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The Guitar Industry - An American Overview

Hap Kuffner

As October is Guitar Month we chat to Hap Kuffner, Vice-President of Steinberger Inc who proffers a few wise words about the current state of the industry

Hap Kuffner, Vice President of Steinberger Inc.

How many more times do we suffer in silence as we hear yet another musical instrument manufacturer/wholesaler/dealer, wheel out the by now, well worn phrase, 'The market is dead'? Who are these people, what have they got to offer, and yet more to the point, why are they still in business?

To find out more about the supposed decline and fall of a business that's receiving far too much lip service of late. Max Kay spent several hours in the company of Hap Kuffner, Vice President of Steinberger Inc., to get an American viewpoint on a situation that is not only affecting the British way of life, but many other nations also.

Kuffner, who's 36 years old, started up in the music business in 1968, packing boxes for Fender. In 1971 he and his partner Stanley Jay formed Mandolin Bros, a musical retail outlet specialising in acoustic instruments on New York's Staten Island. With typical nerve they began by pooling $212, bought two bags of banjo parts and they were in business.

Hap Kuffner made his exit from that company in 1980 to form Steinberger and later sold out his interest in Mandolin Bros. At this point in time he owns a company called Kuffner International which carries out the marketing and all the international sales for brand names, such as Spector, Steinberger, EMG and is just about to begin work as a consultant to Trace Elliot with a view to breaking that product in the U.S. marketplace.

His work involves travelling the world extensively which has meant that visiting music stores and trade shows has become a way of life for him. Kuffner, who is instantly recognisable at any of these events, is possibly the easiest person to spot at the Frankfurt and NAMM shows due to his flamboyant style which manifests itself in a three piece white suit, white hat and handlebar moustache.

After many visits to England in the past, he's come to the following conclusions, which as he's quick to point out are not aimed strictly at the English but anybody to whom this stream of consciousness is relevant!


"Most wholesalers, manufacturers and retailers fail to be successful through sitting around worrying about problems, through being afraid to take a chance, through indecision — that's how businesses and markets fail, not by going all the way out there and reaching for it.

"It seems to me that a lot of people are at the end of the period I call 'phenomena time', which was created by the Beatles and a lot of the groups that came after them during the height of the teen years of the baby boom.

"You can sell a refrigerator, a car and food, to any human being that has the wherewithal and money to buy them, but the musical instrument is not a necessity for a human being in order to live. Without music on this planet I don't wanna be here, forget it, because this planet's in bad enough shape as it is. Music must continue to exist and therefore it must be sold.

"In 1962 or '63 at the height of the baby boom teen years, the Beatles broke on the scene and every kid decided, 'I don't wanna be a cop, or a fireman or a truckdriver, I WANNA BE A BEATLE. I wanna have Rolls Royces, cash, jets, guitars, drums, basses and keyboards and be famous!' And so all the teenagers decided to become musicians. So you'd open a store, stock it with 3 or 4 instruments and the world rushed in to buy an instrument.

"That was a phenomena, now it's OVER! At that time Ludwig was making the Ringo Starr drum set, I think they were working double shift, six days a week in their factory and couldn't fill their orders. Hofner solid body basses? They couldn't make enough. Rickenbacker guitars? They changed from a very little known Californian company into a huge name at that time... because of the Beatles. Rock music became very important and rock 'n' roll instruments sold very easily, and these instrument companies had enormous growth, people were rushing and flocking to buy instruments and it interrupted the previous cycle of 'cradle to grave' selling. In the past when children were born, and went to school, they became involved with music, music was taught in the home and music became a part of their education so that they'd continue with music, not to become famous or rich, but to be a better person, or a more enlightened person.

"So what happened was, the typical selling of music, selling of instruments was interrupted by a phenomena which by 1976 had crested and died, and here we are 8 years later and everybody's moaning and groaning 'instruments don't sell!' You have TO SELL THEM, you have to find a way to sell them, you have to look at your customer.

"Why play an instrument? It makes you deep, it'll make you mystical, it'll make you an open book, it'll make you spend more time alone in a room with an instrument by yourself, it'll make you spend time in a crowd, it'll make you sexy, it'll make you a degenerate!! You have to find the persons, identify and use a way to get that person to buy an instrument, because without instrument sales, there's no music, and without music, this planet is totally in the toilet. If you can't sell musical instruments, and you're sick and tired that nobody rushes in to buy instruments, sell fish, they'll buy it. Don't sell instruments, pack it in, change your store to a fish store, you'll probably do quite well if you have some chips and wrap it in newspaper.

"Number one, make your decision. Are you in the musical instrument business for the long haul, or has it just been a fad? If it's a fad, get out, believe me you won't be missed, there's a bunch of people who will take your places, who believe in music. Only people who believe in music will survive in this business. You can't become filthy rich in this business, you can have a good living selling instruments and it's a great thing to do with your life. If you're in it just for the money, and there's no money, get out, go sell shoes, or fish or motor cars, or gold or anything else and start beating it to death. If you believe in music, and you've dedicated your life to sales, then number one, if people won't come to you, go to them.

What To Do

"When is the last time you went out to a concert? When is the last time you went out to see Joe Blow's band playing the garage or a pub? When was the last time you went out there to find out what musicians really needed? You know, you walk into a bands' rehearsal and you look at their equipment and tell them that they may need this, that, some fixups, some repairs, some patch cords, or an amp's maybe broken. Show them the new technology. They may be very interested in coming into your store to see that, but don't expect them to walk into your store and ask for it. If you don't educate them, nobody else will.

"Number two, go to concerts. If you don't attend 2 or 3 concerts a month, then maybe you don't care about music, and it doesn't have to be rock concerts. Go to pop concerts, go to folk concerts, go to classical concerts, whatever type of music interests you, get more involved in the music, and it will reflect in your attitude to selling instruments.

"Number three — nothing sells on price. There are now retail stores in America who're going out of business and yet they are some of the biggest discounters. Why has this happened? Because they've taken the sex out of selling an instrument, it's no longer a sexy sale, it's 'okay line up, grab your instrument, and get it outta here, put it in a box yourself'. You're selling a musical instrument not a pair of shoes. You have to sell it!

"Make sure that the merchandise in your store is good merchandise, it doesn't have to be the biggest brand names; make sure it's good quality merchandise. Will it hold up? Will the manufacturer back it up? Can you sell it? Make sure that you're involved in music and make sure that the products that you sell out of your store, you believe in. If you put a product on your wall that you and your sales people don't believe in — it won't sell.

"Number four — don't go after the top rock stars, they've already got their equipment, although maybe they're interested in one or two new updated things. What you have to go after is the beginner — the word I detest is 'punter'. You're the punter because he is the one who's got you. If he doesn't buy your goods, you may as well punch your way out of the football field until Kingdom Come — because you're the punter.


"Let's get it straight, he's the guy you need, without a customer you don't have a business. He's not the punter, he's smart and maybe the punter, by not walking into your store, what he's trying to tell you is, 'I don't need you, you need me.' Maybe you should re-examine it. Instead of being angry at the punter maybe you should be angry at yourself. Get off your rear end and GO SELL!!

"Print advertising in the music press, so that the concerned musician who reads that magazine, can get your address and telephone number and find out what you're up to this week. So put some of your money there, but if you put it all there, you've left out the other vehicles.

"Namely — in-store advertising. What you may wanna do is have a sale of the month, a certain instrument of the month, or have a group come in and do a demonstration. Pay a group to come in and demonstrate your instruments if the people in your store are wot technically up to it, or get your salesmen to work out once a week and have a show, and each week the salesmen will take new instruments in your store and demonstrate them in a live performance situation. You're paying for that because these men are not on the floor selling, and you've got a crowded store full of people listening to a concert at a loud volume, but you are spending money for that, and that is a way of selling and that is advertising.

"Again, have business cards printed up for every single individual in your store and make sure they go to concerts, nightclubs, group rehearsals, etc. And when they go to the gigs, make sure they single out a musician, write his name on the back of the card, put the date and what they were talking about, and when that musician walks in with his card, you'll know that your man is working. That's advertising! If he gets a sale on his off hours, he should be reimbursed for that extra hours time, or that extra labour, even at a point of purchase.

"Advertise manufacturers products in your retail store, and most importantly, make it exciting. If it's not exciting, nobody cares. If somebody's buying a musical instrument, they've saved up money, and they're gonna be back next week to buy another one. Make that sale memorable. For example, you're very lucky to be buying a musical instrument, you're a very talented individual to have been given the gift of playing music. I am very thankful that you are buying a musical instrument from me. Let me write down your name and telephone number, and once a month give you a call or send you a postcard on new developments with the line or a new special on sale, or a new type of string, or updated product — SELL IT...


"I've never told anybody to do something without first being able to do it myself. Three years ago when I started promoting Steinberger and setting up the national and international distribution system on Steinberger, everybody laughed at me as though I was totally insane. Everybody looked at the instrument and said, 'that'll never sell, it's too much money, it's plastic, it has no headstock, and forget it, it'll never sell.'

"Now everybody says 'it's easy for him, he sells Steinberger.' That's right — I SOLD Steinberger. Spector basses were around 7 years, and nobody picked upon them until I did. EMG pickups were around for 7 years; put a battery in my guitar? That'll never sell! Right now EMG is the number two pickup company in America and threatening in the next year to become the largest pickup company in the business. Their sales have quintupled this year. Why? Because you have to go out and sell it. If you believe in what you're selling, you don't have to worry about competition, you don't have to worry about what the other guy is doing, and you don't have to worry about who's going to rip you off. All you have to do is pretend you're a long distance runner and that you're going to win the race. Pace yourself and run the best race.

"You must want to succeed, to succeed. If you're lazy and you really don't care about what you're selling, or you feel that there's no sense in selling something, or you adopt a nihilistic attitude, like 'what does it matter?' then you're not gonna do OK. If you believe totally in what you're doing, you'll do well at it. If you're waiting for the money to roll in to you, you're nothing special, none of us are. Everybody who's gone into business for themselves must make that business work.

"There's no easy business, and selling instruments is one of the hardest."

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Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Oct 1983

Feature by Max Kay

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