audience hasn’t changed very much,” stated Donnell. “I think people are putting time into things that bring them comfort and enjoyment; life-enhancing activities. Drumming falls into that category for sure. I understand software and e-drums have been doing exceptionally well, and that makes sense; as are consumables such as sticks, heads, etc. We have seen interest in custom drums remain fairly solid. Hardware and pedals are also faring well right now, and that has been our bread and butter for many years.”
“We don’t directly track the demographics of our purchasers, but from our engagement on our social channels, we can see there is greater diversity in age, gender, race and location,” answered Ricciardi. “I think this has been an opportunity for a lot of people to discover and rediscover percussion. Many people that played in their youth had the chance and the time to pick up the sticks and mallets again.”
“Many drummers have traded up their kits and sticks for cajons and brushes,” stated Gomes. “There has been a shift from buying a cajon out of necessity for live performances to buying for self-improvement indoors, and in many cases to simply escape the stress going on. In addition to an influx of new players, we’re seeing purchasing preference being given to our higher-end cajons compared to beginner models. This year, sales of the Vintage Cajon have increased significantly compared to last year. Our affordable Tattoo cajons have seen a bump in sales as well. But it is clear people are preparing for the long haul at home, and thus willing to spend a little more on something they’ll be playing every day. Fast forward to today: In some places lockdown restrictions have eased up with safe social distancing precautions set in place, so acoustic gigs have been booming. Many of Luna’s guitar and ukulele artists are purchasing cajons for their drummers so they can book more gigs.”
And Cywinski noted, regarding who is currently buying at-home percussion products, “It feels mostly like existing players expanding to their dream setup.”
Another thing that has changed dramatically for all MI manufacturers is how they market their products. In any other year, The NAMM Show would be the focus of the industry’s marketing plans, and all companies would be preparing for the January show right now. But with no in-person trade show scheduled for January, what are some of the other ways our percussion panelists are promoting their products?
“We plan to create informative, entertaining video and media content we can deliver in a virtual format,” Palmer said.
“We have already been creating this type of content, so we will put more energy into this.”
“We’ve kept the PR machine rolling throughout this time and are continuing to share stories and product info with our media partners worldwide,” relayed Donnell. “We’ve also been harnessing the power of our artist rosters to create new and unique content. For example, with the demise of clinics, drum festivals and the like, we’ve had to pivot to streaming content. We came up with our own platform we’re calling Drum Network. We’re streaming shows every week, and that content lives on via YouTube. As far as reaching our dealers and distributors sans a formal NAMM show, we’ll be doing it virtually. We’re thankful that we have an in-house facility that allows us to tape and stream content with top-notch production value.”
Responded Ricciardi, “There has been a shift to discovering and ordering products online versus in-store, and that has given us an opportunity to tell the product story in a new/different way. Our team has welcomed the challenge, as it has led to looking to new social channels and podcasts to get the word out about our products. There is still nothing like an in-person experience forgetting to know a new product, but the digital content we’re creating to share in lieu of in-person trade shows will enable a larger audience to get the full message. We also plan for our product team to be more accessible for questions, and to partner with our artists to demo new products on their channels.”
“We’re ramping up more business-to-business dedicated e-blasts and deeper online presentations from our reps,” said Cywinski. “We are also using print mailers and brochures as a vehicle we consider to be a ‘touch’ when we can’t otherwise see dealers in person.”
Stated Gomes, “While we miss live MI events like PASIC, we put a plan in place to ramp up public-relations tactics and digital strategies to resonate with our target audience. In turn, a creative revolution was born, which helped extend our marketing reach and support to our dealer network. With the help of our artists and some reliable brand ambassadors, we collected creative materials ranging from gear reviews, lifestyle photography, navigating the pandemic blog content and much more. In many ways, this pandemic gave people more time to learn about Luna percussion, as we have seen sales enthusiasm for the brand increase. With more content making the press rounds and using social media as a key vehicle for promotion, Luna’s messaging reached past the Luna Tribe to new players and enthusiasts. We view dealers like family, so it is important to us that they get the materials they need to assist in sell-through and get more traffic to their websites.”
“We have been using social media platforms for communication and will continue to use and expand upon our use there. Trade shows have become less of a sales and unveiling event as much as an opportunity to reinforce our ongoing marketing and continue the sales programs that we started during the previous few months. The opportunity to get together with friends and global partners is an excellent reason for attending a trade show, but it is far from our only opportunity to interact with them all,” stated Zildjian.
“We have been and will continue to participate in some virtual trade shows, many dealer events and training sessions, as well as our communications to our customers,” said Fisher. “It’s certainly a challenge, but we have been adapting to discover new ways to keep our customers informed, and more importantly, to measure their success.”
With this said, we thought we would give a forum for our percussion panelists to promote some recent releases and/or discuss products expected to be released soon. Fortunately, there are plenty of great products available, with many more to come.
“We’re close to previewing many of our new products for 2021,” answered DW’s Donnell. “Really looking forward to sharing everything with our dealers this fall. Consumers will start to see much of it before the holidays as well. As for current launches of note, we’re just now releasing a new collection of DW Collector’s Series Private Reserve Exotics. These are limited-quantity veneers handpicked by our resident ‘woodologist,’ John Good. This is some beautiful stuff that can be custom ordered in combination with any DW Custom Shop shell configuration, and when it’s gone, it’s gone!
“A few months back, we also had a very successful product launch with the Brooklyn Standard Snare Drum,” Donnell continued. “Co-designed with online educator extraordinaire, Mike Johnston, it was very well received and continues to surpass all expectations. It’s not easy to get the drumming world to adopt a new workhorse drum, so we’re pleased this one is taking hold.”
“Our DYNA-SYNC bass drum pedals and hi-hat stand have generated a lot of interest,” said TAMA’s Palmer. “The unique thing about them is, they are a direct-drive pedal design that allows drummers to make a multitude of adjustments to achieve a progressive direct-drive response or more of a traditional chain-drive feel. We also launched an incredible STAR Hand Hammered Brass 5.5×14 snare that is hand-hammered in Japan and includes customized brass hoops. It’s been getting a lot attention from drum enthusiasts.”
Said Yamaha’s Fisher, “We recently started shipping the Stage Custom Hip drum sets, which are doing well in sales. Musicians are surprised by how powerful it sounds with its compact size and the unique sounds and grooves you can achieve with the floor tom/snare tom. The free EAD10 V2 firmware update offers some fantastic upgrades and tools. One of the main benefits of EAD10 V2 firmware is being able to use the stereo mic on the bass drum as a talkback mic by simply pushing a button on the module or using a footswitch. This is particularly ideal for teaching online lessons. As mentioned before, the EAD10 is the perfect solution for drummers that want to use mesh heads and silent cymbals for turning their acoustic set into an electronic kit with all the benefits of the EAD10 and Rec’n’Share app.
“For educational percussion, we introduced the new YV-2030 student vibraphone,” continued Fisher. “The YV-2030 offers convenient features such as height adjustability that helps facilitate students of all sizes to play the instrument in the correct position, and a whole new damper mechanism. We also started shipping the new YCH-6018 and YCH-7018 chimes. These chimes are not only stunningly beautiful instruments aesthetically and sonically, but have unique features that help them perform unlike anything in the past.”
“When Luna Percussion entered the market, we were ready to innovate the way cajons were traditionally designed and presented,” answered Gomes. “The focus was to enhance three essential elements: visual aesthetics, functionality and comfort. We started with a line of entry-level Tattoo cajons made of birch and eucalyptus wood with an ash wood front piece, available in black, teal and green, and all of them featuring a beautiful silkscreen tattoo design at $119 MAP. We then introduced higher-end models with aluminum snare knobs and tropical woods, including Vintage Mahogany and Bamboo, at $179 MAP. All cajons come with a built-in adjustable snare, branded gig bag and a soft foam pad to sit on for extensive playing. With both price points, we wanted to create an impressionable product that will inspire musicians of all skill levels and make them feel like they were making a unique mark on and off the stage. It has been this type of creative thinking that landed many of our cajons in recording studios, stages and among many trusted retailers across the world.”
“In Gibraltar, we’ve recently released the GSDS Docking Station, a round, curved rack bar that surrounds the bass drum,” relayed Hal Leonard‘s Cywinski. “This has been a very fun and powerful launch, and is something that brings a touch of vintage like the old ‘rail’ system to modern setups. In the Gretsch line, we earlier this year released a bop kit in Yellow Satin Flame, and the color has caught on to where we can’t .keep them available.”
“HHX Complex, although originally introduced last year has continued to be a hit. I love its sound and feel, and thankfully, so do many of the drummers in the world. That story continues to grow with new sounds introduced into the line,” noted SABIAN’s Zildjian.
“Our newest Evans innovation is our UV Coating Technology,” said D’Addario’s Ricciardi. “It strengthens our promise to be the most technologically advanced drumhead in the world and provides unprecedented durability. Our UV1 and UV2 heads utilize a proprietary coating technology that dramatically enhanced the durability of the coating and, in turn, the life of the drumhead overall. The new coating is applied with a silkscreen process using specially formulated inks that are instantly cured with UV light. The result is a coating that resists the effects of normal wear and tear, flaking or rubbing off, which alters the fundamental tone players were seeking out. With the launch of UV2, we also have a new set of test subjects for E.V.A.N., and those videos can be found on all of our social channels.”
We conclude with the $1 million question: What does the future look like? Are our panelists optimistic about the percussion industry in what we hope will be the post-COVID-19 era? To sum it up, the overall answer is yes, perhaps with an exclamation point at the end.
“We are very optimistic about the percussion industry post-COVID. Whether it’s the current percussionists who had a chance to practice and develop new skills, the new wave of players who are just discovering percussion for the first time, or the people that have had a chance to rediscover percussion, our growing community will come out of this experience with a new appreciation for the craft,” noted Ricciardi. “We’re always pushing the boundaries at D’Addario, and there are a few products coming that we’re very excited about for both Evans and ProMark. 2021 will be an exciting year for our brands, so stay tuned!”
“I am optimistic about the percussion industry post COVID-19. Many people took the isolation time to learn a new instrument, and that is always a good thing,” stated Zildjian. “Playing drums is so much fun that, once someone gets the spark, they will continue. To help ensure that, we have strengthened our support of education through working with, supporting and livestreaming top educators and institutions, and also supporting independent educators through the SEN (Sabian Educator Network).”
“I’m very optimistic about the future, and I know Yamaha shares that same view,” said Fisher. “We’re a company that constantly innovates, and we can’t wait to share our new products with the world. I believe that through these hardships, we’ve learned new ways to overcome them, and it has given all of us a new perspective on what’s important. We’re fortunate to be in this business where we can provide the gift of music that lifts people’s spirits and provides a way to express themselves individually.”
“I believe our industry will continue to adapt and evolve; I’m fairly bullish,” answered Donnell. “It will be a process, but DW will remain poised to seize new opportunities. I’d like to tell you more about one such line coming down the pike, but it’s just a bit premature. We’ll make sure your readers are some of the first to know!”
“We are optimistic and can’t imagine where things will go once players begin playing out again, and schools go back,” relayed Cywinski. “We believe the thirst for the arts coming out of lockdown will be immense. Everyone will want to again experience live music from an audience and performer perspective. New innovations and observations are in nearly every product conversation that we’re having. There are unique ideas coming out of all the lines we represent.”
“Today’s industry is all about meeting the interests of modern-day percussive players in a non-traditional way,” said Gomes. “Musicians are full of creativity, and the right design has the power to inspire. We are more than excited for the next few years with what’s in store for Luna Percussion. You can expect to see some next-level craftsmanship and unique designs. We have proven that you do not have to sacrifice quality for looks, so the sky’s the limit! In other words, Luna Percussion will be expanding, and I’m not just talking about the cajon.
“Like the rest of the music industry, the percussion industry will certainly rebound from COVID-19,” added Gomes. “The question is how we approach this and how long will it take. 2021 will play out in two different ways for normalizing live music again: Are we going to wear face coverings to live events while following key distancing rules, or will there be a vaccine available that eventually brings everything slowly back to normal and keeps everyone safe? Society wants some kind of a return to normal, and music is a key element to that. Music brings happiness in many different forms, with the power to heal, and it has been helping us get through this entire pandemic. The show must go on!”
Palmer concluded with this positive viewpoint: “I am wildly optimistic about post-COVID, not only for the percussion industry, but for the music industry. Having spoken to an extensive number of musicians during COVID-19, I know there is high urgency to resume live music, both in terms of making music and attending live music events. The human experience is undeniable. I can’t say there’s been a silver lining to COVID-19, but I think we can all agree we feel a little more appreciative now for the day-to-day activities we have been missing. The ability to make music in person, and have it shared in the moment, is a human experience like no other. Live music is poised to return in a huge way.”
To read more features from the Music & Sound Retailer, click here.