Sunday, August 31, 2003

Musical-instrument companies profit from boomer daydreams

By Brad Foss
The Associated Press

Before setting out to earn a Ph.D. in psychology roughly 30 years ago, Richard Holloway was a full-time singer-songwriter, performing at nightclubs and universities with a variety of backup bands.

As the demands of his education, career and family grew, however, Holloway's rock 'n' roll lifestyle was all but shelved. He played with other musicians now and then, but mostly just practiced solo at home. "You reach a point in your life where it gets more difficult," said the 54-year-old father of two children, ages 6 and 11.

But gradually Holloway, like many aging baby boomers, has learned to better manage his time so he can once again pursue his passion. Today the Brookfield, Wis., resident is in a band - Dr. Linda and the Ultrasounds - that regularly performs in Milwaukee nightclubs, and he's splurging on all the musical equipment he coveted but couldn't afford as a 20-something.

Stories like Holloway's are melodies to the ears of manufacturers and retailers in the $16 billion musical-instrument industry. Yet they hardly come as a surprise.

Largely behind the scenes, the International Music Products Association has helped get concert bands, rock bands and orchestras started from scratch in dozens of communities around the country. The Carlsbad, Calif.-based association, which goes by the acronym NAMM and represents nearly 8,000 companies, finances two programs that encourage boomers to pursue their musical aspirations and, ideally, spend some money along the way.

One program, called Weekend Warriors, is what brought the members of Dr. Linda and the Ultrasounds together.

Through Weekend Warriors, retailers around the country seek out and connect wannabe rock musicians in their area, provide them with gear and rehearsal space, and eventually help them put on a live performance at a local venue. The idea originated at Skip's Music in Sacramento, Calif., and was later marketed around the United States and Australia by NAMM, which provides starter kits to interested shops.

"What we give them is the equivalent of a catered experience of being in a band," said Don Moore, 32, who coordinates Weekend Warriors for the White House of Music in Waukesha, Wis., where Dr. Linda and the Ultrasounds were born. The five-week program costs $95 a person and attracts as many as a hundred musicians a year, Moore said.

While open to people of all ages, "it's a very boomer-centric program," said Peter Mealy, 52, manager of Picker's Supply in Fredericksburg, Va., which has promoted Weekend Warriors since 1997. Mealy said that while sales generated as a result of the program are not high in number, "when they do buy, they are more inclined to buy a high-end piece of gear."

The lead guitarist of Dr. Linda and the Ultrasounds is a case in point. Holloway, who owns 15 guitars, estimates that he has spent between $12,000 and $15,000 on new guitars over the past 10 years. The band has spent another $5,000 on sound equipment and $1,000 on studio time to record a CD.

Of course, the music industry isn't just benefiting from aging rockers getting back into the act.

The other program sponsored by NAMM is called New Horizons. It was launched in 1991 by a professor at the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music. The professor, Roy Ernst, received a grant from NAMM to create a concert band made up of people 50 and older, with or without experience. It was an immediate success, Ernst said.

With help from graduate students, the program gives lessons to beginners and guidance to all, readying bands, orchestras - and, soon, a chorus - for public performances at local events. The university collects $124 per musician each semester (180 people participated last spring), and local retailers stand to benefit from sales and rentals of clarinets, flutes, trombones and trumpets.

There are now more than 90 New Horizons bands and orchestras throughout the United States and Canada, and about 4,000 individuals have participated in all. A study conducted by the organization this spring found that, over five years, participants spent an average of $3,600 apiece on instruments, accessories and published music.

"People start with an entry-level instrument, but after they've been playing a short time they want to upgrade to a better instrument," Ernst said.

"That's not my direct concern," he added. "I'm a teacher. But the market is certainly a byproduct of what I do."

The market has been tough lately for some U.S. manufacturers. Steinway Musical Instruments Inc. reported lower second-quarter profits and declining sales of brass, woodwind and percussion instruments. The Waltham, Mass.-based company, which reported an increase in piano sales, blamed recent difficulty on the economy, strikes and foreign competition.

That said, C.F. Martin & Co. of Nazareth, Pa., a renowned guitar manufacturer, attributes much of its growth to the baby boom generation that grew up watching Elvis Presley, Joan Baez and Paul Simon strum their guitars.

Dick Boak, a company spokesman, said C.F. Martin has sold as many guitars in the past 14 years as it did in its first 155 years of business.

"There is no question that the baby boom bubble is the primary part of our business," Boak said. "So primary, in fact, that we have had concern about what would happen when the bubble bursts."

A NAMM/Gallup poll conducted earlier this year found that 42 percent of people who played an instrument were ages 35 to 50. In 1985, the figure was 35 percent.

The Music Teachers National Association, meanwhile, says people ages 25 to 55 are the fastest-growing group of music students. The most popular areas of study, in descending order, are piano, voice and stringed instruments, the group said.

"I just took my first voice lesson," said Robin Perry-Allen, a 51-year-old member of the Washington Chorus in the nation's capital. Perry-Allen, who is a publicist for the non-profit Chorus America, added: "When I was raising my children earlier in my career, I just didn't have as many resources to pay for it."

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