In the music products industry, there are some companies whose history of making musical instruments goes back not only decades but, in fact, a century or more. And, in many cases, such iconic brands are leaders in their market segment. However, make no mistake: some of the most innovative companies—with some of the coolest, best-sounding, highest-value products—are those whose creation traces back only to the ’80s, ’90s or ’00s. Eastman Music Company is just such a business.
The Retailer recently sat down with Saul Friedgood, President, to learn why more and more retailers—and musicians, for that matter—are sitting up and taking notice of this 23-year-old company. The conversation ranges from Eastman’s somewhat unusual origin story to its strong belief in investing in people to its unyielding commitment to quality.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Let’s start by discussing your own background. Touch on the highlights of your personal story as it relates to the music products industry. Tell us about the career path you’ve traveled.
Saul Friedgood: I started working for Eastman 12 years ago and came to the company from outside of the music industry. I was hired by Qian Ni, who is the Founder and Owner of Eastman. Qian is the visionary behind our company and I would say that he is really responsible for our “culture.” Qian started Eastman 23 years ago when he was a student at Boston University. Qian had come to the United States from China on a scholarship from BU and was studying to receive his master’s degree in music. He was a flutist. He literally started the company out of his car, sourcing violins from talented luthiers in China with the help of his father, who lived there, and then selling them to violin shops in the United States. Many of the shops that Qian traveled to would give him feedback about how to improve the instruments, and he would take notes and send the information back to his father, who would communicate with the luthiers.
After a few years of this, Qian and his father hired a couple of the best luthiers and started building violins under the Eastman brand. Today, we have nearly 1,000 employees worldwide. When I say Qian is responsible for our culture, I think there are two very important things that he focused on from the beginning: the first was having great people. Qian is a strong believer in investing in people. He believes that’s the key to great companies and a sustainable future. The second is quality. From the beginning, Qian’s goal has always been to try to provide the best quality that we were capable of. We have never been focused on price points or market share. He just believes that, if you build great instruments, people will buy them!
The Retailer: Describe your day-to-day duties and responsibilities as company President. What’s the best part of working at Eastman every day?
Friedgood: We are very fortunate to have a great team. My job is to make sure that everyone is happy and that everybody has the tools he or she needs to do his or her job. We have been growing pretty rapidly, so, although it’s exciting for sure, it also provides us with interesting challenges. What I love about our company is our culture. We push each other to think outside the box; and, because we are relatively small, we can make changes and see the impact of them rather quickly. I think that motivates all of us quite a bit to try to make an impact and improve our business.
The Retailer: Let’s talk about Eastman Music Company in broad strokes. Provide a 10,000-foot overview of the company, summarizing its history and discussing some of the key characteristics and qualities it embodies. Share details about the company’s growth and development and give us insight into its evolution, particularly the recent increased focus on guitars.
Friedgood: Our company was founded 23 years ago by Qian, who epitomizes “The American Dream.” He was a flutist from China who came to the United States with literally no money to study. He went to school, learned English and worked a lot of hours to pay the bills. As I previously mentioned, he started selling some violins; then he started working with two of the luthiers to build under the Eastman brand; and now, 23 years later, here we are! Qian has always focused on quality and people. He believes that great people are essential to a successful business, and we invest heavily in this: from manufacturing through the sales end of our company.
Whether it is via the Eastman brand that we have built ourselves or our purchase of The William S. Haynes Co., which just celebrated its 125th anniversary last year, our goal is to make instruments that excite people. It could be a guitar for a beginner or the $60,000 flute that James Galway is playing; we want to build instruments that excite and inspire musicians. A big part of that is through quality. Some is based on value, but, ultimately, we want people to be shocked by how great our instruments are at all levels.
The guitars are a great example of this. Our bestselling guitars sell in stores for around $1,000. This is unheard of for a company that builds guitars in China, but our customers continue to tell us that they compare to guitars that sell for $3,000 to $5,000. This makes us really proud. We have invested so much time and effort to build our guitars properly and not to cut any corners. It’s fascinating to me when I get to spend time in the workshop and experience the amount of time and craftsmanship that goes into each process. Then to see people appreciate the result validates our commitment to what we do.
The Retailer: When you look at Eastman as it currently exists, what are you proudest of? What makes the company—and the company’s product offering—stand apart? How do you differ not only from direct competitors but, more broadly, from most musical instrument manufacturers?
Friedgood: That is a tough question because I am proud of so many things about our company. If I had to pick one, it would undoubtedly be the people who work for Eastman around the world. We are a dedicated bunch. Our team at William S. Haynes flutes is producing the very best flutes in the world right now. I think about that, and it amazes me. To be the best in the world at anything is a pretty awesome achievement. We take great pride in this, for sure. I think this also serves as a good example of what we believe differentiates us from others in our industry. We are committed to offering the very best quality, for the beginning student right up to the professional. We don’t want to be only one or the other. We know it takes time to be the best, but this is our goal. I think Haynes is a great example of what our company is capable of.
The Retailer: To what extent is the team at Eastman highly musical and personally plugged into the music products space? Are there numerous musicians on staff who play in their personal lives? Do your team members find themselves using Eastman instruments when they’re “off the clock”?
Friedgood: We have an incredibly talented group of musicians here, and our instruments are definitely getting a workout every day! Our most recent holiday party was the best because our employees put together a band to play for the party. I think probably a third of our company performed at the party. It was great!
The Retailer: Shine a light on some of Eastman’s most recent launches and initiatives. What products—and categories of product—are you pushing most aggressively right now? What’s in the new-product pipeline?
Friedgood: We have made some major investments over the past few years that, now, are really starting to pay dividends. We purchased a new guitar facility, which was essentially an empty building when we bought it. We are now in our second year of production there, and the instruments are really great. In particular, people are excited about our Traditional series of guitars, which are inspired by the great guitars that were built in the United States before World War II. What’s interesting about our success in this area is that we really build the guitars in our workshop in very much the same fashion as these great “pre-war” instruments were built. We even use some of the same materials, such as Adirondack spruce, that we believe are essential to their coveted tone. We launched a few new models at the NAMM show this past January and they were a big hit. We are building our first 500 OO guitars with 30-year-old Adirondack spruce, which sounds terrific.
Qian, the Owner of our company, is totally committed to our product. He dedicates nearly all of his time to working with our team to improve our product offerings. Qian’s philosophy has always been that the key to our success lies in quality products. He is always working on ways to improve our current line-up, as well as to develop “the next big thing.”
The Retailer: Detail Eastman’s philosophy as regards working with dealers and through the dealer channel. Is working closely with dealers a big part of the company’s fundamental approach to business?
Friedgood: We are very dedicated to, and grateful for, our dealer network. Our dealers not only represent our products and promote them locally, but also give us amazing advice and ideas; over the years, that has contributed to our success. Some of the best ideas for new products and improvements have come from our dealers. People always tell us that we are different because we listen to them. I always find this amazing, because nobody knows more about what musicians want…what they’re looking for…than the owners of music stores. They interact with musicians every day. So, we have formed a very close bond with our dealers and we encourage them to communicate with us as to how we, as a company, can improve.
We believe that the retail store experience is crucial to our success in promoting our brand. Our strength is that our instruments sound great. In order for people to experience this, they need to be able to play them. The retail stores offer the best chance for this to happen, and we do everything we can to support that.
The Retailer: Is there anything the dealer channel could do that would be helpful to Eastman as a manufacturer? Do you have any suggestions for the dealer channel that would help retailers, in addition to helping the company?
Friedgood: I would say communicate with us more. Let us know what you need, and what your customers need. As I said earlier, it helps us so much.
The Retailer: Looking back at the economic difficulties of recent years, to what extent has economic uncertainty affected Eastman? What proactive steps, if any, did the company take in the downturn’s early stages? How did the recession affect the trajectory that ultimately brought the company to where it is today?
Friedgood: This is an interesting question. The recession definitely forced us to look at everything that we were doing, or wanted to do, and really justify it. In hindsight, however, I think the downturn in the economy might have helped our company in some ways. People still wanted to buy instruments, but they had a little less cash. So, they were open to exploring more options than they would have been before the recession. We always feel best when someone plays our guitar, for instance, side by side with our competition. This really allows them to experience the instruments and evaluate them based upon their quality, craftsmanship and, most importantly, sound.
We have heard countless stories from our dealers where an individual came into the store intending to buy “Brand X” and walked out with an Eastman. I think, because of this, the recession helped our company to grow our brand. Music store owners and musicians needed quality instruments that didn’t break the bank, and we feel very lucky to have been in a position to fill that need.
The Retailer: What does the future hold for Eastman? What can we anticipate for the rest of the year and beyond?
Friedgood: I would say more of the same. It might not sound glamorous, but we are really focused on improving what we currently do. How can we improve our sound, our playability, our finishes, our production, etc.? At the same time, we are working on our marketing, customer service, packaging and everything else that should support a great product. We are still a young company, so we know we have a tremendous amount of work to do in order to reach our goals. But this is the exciting part for us, as well. We know we can make a difference and provide something special to musicians throughout the world. This drives us to be the best.