Back in 2017, Washington Post declared “The slow, secret death of the six-string electric.” While this may be hard to believe for many enthusiasts of the live music scene where guitar gods are just as alive today as they were at the height of the 1970s, declining sales numbers from major guitar outlets and realtors confirmed the assessment. The guitar was dying.
Today, however, long-running American instrument manufacturers such as Gibson and Fender are reporting record sales after years of decline and, in some cases, bankruptcy. All it took to bring the industry back to life was a global pandemic.
A feature article published in The New York Times on Tuesday details how manufacturers and distributors of guitars have seen a massive boom in sales since the onset of COVID-19 earlier this year. Chief Executive of Fender Andy Mooney said 2020 would be a record year for the iconic guitar brand, going on to say that it “Will be the biggest year of sales volume in Fender history, record days of double-digit growth, e-commerce sales and beginner gear sales.”
What also shocked readers about this latest bubble is the demographics of these new guitarists. Most are either young adults and teenagers and many of them are female. While customers aren’t required to give such information to buy a guitar, these new demographics are on full display in the burgeoning industry of online instruction.
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Jensen Trani, an online guitar teacher with thousands of videos on YouTube which have amassed nearly 75 million views in 14 years, has seen this revolution first hand in private lessons. Trani is featured on Fender’s instructional service, Fender Play, which has seen its user base jump from 150,000 to 930,000 from late-March to late-June. Of the new users, nearly 20 percent were under 24, 70 percent were under 45, and female users accounted for 45 percent of the new customers, compared to only 30 percent before the pandemic.
“There was this point with my students where I could tell that numbing out on Netflix and Instagram and Facebook was just not working anymore,” Trani said. “People could no longer go to their usual coping mechanisms. They were saying, ‘How do I want to spend my day?’”
This resurgence of interest in guitars is showcased through distributors as well. Brendan Murphy, a senior salesman at online retailer Sweetwater, told the Times that he’d never seen anything like this in his 25+ years in the business, commenting “It feels like every day is Black Friday.”
It is also a story of redemption for other brands. Gibson, the company behind the iconic Les Paul guitar which has been making instruments since 1894, declared bankruptcy in 2018 after its then-CEO made a push toward more modern technologies to keep up with the times. After a change in management, the company pivoted back to what it does best and rebooted the economic Epiphone line and created new Original and Modern interpretations of its classic brands. Even though production halted back in April, by late summer, “we literally couldn’t deliver enough,” Chief Executive of Gibson Brands James Curleigh said. “Everything we were making, we could sell.”
While new instruments and hobbies provide temporary relief for many still quarantining with nothing better to do, who’s to say what happens when bars, restaurants, and even concerts reopen? Some instructional sites note that the interest in online tutorials has already calmed since March. Meanwhile, guitar sales saw a steady rise to 1.25 million units by the end of 2019 after reaching a low of one million back in 2015. Given these latest revelations from manufacturers, those numbers are poised to continue their upward momentum.
Whether this reinvigorated interest in instruments and instruction is just a passing fancy or the beginning of another rock revolution will remain to be seen. One thing is for sure: the guitar will never die.
[H/T The New York Times]