A recent trip to Burlington, Vermont, got me thinking about the marketing aspect of alternative strings. On one hand, the artisanal, craft, GMO-free thing gets on your nerves when a whole city is engulfed in that ethos, but on the other hand, it shows how all businesses prosper when a few hit the proverbial home run. To get to the parallels, a little beer industry background is required.
A quick history lesson, as related by one brewer: 20 years ago, there was just bland beer made in the U.S. For anything interesting, you had to go imported, and that’s what that generation of beer snobs did. Then, about 10 years ago, a few breweries open up, making more interesting beers (Sam Adams being the most prominent). This was followed in relatively rapid succession by other small niche breweries like Stoney Creek. The home-brew aficionados got in the act, and all of a sudden, companies like The Alchemist and Lawson’s Finest rose up. Now, new breweries open up every week, it seems, and with a flooding of the market, a bunch will fail. But some superstars foamed to the top (cool metaphor, no?) like Heady Topper or Sip Of Sunshine. Others became jealous. Wrong attitude.
Human nature dictates that if everything is the same, it gets overlooked, taken for granted. When beer was dull, the industry stagnated. Outside of the Budweiser Clydesdales, it was hard to find anything to talk about. Once a pecking order formed, beer drinking geeks came out of the woodwork, looking for the latest and greatest. When Heady Topper won Best Beer in the world, 2 years running, it was off to the races. Now there was the unobtainable, the product you had to drive five hours for, wait in line for 3 more, just to have a slim chance of getting a can.
Marketing studies have also shown that human nature dictates that once you can’t get something, you want it. The challenge of obtaining the unobtainable becomes the reward, even if you fail to get it. It stimulates the entire industry, nation-wide. People who never drank beer, but drank only wine, are switching to beer as now you can be just as an obnoxious geek in beer as in in wine.
In speaking to some local beer sellers, trying to get some sort of perspective, they all agreed on one interesting factoid: the high-end beer consumers are loyal to beer, but they aren’t loyal to any one brand. A purchase of one brewery’s offering may not be repeated for a year, as there are so many interesting things to try. Individual breweries will come and go, but the industry thrives like never before.
How does this relate to music, specifically alternative strings, and how does the string world both succeed and fail in achieving the same level of success?
First, we have lots of young players coming out of conservatories all over the country, who have skills that far surpass the earlier generations. That’s good. With programs like the one at Berklee, they’re more creative. They have had access to all the amazing stuff on the internet which introduces them to music that us pre-internet students never knew existed. They’re adding those influences in their music. That’s great! So far, everything is lined up for an amazing success story!
As usual, with every silver lining comes a cloud. We can blow it away, but it’s a group effort. Where most products have an identifiable “brand” or quality, alternative strings is kind of an amorphous blob. If we do the Venn diagram thing, beer is easy. The big circle is beer drinkers. The smaller circle is quality or imported beer. The smallest would be the ultra-rare craft brews.
In music, the circles don’t fit inside one another. There’s classical, jazz, bluegrass, funk, etc. At least, in a music store, or in an online shop, these categories are easily defined by bins or sorted by tabs. There’s no tab for alternative strings. It might be jazz, but it also might be an old-time derivative, like the great and lamented Crooked Still. It could be almost modern chamber music, like 9 Horses, a trio of classical musicians who like to get together and cut loose.
Alternative strings does have the hierarchy of artists, the old guard like Alasdair Fraser, Darol Anger, Mike Marshall and Edgar Meyer. The young guns are also looked up to, like Chris Thile, Brittany Haas, Natalie Haas, and Jordan Greenberg. But what do they play? And play consistently?
The solution is at once simple to achieve, yet impossible to achieve. It’s herding cats, the cats in this case being the musicians. They’re an independent lot, but what’s needed is a concerted marketing identity where the musicians themselves form a loose coalition, or union, and make sure the press knows what they’re doing. Go after the classical press with the concept that “this is where modern chamber music has gone.” Go after the pop press with the concept that strings have become ubiquitous in pop music (look at all the string players backing the singers on the late American Idol). Go after the jazz press with the idea that some of the most remarkable improvisation is being done by the likes of Jordana Greenberg (Harpeth Rising) and Darol Anger (Mr. Sun) and Jason Anick (Rhythm Future Quartet).
Eventually, go after some mainstream labels. Get magazines like The Strad realizing the number of exceptional classical players who have gone to the dark side. It’s an achievable goal, but not without cooperation amongst artists and a focused effort. It’s time.