October 18, 2011
Having worked in the guitar effects industry for 15+ years, I’ve noticed that it shares some striking similarities with the record industry.
Before I started working in
business, I played in a rock
band called Non-Fiction that
had both indie and major-label
record deals. Compared to some
signed bands, we really didn’t
accomplish all that much, but
we did manage to put out three
critically acclaimed albums,
got our music played on the
radio and on MTV, and toured
all over the U.S. and Europe
before we called it quits.
I remember speaking to a record-industry guru during that time who equated the success of a band to a giant jigsaw puzzle. He explained that you need several critical marketing “pieces” assembled in the right place and at the right time in order to create the complete picture of success.
For a band, these pieces used to consist of great music, wide-range distribution through record stores, radio and MTV airplay, consistent touring (preferably opening for a well-known headliner), and publicity in the form of exposure in magazines and other media. Nowadays, a few of these requirements have changed—or at least shifted their level of importance—but we’ll get into that in a future column.
Unfortunately for Non- Fiction, we had all the pieces, but they were assembled so haphazardly that the full picture never took form. Our major-label CD came out before our managers could land a booking agent, so by the time we got a support slot on a tour, all the radio and retail promotions for the record were already over. The label also spent way too much money on a video that they couldn’t get onto MTV. More than a year later, our guitarist called in a favor that got us some spins on Headbangers Ball, but by that time our label had gone belly-up and the band had pretty much imploded. As they say, timing is everything.
Having worked in the guitar effects industry for 15+ years, I’ve noticed that it shares some striking similarities with the record industry. As with a band, marketing a successful guitar effect is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, and it’s necessary to have specific pieces of this marketing puzzle in place to score a “hit” with a stompbox. While the actual pieces may vary slightly between the two industries, they are close enough to effectively mirror one another.
Just as music has various genres, there are different types of guitar effects with their own particular sounds, and some of these categories of effects have decidedly more appeal than others. Based on sales data for the various brands that we’ve distributed, overdrive pedals consistently come in at the top of the food chain, year after year. Let’s call them the pop music of the pedal industry—they’re easy on the ears and carry a broad appeal, but they also play to a fickle audience whose tastes change almost daily.
As a rule, an overdrive sells better than a chorus pedal or octave divider—assuming, of course, that it’s a quality product (though sometimes even that doesn’t matter). In my experience, how well a given pedal sells correlates to what class of device it belongs to. Though it seems obvious, not everyone markets stompboxes with this in mind. For example, I’m puzzled (pun intended) by a certain boutique builder’s emphasis on advertising its new phaser. As amazing as I’m sure it is, I doubt it’s going to outsell the overdrives or boosters in their line. They seem to be pointing a lot of marketing dollars at a fairly small segment of the market.
So, the broader the appeal of the pedal, the better chance it will sell well—wow, now there’s a complex formula! Please note: I’m not trying to discourage builders from making the absolute craziest and most esoteric pedals imaginable. Bring ’em on! However, I would equate these types of effects to the indie bands and record labels of the ’80s and ’90s that had a more focused appeal and therefore a much smaller, niche audience.
Of course, an indie band can go on to become the next Nirvana, and boutique pedals can likewise become mainstream. This has happened with brands like Z.Vex, Fulltone, and Way Huge. All three were virtually unknown 10 or 15 years ago, while today they are household names (at least in guitarists’ households).
Effect popularity can also change based on the type of music that’s currently popular, which reveals an interesting symbiosis that exists between these two industries. A good example of this is the compressor: As country music (and hot Tele picking) has moved into the mainstream over the past 10 years, compressors have seen a renewed popularity and markedly increased sales. Compressors rank in the top three effect types, according to our company sales data.
In my next State of the Stomp installment, we’ll explore some of the more specific pieces of the “effect success” puzzle and discover how they continue to mirror the record industry. We’ll also discuss how this formula has changed over time with the advent of new technologies. See you next time.
Kevin Bolembach is the President and founder of Godlyke, Inc. - the U.S.distributor for many well-know boutique effect brands Including Maxon, Guyatone, EMMA and Providence.