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The Rise of the Electric Guitar

by Scott Wunschel • in
  • In the Trenches
• Created: September 6, 2017

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On a recent return flight from a trip visiting dealers and a couple of dealer sales events, I came across the Washington Post article by Geoff Edger’s titled “The slow, secret death of the electric guitar and why you should care” (June 22, 2017).

And like any of us I had to read on. We all agree that electric guitar sales have struggled since 2009 and acoustic guitar sales took the lead. 

But there have been signs of growth in the electric market. Does this mean we hit the bottom? Conversation at our office always seems to center on, “What’s the state of guitar playing and who’s the next guitar hero?” This always sets off a flurry of responses from “teens don’t want to play guitar” or “they’re too busy with iPads and Instagram” to “EDM (Electronic Dance Music) is the preferred music” to the cringe-inducing angle of, “nobody wants to do what dad did.” For any manufacturer of guitars or guitar products it’s a conversation that happens very often in marketing and product planning meetings. No matter the new artist we promote and market on the internet, our consumer audience is very small compared to the global music listening audience. We’re outnumbered.  

There’s no doubt the consumer buying habits have changed during the past ten years and reaching the younger consumer is challenging. I use my 16 year old, who is firmly in the digital world, as a good consumer demographic gauge. This year for her birthday she requested a camera – not the updated iPhone 7 with the fancy new camera system, but a Nikon digital camera with extended lens. The camera industry has seen an unprecedented decline the past decade with emergence of the iPhone and other smartphones, so I felt a bit of pride ordering and supporting a brand reinventing itself in a struggling industry. I have provided many different musical instruments to my daughter over the years, (and, yes, band rental for school), but nothing ever stuck. Just the other day she said, “I think I want to take guitar lessons.” Maybe what’s old is new is again? 

Time to rise! 

In Silicon Valley the term “pivot” is used a lot. Eric Ries, entrepreneur, blogger, and author of Lean Start Up defines Pivot as “making a change in strategy, without a change in vision.” That sounds about right for the electric guitar and the MI industry. It’s time for us as an industry to join together and create a movement for the electric guitar. The days of waiting for the cycle to come back around are gone and waiting only creates dust on the guitars that many dealers have hanging on their store walls. In a time of Snapchat, Instagram, sharing, posting, tweeting, and all-that-is-instant, we need to think “pivot.” That’s why I am calling for NAMM to form the Electric Guitar Consortium and get the great minds within our industry together to develop an action plan. The NAMM trips to Washington to advocate for music education are fantastic. The NAMM Foundation grants, ($675,000 this year), are great for those recipients and their mostly educational programs. We need to think beyond the classroom and the halls of the Capitol. We need to reach out and grab the attention of the next generation of consumers. There are a lot of us in the electric guitar market that are doing some really cutting-edge marketing, so the talent pool is in place. And because I’m throwing this all out there I have a few ideas to get the conversation going. 

Hit the road, Jack 

Plan a national tour to promote the electric guitar. Plan stops at high school campuses and roll out guitars, have performers and talk about playing guitar and how it changed their lives. Not the John Lennon Educational Tour bus town hall, but a rocking 30 minutes of pumped up music and information that speaks to the audience. Have local dealers on hand to sign up new students, give information, show guitars, and, who knows, maybe even sell a guitar! 

Relatable personalities 

We need spokespersons that consumers can relate to. Hey, I love Bernie Williams. I’m a baseball fan and relate to a five-time All Star with a career 297 batting average who is passionate about playing guitar. But ask anyone under 40 who Williams is and they’d likely have to go to Google. How about Jack Black (“School of Rock”), Jared Leto (30 Seconds to Mars), Adrian Grenier (“Entourage”), or Daniel Radcliff (Harry Potter!)? These may be hard-to-reach stars, but a Hollywood personality who loves playing guitar and relates to the younger consumer base is what’s needed. 

Rally space 

Some years back, up-and-coming teen artists went on tours across the country, doing abbreviated shows in malls. These were huge successes with incredible crowds showing up and launching the careers of many artists. Malls across America are dying, but they have a couple of key components: space and parking. With the right talent and planned events, malls can handle the turn out. What mall wouldn’t want the opportunity for more traffic? Have local dealers set up booths to support and have the ability to sell their products and services. Think of a traveling guitar show with local dealers showing goods and services. 

Hollywood is open 

Speaking of Hollywood how about we get close with the movie makers? Some product placement in movies is great marketing. Pepsi, Coke, Budweiser, and the like have been doing it for decades. With the rise of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon in the movie making business the platform is ripe for marketing. The “School of Rock” movie resulted in a spike in lessons and purchases. It even spawned the creation of The School of Rock teaching and performance schools. That’s just one movie, 14 years ago that got kids interested in playing an instrument. 

Just relax 

Perhaps the electric guitar market is just going through a market correction phase. After all, I’ve seen electric guitars are still selling firsthand at dealer events this year. There’s also the fact that Guns & Roses, U2, and Metallica – bands that are guitar centric – are the three top grossing tours of 2017. Maybe, like the golf industry, we’re slowly rebounding from a period of sluggish sales, and brands are starting to show signs of success adapting to marketing to the iGeneration and Millennials. Music stores seem to still have fairly strong lesson traffic that (if anything) pays the rent each month. Maybe the future is bright and, as we’ve seen for years, the cycle will return. Even some data suggests electric guitar sales have increased while acoustic guitar sales have fallen in 2016, which would be a reversal from the past three years or more. Maybe we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Making hay 

It’s a lot to take in and talk about, and I do with many dealers. From those who are selling electrics in record numbers to many who have guitars on their walls going on two years old, they all have a point of view on the subject. We deal with hobbyists and discretionary income, which is key in purchasing decisions. So if there’s a window of opportunity to reach out to consumers, why not charge forward with a global campaign to “Go Electric?” It’s going to take more than a guitar hero to lift the electric guitar – it’s going to take an industry. Our biggest trade show is coming, which represents a perfect time and place to kick off a movement. This is not the slow death for the electric guitar. It’s the moment for a revival, a comeback, a renaissance, or, as they say in the Valley… a “pivot.” 

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