Sonoma County's cluster of musical instrument makers thrive even in digital era

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This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com, also part of the Sonoma Media Investments news network.

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.

This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com, also part of the Sonoma Media Investments news network.

“Our intention with this program is to help the remarkable music community of Sonoma County gain access to the tools, information and resources necessary in order for them to advance their careers,” said Kristen Madsen, director of Creative Sonoma.

In February, Creative Sonoma sponsored a daylong conference that included a songwriting contest, in which the winner, Bobby Jo Valentine, received a professional recording of his track “Ungrateful.”

Cliff Goldmacher of Sonoma produced the track. He used session musicians from Nashville to back Valentine and was later able to assemble the music digitally and master the song.

Goldmacher himself is someone who reinvented his career beyond songwriter, producer and educator. He has founded a venture working with large companies in the Bay Area such as Google and Deloitte providing songwriting workshops to help executive teams unleash their creativity and improve communication.

“More musicians need to start thinking more about this work as a career,” he said. “You need to look at it more like a business.”

Business of music

Local music instrument makers are doing that because of the changes in the industry as they face more global competition from cheap imports; schools that have cut back on their music programs that have been a source of new customers; and changing personal tastes ushered in by styles such as hip hop — in which a track can be produced on a laptop rather than the traditional rock ‘n’ roll power trio of an electric guitar, bass guitar and drum kit.

“It goes through stages. …We did have a slowdown for a period of time but it seems to be back to where it was before,” said Rob Turner, CEO of EMG Inc., a Santa Rosa manufacturer of guitar pickups, the sensors in the body of a guitar that pick up the vibrations of the strings and convert them into electrical signals that can be put through an amplifier to produce sounds.

“Things are good. Things are real good,” Turner said of his recent business. EMG makes about 1,500 guitar pickups daily and ships products worldwide, including to overseas factories where a large number of guitars are assembled.

His company was founded in 1976. Turner thinks Sonoma County became a music instrument maker haven “as a lot of hippies were looking to get back to the land,” as manufacturing in San Francisco was too expensive. An available workforce from agriculture also meant a good supply of workers, he said.

EMG has benefited from its artist endorsements, particularly Metallica as guitarists James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett, and bassist Robert Trujillo all use its pickups. The world’s most popular heavy metal band vouching for your product creates a buzz that translates into more sales as amateur musicians buy the products.

“Our business is dependent on the guitar player taking it to the next level, if not the next two levels,” Turner said.

There is some hopefulness for the future since some local school districts recently have invested in their music programs, a key demographic for young people ages 10 to 19.

“This age group encounters music courses at school and may decide to pursue music further outside the curriculum,” according to IBISWorld, the market researcher.

Santa Rosa City Schools last year got a $1 million state grant to expand its music program, with 80 percent of the money being used to buy musical instruments and materials.

“It’s not a feeder into the high school band. It’s a feeder into the human soul,” said Steve Shirrell, co-owner of Stanroy Music Center in Santa Rosa. “It’s great that they have this opportunity.”

Sonoma County is also home to many independent music stores that are surviving even though customers can get most products digitally but prefer to shop locally rather than through Amazon or another digital outlet, he said.

Manufacturing at home

At Kala, the ukulele business is able to do some manufacturing in Petaluma with a team of 10 working on its more expensive ukuleles, cranking out 60 to 70 a month. These products include those made out of wood, such as Honduran mahogany and Hawaiian Koa, and come with an ultraviolet finish that is thinly sprayed on the instrument top to produce a more vibrant sound. The high price makes it feasible to do the production here as opposed to overseas, where much of their other instruments are made.

“We’re trying to get those numbers up,” Upton said of the expensive pieces. It also has smaller distribution centers in Hawaii and Virginia. “People want them.”

Innovation also has played a key part of the business. Ten years ago, Kala introduced the short-scale bass — which it calls a U-bass — available in four and five strings. That has proved to be a hit with bassists such as Bakithi Kumalo (Paul Simon), Ira Coleman (Sting) and Jim Mayer (Jimmy Buffett).

As it developed its brand, Kala also decided to keep a lot of its work in-house rather than using many contractors. It creates its own educational videos. It also teamed with a digital partner to make sure its smartphone app would keep players engaged and their instruments tuned properly. A yearly subscription costs $35 and comes with an interactive songbook of 1,700 songs.

“They don’t have to spend a lot of money to learn how to play,” said Joy Cafiero, Kala’s marketing manager.

The brand has its own apparel line and its products are featured in surfer magazines. Kala also promotes the ukulele’s portability, noting it can be carried and used on the beach or in the mountains. The goal is to have people think of Kala when they think of ukuleles.

“It’s definitely a community instrument,” Upton said.

The ukulele market should continue to grow because it’s easy to use and learn — as opposed to the piano — making it a good entry-level instrument for youths to senior citizens, he said. The competition thus should increase.

“I think once something becomes successful … there’s a lot of people who want to copy what you are doing,” Upton said. “This is all we do.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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