StringWorks Blog

Notes from the founder of StringWorks, Todd French. Please feel free to email me with your questions or comments, or even suggestions on blog topics I might tackle.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Violins and Costco - A Rant.

I noticed today that the 'Costco Effect' has gone to new levels, much to my chagrin and ultimate frustration. The 'Costco Effect' is known in the musical instrument trade as essentially the raping of the marketplace with poorly constructed, mass produced, readily available musical instruments of all types, priced so low as to singlehandedly adjust the marketplace pricing of the low end instruments to new lows. In all, bad news for the entire market - lower threshholds for pricing, poor quality instruments (which can encourage or develop frustration in the player), uneducated sellers, poor fitment and/or setup, and lack of support.

Previously, I noticed that only ultra-low end, ultra-low priced stringed instruments were offered, complete with "factory setup" (read: not setup to even the most remedial playing standards). Even from the photos you can see poorly fitted pegs, maligned bridges, cheap thin steel strings, and low quality wood, all finished off with a layer of lacquer. Frankly, I don't see any need for such low quality instruments in the marketplace and they do more harm than good - those looking at a budget can find used instruments of quality priced similarly or rent their instruments to stay budget-conscious. There is no need to have your child (or adult student) suffer through a poorly made, and extremely poorly setup instrument. Little does the uneducated consumer know that a stringed instrument (or just about any musical instrument) is NOT a commodity that is given a UPC code, put on the shelf, bought from a box, taken home and used - at least it shouldn't be. Unfortunately, the Costco Effect (also known as the Wal-Mart Effect - same issue) doesn't reveal this to the consumer, likely since it remains unknown to them as well.

Today I noticed that Costco is selling some sort of limited edition, special violin priced at roughly $2,000.00. To me, this goes from frustrating to ridiculous, and now Costco enters a whole new world of incompetence and ignorance. When you are talking about a $150 violin outfit, some leeway can be granted for general lack of quality, setup, and support. When you move to this pricing level, where there exists any number of fantastic, handmade instrument sporting fantastic tone, beautifully done individual setup and play testing, and generations of tradition, it is ludicrous to assume that spending this amount of money on an instrument from the warehouses of Costco is worthwhile. Still, I'm sure that many violin shops and music stores will lose customers, albeit uneducated ones, who will not realize what a serious, tactile, educated framework surrounds a purchase of such an instrument.

Costco is a friend to many of us - their warehouse pricing of products with brand names saves families a lot of money year after year, and it has proven its worth many times over with electronics, food products, and even lawn furniture. Musical instruments are not electronics (in most cases, mind you), food products, or lawn furniture. Stringed instruments in particular require expert development, execution, setup, and distribution - I wish Costco would recognize this, and stop robbing the hard-working violin shops and music stores of the business they SHOULD be getting.

I'm stepping off my soapbox now. Probably have to shop at Costco this weekend anyway...hope they don't read my blog or my membership may be revoked.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Amati cello on tour

For those of you who wish to see my copy of 'The King' cello by Andrea Amati and live in the Twin Cities area, it will be shown at the Suzuki Association of the Americas Convention May 26-29th in Minneapolis at the Convention Center.

We are encouraging players to come see and play the instruments, even the Amati cello - don't be shy! I remember fondly all the conventions I attended where the instruments were vastly available. The acoustics are terrible, but at least all instruments can be evenly judged since they all suffer from the same acoustical void in such a setting.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

If it ain't Baroque...

I must throw some kudos the way of Jay Ifshin (brand known as Jay Haide) for a very successful and bold move to provide a quality, affordable line of Baroque violin-family instruments to string players. This is a line I long wanted to introduce through StringWorks, and for roughly 18 months I actively worked on design and potential distribution, but demand was still so low and other tasks drew me away.

I've enjoyed 'early music' as a performer and audience member for years, and although I don't play it nearly as much as I used to, I still enjoy the wonderful fresh experience of high Baroque music and the ornamentation and creativity that comes with performing it. Obtaining instruments was a struggle for many, many years, and quite often modern instruments were simply fitted with Baroque bridges, as if this would pass for the real thing. An affordable, reliable, quality Baroque instrument is a necessity with the still small (but actively growing) world of Baroque string players, and bravo to Jay for making it a reality.

State of the Market - Passion or Profit?

I had a meeting today with the new Vice President of Advancement at Illinois Wesleyan University (where I serve on the Board of Trustees, so not exactly as random a meeting it may appear) and he had some interesting, thought-provoking questions that I don't consider all that frequently with StringWorks. Primary among them was concerning future growth or growth potential. I explained that it was sort of a decision between Passion or Profit, in terms of staying the course as it is now or moving on to the more typical scenario of wholesaling and/or distributing the now developed brand of StringWorks.

One the one hand, the current one, the volume is still quite manageable, and customers will always get personal attention. It's a common misconception that StringWorks is an ultra-high-volume retailer - we are far from it - and this is partly by design. However, what business owner does not seek further successes whenever feasible? I guess it all lies in how you define 'success'. The Passion side of running a business such as this marries musician to musician, rather than moving product to the masses. It creates perhaps not the most perfect case of business growth and development, but does foster intangible benefits like loyalty and joy in what you do - hard to put a price/measurement on that type of success, really.

The Profit side pulls the business owner to capitalize on successes and build on them, giving the company the most growth it can sustain responsibly. Several colleagues from all industry paths have made strong arguments that I shortchange myself and the company by not capitalizing on a successful branding of the instruments and the company, that by pursuing wholesale distribution of the StringWorks instrument, case, and bow lines is the perfect and natural opportunity. Obviously one assumes that volume would increase substantially in such a situation, particularly if the distribution channels could be successfully implemented worldwide, but then again this is an industry full of supply, and demand of a diminishing art such as string playing can only be sustained so far. Still, it remains a viable consideration, as the 'pride in the product' could be shared with more musicians the world over.

It may seem apparent that I have chosen the former - to stick with the Passion side and continue to run the business as we have all along - only instruments, cases, and bows, and as much chatter and advice as you want to spend on the phone hearing. (The case (no pun intended) for selling accessories and sheet music has come up more than once as well) We are still able to develop solid, close relationships with a number of our clients, and that would be all but forgotten if we decided to go into the mass market - I'm not sure we could all live without it.

When you have a staff such as I have, it's hard to turn away that dedication and commitment and advance to 'moving product'. Our loyal customers are developing relationships with the StringWorks team, and since both parties enjoy the opportunity to share this common interest, why take it away?

That's my State of the Market in my little micro-niche for now - who knows what will come of next year...I hope nothing changes.