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‘There’s Integrity Along With The Business’ – Lee Oskar Harmonicas at 40

Christian Wissmuller • AnniversaryApril 2023Archives • April 1, 2023

When you’re a harmonica brand, it certainly doesn’t hurt to be able to leverage the well-known name of one of the instrument’s most skilled practitioners. Lee Oskar Harmonicas have been connecting with players of all styles and ability levels for four decades now, thanks not only to the fame of the company’s namesake, but also due to universal acclaim for the design and high quality construction of these compact free wind instruments.

Crafted by Tombo Manufacturing of Japan, Lee Oscar Harmonicas are recognized the world over for attention to detail and unparalleled craftsmanship. Additionally, Oskar’s groundbreaking interchangeable system of reed plates, combs, and cover plates set these instruments apart from the pack. While much of the general public associates “Lee Oskar” with legendarily virtuosic playing and the music of the funk/jazz group WAR, musicians and folks in the MI industry associate the name equally with superior products and a dedication to excellence.

MMR recently spoke with Oskar about the company he founded back in 1983, the recently released Mick Jagger limited edition harmonica, bouncing back from the pandemic, and more.

Having reached such a significant milestone, did you ever expect it to have such staying power and for the brand to be such an enduring part of the landscape?

Well, there are two answers to that. First is, just to qualify, I don’t expect things. I just live for it, you know, and the only way you can have things going on rather than expecting it is to be in it and focus on your passion. If you’re not in love with you’re doing or if your heart and soul is not is not truly in it, then there’s no way you can be persistent with the ups and downs. So being involved with manufacturing, with the Tombo factory for my line of harmonicas, it’s been an amazing journey so far. 40 years has gone by really fast. What I’m most proud about is that it’s the same product. A lot of people can have been a business for so many years, but they still trying to figure out what would be a product to stick. And they’ve got maybe bank loans, and they’re still trying to innovate a product that may not be welcomed in the market as they hoped. My product has just been a great ride from the get-go because of the quality control, because the expertise of Tombo Manufacturing, and my love for wanting to see a better harmonica.

Lee Oskar Harmonicas continue to be embraced by so many players. Do you chalk that up entirely to the quality of the product, name-recognition based on your own musical legacy, or both?

There are a lot of people who will buy Lee Oskar Harmonicas because they do research, and they look up what people are saying out there. And our credibility is something I’m very proud of. I don’t think people ever buy “products,” to be honest with you. Most of us have never bought product – we always buy the story, you know? When they use the product and if it lives up to the story, then they’re very happy. You can have a great product and you can have salespeople who don’t understand marketing and sell it which means they told the story that was exciting and so people bought the story.

So marketing is a very crucial thing in how we connect with the consumers out there. It’s not just making them aware of a product, but also [figuring out] what the right story is. If the salespeople don’t have the right story to say, just they’ll tell a story, so it’s a combination.

Are there any plans in the works to celebrate to mark the occasion? Or are you going to, for example, have any anniversary models? Are you going be doing any special promotions, any events?

Yes. All the above. We are gearing up for a limited edition of the 40th-anniversary harmonica, Lee Oskar Harmonica. And at the same time, we are introducing a different cover plate. It’ll be another accessory for the Lee Oskar Harmonica system that will continue as an accessory after the commemorative, you know, 40th anniversary cover plate Lee Oskar harmonica. That’ll be a different design cover plate itself that physically either will be on the next Lee Oskar harmonicas or just be available as accessory.

Now, another thing that’s obviously huge news is the partnership with Mick Jagger. Can you talk a little bit about how that came about?

No, not at all. We all have much respect for Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, I mean, just what they’ve done for so many years and so consistently at a high level. I can tell you a couple of things. First of all, I know that Mick Jagger has been my using harmonicas for many, many years, but as a manufacturer in this business, you don’t want to brag or let people know, because unless you’ve got literally the rights for using the Mick Jagger name, from my end, I have to be very careful.

I knew an assistant engineer many years ago who worked on a project for the Rolling Stones in L.A. and he called me up and said, “Man, there’s a big box here and Mick Jagger’s got all these harmonicas that are yours.” I said, “I know. He plays them. Would you mind asking Mick if I could come down, I’d like to meet him?” And the answer got back to me, “No, he’s just focusing on what he wants.” You know, he’s not interested in the hoopla. And I respect that because whenever he got Lee Oskar harmonicas, they never hit us up. A lot of people want to get a free ride, right? I mean, they’re literally just wherever they’ve gotten, they bought him. And Mick Jagger chose what he chooses because he wants to, not because of any hype or anything. So I respected that and I loved that.

And then they came to us, almost a year ago when we started the dialogue, and they wanted to have, a limited edition of Mick Jagger-Lee Oskar Harmonica, which was a dream come true. So we made a limited edition for whynow, which is the company Mick Jagger’s son Gabe owns and they’re the ones that basically negotiated a deal with us. And nowadays we are looking at the next step with them because it’s almost sold out in very little time. So we are now in the negotiations, but we are exploring together. We are all excited about the next phase in providing a market with the Mick Jagger Lee Oskar harmonica.

To my knowledge this is the first time an actual musical instrument has had Jagger’s name officially attached to it.

Exactly. Someone told me other day, “Lee, do you know that Mick Jagger has never endorsed anything else before?” I believe it because he’s a statue of a man that really has self-made and keeps his integrity and doesn’t want the hoopla and all that to be part of the fabric of what he’s loyal to in his arts. I get all that and I highly respect him. Because as you know, for many years in our industry, it was like a freaking circus. All the kids will read up and learn that some brand was endorsed by an artist and then they go to the concert and the fan sees their favorite musician not even using the same equipment that there was a hoopla about.

And everybody wanted free stuff from the manufacturers. Sensationalism is great for marketing, but the bottom line is that you only want to hype things as long as it lives up to the reality, but you don’t wanna buy the hype yourself. All the hoopla and all that stuff, there’s a reason, you know? The truth is, it’s got to be for real, too. I highly respect certain people in the music business who’ve survived. Mick Jagger, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan – I mean, these people have defied anything that’s going to compete against what they want to do in their heart and soul, you know, in the moment artistically. That’s what matters. That’s important.

When they’re expressing from their heart and soul, that’s a fiduciary responsibility we have as artists. If I went to the grave and I didn’t express everything that comes to my heart and soul through music, I would be ashamed to call myself an artist. Because it’s not just about having a hit, it’s about the substance. The real depth of what the arts is about and using those media to express what’s really going through your heart and soul, and never to being afraid of expressing any of that, it is what a true artist says to me. And Mick Jagger has proven that, and the Rolling Stones and been very smart with business because believe me, as you get big and bigger, there are more things that’s going to want to tear you down.

Are there any other major product announcements, or introductions, or anything else on the horizon that you’d like to share with our readers?

Oh, thank you for asking. Well, you know, I can never just do one thing, I wouldn’t be able to focus. So literally between the harmonica business and marketing, I’m also very busy in producing and composing, and also painting. I paint every day, too. I have hundreds of paintings and I have a gallery here in my property that I’ve set up for showcasing. I’m constantly busy being creative and my son, Nathan, has now joined my company. It’s like a dream come true.

In what capacity is Nathan with the company?

Overall, he’s just learning everything and being proactive in an amazing way with everything with our team. It’s all just really perfect, and coming together beautifully. I’m not steering the wheel constantly. I’m learning to delegate and allow others to take responsibility and still be in the loop knowing what’s goes on. Nothing gets done without me saying yes or no, you know? In other words, there are protocols, so nobody’s running with the ball without teamwork, but it’s an amazing thing to feel comfortable in letting go of being top of everything.

As this issue will coincide with our industry’s annual gathering in Anaheim, will you be at the NAMM Show?

Absolutely. As a matter of fact, this year we are going to have a 20 by 10 booth, but the 10 by 10 will be open, and then we’ll have next to it, a closed booth, which will be like the meeting room. That’ll be the first time we’ve done that, so we are definitely excited about different things that are happening in our business, and we want to make a nice splash for this next NAMM Show, too.

I love the idea of things really coming back and of the industry becoming healthy in whatever new form that takes. So I’m really glad that you’re having a large presence at the Show.

I like to be positive about anything as negative and horrific as a world crisis. What I was blown away about, to be honest with you, is that I’ve noticed for many years that commerce is more important than human beings. Like, for example, I’ve seen in places like in Florida and small towns where they depend on tourists every year and they make millions of dollars, but every year they, on that beach, there’s one or two people who drown – who die every year. But instead of putting a sign up saying, “Do not swim here!” they’d rather pay the liability.

So I was so surprised when business closed down all that. I said, “Man, this has got to be even worse than as bad as they’re telling us it is. There’s no way humanity comes before commerce.” I’m pessimistic that way, but those couple of years it sure changed a lot of things. And it maybe cleaned house in a way where anything that’s going to still be in business had to figure out how to survive, and for anybody who wasn’t in business, this is like a new day. I saw quite a percentage of new people at the last NAMM Show who’d never been in the business before – young blood, new businesses, stores, retailers.

Since we’re touching upon COVID-related issues, supply chain problems were a big challenge for many industries, including MI. To what extent was your business impacted?

Oh, it was terrible. One thing is that we never stopped operating in the factory. And I noticed other companies when there was no business, the factory was closed down. How in the hell are you going to get back and be on the same level that you produced every day in quality control if you don’t have business going for two years? That’s a lot of relearning before the product can be sound. We still kept people at work, we never closed down. But the bad part was we always have our distributors make sure they have at least two or three months’ of inventory in the forecasting, so we can prevent as much as best as possible to not have back orders with all the SKUs that we make in the Lee Oskar Harmonicas, there’s a lot to maintain for a distributor to keep track of even a certain key of tuning that rarely sells, but there’s still someone who needs it. They need it, and you don’t want a back order, so it’s a tough game for distributors to be precise and forecast.

But that three months’ of supply would’ve taken three years to sell in the beginning of the COVID thing when it really hit hard. And the reason why is because it’s a mouth-breathing instrument. And when people are locked up in their home between everybody in one room and whatever they’re dealing with on top of that, wearing masks and worrying about getting each other sick, harmonica was the last thing you wanted to do.

I see your point. Is production back to pre-pandemic numbers or close-to?

We are back to about 80% getting close back to normal.

Moving in the right direction, so that’s good. Any final thoughts for our readers, on the anniversary, the state of the industry – anything?

Yeah. I find any kind of retail is almost like it’s a one-way street unless you know how to be creative. It’s like everybody knows where your store is, but you don’t know where the people are until they come into the store. So to make it a two-way street, again, retailers have a hard job, but anybody who succeeds will have long fans, regardless. And the good thing about a lot of the mom-and-pop stores, if they can maintain and be creative, is they have less vulnerability than a huge chains, the big stores, because big mega stores have very small margin in huge volume, right? So if it goes down a few points, that could be devastating for a huge chain. Whereas mom-and-pop stores, if it goes down 30%, 40%, it could be tough, but you can still survive if you’ve got enough loyal consumers.

We, as a manufacturer, always want to make sure that the retailer knows that we sell to a distributor. So we don’t sell direct to stores. We don’t sell through the back door and the front door and everybody’s different prices. It’s very consistent, very honest, and very real. It’s very squeaky clean and very satisfying to note there’s integrity along with the business, you know?

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