Made in the U.S.A.

Examining The Strengths Of Music Products Made Here At Home

This year, we decided to flip the perspective of our annual October feature, “Born In The U.S.A.,” which historically has spotlighted companies that design and manufacture a majority of their products in the United States. Our usual collection of quotes from manufacturers and manufacturing executives has served as an annual platform for those companies to champion domestic production and manufacturing. This year, though, we’re taking a different approach.

Although we posed many of the same questions, pertaining to the value proposition of building “Made in the U.S.A.” products, we this year reached out to three prominent, successful retailers for their insights into musical instrument products, both domestic and foreign-made. Our experts include Jeff Kwan, General Manager of Canal Sound & Light in New York NY; Jeff Simons, President of Watermelon Music in Davis CA; and Allen McBroom, Partner at Backstage Music in Starkville MS.

Defining ‘Made In The U.S.A.’

According to Jeff Simons, the definition of “Made in the U.S.A.” is more abstract than a product simply being manufactured within our national borders. “It’s when a manufacturer takes a certain pride in the design, construction, marketing and sale of a product that goes beyond making a profit,” he said. “True ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ products,” Simons continued, “should be innovative — even groundbreaking — and they should be designed and built to high quality standards.” Jeff Kwan felt similarly, stating, “A product that’s both born and ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ means that it is designed and created with American ingenuity and manufactured with passion, high standards and quality control.” Allen McBroom interpreted the label more technically, saying, “For me, if a majority of the components are made in America and the design and assembly were completed in America, by American labor, then that product should qualify.”

When asked how much “Made in the U.S.A.” product they carry in their stores, all three retailers echoed a similar narrative of stocking domestic products whenever possible, while balancing that with scalability and profitability.

McBroom pointed out that it’s hard for American manufacturers to stay competitive with beginner and intermediate-level instruments. “A great foreign-made Takamine guitar, a fine foreign-made Alvarez guitar or a foreign-made Amati violin, all with a minimum advertised price of $500 or less, has little — if any — viable competition at that level of quality in that price range,” he explained.

McBroom continued, saying, “While there are plenty of great American-made guitars, foreign labor rates and improved quality control have left American-made instruments in the dust at both the entry and intermediate-level price points.” On a similar note, Simons said most of Watermelon Music’s entry to mid-level instruments are imported, as are the store’s entry to mid-level amplifiers.

Notably, McBroom observed that the trend of American product being bested at the entry and intermediate levels is changing in the accessory department. He elaborated, saying, “Backstage Music has dropped all Asian-made cables in favor of Rapco cables, which are made in the U.S.A. — or made in Mexico using American materials — and we’ve also adopted the D’Addario ‘American Stage’ cables made in New York State.”

American Products & Manufacturers

The list of companies that embody the “Made in U.S.A.” ethos is long and proud. Simons cited Deering’s line of Goodtime banjos as “everything a ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ product should be.” He also raved about G&L Guitars’ “made-to-order” electric guitars because the brand’s customized instruments run at a price that’s comparable to “off-the-shelf” instruments from other companies. Simons is also a fan of G&L’s imported “Tribute” line, which features hardware and electronics made in the U.S.A., but that’s assembled into instruments overseas. He later singled out Jim Dunlop’s Dunlop Manufacturing as a company that is “continually innovating with problem-solving, American products under the MXR, Dunlop, Way Huge, Custom Audio Design and Scotties brand names.”

Kwan’s list of prominent American manufacturers that remain competitive relative to both price and quality includes Rane for DJ and contractor gear, X-Laser for lighting, Ashly Audio for signal processing and power amplification, and Eminence for speakers. Kwan highlighted Eminence as the single best example of a “Made in the U.S.A.” company with which Canal Sound & Light does business.

In addition to Rapco and D’Addario, McBroom is also a “true believer” in Franklin Straps, based out of Franklin TN; Curt Mangan Strings, based out of Cortez CO; and GHS Strings, whose production is located in Michigan and Indiana. “GHS is important to our business because they produce certain strings that other folks don’t,” McBroom said.

Circling back to D’Addario, Simons heralded the company for its incorporation of other innovative American brands, like Rico, Planet Waves, Evans, Puresound and Promark. “D’Addario’s B2B Web site is easy to use, and it makes ordering, tracking, invoicing and return authorizations incredibly efficient,” Simons stated. “Like Dunlop, they manufacture most of their products here in the U.S.A., yet they remain competitive and practical, and they make us a lot of money.”

Foreign Products & Manufacturers

The country that manufactures the majority of musical instruments that are imported into the United States is the one that most Americans would probably expect: China. Interestingly, McBroom posited that Indonesia grabs the second-largest slice of the import pie in his realm of retail. His visual inventory shows that gear from well-known brands — and most electronics, in fact — carries a sticker that reads, “Made in China.” Kwan informed The Retailer that the majority of items his business carries that are not American-made are from China and Taiwan.

Simons’ Watermelon Music imports instruments of all kinds, including fretted, woodwind, brass and orchestral. He imports Eastman guitars and mandolins handmade in China, as well as Kremona-Bulgaria guitars and violins because “the quality, fit and finish of their classical guitars gets better and better all the time.” Simons also really likes Konig & Meyer stands and accessories from Germany, a country that is famed for exacting engineering and design.

In Simons’ estimation, The Music People!, owner of On-Stage Stands, is a company that exemplifies the purchasing-decision conflict that MI stores can sometimes face. Although, he said, with a few notable exceptions, The Music People!’s products tend to be inexpensive and not necessarily reflective of American craftsmanship, he stressed, “They run such a tight ship in terms of inventory management and customer service — and their products are so profitable and so easy to sell — it makes no sense not to stock and sell them.”

Great product can also be found just north of the United States. Simons said that Canada’s Godin family of guitars — inclusive of Seagull, Art & Lutherie, LaPatrie and others — is a perfect example of how “innovation and pride in manufacturing can produce a product of incredible value.” Simons remarked, “Godin’s use of local materials and groundbreaking manufacturing techniques completely changed expectations of how an ‘inexpensive’ guitar should sound and play.” It would appear that the “Made in the U.S.A.” ethos has spilled over into our friendly northern neighbor’s backyard.

Serving the DJ and lighting retail segments in New York, Kwan proudly declared that Canal Sound & Light does not carry any products that are directly imported from a foreign distributor or manufacturer; most of the business’ imports, in fact, arrive via an American-based manufacturing counterpart. He pointed out, however, that, of the foreign manufacturers he does stock — Allen & Heath, RCF and DAS from Europe; Pioneer from Japan; and Yorkville from Canada — all of them maintain an American headquarters, or offices with full American sales and technical support staff. Kwan also noted that companies such as Crown and Peavey manufacture some of their product lines in the U.S.A., but tend to outsource or import their less-expensive lines.

Domestic vs. Foreign Quality

When asked to examine the differences in quality between “Made in the U.S.A.” products and foreign-made products, Simons remarked that the “Made in China” label is no longer synonymous with substandard quality. However, he hastened to add, most substandard product that he sees at Watermelon Music still does, in fact, originate from China.

McBroom echoed a similar sentiment, stating, “Fifteen years ago, ‘Chinese-made’ generally indicated cheap and unreliable.” But, over the years, Chinese quality-assurance levels have improved dramatically and, now, Backstage Music rarely has an issue with Chinese instruments. Electronics, on the other hand, are a whole different story. “Chinese electronics are still way behind the quality of the same items that were once made in the U.S.A.,” McBroom declared. “Amps made in the U.S.A. 20 years ago could practically be thrown from the back of a moving truck, plugged in and they’d still work as intended. Today, it’s not surprising if the Chinese version of those same amps fails right out of the box.”

Although he is an avid proponent of “Made in the U.S.A.,” Simons lamented the decline that he perceives in positive qualities assumed of American-made products. To him, the label should represent innovation and pride — not diminishing quality and copying competitors. Kwan hammered the importance of quality and customer support, a factor absent from the risky practice of purchasing reverse-engineered imports from e-commerce Web sites like Alibaba: a recent development that Kwan has seen in the DJ and lighting segment of the MI industry.

McBroom chimed in, adding, “If an American company spends their research and development dollars to design a popular product, be assured that a Chinese company will be offering a clone of that product within a short period of time, at a significantly lower price than the American company is. If the American company goes away because of this, so does the innovation and ingenuity that created that product.” Simons concluded, “I think the American government should do everything possible under international law to protect the designs, patents and trademarks of American designers and manufacturers.” And that’s an area where, I think, all of us can agree.

What Your Customers Think

Unfortunately, our experts agreed that customers no longer desire to purchase solely American-made products; that requirement has fallen in popularity over the years. Simons believes that most customers are simply looking for the best value. However, if an American product demonstrates a marginal improvement over a foreign substitute, then customers are open to paying a little more for the American piece.

McBroom offered an example of a used, American-made Fender Telecaster guitar that he’s currently selling for $960. “Next to it is an Asian-made Squier Telecaster for $250,” he said. “Everyone likes the look and feel of the American Tele, but, for a $700 difference, the Asian-made Squier looks pretty good to most buyers. Do they prefer American-made? Sure…just about everyone does. Are they willing to shell out $700 extra to back up that emotion? Not in most cases.”

Additionally, the decrease in domestic manufacturing due to the Great Recession has led many customers to purchase partial upgrades and repairs for their setups, rather than buying entirely new instruments. “This can make it difficult for retail stores to make ends meet, as total sales numbers decrease while payroll, rent and other expenses continue to grow,” Simons noted. He continued, “If instrument purchases decline, then services like repairs, rentals and lessons become ever more crucial to stores keeping their doors open.”

In a promising development, Simons has noticed a politically savvy segment of 20-something customers at Watermelon Music who are mindfully avoiding products made in China. “Some of them want to avoid ‘disposable’ products that are often cheaper to throw away and repurchase than to repair; others are concerned that we are sending too much of our money and resources to China,” he said.

Conclusion

It has become all too easy for American companies to move production offshore in order to decrease costs and boost profitability. Simons and Kwan both mentioned being disheartened by the decision of an iconic American company, Peavey, to shift a portion of its manufacturing overseas, a move deemed necessary to compete with cheap imports that other companies are offering.

Kwan remarked that fewer and fewer companies are now delivering DJ and lighting products that are solely “Made in the U.S.A.” Instead, their products are “Born in the U.S.A.”: designed domestically and constructed overseas. Because of those factors, it has become increasingly important for manufacturers and retailers to embrace the pride and business opportunities inherent in supporting domestically produced music products.

Ultimately, the good news is that all three interviewees believe it is easier today to embrace a “Made in the U.S.A.” retail business strategy than it was to do so 10 years ago. McBroom believes that it truly makes a product stand out. “Everything was ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ 30 years ago,” he said. “I’d like to see every product we sell at Backstage Music come from within our borders. But the reality is that’s just not going to happen.”

“If I was a manufacturer,” McBroom continued, “and I made my products here, the most visible part of the packaging for each and every product would be an American flag.”


This was originally published in the October 2015 edition of The Music & Sound Retailer.