Sonoma County's cluster of musical instrument makers thrive even in digital era
Though unknown to many, Sonoma County has a cluster of musical instrument makers still prospering in a digital marketplace that has upended traditional retailers.
These hands-on music makers think good craftsmanship, as well as understanding and knowing their customers makes a huge difference even in an era when there aren’t many up-and-coming guitar heroes — outside of the millions who play the Guitar Hero video game.
Take for example Kala Brands Music Co. of Petaluma, one of the largest producers of ukuleles in the United States. The business, founded in 2005, has ridden the wave of the four-string member of the guitar family that has drawn attention from all age groups. Kala sold 600,000 ukuleles in 2018, generating sales of $25.8 million.
Other bigger names in the sector have taken notice and have their own ukulele offerings, such as Fender and Donner. In response, Kala CEO and founder Mike Upton has focused on niches in the marketplace, such as a hand-crafted, high-end instruments that can cost as much as $3,000. He also has enhanced his business through outreach with schools, surfers and outdoor enthusiasts. His pitch: The instrument is a simple and portable product that can bring people together.
“That’s made it more challenging,” said Upton, a California native who worked for the Hohner Co. and developed its popular Lanikai ukulele brand before launching Kala. “It means everyone is gunning for you like the Warriors.”
That same story is being played out elsewhere in the county, which has a rich tradition of musical instrument manufacturers going back decades. They include Mesa/Boogie of Petaluma, which makes amplifiers for guitars and basses; MusicNomad of Sonoma, the maker of oils and polishes for guitars and drums; and Mission Engineering Inc. of Petaluma, the producer of an array of guitar pedals, cables and speakers. In addition, there are a number of local luthiers who operate their own small shops to make custom instruments.
“Sonoma County is pretty artistic,” said Rick Shubb, who founded his Shubb Capo Co. in Valley Ford in 1974, producing the small device that shortens the neck of a stringed instrument so musicians can easily play in different keys. The business is now located in Rohnert Park and still generates single- digit annual sales percentage growth.
“It’s an atmosphere where people in artistic fields are comfortable,” said Shubb of Sonoma County. He initially designed his product so he could more easily play his banjo.
Industry is humming
The overall musical instrument industry in the United States had $6.2 billion in revenue in 2018, with a profit of $341 million, according to IBISWorld, a Los Angeles market researcher. The retail market posted 1.2% annual growth from 2013-2018, but it is expected to decline to a yearly growth rate of 0.9% through 2023. There are 13,191 such musical instrument-related businesses nationwide.
Local economic development officials are aware of the cluster of them in Sonoma County and have taken steps to help raise awareness of the resources that are available, most notably for performers buying the instruments to make music. In fact, many of these area instrument companies are led by amateur musicians who followed their passion into business ventures. Most notably, the nonprofit Creative Sonoma has had a dedicated program for the last few years to support local musicians.