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Turning Crisis Into Creativity: Guitar Sales Soar During the 2020 Pandemic

Christian Wissmuller • November 2020Retail • October 30, 2020

Tom Bedell

“In mid-March, I would never have thought I’d be able to say that Fender is going to have the biggest sales year in its history,” says Fender CEO Andy Mooney. “Sales this year will surpass $700 million, which is a high watermark for us.”

Let’s just let that sink in for a little while. Fender’s been around for over 70 years, producing instruments that helped shape Western country swing, contributed to the birth of rock and roll, and played a significant part in the British Invasion, the birth of heavy metal, the advent of fusion, the grunge explosion of the ’90s, and pretty much every other “guitar-heavy” movement. And Fender’s biggest-ever sales year is… 2020?

As logic-defying as it may seem at first glance, with live performances essentially non-existent, music stores shuttered or operating on limited schedules for much of the year, unemployment soaring, and global financial instability, somehow these past many months have nonetheless been a boon to many in the guitar trade: “We have experienced ongoing, record demand since May,” offers Monte Montefusco, vice president of sales at Taylor Guitars; “We have been scrambling. We’re trying to actually hire some people here,” observes Breedlove Guitars’ Tom Bedell. “We’ve put everything on order with our suppliers that we could possibly get. It’ll be the best year we’ve ever had by a lot –revenue, gross margin, and profit. So it’s crazy. I mean, this should have been a horrible year, right?”; Silvan Küng of Relish Guitars Switzerland also reports similarly brisk sales, saying, “Since incorporation five years ago, we have produced over 1,000 guitars and we will reach that same volume before the end of 2020.”; “We have been fortunate enough to have experienced a huge uptick in sales across the board,” shares Armadillo Enterprises’ Evan A. Rubinson. “The Dean brand has seen an increase of 38 percent YTD, with the Luna brand gaining 33 percent YTD.”; Ernie Ball’s Brian Ball says, “Demand for our Ernie Ball Music Man guitars and Ernie Ball strings and accessories has been extremely strong… Sales are up over double-digits, overall, from 2019.”; “We made the pivot back to growth mode and we are experiencing amazing demand, growth, and energy in the guitar business… We are seeing double-digit growth right now,” notes Gibson CEO James ‘JC’ Curleigh; Mike Miltimore, CEO of Riversong Guitars, says, “As a guitar manufacturer, we have seen a huge increase – 47 percent – in sales of our Pacific series guitars over same period last year.”; Thomas Appleton, Hoshino’s (Ibanez) sales strategist for guitars and electronics shares, “Our sales have increased dramatically during the pandemic and the increases do not appear to be slowing down as of yet. Some thought that when the stimulus money dried up the sales would stop, but that hasn’t been the case.”

A Rocky Start Followed by Swift and Decisive Recovery

When COVID-19 first reared its spiky head and the gravity of the situation became apparent, things certainly didn’t look so rosy. Christian (Chris) Martin IV of Martin Guitars recalls that, “Back in March, we thought we were headed into a significant recession or even depression.”

The company had been forced to cease all operation, having been deemed a “non-essential” business. “We had to petition the governor to allow access to the factory – just for a handful of individuals – to ship pre-existing product.”

Paul Reed Smith (PRS Guitars) recalls a similarly turbulent spring: “We had an aggressive growth plan going into 2020, but when COVID-19 hit, we had to shut down for about nine weeks and it was not clear at first how the year would be impacted. One thing that has always been true at PRS is our willingness to dig deep during hard times. Everyone here did that – whether it was securing PPE supplies, rearranging shop floor, working with local government, or a host of other activities that helped us to start back up strong when we could reopen. We are very thankful to be in this position. I personally am very thankful for the team here.”

Curleigh recalls the early days of lockdown and the impact on Gibson Brands: “At the beginning of 2020 we had set the stage for all of our brands to succeed. Then, at the end of March, the entire world changed. Heading into April our factories were closed, most of our dealers were closed, and even our artists were ‘closed’ for live events.” Taylor Guitars was also briefly forced to put operations on hold, but are now back up and running, with more orders than can immediately be accommodated. “Like most suppliers, our factories were required to pause manufacturing due to the pandemic,” recalls Montefusco.

“Keeping our craftspeople safe continues to be the number-one priority at Taylor. We have resumed building guitars with social distancing guidelines and enhanced safety measures in place. The current demand for Taylor instruments far outpaces what we experienced in 2019. Our team has thousands of guitars to build before we catch up.”

“It’s been a ride, Christian. It’s been an amazing ride,” says Bedell of the Breedlove experience. “When this thing first started to unfold in late February, March, none of us knew what the heck was coming at us. And then the store closings across the country happened in March and April and one question, you know, was, ‘Is Guitar Center going to make it, are other major retailers going to be okay? What was going to happen?’ My number-one mission is to save my cohorts these jobs, to save their lives with their families, and to figure out how to get through this period. People are panicked about figuring if the business was going to go away?

“We were allowed in Oregon to reopen at the very, very end of April, really the first of May, because we’re not open to the public – so long as we wear masks and have the stations social distanced, and did all the precautionary things. We had a reasonable May, and then we had absolute record orders in June, July, August, and September. We had more orders for more guitars during those four months than we’ve ever had in any other six-month period.”

Mooney shares how the evolution of 2020 for Fender followed a similar trajectory – but has also seen the company’s online education portals generating and supporting newfound interest. “When the lockdowns went into place in mid-March, 90 percent of our dealers’ physical stores, worldwide, were closed,” he says. “And both our factories in California and in Sonata were closed – literally with yellow police tape around them. So, we were very concerned at that time, but within a matter of weeks, we started to see this unbelievable trend and people kept pivoting to wanting to play guitar. And then we, just purely as a gesture of goodwill, offered Fender Play – a subscription-based learning product – free to the first 100,000 people that would sign up, thinking maybe we’ll get 30,000, 40,000 – maybe even 50,000 people. We got 100,000 people on the first day.”

Gibson also has seen players embrace the brand’s learning platforms. “People who always wanted to learn to play guitar now have the time, commitment, and tools to learn,” says Curleigh. “Others who have been playing guitar for a while are paying more attention to their guitars, learning new techniques for free with Gibson’s partnership with the Amped Guitar app, and getting tips from their favorite guitarists on Gibson TV shows.”

The Catalyst?

There are no hard and fast metrics to conclusively establish why interest in guitars has spiked so aggressively, but common sense points to some obvious contributing factors. First off, as enjoyable as it may have been during the first days or weeks of isolation to binge-watch everything on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, or whatever other streaming platform strikes your fancy (or all of them) there are only so many hours a person can spend on the couch with a bag of Doritos, staring at a flat-screen. The same applies to mucking about online for hours or even to more “scholarly” pursuits such as catching up on reading or deciding to learn how to bake bread or tackle home-brewing.

Secondly, the guitar (and ukulele, and a few others) is uniquely positioned to represent a practical musical outlet for the many of us not lucky enough to be sprawled out in a six-bedroom, 12-acre estate, far from our nearest neighbors. The person on the other side of the paper-thin walls in your downtown brownstone probably wouldn’t take too kindly to your pandemic-inspired embrace of an acoustic drum kit or the euphonium, but even the crankiest next-door housemate is likely to be tolerant of a quietly strummed acoustic or an electric guitar played through headphones or at moderate volume.

As for who is driving this surge, Brian Ball has an idea: “I think it’s absolutely both new and experienced players. Whether they are getting more time at home during the work week, sheltering more on the weekends, and not having to commute to and from work, it appears people are looking to fill their time with a positive form of self-expression, and the guitar has seen a major boost for both experienced and beginning players due to these factors and others.”

“I attribute it to a myriad of factors: parents buying their kids instruments as an alternative to excessive TV and video game time, new players coming into the market who want a hobby during quarantine, and existing enthusiasts that are working from home and have more time to hone their craft,” says Armadillo’s Rubinson. Montefusco of Taylor agrees: “We’re hearing about players of all abilities, from the musically curious to seasoned professionals, seeking to improve their playing skills. There have been countless new musical duos learning to play guitar together. Married couples, parents and children, even housemates, are stuck inside and making music together.”

Adds Relish’s Küng, “Customers would like to have a beloved instrument to play at home and get inspired for some reason to enlighten their spirit as social lives has changed.” Miltimore concurs with his colleagues and also points to the mental – even spiritual – well-being that learning and playing guitar can provide as a driving force behind the strength of this MI segment during lockdown. “I believe that the increase is due to people wanting to do something productive with their time,” he says. “As well as the flood of content from people sharing their guitar music with Facebook. Guitar is a great instrument to play on your own and is a great therapy tool. It appears as though a lot of purchases are going to new players, of which many are women. My hope is that coming out of this pandemic, we see many more people playing, writing, and performing music.”

Paul Reed Smith shares the belief that guitar offers some self-generated therapy of a sort, saying, “The guitar is a tool to do a job. If you have music you want to create, it facilitates that. But, beyond that, the guitar is also a powerful mood adjuster. At the end of a long day, you can sit down and play, and when you’re done, you feel a little better.”

No Industry-Wide Windfall

It’s nice to be able to shine a light on “the positive” during times like these – indeed, that was very much a factor behind choosing to run this article – but it’s worth noting that, while this is a bright spot in MI during 2020, the “guitar boom” and it’s uplifting impact only reaches so far. If guitar sales are up (as they, generally speaking, are), then it stands to reason that sales of picks, strings, straps, amps, cables, stomp boxes, cases, and the like have increased, too, but that doesn’t mean everyone is basking in the reflected glow of increased consumer interest in the guitar. It also doesn’t mean that there isn’t potential risk for both guitar suppliers and dealers as the trend evolves.

“I will say this – and I’ve seen this in the past: it becomes a little bit of a feeding frenzy,” says Chris Martin. “Once you’re out of stock and you find out that the manufacturer is backordered and the salesman’s pressuring you to get an order on the books, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God. You’re right. I better order more D-28s because they’re sold out.’ You know, that’s a little bit of a self-perpetuating thing until the merry-go-round stops. Of course, you play momentum. Any businessman worth their salt is going to say, ‘I’ll deal with it when it happens,’ but in the back of my mind, once these hooks get refilled, if the demand doesn’t continue with this pace, at some point, the dealer’s going to say, ‘I’m good. I got inventory. Thank you very much.’”

“And my real dilemma as chairman of NAMM is, ‘What can I do – what can we do – to help the rest of us in our industry [who] are not experiencing this?’ We are not through this yet. Some of us are feeling pretty good, but some of us are not. We have to be honest about that. If you’re in the live business or you’re in the big PA business, selling million-dollar PA systems… I don’t think that business is moving right now.”

Martin is also able to provide rare contextual insight into COVID-19 and its effect on MI, thanks to his brand’s long history. Chris says, “I was saying to myself, ‘This is going to be one of those things in the Martin history book where they talk about it.’ And, generally, when you see our sales go down, it’s around a war or an economic debacle. With this one it will be like, ‘Well, it wasn’t a war and it wasn’t the recession. It was a deadly virus that caused this dip and then we recovered more than ever imagined.’”

How about the 1918 Pandemic, then – the H1N1 Virus, the “Spanish flu?” C.F. Martin & Company was around and running strong in the early twentieth century, after all. “The problem back then is it was intertwined with World War I,” explains Martin. “So, yes, there was a downturn in sales and production, but was it because of World War I, or was it the Spanish Flu, or a combination of both? And then, the country came out of the other side of that and the Roaring Twenties happened, plus, the ukulele boom. So, yes, it was a difficult couple of years during World War I, but by the 1920s, the company was back, and the economy was strong, and people were making music.”

When I respond, “Hopefully something similar will happen sooner than later,” he says, “You know? You never know. We might come out of this and go, ‘Well, I’m glad we got through and now things are better again.’ Yeah.”

How Long Will It Last?

Most trends (with the exception of the ukulele craze, apparently) peter out, of course – what comes up must come down, and all that. So just how long will these heady days for the guitar market endure? For his part, Brian Ball thinks there may be longer-than-expected residual effects of this recent surge of interest. “Speculation may be that this is temporary due to the current health crisis,” he says. “But we believe with the ease of learning guitar with apps, YouTube, and other music educational vehicles, these new customers will continue to play even if and when ‘normal life’ resumes.”

“I remain hopeful for the year coming up,” says Miltimore. “I know that in times of hardship, people turn to music. Guitar can be a solitary instrument or very social. The range of styles and complexities is unlike any other instrument I can think of.”

Tom Bedell is realistic, but still hopeful about the future, as it pertains to sales of six-strings: “We know this isn’t going to continue forever. It’s just too big and managing that becomes the challenge, right? It’s because we don’t want to overload the supply chain with inventory. You don’t want to not be fresh to the consumer, so the timing of all that becomes really critical. In our case, we have expanded to enough new dealers and new distribution channels that we’re 100 percent confident our business is going to be significantly larger in 2021. We’ve just got more dealers, we’ve got more outlets, we’ve got more programs, more things happening, so we anticipate 2021 to be a very good year for us.”

Appleton also feels optimistic about the continued health of the guitar market. “It is obvious that this trend is nationwide as we have dealers in every region scrambling to acquire guitars and basses,” he shares. “Many dealers took advantage of the quarantine to upgrade their merchandizing, as well as their internet sales infrastructure, which has helped increase their sales across the board. We’ve heard time and again how this summer has been like Christmas, which as most industry veterans would say is something they never expected to hear. So for many it does look like Christmas came in July. We’re hopeful the increase with new players will continue to reward the industry for years to come.”

Offering perhaps amongst the most pragmatic outlooks of those I connected with for this feature was Rubinson who says, “Supply chain issues have been a key factor affecting many brands this year. I think that 2021 will be a year of reconciliation and regaining a barometer for what the ‘new normal’ looks like. Those who forecast best will certainly maintain an advantage when there is limited capacity and supply. “

Whatever the coming months hold, the renewed and increased passion for the guitar amongst end users provides not only a welcome glimmer of hope during a most difficult time, but also an opportunity to grow that momentum and, ideally, see it spread to all areas of MI and beyond. “The challenge going forward will be to keep this newfound energy around guitars and playing guitar going into the future,” states ‘JC’ Curleigh. “The combination of passion, authenticity, and creativity has been unleashed from beginners to pros. So – sometimes it’s possible to turn a crisis into creativity!”

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