A realistic look at what it means to be successful for bassists, builders, and instrument shops in the 21st century.
The '60s, '70s, and '80s were a heyday for basses and guitars, because those years offered a special kind of freedom and future for musicians, luthiers, and music shops. A lot has changed since, and we all know things haven't fared so well for many shops, but what about luthiers and musicians?
Today, musicians mourn shrinking CD sales, ruinously low streaming income, pay-to-play gigs, and absent industry and media support. All these factors can make it quite hard, or even impossible, to make a living. Looking back, it seems as if it used to be much easier to get label support and air time, and find venues for shows. The public's demand appeared to be at a climax in those aforementioned decades, and even regional heroes could earn some serious money. It's a totally theoretical mind game: Have you ever wondered if it was easier to make it as a professional musician then or today? Is this just the common romantic retrospective take on the seemingly always superior “good old days?"
Gear, on the other hand, was not as affordable as it is today (relatively speaking). And trying to make contacts by poring over telephone books and newspapers is no longer an effective methodology.
It goes without saying that the business of bass and guitar building is closely linked to the well-being of players. But builders are, perhaps, in a better place—notably because an instrument is a physical product.
In the old days as a builder, it was easy to earn some extra money by doing setup or repair jobs. That's changed because potential customers today now have access to literally thousands of DIY tutorials for doing setups and repairs. And the same thing can even be said for learning to build.
The following is from a recent conversation I had with luthier Tom Lieber of Lieber Guitars, where he explains how he got into this business: “I began customizing and building guitars 51 years ago. During that time, there were no schools for electric guitar building. Luthiers were mostly old-world violin/acoustic guitar makers. Electric guitar manufacturers were really the only outlet for learning the trade, which was mostly an industry fueled by a labor force of mainly women, who had engaged in all types of manufacturing during World War II. In the 1950s and into the '60s, incredibly talented women made those amazing guitars of yours. Unfortunately for me, I lived nowhere near Kalamazoo or California, where Gibson and Fender where located in the late 1960s. So I dug in and taught myself through the reverse engineering of existing guitars. In late 1968 and into the 1970s, there was an explosion of guitar makers, and I was fortunately able to team up with and learn from Doug Irwin.
“As builders, our only outlet for reaching the end customer was to literally show up at soundchecks and recording studios to present our wares. And hard-copy magazine ads were the only method for creating a customer base outreach to the end user."
Sounds like a long, hard road to earn at least a little visibility in the market, right? On the other hand, even though today's huge menu of marketing possibilities is staggering, so is the number of competitors and overall market diversity, which still makes it hard to answer the initial question of which path was/is easier. But here is where your product chimes in.
If you were offering, say, P-style basses—or other widely familiar models—it used to be easier to earn a local reputation with enough customers to make a living, but once you left the mainstream, you'd need a far-wider outreach to attract enough end-users, which was a more difficult task. So whether your specialty is fanned frets, going headless, new materials, extended-range basses, individual shapes, or even illumination (Photo 1), your time is now!
The old days are remembered as the golden days of our instrument, but the really diverse and special times are today. Hopefully not just for builders, but also for players who can now get whatever tools they can imagine.