CAN UKE BELIEVE IT? Published in Music Industry News issue 017, March/April 2015

Post date: Jun 30, 2015 2:04:51 PM

I was invited to contribute this article after criticizing the magazine's continued use of the word "humble" whenever the ukulele was mentioned. I take no responsibility for the headline - NOT my idea! If it'd been down to me, the title would've been "Uke Cannot Be Serious!" :-) I hope it's just an unfortunate coincidence but just one week after this article was published, the magazine announced its immediate closure!

The recent media coverage of the current ukulele boom was timed to coincide with “World Ukulele Day” – February 2nd (why that particular date was chosen, I have no idea!)Anyway, most news items focused on the percentage increase in ukulele sales on Amazon (up by 1200%), or on the increasing use of the instrument in school music lessons and how cheap it is to buy and how easy it is to play. Even reports in the MI media made numerous references to “the humble ukulele”. It was my irritation with this phrase that led to my being invited to write this article. I recently sold a ukulele to a good customer of mine, who had a buyer eager to part with £989 for it - the Lehua IIICX from ULURU (left) is anything but humble!. Since then the same customer has ordered a further two of these instruments. I only hope his customers are not put off by the constant reference to their new investments as being “humble”. The word would not be applied as a blanket term to other desirable products – cars, guitars, washing machines, televisions – so why pick on the ukulele? Is it because it’s small, incapable of defending itself?

Having been involved in the musical instrument business for over 35 years – luthier, repairer, roadie, retail sales, wholesale/distribution and manufacture – I’m still learning. I’d repaired a few vintage instruments many years ago but my current involvement with the ukulele world began with a chance encounter at the Frankfurt MusikMesse about 13 years ago. I was idly looking at possible lines that might be suitable for a freelance agent like myself to sell as a sideline, and strummed a couple of cheap coloured ukes. The sound was exactly what I expected, for want of a better word, “humble”! Further along, I picked up a hand-made, sopranino ukulele from a South American company and was blown away by the difference. This was a proper instrument, as far removed from a “humble” ukulele as a £1000 [insert appropriate guitar brand here] is from a £30 acoustic guitar from a well-known chain of charity shops.

That experience has stayed with me ever since (and that uke is now hanging up in my living room) so, when I got the opportunity to buy a brand of high-end ukuleles, Uluru by Ayers Guitars, I jumped at it. Music retailers are not stupid, I figured, they’ll recognize a good product when they see it! The overwhelming majority of MI retailers are certainly not stupid but the job of introducing more expensive ukes to a market - whose price ceiling for ukes was often little more than £30 – was more difficult than I had bargained for.

A long process of acceptance, culture, hard work, knockbacks and economics has been at play for a long time. I’m not describing my career, by the way, but how others, for example, the Ukulele Orchestra of GB, have found “overnight” stardom after over 30 years of being regarded as a quirky, novelty act; the massive wave of interest sparked following George Harrison’s death and the “Concert for George” where the house was brought down by a beautiful rendition of “I’ll See You in my Dreams” by Joe Brown; posthumous chart success for Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's reworking of "Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World” or viral YouTube hits like Jake Shimabukuro’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and Frank Skinner’s TV uke-umentary – these, and many others, have helped bring many tens of thousands of new players into the instrument market. Some forward –thinking distributors and retailers recognized this early on and have reaped the rewards of supplying instruments to a broad demographic who are keen to get kitted out to join a Ukulele Club or similar. Important though the education/children’s market is, I’m talking about older people, even retired people, picking up an instrument for the first time and learning to play. And when they can play a little, maybe they’ll treat themselves to another, and other. Let’s face it, one ukulele is never enough, and severe cases of Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome make the equivalent 6-string version – G.A.S. – look like a mild case of the common cold. This is serious stuff – I hear regularly about people owning upwards of six or seven instruments with no intention of getting rid of any. A cheap/rough one to sling in the boot for camping, a soprano, a concert, a tenor (plus one with a low G), an electro, a piccolo, a banjo uke, a resonator, and so on.

Any retailer who is ignoring this phenomenon is in danger of being totally left behind because, from where I’m standing, this is no flash-in-the-pan and shows no sign of slowing down. I’ve watched some of my biggest customers grow their ukulele business from a standing start to being top outlets for various brands in just a few years, because they have managed to share their passion for the instrument with their customers.

I visit many stores whose idea of catering for the ukulele world is to have a few token generic instruments on the wall, or to buy a load of own-brand product, because they have the finances to do that. After all, it’s only a ukulele, people won’t mind what is on the headstock. If it was that easy, there’d be no need for a company like mine to stock ukulele brands from Vietnam, Germany, Portugal, USA, Japan and China (no model selling for less than £45). Nor to bother attending Ukulele Festivals across the country. Nor to manufacture a range of dedicated ukulele accessories. Some big-name retailers have fallen into the short-sighted trap of supplying poor quality ukuleles for schools at ridiculously low prices to gain turnover and volume, at the same time creating thousands of potential "giver-uppers" who find that their uke won't stay in tune, won't play in tune and sounds dreadful.

Like the stores who are successful in any particular area of MI, the key to their success is passion and engaging with their customers. I heard a story once of a shop, the owner of which was asked by a customer “Can you give me some advice about ukuleles?” The smart-arsed reply was “Yes, madam, my advice would be to burn it and buy a violin! Oh, and baritones are better because they burn for longer!"

There is plenty of advice out there, which has filled the vacuum left by a retail sector that has, to a frighteningly large extent, overlooked the potential of a rapidly growing market covering all age groups. posts impartial, often opinionated reviews online because of the author’s previous experience of shops that just don’t take the ukulele seriously. His site recently clocked up almost 7 million views and the many Facebook and online discussion groups are every bit as active as those dedicated to the guitar.

My advice to any music store? “Wake up and smell the hibiscus!” There must be hundreds of skilled MI store sales staff in our industry who can take the instrument seriously enough to present it as having equal importance to any other revenue-generating line in the shop.

Mark Pugh has worked in the MI business for over thirty years, having studied Musical Instrument Technology (Modern Fretted Instruments) at the London College of Furniture from 1979-1983, for much of that time self-employed, trading under the business name Stones Music. Stones Music distributes the following ukulele brands - Uluru, Magic Fluke, RISA, iUke, Baton Rouge, Iberica and Alic - alongside the ukulele accessory line Jumping Cow. These form an important part of the Stones Music portfolio, alongside Stones Straps, The Pub Prop, LogJam stompers, Rhythm Ring, Timber Tones, Boing Stands and more.

Mark Pugh 2015