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IBC-Music at 30: Iain Wilson on Three Decades of MI ‘Matchmaking’

Christian Wissmuller • ArchivesOctober 2023 • October 5, 2023

For the past 30 years, Belfast-based IBC-Music has been a globally recognized MI sourcing partner, working with brands, distributors, retailers, and suppliers. Providing well regarded consultancy services in international sales, sourcing, and marketing, the organization has become a vital business collaborator for many.

We recently connected with IBC-Music CEO, Iain Wilson, to learn more about the evolution of the company and the services offered, and to discuss events of note during this 30th-anniversary year – including recently being honored by King Charles with the King’s Award for Enterprise.

In broadstroke terms, IBC-Music provides consultancy services relating to distribution, sourcing, marketing, etc., but for any MMR readers not fully clear, can you outline specifically what IBC-Music does?

IBC is effectively an international “matchmaker” – like a dating agency for MI brands. In particular we specialise in guitars, ukuleles, amps, gig bags, stands, and all guitar-related accessories.

There are 2 distinctive sides to IBC-MUSIC. First, there’s matching brands with the correct OEM manufacturing partners. That can be in USA, UK, Europe, China, Indonesia, S. Korea, Vietnam, India, Mexico, and an ever-increasing number of countries, as brands seek to spread the risk from being wholly invested in China. We manage the entire production process on behalf of the brands and then ship the products either to the brand’s HQ or drop ship to their distribution partners.

The second area is matching brands with the correct worldwide distribution partners. In the past this used to be through traditional distribution, but as the world and markets have changed, we’ve developed an omni-channel approach that includes distributors, direct to retail, e-tail, mass market or a combination of all of the above.

Our team helps brands develop their international sales around the world. We’ve worked with brands like Fishman, G7th Capos, Larrivee Guitars, Breedlove Guitars, Lowden Guitars, Parker Guitars, F-Zone, and many others. Some customers retain us just for sourcing, some for international sales, some for both.

Going back a bit, what was the catalyst for launching IBC 30 years ago? In those early days who were the principal figures involved?

IBC was initially set up on September 1, 1993 to develop international sales for MI brands, so this year we celebrate 30 years in the business. Our first customer was Lowden Guitars from Northern Ireland. I was born in Belfast and had bought my first Lowden guitar in 1986 using insurance money after a serious car wreck. I had to give up golf due to a back injury, but this was replaced with a love for guitars.

In 1989, some of the principles of Lowden asked me to carry out research at Musik Messe and in French and German markets. This formed part of my business degree and ultimately led to a job role being created to sell and market Lowden Guitars worldwide.

I held this post until 2006, when I decided to set up the sourcing side of the business. My own expertise lay in international sales, so in order to underpin the sourcing business I employed David Ingham who had been the production manager at Lowden for 12 years.

What guided the decision to focus on musical instruments/gear and the MI industry?

We wanted to bring our expertise in high end guitars to customers seeking alternative sources of manufacturing. At the time, this was mainly in China. However, things have changed dramatically and we now source from many countries across the world. Starting this type of business in 2006 became a massive upward struggle when the crisis hit in 2008. However, we had already secured a number of key customers and managed to survive that period. This experience is helping us to carve a path through the current “crisis.”

During the early period of the company, we did flirt with other product lines and we attended the Canton Fair in Guangzhou many times. We looked at massage chairs, solar panels, white goods, and a full range of other products. However, in the end we decided to stick with what we knew best – guitars, ukuleles and related products.

If you ask us about other stringed instruments, brass or woodwind, we’ll be honest and tell you we’re not the right partner. We want our customers to have a long, fruitful partnership with us.

Cue to the present day, who are the senior officers at IBC-Music?

Myself and Dave are still the key people in IBC, supported by Connie Wilson, my wife who is Chinese and brings amazing insight and perspective to our customers. Our key team is supported by an admin team in Ireland, plus QC teams to support our client’s needs.

As the company developed, about 10 years ago, IBC formed a strong alliance and partnership with Hap Kuffner from Kuffner International Inc. Hap is an industry veteran and legend. Hap has enormous connections across the industry and was one of the pioneer sourcing agents in the early ‘80s and highly experienced in S. Korea, Indonesia and China. Clients would phone Kuffner International, then phone IBC, trying to play us off against each other. One day at NAMM I joked to Hap, “when will you give me your famous hat?” That led to a partnership that is now heading into its 10th year.

IBC had younger blood in the company and was making six-to-nine trips a year to Asia. We’d quickly become the “China Experts,” while Hap had key contacts in S. Korea and Indonesia. We put our hats together and became a formidable team.  As things changed and companies looked to spread the risk from working solely in China (especially after the additional tariffs in the USA), we were able to pivot our contacts in other countries to expand the offering to our customers.

With such an international footprint – teams in America, Asia, UK – to what degree has IBC been impacted by recent and ongoing travel restrictions, supply chain issues, et cetera?

Like everyone else, we were unable to travel during COVID. However, the entire time we still had our teams based and working in Asia. This gave us a major advantage during the COVID years, as we could still offer an effective service to our customers. So, we grew dramatically during the pandemic.

We supported our customers and suppliers as much as possible, often paying for parts upfront to get us to the top of the line, building on our relationships going back over 20 years in Asia. Factories don’t forget when you helped them through the good and bad times. Now things are looking very bleak post COVID, with many brands cancelling large orders, resulting in workers leaving, some factories closing, and ongoing quality issues. Frankly without a team on the ground right now you don’t know what you’re dealing with in terms of the factory stability, their staff and what type of quality you’ll get when goods arrive. At the same time, we watched the traditional distribution channels crumble, brands struggling to get supply and now over-supply in the market for certain products. IBC is nimble and the old adage, “adapt or die” has been our mantle during the last four years.

Again, speaking to the international reach of IBC, I’d imagine that’s allowed you to be nimble in ways that other such organizations cannot in terms of reacting to changes in global markets, particularly in the past few years.

There is no doubt things have changed in the supply chain, countries of manufacturing and routes to market – the new omni-channel approach. In both sourcing and international sales, we have to adapt quickly to stay ahead of the changes and offer effective services to our customers.

Instead of relying on China as the only country of origin, we have also been helping some companies bring manufacturing back to the USA or Europe. These days we are manufacturing guitars and ukuleles in China, Indonesia, S. Korea, India, and Eastern Europe. Gig bags and cases have expanded into Indonesia, India and Vietnam. Amps and PA into Indonesia, Vietnam, and now Mexico. We expect amps and PA out of Mexico to be a large part of our business going forward. The proximity, FTA agreement, and skilled workers there offer a great alternative, especially to U.S. customers.

The team at IBC is always investing in finding new solutions for our customers. While many customers just hope their supply chain will be suitable post COVID, in reality as many still have a fear of travel and have no idea what is going on in Asia right now.

As well as having a team on the ground, I have just spent a month in Asia, getting a real-time post-COVID overview at factories, across a wide spectrum of suppliers and products. While business is somewhat challenging right now, the goal is that IBC will become the go-to sourcing partner as demand increases again. In reality, no brand, distributor, or retailer can afford to have someone on the ground in Asia doing all that kind of research for a month. Our knowledge is now even more precious than before.

Who are some of the more well-known brands, retailers, and manufacturers who have partnered with IBC-Music?

IBC tends to work under NDAs which limits us from naming brands. However, it’d be accurate to say that we work for leading U.S. guitar and ukulele brands. In addition, we supply a range of distributors and major retailers with their house brands, stands, gig bags, cases, and accessories.

We have customers across the USA, Canada, Europe, Southeast Asia, and South America. We trust this will continue to grow, especially in the USA as companies look to reduce risk and diversify into new territories to mitigate the “Trump Tax” and any political uncertainty.

IBC recently was honored with the first ever King’s Award for Enterprise. Can you talk about what being a recipient of such an award represents for you, personally, and for the company?

To be recognized by King Charles with the most prestigious Business Award in the UK was both a major surprise and honour. IBC won the King’s Award for Enterprise for International Trade. I had the pleasure of meeting the King at Buckingham Palace in June 2023, along with other recipients across the UK.

Are there any recent or upcoming events, developments, product introductions, or initiatives you’d like to draw our readers’ attention to?

Our month in Asia has been an eye opener. I’ve been coming here for 20 years and things have changed forever. We’re working on several new products right now that are exciting and will launch at NAMM 2024. As we under NDA, all we can say is, “Watch this space,” but you won’t be disappointed. Regarding moving to new markets, I’d say don’t let your competitors there first. As demand rises again, supply will be very limited and if you are not in, you can’t win.

How would interested parties best go about exploring a partnership with IBC-Music?

To find out more about our services they can check out www.ibc-music.com or email [email protected]. We’ll then set up a famous Zoom or Teams call to discuss if and how we can help develop an effective partnership. It’s the same for both sourcing and international sales projects.

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