Ukulele Surge: Finally some Respect?
An upward turn and an industry-wide effort to move beyond mere novelty is paying off
Could the ukulele have reached a new, higher plateau? A point where it’s more than just a novelty toy to play “Tiny Bubbles” on, or be the mere prop that Tiny Tim made into a joke?
MMR’s recent survey inquiring into the ukulele industry came back with a resounding “yes.” The little four-stringed-instrument-that-could has achieved respect – and more importantly, market share.
“It’s really taken off,” says Jim Beloff of Flea Market Music. “It’s a really fun part of the business right now.” And a growing part, as documented in a Los Angeles Times article this past July. That article attributed the boom to the Internet, pointing out the massive amount of hits that some uke-centric tunes have gotten on YouTube, in addition to clubs and related downloadable applications (that Blackberry you have there can mimic the instrument and teach you how to play chords). Rock journalist Sylvia Simmons established “Million Uke March” to support Barak Obama’s campaign (assumed motto: “Change Uke ‘An Believe In”).
Several key elements contributed to this surge in addition to the Internet: First, like so much else about music making, it’s artist-inspired. George Harrison was known as a fan and when fellow Beatle Paul McCartney played the instrument at the 2002 tribute Concert for George, people took notice. Virtuosos like Jake Shimabukuro are dazzling the world with it, and groups like the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, performing such tunes as “Shaft” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” are entertaining audiences on and off the Internet.
And there are the products themselves. The quality of the lower priced instruments has improved dramatically enough to create playable instruments in the $30 to $50 range. Those more serious can spend hundreds on many brands, and even up to $5,000 and beyond on a Martin-made uke (tellingly, Martin stopped making the instrument completely in 1994, only to take them back up in 2001, about when the current trend took root). The print publishers and accessory makers have been right with them, creating products and putting out songbooks from not only Hawaiian uke stars like Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo but also from the likes of Beatles and Elvis.
Finally, there’s the economy. Hohner’s Scott Emmerman points out that “in the depression era, it was said that the only two instruments that showed sales increases were ukuleles and harmonicas, so recent economic forces could be having an effect in the upward trend.”
Retailers can benefit, and there’s plenty of advice: “Stock a variety of ukes and display them prominently them in front of the store, as opposed to burying them on the back wall with the sitars and Theremins,” says Kay Guitar’s Tony Blair. Mel Bay’s Bryndon Bay states it simply: “The better you treat the uke, the better it will treat you.”
Read on to learn what these industry leaders have to say about the trend, how to make it pay off for retailers everywhere, and what’s hot.
Magic Fluke / Phyllis Webb
We have noted that the ukulele has far more to offer than had been previously thought. For one thing, it’s an easy instrument to learn and it is gaining a whole bunch of new respect! We all need music in our daily lives and the ukulele is an affordable way to bring music home, to school and to the stage, spanning the ages from four to 104. It is the perfect size for travel, for little hands to strum, and for a group sing along. Add to all of that, the unique design of our Fluke and Flea Ukuleles, the ability to hold their tune, bright quality sound, durability, eye-catching colors, and designs – it’s very appealing.
Fluke Ukuleles are growing in popularity. In 10 years we have shipped over 36,000 worldwide. With so many colors and designs available such as rosewood fretboard and electronic pickup options, they are all selling well. All are made to order from our shop in New Hartford, in the “tropical” state of Connecticut. The new mahogany deluxe models are very popular.
Making it Work: Keep a close eye on your inventory, especially at the holidays, and plan ahead. Consider the value of offering “made in the USA” products to your customers. One of the great attributes of a Fluke Ukulele is that it stands up on it’s own, perfect on the sales counter! It sure helps if some of the staff can pick one up and strum a tune while shoppers poke around.
Hot: Our new Tie Dye Fluke uke fits right into the resurgence of tie-dye fabrics everywhere. It’s fabulous in our new custom hard-shell case too!
Hohner / Scott Emmerman
Our Lanikai and Kohala branded Ukulele business has been consistently growing over the past 24 months. In the uke market, up to now there really hadn’t been one predominant brand. However, over the last 18 months, the strong unit numbers that we’re tracking and the amount of new dealers that we’ve added indicate that Lanikai has become the best selling brand of ukes in the US. Our innovative P.O.P. strategy, formal restocking policy, written price protection guarantee, extended credit terms, freight incentives, and quarterly dealer rebates have contributed in making Lanikai the market leader.
Making it work: Devote some floor space to Ukuleles and use one of our P.O.P.’s to focus attention on them. You don’t need to carry a lot of different brands or tons of different models. I would advise staying away from the plastic “toy looking” uke products that devalue the instrument. Ukes will produce profitable, incremental business for your stores.
What’s hot: Our Kohala’s retail at $54.99, and our hi-end, exotic wood ukes retail for $489.99. At Winter NAMM 2009, we introduced three new Lanikai P.O.P.’s that have really been adopted by music retailers across America. We’re rolling out a new, small-footprint Kohala P.O.P. shortly. Kohala is our entry-level uke line that comes in bright, colorful retail packaging, and is quite inexpensive but still offers great quality. This new P.O.P. looks great and makes Ukulele’s even easier to sell.
Most of all there’s they Lanikai SM-C Spalted Mango Uke, which MAPs at $319.
Kala Ukulel / Mike Upton
Sales for ukuleles have been crazy. And it’s a worldwide trend, not just Hawaii, but also on the mainland, and Japan, Europe – in England, it’s huge right now. That’s also true for Australia and New Zealand. Business has been great – steadily been growing 50 percent a year. We’re selling them as fast as we can get them in.
I became acquainted with the charm of the ukulele at an early age as my Dad would strum the ‘uke’ and sing old standards, entertaining the family, neighbors, and worshiping in Church. The sweet, soothing sound was the best pacifier for a fidgety child like yours truly, so as I grew up, you guessed it, I started playing the bass.
Anyway, back to the ukulele: I re-engaged with the uke while living on heavenly Lanikai Beach in 1991 with my lovely wife, Wendy. You were just starting to hear and see more people playing ukulele back then. My interest in them continued, as I became the Hawaii Sales Representative for the Hohner Company in 1997. I found out quickly that there were few quality, affordable ukuleles available on the Islands. So with that in mind, I set out and with some help developed the popular ukulele line.
Making it Work: The lower-priced instruments are flying out the door, so stock products between $100 and $200 dollars because we are selling a lot in that price range.
Hot: Out Travel Uke has been quite a hit. It’s a thin body instrument with an arch back but has a very big sound. Also our U-Bass has been getting a lot of traction. I just got a call from the house bassist for the Grand Old Opera saying how much he loves it.
Flea Market Music / Jim Beloff
The ukulele growth has been consistent since the beginning of what is referred to as the “third wave” of ukulele popularity. This current wave began in the early 1990s, fueled in part by a new generation of Hawaiian ukulele virtuosos, and also the introduction of new songbooks and how-to-play materials, many of which were published by Flea Market Music. Another major factor that has driven the market is the rise of the Internet which allows uke fans to communicate with one another, like they do on our website www.fleamarketmusic.com. Other reasons include the introduction of new, high quality and reasonably priced ukes, and the endorsement of pop music icons like George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Eddie Vedder.
Making it work: Keep ukes in the store tuned up. They’ll sell themselves! Also, promote it as one of the easiest musical instruments to learn to play. Many chords require only one or two fingers and if a player has even the slightest bit of experience with the guitar the learning curve is especially short. Because of its size, the uke is also a great first instrument for children and can easily lead later on to the guitar. Finally, it is a portable, social instrument that encourages group jamming and singing across all generations. It is truly a “fun machine” that doesn’t require batteries or electricity.
Hot: All of our Jumpin’ Jim’s songbooks are strong sellers. We offer everything from Beatles songs, jazz, blues, and Bach pieces – all arranged for ukulele. A recent DVD by famed jazz ukulele master Lyle Ritz has been a big seller, as has our Blues Ukulele songbook. Our best sellers continue to be Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Tips ‘N’ Tunes and Jumpin’ Jim’s 60s Uke-In that includes many Beatles songs and an appreciation by George Harrison. All of our books and DVD are distributed by the Hal Leonard Corp.
Ohana Ukulele / Louis Wu
There is definitely an upward trend in uke sales and uke enthusiasm. This trend started about two years ago and has been moving upward gradually. We see more uke-related activities such as festivals and local clubs forming around the country, and all this contributes to the growing enthusiasm and popularity for the instrument.
Making it work: My advice is to work with your local community and schools to support the learning and playing of the ukulele. Start a uke class at your store if possible. The ukulele is a very versatile instrument and it appeals to all age groups.
Have a separate section in your store to display these instruments so customers can try them out. Ukulele players tend to own more than one instrument, so stock some mid-range products so they can come back and purchase upgrade instruments from your store. And make yours a one-stop shop for your ukulele customers by carrying essential accessories such as strings, books, tuners, cases, and gig bags.
What’s hot: We recently introduced a solid cedar-top model that has exceptional tone to it, the CK-50G. It features rosewood back and sides, rosewood fretboard, and abalone detailing. It has a suggested retail price of $349 and is doing very well.
C.F. Martin & Co. / Dick Boak
Martin offers six ukulele models: S-O (Soprano) Ukulele at $469.00 retail; 3K Koa Ukulele at $2,499.00 retail; 3 Mahogany Ukulele at $2,249.00 retail; 3 Cherry Ukulele (FSC certified) at $1,999.00 retail; 5K Ukulele at $5,199.00 retail; and 5 Daisy Ukulele (flamed mahogany) at $5,449.00 retail. Except for the S-O uke, ours are an ultra high-end premium ukulele market for Martin, so retailers can’t be too aggressive with it.
Making it work: The Martin ukuleles define the instrument in quality tone and design. For customers seeking the real deal, Martin’s ukulele offerings provide exceptional premium quality. Although the SO uke is more mass market and affordable, the high-end ukes are obviously not for everyone. They should be marketed and aimed at the serious player or the collector.
What’s hot: Martin’s 3 Cherry Uke is constructed with 100 percent Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified wood. You might expect such alternative woods to harbor less tonal properties than traditional woods, but the surprise is that this environmentally conscious uke can stand up to any traditional model. This bodes well for the future, as many of the traditional tone woods will become less available.
Cordoba Guitars Naomi Con, Jon Thomas
We have noticed an upsurge in uke sales and we attribute this to a couple of factors. Ukes are associated with a fun, easy-going lifestyle, and it’s a smaller instrument that is easy and approachable for both experienced and beginner players. They’re also showing up more in pop music and on the Internet, so this seems to be fueling the popularity of the instrument overall.
Cordoba offers a complete range of ukuleles from soprano size to tenor and with or without electronics and cutaways. We have models in every price point from $99 to $500 with all kinds of woods including koa, mahogany, and many other combinations. We also have a signature tenor ukulele and gig bag for musician and surfer Donovan Frankenreiter.
We also offer accessories like instructional books, tuners, and various cases for each ukulele size. Recently we acquired the US distribution of Aquila Strings, which are widely regarded as the best strings for ukulele. Aquila is a great brand and has been making strings in Italy for many years.
Making it work: We’ve had a lot of success playing up the “lifestyle” angle. It’s important that people have the ability to get their hands on the ukes. Anyone can play a C chord on a uke – it takes one finger on one string. Usually it’s this experience that makes someone want to buy one. With lower price points, convenient size, and the few barriers to learning, ukes also make great gifts.
What’s hot: The Cordoba 20TM-CE is our hottest selling ukulele right now. It’s tenor-sized, which makes it comfortable for people who are used to playing guitars. It has a cutaway and electronics, comes with a gig bag, and is an easy purchase at the $199 price point.
Fender / Jason Farrell
We offer a unique ukulele that has a traditional look with a little Fender flair. There’s our Ukulele Hau’oli – Concert Shape, which features all laminate mahogany, a cool Tele® headstock, rosewood bridge/fretboard, and D’Addario strings. The Ukulele Nohea – Concert shape features all laminate koa, abalone acrylic inlays, Tele headstock, rosewood bridge/fretboard, and D’Addario strings. And then there’s our Ukulele Pa’ina – Concert shape has all solid mahogany, passive electronics, Tele headstock, rosewood bridge/fretboard, and D’Addario strings. All of these, in the low and the mid price, have been extremely popular.
Making it work: Make your store a ukulele destination offering a vibe, multiple brands, and accessories (instruction books, strings, tuners, etc.). Create the kind of place where the uke fanatic can go and experience a complete ukulele world.
What’s hot: All of our ukes are new as of January, but what’s most surprising is our Ukulele Nohea. It’s all koa and has a sweet sound and flavor of the islands that has resonated extremely well with our customers.
Kay Guitars Tony Blair
Kay has been selling ukuleles for over 70 years. Our records, compiled back since 1980, show that ukulele sales have been consistent with occasional 10 percent to 15 percent swings both up and down. The past two years we have sold out of both our Santa Rosa and Kay soprano ukuleles before the end of the holiday season. For the past three years we have increased our manufacturing and our ukulele sales have been up 30 percent.
Making it work: Sow the seeds with affordable instruments. Often the pro musician minded dealer/retailers are the biggest obstacle to future sales. The pro player is looking for the perfect instrument that they would play himself, but often the criteria is so stringent that only instruments that sell for $100 or more are good enough. Consumers who plan on learning how to play and make a long-term commitment to take lessons might be candidates for a $100-plus uke. But most first time impulse-buyers are looking for an easy to learn instrument
Unless affordable entry-level instruments are made available to the public, the potential buyer will be turned off by a $100 investment. A good quality Santa Rosa or Kay Uke can be retailed for under $50. Ukes are easy and portable as well as in everyone’s budget even in today’s tight economy.
What’s hot: Boy, have we got a winner for this Christmas. About five years ago we introduced the Santa Rosa Soprano Uke Package (Uke, bag, book, pitch pipe, extra strings, and picks in a four color box). The first few years are sales were nominal. But as dealers bought a few pieces and displayed them in the POP box they started moving off the shelf faster than our standard models.
This year we wanted to cover some of the requests of our loyal dealers and distributors so we created a step up quality Kay Uke in eight new colors including four different sunburst and four solid colors.
The Kay Uke is a step up model but still at an affordable budget price point (under $50). It features upgrades like chrome geared machine heads, rosewood fingerboard, nickel silver frets, deluxe black strings, and a rosewood bridge. The package is packed in a four color POP box that has a peek-a-boo window to see the actual color inside and comes with a nylon bag, extra strings and picks.