Bluegrass/Traditional Country Market Hums Along
It’s hard to get more basic then a handful of folks sitting in a circle with acoustic instruments jamming along to a traditional song whose harmonic structure is pretty much just G, C, and D chords. But in essence, that accessibility is the appeal of bluegrass/traditional country music. And for those suppliers and retailers who cater to that market, it’s plucking along. The Great Recession aside, the proliferation of festivals, an international organization committed to its growth, and groups like the Punch Brothers and Carolina Chocolate Drops are keeping it hip.
However, the economy seems to have dented the high end/vintage market, and the flood Nashville experienced last year seriously dented Gibson’s ability to supply their popular banjo and mandolins so severely it has taken a year to get it back.
Talking about this genre of music, those who know it well speak about the 2000 movie O Brother Where Art Thou? like purveyors of rock and roll talk about the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan: It caused a huge spike of interest in the “old timey” music. Bluegrass is certainly no fad as, 11 years after there’s still a steady stream of interest. Also, there is a direct relationship between how many banjos one sees on the Grammy’s and how much the market heats up.
“Based on what we have seen on the Grammy Awards program, country music in general is slowly returning to an acoustic instrument basis,” says Mandolin Brother’s Stan Jay. “Many of the bands on the Grammy Awards played acoustic guitars and there were at least two bands using banjo. Last year Steve Martin’s banjo-based bluegrass was a considerable draw. Alison Krauss has, in the past 24 years, been a considerable catalyst for popularizing bluegrass blended with country.”
It’s not as regional as it once was – sure there’s the traditional strongholds in the Southeast and Midwest, but the Internet has made getting instruments and lessons possible anywhere. “People are going online and giving music lessons to someone on the other side of the world,” Dan Hays says.
But there’s no clear consensus on how well the market is doing.
“I would say these are pretty exciting times,” says Hays, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). Formed in 1985, this organization promotes everything bluegrass. “I think the music has never been more accessible.” The old timey music has enjoyed a critical assist from new media. “Whether you’re creating the music, marketing it, or distributing, electronic media has kept us in touch with each other.” There are around a hundred instrument makers in the IBMA, and that includes the likes of Gibson and Martin, on down to the luthiers building instruments by hand out of their garage.
Mike Kropp has been on every side of this business. He owned a couple of retail operations in Connecticut from 1978 to 1981, had his own independent rep firm, and he’s worked with various manufacturers (currently he’s with NS Designs). Outside the industry he’s most known for his virtuoso banjo skills. He plays with Northern Lights, teaches at the Banjo Camp, and hits the ubiquitous festival circuit and most recently performed at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival in Framingham, Mass.
“I think the market is pretty healthy,” he says. “You can see that by the number of banjos, mandolins, and guitars being made, including inexpensive ones made overseas. They are all doing well and the numbers are quite high.”
Others aren’t so sure. “I would say the bluegrass market is hurting,” says Jeff Sullivan, co-owner of First Quality Music in Louisville. “I don’t think people are spending the money to go to festivals as much, and when they do go, they aren’t spending money on CDs and T-Shirts like they use to.” He adds that while they are doing good selling instruments, there’s a drop in the higher end. Players with two banjos already are hesitating to spend $2,000, $3,000, $4,000 on another one.
He also observes that some of the big guitar makers are “pumping 60,000 new guitars into the market a year each – how many guitars do you need? After a while we have customers that do have 10 or 15, but how many is enough? You can’t keep stacking new models on people.”
“I would say it’s holding steady – not growing because of the hit we took over the past few years,” says Jeremy Fuller of Fuller’s Vintage Guitars in Houston.
“We’re down a lot from a couple of years ago,” says Leo Coulson of Intermountain Guitar and Banjo in Salt Lake City. “But the volume we’re doing now is okay.”
“The stock market has been doing nicely – knock on wooden fretted instrument,” says Jay. “When we can say the same thing about a vast upsurge in consumer confidence and the resumption of home sales along with a reduction in unemployment numbers then I would like to be among the first to welcome you to ‘recovery.’ Until that time I cannot say that I see significant signs of it in our industry. Music and the performance thereof still seems a low priority to people struggling to keep their jobs, their health insurance and their homes. On the other hand, the adage that ‘the people who always had money still have money’ is oft repeated, and those fortunate and confident guitar, banjo, mandolin and ukulele-playing individuals continue to seek to own the finest new and vintage instruments, which is probably why they visit our showroom or place an order from our website.”
Kropp says that the proliferation of festivals has always been an ingredient in driving this market. “When the economy was bad, the smarter ones reduced their size, but absolutely they are important. One of the biggest parts of them is the jamming – about 75 percent of the attendees do what we call ‘parking lot picking.’”
Hays agrees and says that there are more than 600 festivals devoted to the genre range from small community ones to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. This three-day plethora of picking attracts over 4,000 people a day to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, all free courtesy of venture capitalist and banjo aficionado Warren Hellman.
“An important part of the festival is the jamming component – people don’t just passively sit and listen, but come to visit with and play with the others,” Hays says. It’s a community where Bob and Sue make plans to park next to Ed and Nancy so they can get their instruments out. “They talk about their instruments, exchange songs, and play into the wee hours of the morning.” He adds that it’s not unusual to see these people “lugging around $20,000, $40,000 instruments in the rain looking to jam with others – which is good.”
Fullers used to have booths at festivals, but as their average guitar was in the $3,000 to $4,000 range, they weren’t selling enough to make it worthwhile. “But we still sponsor as many as we can and make sure our name is all over it,” he says. “We also sponsor high school talent competitions.”
Hays says that while the music is gaining more fans, it still tends to follow patterns of population hot beds that historically gone back to the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. “But when you look at the music, it’s a newer art form,” he says. “It was 1945 when Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s band, and that was the when bluegrass as we know it was born.” The “old timey” music mingled with blues and African influences and gospel harmonies, and “that stew migrated as people from the west side of the mountains moved to Michigan and Indiana.”
Talk about a destination: as they like to say, you have to really want to go to the Mandolin Brothers store to go to the Mandolin Brothers store. Calling home an unassuming building on Staten Island, Stan Jay and team preside over fretted instruments. But catalog and online sales have been long established, and he says it’s common to find a first time visitor strumming an instrument who turns out to be someone who has done business with the company for 20 years.
Founded in 1971 by Jay and then partner Hap Kuffner, it’s been called the largest dealer of its kind in the world. (Kuffner left the store but not the business in 1982.) Jay has steered the store by carefully deciding what to carry. They have become one of the largest dealers of Martin instruments in the world. Gibson is there of course, and also Santa Cruz, Macpherson, and Huss and Dalton.
Jay says they are still in a mutual affection club with Martin, still one of their very top dealers. “We try to keep most of their line in stock at all times, and we have them build us four or five series of Custom Shop guitars that they do not, themselves, offer,” Jay says. “These models are extremely well thought out. We find that, after waiting four to six months for the completion of a custom guitar they sell out extremely quickly. Martin is one of the most innovative companies and they are never satisfied to stick to the tried and true. This year they’ve come out with a model – the CEO-6 – sporting a modern, stylized, headstock logo – and this comes as a shock to visitors who see it for the first time. But everybody that’s tried it loves the guitar, which eases the pain of having to accept a radically new feature from a very traditional company.”
First Quality Musical Supplies in Louisville has had an unusual journey. It started as a mail order company, evolved into a brick and mortar retailer, and is now also a manufacturer, making the Sullivan line of Banjos. Bill Sullivan started out just making template for banjo fingerboards in the early 1970s, and was quickly overwhelmed with requests. The need for other banjo-related parts and accessories was obvious and First Quality was born. By 1982 he had to give up his day job and focus on his business.
In 1985 son Jeff got involved and expanded, and brother Eric followed working in the shop focusing on creating necks. By 1999 the brothers incorporated and opened up a retail shop. Today their retail space is 3,000 square feet with another 14,000 feet of warehouse and shop area. They carry Gibson, Martin, Taylor, Deering, Morgan Monroe, and Eastman, among others including their own line of Sullivan Banjos. (They have and continue to supply banjo parts to Gibson.)
Intermountain Guitar and Banjo went in the opposite direction. For most of their history, they’ve been a traditional retail store, but around five years ago they’ve focused just on their online business. “We’re snooty,” Leo Coulson laughs. “We’re only open by appointment, and we don’t carry accessories or books or have lessons. We’re 80 percent vintage internet selling instruments all over the world.”
They’ve been around since 1973, specializing in repair and restoration of old guitars. They have new Martin, Gibson, Deering, and Nationals, but it’s primarily a vintage store and it’s not uncommon to find instruments going back to the 19th Century.
Fullers Vintage Guitar of Houston is “Texas largest guitar dealer” and, according to Jeremy Fuller, “the largest independent store in the southern U.S.” At 4,700 square feet of retail space and 4,000 guitars on the wall, it’s hard to argue with him. Primarily a Gibson dealer, Fender, Taylor, Martin, Rickenbacker, National, and others are found there.
Fuller could not have a better ambassador into the Bluegrass world – founder Mike Fuller is renowned banjo player (he’s in the Texas Bluegrass Hall of Fame) and plays the circuit regularly with his group the Lonestar Bluegrass Band. “There’s a good old boy mentality as in ‘I’m gonna buy me a gee-tar from good ol’ Mike.’ Bluegrass is a big deal here and we are known as a destination for players.”
Vintage on the Web
“The stores that do best with this segment have a brick and mortar store, but also have a strong online presence,” Kropp says, citing Mandolin Brothers as just one example.
“Our online business used to be 50/50 and it might still be,” Jay says, referring to the amount of business he does in his store versus through their website. “Interestingly, all of these sales are to players. If there are collectors out there hiding in the woodwork they are not making their status known to me [as] they are no longer wearing the nametag that says ‘Collector.’ At the same time, many individuals who purchase high-end fretted instruments to play do so with the notion that, in the long-term, they are likely to make money when the time comes to resell. The old saying is ‘A Martin guitar typically doubles in price in 20 years and triples in 30.’ We used to think the same thing about houses and their market values, but that has proven to be less reliable wisdom than it used to be. I’m not convinced that the aphorism is less of a certainty today as it applies to Martin guitars or most other American brands of great prestige and reputation. I still think there’s a pretty good chance it will remain true.”
The Mandolin Brothers was one of the first in this industry to set up shop online back in 1995, and last year they redesigned it. “The new site is everything the old site wasn’t,” Jay says. “We often compared the original site to an old fashioned, dusty, and somewhat disorganized bookstore. There were many gems to be found but finding them was sometimes tedious. Now we have a first class search engine, the ability to cross-search from half a dozen different directions, and way better photography and more of it.” They’ve also incorporated video, and are on Facebook and Twitter.
Fueling the importance of a website is the desire to reach buyers around the world. Kropp says that the Holy Grail is the pre-war instrument – “the most sought after banjos are the Old Gibsons from the 1920s and 1930s.” More buyers exposed to those instruments means a better price can be had. And apparently the market needs some help right now.
“The vintage market got super heated a few years ago,” Coulson says. “But certain Fenders and pre-War Gibsons and a lot of other vintage stuff took a beating in the recession. The prices have come down on a lot of stuff but not everything.” He adds that in today’s market nobody is really sure what something is worth. “Three years ago, it was accepted that a certain pre-war such-and-such was worth X, and you were on top of it.” But now, when you go to these guitar shows the prices “aren’t cheap” and so either things aren’t moving or their worth is disputable.
Coulson says that while there are some collectors who say they are players, and “insist they commune daily with every one of their 70 guitars, but to me there are more enthusiasts who understand that they are buying a piece of art that they can play. If you love something and you can play, and then in theory at least it’s increasing in value, that’s much more appealing then investing in a piece of art that you don’t really do anything with.”
For Coulson the mandolin market is dead – but then again, he doesn’t have one in his store that’s under $1,000. Ukuleles are the same: “The market for both of these under $99 point is booming, but nobody buys the $1,000 ones from me very often.”
“The high end vintage has been hurting for three years,” says Sullivan. “It’s off as much as 40 percent. Part of the problem, though, is the prices got ridiculously high. Who says a banjo is worth over $100,000? I don’t know if we’ll ever see those prices come back again.”
Elements of Success
A key component in this market is to not only feed a niche but also do it exceptionally well. Jeff Sullivan at First Quality says that the service and repair work they do is great, and that’s a big draw. “What we found is by specializing primarily in the banjo, and by hiring one of the key guys from Gibson, Tony Wray.” To have an operation that people can trust their sacred instrument with goes far in establishing the operation for as the first choice to make future purchases.
“We have always operated on the precept of the Golden Rule – we treat our customers the way we’d like to be treated ourselves, and, so far, that’s worked out well,” says Jay. “We believe in offering only the best in each genre, instruments of outstanding design that sound like angels on sweet air, and have no incipient liabilities or impediments. We enjoy having an inventory that makes visitors say out loud: ‘I wish my entire house looked like this!’”
A knowledgeable staff with minimum turnover is mission critical as well. “It is appropriate to bring up the term ‘relationships’ since nearly every transaction does so because of the connection between the seller and the buyer. An affinity must be created, and this can occur over months or years of sporadic contact or it can and does occur within a few minutes of a potential buyer and a seller first meeting. It starts with rapport, and must include trust and mutual understanding. Uniting an instrument with its new owner is so much like a marriage that sometimes I am compelled to tell the buyer of a beautiful guitar, ‘You may now kiss the bridge.’”
Part of the allure is players venturing into other instruments. “I do see players picking up other instruments,” Fuller says. “A guy might be proficient in one, like guitar, and have five or six of those, but then also pick up a banjo. You see a guitar player pick up a mandolin in our store.”
For Jay, these players picking up a different instrument is less a factor than players getting an additional instrument they primarily play. “Players come in seeking the instrument they’ve been obsessing about for some time.” When one is dealing mostly at the professional or even semi-professional end of things, it’s less a matter of “what alternate instrument would I like to learn how to play” and more a matter of “I’m here to find the instrument that’s going to make me feel better than I’ve felt in years about my playing.” They are probably thinking: “I want a guitar/banjo/mandolin/uke that will be the envy of every person I know and will sound, when played acoustically, like the highest fidelity and most fully equalized recording of – pick one: Tony Rice, Tommy Emmanuel, Pierre Bensusan, Laurence Juber, Chris Thiele, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas or Jake Shimabukuro. And that’s all I want.”
He says they encourage customers, as they walk through the door, to “play every instrument in the place” and “ask us up to one million questions.” “We find that the more visitors can learn about the various choices set before them, the better equipped they will be to make a decision about owning one.”
Otherwise, while selection is important, it’s not often Mandolin Bros. take on a new line. “We are a customer-driven company and it is our goal to make our selection as fine and as enticing as is humanly possible,” he says. “To make this happen a critical selection process is essential. We tend to gravitate to the high-end and so we have chosen to carry hand-made guitars.” These include instruments from the hands of Allan Beardsell, Kent Chasson, and McPherson Guitars of Sparta, Wis., among others. “In the lower, more modestly priced area, we have taken on Kremona brand classicals, made in Bulgaria.”
Somewhat proudly, he says they are known for being picky and that they reject far more than they accept in new, used and vintage, “so any instrument that survives this intense level of scrutiny has been found, by dint of its being part of our inventory, to be in very good plus, excellent or better condition, fully adjustable, free from manufacturing errors or flaws that are potentially semi-fatal.” He adds that in the short time that they’ve become McPherson Guitars’ largest dealer, and sold 37 of their instruments in 2007 and 35 in 2009. “Many of our customers consider this Wisconsin brand one of the highest quality and finest sounding new acoustic guitars they have played.”
The segment does seem like the last bastion to resist amplification. Kropp notes that electric basses are accepted, including NS Designs one which look anything but traditional. “There are some electric violins, and some make electric banjos, mandolins, etc. Some look traditional, some are more solid body in design, and some of those are quite good.” As some bands take their version of country/bluegrass a bit further, embracing jazz and rock influences, there’s more likelihood for electronics to be part of the mix. However, overall, “there’s more resistance – there are still bands that come out and sit in a circle and just play into one large diaphragm mic.”
“There’s a lot of people who like acoustic/electric instruments for playing at church,” Sullivan says. “With guitars its nice because there are so many acoustic models that already have a built in pickup and still gives the appearance of being pure acoustic. But with other instruments, like banjos, it’s 90 percent just acoustic.”
The brand landscape shifted with the natural disaster that befell those in Nashville. “Deering banjo sales have skyrocketed since Nashville got flooded taking out a lot of Gibson banjos,” Fuller says. “And it’s been a year since Gibson has had mandolins for sale and that has been especially bad because they are considered the premiere maker of mandolins” to the point sometimes others aren’t even considered. As Gibson is the premiere bluegrass manufacturer, it was bad for them but good for other makers. It seemed to hurt the high end though as it’s hard to get $7,000 for a banjo that’s not a Gibson, he says.
Catering to this market seems to offer rewards beyond the mere monetary.
Jay: “Every morning when I wake up, I think, ‘Wow! Another day at the office ahead of me! I can’t wait!’ I so greatly enjoy what I do and I haven’t felt as if I’ve had to ‘go to work’ for 40 years. My career path is cited six times in a book titled Creating the Work You Love: Courage, Commitment and Career by Rick Jarow, who illuminates examples of people who have found a calling instead of a job. My job is making people happy through the acquisition of the best guitars, banjos, and mandolins in the land.” An illustration of his attitude is found over the entrance to their acoustic room – that’s where one finds a sign that reads “Dream Fulfillment Center.”
“People who identify and acquire the instrument they’ve been searching for leave our shop far happier than when they came in,” he continues. “I feel great about that because there are so many professions where this result doesn’t happen. I’m delighted to be able, by providing visitors a place where the selection is limitless and the ability to sample and be informed is boundless, to energize and inspire individuals who, with nothing more than their fingers or a flatpick, create new worlds of artistic expression. Being able to write about and demonstrate guitars eight hours a day, six days a week also has its advantages.”
Hays agrees that the people drawn to bluegrass and traditional country are the best part, including the younger generation. “Today we’re on the verge of the fourth generation of emerging talent.” Sullivan is also confident about the younger generation picking up bluegrass. “I think it has been passed on,” he says. “It’s not just an old person’s genre. It’s a cool genre of music, and once they get playing it, they love it and are hooked.” Though he adds: “Is it as big compared to country music? Absolutely not. But for us we’re heavily in this niche and do well.”
Part of the joy has helped them preserve through these recently lean times. “It’s been difficult for us the last few years, but we’ve stayed in our niche and focused on customer service. Dad always taught us that if you have a great product, sell it at a fair price and provide unbelievably good customer service, you’ll do well.”
Then he adds: “The bluegrass industry must be the coolest because everybody is such good people,” states Sullivan. “I enjoy our customer bass – they are down-to-earth people and I appreciate that.”