The Pandemic Guitar Boom: A Nice Blip, or New Reality?
This article was originally published in the December/January 2022 issue of Canadian Music Trade magazine.
By Kevin Young
There’s been a lot of talk about the death of the guitar in recent years. Then again, some predicted the death of drums in the post-808 eighties. Didn’t happen. As for guitars, sales are shredding along quite happily, thank you very much.
During the financial crisis of 2008, sales dropped to roughly $821 million in the U.S., but since The Great Recession of 2009, bounced back, topping $8 billion worldwide in 2019 (not including the sales of used instruments).
Enter COVID-19. In 2020, U.S. guitar sales were $1.67 billion, and global guitar sales topped $9.2 billion, approximately, for a year-over-year increase of 15%.
There’s nothing like a global pandemic to put things in perspective. One of the things many people have rediscovered since March 2020 is that – although they have more time-wasting options in the palm of their hand than ever before – real world, back to basics, hands-on activities are great ways to de-stress, recharge, and reinvigorate themselves.
The effects of the pandemic vary from person to person and household to household. Some people found themselves with more or less money and time. Some people found it increasingly difficult to focus. Others found themselves unable to focus on anything other than things they’d rather not focus on constantly. Few, if any, regarded COVID times as a holiday. Most folks likely needed a holiday more than ever at some point during the past almost two years; be it away from family, or with them, to escape the constant tyranny of Zoom meetings, or block out those first few weeks when we were sanitizing our groceries before bringing them into the house. This is (at least partly) why learning/re-learning or just playing guitar captured the imaginations of so many people since mid-2020.
As it turns out, self-prescribing a regular course of six strings, a chunk of wood, three chords, and the truth (whether that truth is found in an old folk tune, modern chart-topper, or AC/DC tune) provided an escape for many, many of them.
As Gibson CEO James ‘JC’ Curleigh told Canadian Music Trade in March 2021: “In a world of digital acceleration, time is always your enemy. All of a sudden time became your friend.” In that interview, Curleigh also said: “…The truth is that guitar has always been synonymous with music… Without the guitar, music wouldn’t be where it is.”
Granted, Curleigh pointed to the “high level of choice… competing for your time, money, and passion...” as a factor that may have diminished interest in musical pursuits, but adds that, increasingly, those options – social media particularly – prompted many people to become creators in their own right. So, when the rubber stopped hitting the road in 2020, he summed up: “People start going, ‘Wait a minute, I got time on my hands and I’ve always wanted to learn to play guitar or learn to surf or cook. I’m going take some time to do it.’”
Now, with the world appearing to be on its way back to something approaching “business as usual,” if only “usual-ish,” the question is: what, if anything, can the MI industry – dealers, distributors, manufacturers – do to keep that trend going long-term?
To answer that, examining what’s happened over the past 22 months is a good starting point.
When the pandemic first hit, unsurprisingly, many in our industry had concerns about what the immediate future might hold in the MI market. As Scott Hager, founder of Ontario-based boutique pedal distributor Search and Distro Music Equipment, notes: “I was plenty worried about how it would play out in general and how it might affect our livelihood. Many of our manufacturers were already suffering due to some of the odd trade practices implemented in the U.S. not long ago. As a result, parts shortages were already an issue before the pandemic arrived and became much more of an issue as things progressed. As we tend to stock large quantities… we had stock to sell even as things got leaner.”
Consequently, Hager adds: “We were able to capitalize early in the pandemic on opportunities to buy extra stock that was passed over by other distributors and dealers who were either worried about spending during the shutdown or simply not set up to sell online efficiently… We did that primarily to support our manufacturers, but in the end, it was very much to our benefit as we had stock to supply where others did not.”
Those who doubled down did well, says Blaine McNamee, owner of Vancouver’s Rufus Music. He says his business has never been better than it was during 2020. Those who didn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t double down, or were just caught short, however, may face a potentially existential business crisis, McNamee believes.
“If you didn’t adapt during the pandemic, you’re going to go out of business,” McNamee says. “I can’t just call a supplier and say, ‘Hey, I’m out of guitars. Send me some more.’ With all of my major partners, I have orders well into 2023, but if you didn’t do that a year ago you’re not going to have product to sell. That doesn’t mean the market will slow down, it means that you didn’t adapt.”
It’s a stark warning, but the supply chain has been an issue throughout the pandemic and continues to be. To get a better idea of how things played out on the ground in 2020, in addition to McNamee, Canadian Music Trade spoke to Blaze Music President Rod Bader, and Michael Kirman, the VP of Steve’s Music Store, Inc., as well as Mario Biferali, the vice president of sales at Quebec-based Godin Guitars.
While the timing of the uptick in sales varied slightly, Kirman says that for Steve’s Music, it manifested in about May or June 2020. “The first month or two were chaos for everyone. We were scrambling. In the summer of 2020, there was a massive increase in demand… especially the second lockdown, and it’s been steady ever since. It started with electrics, then switched to acoustics, and now it’s both.” Peripherals were big as well, he adds: “Pedals, definitely – people might be trying to buy something a bit more unique. Boutique pedals have always done well, but the lower-price-point pedals are also flying out the door.”
Sales increased across the board, Kirman continues: “Ukuleles, as usual, the sales were very high. For guitars, we were seeing the beginner and higher-end [sales increase], and then the midmarket started moving a bit later. We almost sold out immediately of our beginner guitars.”
Supply issues, as well as the previously-mentioned desire by players to improve or augment their rigs or instruments, also drove demand between price points. “People’s use of their discretionary income switched from travel and in-person social activities to, ‘What can we do at home? What can we do with the kids?’ Or, ‘I played guitar or piano as a kid, so I’ll pick it up again.’ Towards the third wave there was an uptick as people went from beginner [products] to the next level,” Kirman says. While many may have feared and experienced a loss of income, the overall uncertainty drove demand, he believes. “People are spending money on renovations and more on themselves, locally; on things that made them feel comfort, security – redoing a room or spending money on a nicer instrument gave them a level of comfort.”
Given the means of connection was largely online during lockdowns, in addition to plain comfort, people were looking for more “analog” pastimes as a respite from screens. “Absolutely,” Kirman says, “with people picking up an acoustic guitar to just de-stress.” While playing has always provided that kind of break. “I think people are starting to re-discover it as a way to relax and recuperate from a busy day of being plugged in.
Granted, meeting demand was challenging. “We couldn’t replace them fast enough, so our shelves were pretty bare,” Kirman notes of the Steve’s Music stores, adding that manufacturing slowed down, in part, because of the social distancing rules about how many, if any, employees companies could have at work.
For Blaze Music, Bader says, it started in April of 2020: “Stores went into panic mode. It was really quiet for a month or two and then, all of a sudden, it just went ballistic. We had 213% growth last year,” he recalls. “We did really well, but part of the reason is we’re a stocking distributor – I buy inventory of stuff that I think is cool and keep it on board, so if someone calls and says, ‘Do you have one of these in stock?’ I can say, ‘Yeah, we’ve got that.’”
As for what was flying out the door, Bader continues: “Number one, by far, acoustic guitars.” While meeting demand may have been an issue for some, it wasn’t for Blaze. “My motto has always been ‘build and sell a better mousetrap.’” Consequently, his focus has been finding companies that share that ethos, he explains, citing Tone Pro guitar parts as an example. He also cites a U.S.-based company he works with that, “literally had containers of inventory so when… everybody ran out of guitars and stores went on the hunt for whatever they could find, we had tons of product.”
In addition to guitars, Bader adds, there was an increase in sales to guitar technicians and anyone looking to upgrade their existing axe(s). Whether they couldn’t afford a new instrument or didn’t need one, people were spending money on improving their existing guitars.
Again, a lack of supply drove sales across price points. Those who might be looking for something entry-level couldn’t find anything, which drove them towards the mid-level, and those looking for mid-level towards higher-end products. It also worked in reverse, Bader continues, “when someone wanted something high-level and had to settle for mid-level; people would buy everything they could get their hands on. That’s what happened.”
From the manufacturers’ standpoint, Biferali at Godin notes that the pandemic environment required streamlining, and communicating frankly with dealers. “Working closely with dealers to forecast needs and demand all helped us. That allows us to make guitars and to make and ship what they want, but we were a bit behind,” he explains, citing a shortage of labour. “That was hurting us a little bit.”
When the pandemic hit, he continues, “Immediately two things happened – some dealers panicked and canceled orders, some doubled down.” Even though Godin was finding it difficult to cope with demand and even when they informed dealers their stock might be further delayed: “Instead of saying ‘we’ll just wait for our guitars,’ they ordered more, so it was evident we needed to crank it up.”
Consequently, Godin doubled down on making themselves more efficient. “We questioned every SKU. Why does this exist? Why do we have several models, with similar specs, in the same price points? Do we need them all? How about colour options? Should we delay new model launches and focus on ramping up the best sellers?” As such, models were discontinued, product lines streamlined. “We re-evaluated every part of our operation with regards to how we forecast, how we stock, and what we stock, which I think made us a better, leaner, and more efficient company. But, for us, the most important thing was to communicate with our sales team and our dealers.”
CAN THE BOOM KEEP GOING?
So, can the trend of six-string supremacy be maintained and built on? The verdict is still out. But all of the factors that drove sales in 2020-21, and all of the efforts to deal with demand outstripping inventory, offer some insights into how to move forward. “I don’t have a crystal ball,” Biferali says, “but I think people who discovered a real love for guitar… many will continue to play, and buy another guitar, and another one.”
To keep sales up and maintain interest, Biferali sees the type of streamlining and re-evaluating Godin has undertaken as an approach that other stakeholders – manufacturers through stores – could benefit from. “It helps retain the demand, because you ask yourself, ‘Who is this guitar for? Who are our customers? What are they purchasing?’ We speak to our dealers so much more than we did in the past… and we’re more in tune with what they want — and we’re still learning. We don’t know if the outcome of what we determined is going to be correct, but I think it’s going to help us in the long run – putting practices in place to make us efficient. So, when everything goes back to normal, we’ll be a much better, well-oiled machine.”
Bader says: “There was a bump after The Beatles. There was a bump after Van Halen. Will we see a downturn? Absolutely. Some people that bought guitars for $300, they’ll be able to go play soccer or hockey and are able to do other things because the world is opening up again and that guitar will sit in the corner. But I’m going to say 25 to 30 percent of those people will stick with it and make it a life choice like we did.”
He cites the Fender Play platform as a litmus test – “Fender had something like one million people sign up for it. Now that the pandemic is waning, I think they’re down to about 350,000 paying monthly for lessons. So, they have retained about 35 percent of the people that signed up. So, there are people who did find a passion and excitement and that’s on the guitar side only, right? Think about that. It’s pretty impressive.”
“I’m definitely not pessimistic,” McNamee says. “I feel like we’re just getting started. I’ve owned this business since 2014. I’ve opened two new locations since then, so I don’t think it’s going to slow down for us.” McNamee notes that his stores, Rufus Guitar Shop and Rufus Drum Shop, focus on guitar and drums, and that focus helps them. Those people who did take up guitar and bought their gear from their Vancouver stores are going to come back for more gear, for peripherals from picks to pedals, for advice, lessons, etc.
“So, is it a good time to open a guitar store? Probably not. Are we going to see some shops go down? For sure.” That said, for those willing to adapt, in particular to investing in streamlining online sales, the future is bright. As for lessons, although he had to pivot to online lessons during the pandemic, there are many, many options available, from random free YouTube tutorials to more organized, regimented offerings. For McNamee, competing with that is a losing battle – but then again, that can’t truly compete with the live experience. “People are always going to want to take in-person lessons,” he says.
That said, other online initiatives can help maintain and grow the business. “What we’ve started doing is online demos. That’s a huge focus for us. We’ve always heavily advertised on Instagram. During the pandemic, we started investing more into our YouTube channel. We now crank out videos a couple of times a week and hired somebody to do that. So, I’m absolutely optimistic. We’ve seen huge growth. When I bought this business, it was doing just under $1 million and we’re close to $5 million [in sales] now, in seven years,” McNamee reveals. “But your [level of ] optimism is going to be based on how well your business is doing. The landscape is completely different now from what it was even a year ago and it’s not going back. If you have any illusion that in the future we’re going to go back to what it was in 2019, that’s not going to happen.” In other words, adapt or fail.
“I think you’re going to see more used cheap guitars come through Kijiji and Craigslist and stuff like that,” Bader sums up. “But the people that stick with it, they’re going to become more excited over time. The funny thing about guitar players is they’re habitually old-school. You look at the two number-one selling guitars in the world, the Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul, which were both invented in the early 1950s.” Basically, the technology may change, but, at the core: “guitars are still six strings on a piece of wood,” he says, chuckling, and adding that with playing guitar, “it’s almost like going for that hike in the woods; there’s an organic quality to it.”
While there are concrete steps every facet of the MI business can take to keep interest alive and well, speaking to the sea change in how people spend their time and why they do so now, are critical to success. The realization of what can be accomplished – both in-person in a DIY way and remotely – can drive growth and feed ongoing interest, Kirman believes. At the core, during uncertain times playing and learning filled a void – not just in terms of providing a focus, an escape, a project – but as a balm to ease the absence of the true communal experience of live music altogether.
“People are waiting with bated breath for live music to come back… so there’s a resurgence in interest. But people have also realized that their neighbours can come over and play in the garage, or that online you can play with, or learn from, people across town or the world. People who are in their 40s and 50s who played in high school came back and started playing again, and, maybe, they’ve started inspiring the younger generation,” Kirman says.
Will it stick for everyone? No. But for a significant number it will, most likely, stick with them long-term and prompt them to spread the word.
Regardless of the instrument, playing is a calming, almost meditative, activity – one that can mitigate the intrusion of the big, bad world for a while. Speak to that, and you’ll likely prompt growth.
Kevin Young is a Toronto-based musician and freelance writer.