Andy Mooney gets asked about his thoughts on drum machines and Auto-Tune a lot. People “expect me to hate them, but I love them all,” says the Fender CEO. Mooney doesn’t see the soaring popularity of digitally created music as a threat to the guitar business because the future of acoustics and electrics lies, in the company’s view, largely off of charts and stages.
Gone are the days of rock & roll heroes slinging Stratocasters on TV; while there are numerous young guitar-based bands bubbling up on the modern music scene, the instrument itself, without its Eric Claptons and Chuck Berrys, no longer holds the cachet it did for generations prior. As rock music wanes, Fender is looking to new markets such as novice players and women. The guitar company found in recently conducted research that half of beginner guitar players are female, and that new guitarists overall are interested in learning guitar not to become rock stars, but for personal enjoyment and self-improvement. Mooney, who took over the legacy guitar brand in 2015 from Scott Gilbertson after several decades with Nike, Disney and Quiksilver, spoke with Rolling Stone about the ambitions in Fender’s new products — from its new line of acoustics to its in-the-works software projects — as well as the company’s burgeoning new global audience and its underdog success with one unexpected avenue: the ukulele.
Fender just released research saying that half of amateur guitarists in the U.S. and UK are women. Did that come as a surprise to you?
I just came back from a trip in Shanghai and Tokyo last week and I was joking that every market tells you they’re different — but when you get right down to it, there is much more similarity between markets these days than there are differences. The fact that 50 percent of new guitar buyers in the UK were women was a surprise to the UK team, but it is identical to what’s happening in the U.S., which we saw in research three years ago.
There was also belief about what people referred to as the “Taylor Swift factor” maybe making the 50 percent number short-term and aberrational. In fact, it’s not. Taylor has moved on, I think playing less guitar on stage than she has in the past. But young women are still driving 50 percent of new guitar sales. So the phenomenon seems like it’s got legs, and it’s happening worldwide.
Outside of the UK and U.S. as well?
In Japan, we haven’t done the research there yet, but the team on the ground estimates as much as 60 or 70 percent of new guitar sales could be driven by women because of the huge popularity of guitar-based girl bands there. Take a look at the band Scandal. Interestingly, it’s kind of like what’s happening here: These girl bands are playing anything from heavy metal to indie rock. It’s very diverse in terms of genre — and it’s not part of J-pop.
We talked a few months ago about how you’re no longer selling guitars against other guitars or other instruments — you’re competing with the entire leisure market and the Internet-spanning universe of distractions. How are you getting people to spend free time on fretted instruments?
One of the things we found in the research is that the closer people get to a year in terms of learning how to play guitar, the more likely they are to commit to the instrument for life. We have 65,000 people taking lessons on Fender Play, predominantly on a month-to-month basis. Over the last couple of days we offered a 25 percent discount for people to sign up for an annual subscription; then we punched that up by saying for the duration of your subscription you can get a 10 percent discount on Fender gear. We’ve seen a dramatic response just in the first few days. Learning any instrument, piano, guitar — it’s a time commitment and we want to really provide as much incentive for people to commit the time.
Another thing I found fascinating was that it’s playing into a bigger societal trend. It’s funny, some of the most popular apps in the App Store are meditative apps or apps that direct you toward investing in yourself. There are some subsets of the audience that want to learn guitar in the quickest possible time. But there’s a growing, potentially larger group that is taking on guitar as a fundamental new life skill. A lot of it are people who are closer to retirement age who have the time and the money to invest in either relearning an instrument or learning for the first time.
Fender Play, your digital lessons program, is more than a year old now. Where does it fit into Fender’s overall strategy?
The way we look at it, we have an interconnected suite of digital products. Things like Fender Play, our online tuner Fender Tune, and Fender Songs, a product in development that generates chords for any song that appears on your streaming device within a few seconds. We haven’t launched that product yet because we’re working through developing the business model with publishers and labels. But we see all these core products and more to come in the future as being rooms in a different house; targeted toward different facets of playing guitar and enjoying music.
We have a goal of getting 100,000 users on Fender Play by the end of this year. We really believe that the more people we get onto Fender Play, the more it will further create growth in the industry, over and above what we’re seeing coming from a growth in streamed music and a growth in live music attendance. We’re still very excited about the future.
The digital learning business is much more seasonal than we anticipated. The biggest day of the year is December 25th, where, as you can imagine, somebody gets a new guitar and goes straight to their computer asking how they’re going to get lessons. But there’s a real intensity of interest from about Black Friday to the end of January, then it tapers, picks back up with back-to-school and crescendos again December 25th. So this is only the second season of intensity we’re going through. It’s much more seasonal than guitars themselves.
Your research revealed most beginning guitarists aren’t picking up the instrument aiming to become rock stars. Was that surprising to you?
That statistic didn’t surprise me. I saw the shift beginning in guitar with the advent of punk. Punk, I think, opened up an aperture to playing the instrument. It was less about the virtuosity and more about having fun and self-expression. I think that applies both to bands and individuals who just wanted to pick up the instrument and master it to their own comfort level and enjoy playing songs in small groups or on their own.
Punk opened up an aperture to playing the instrument. It was less about the virtuosity and more about having fun and self-expression — Fender CEO Andy Mooney
What will fare better in the post-rock world: acoustic or electric? Some industry reports have indicated the former.
Electric and acoustic tend to be a little bit cyclical. Whether it was driven by artists like Taylor Swift or some other reason, the trend a few years ago was higher growth of acoustic sales than electric — and what we’re seeing now is the reverse. Also, the growth in acoustic is largely in the higher-end portion of the business, the $2,000 and up range. My interpretation of that is people who might have bought an entry-level acoustic are now committing to it and want to trade up. Or, people who bought acoustic now might be wanting to add electric to the repertoire. But we’re seeing very healthy growth. And still, we see this explosion in growth in ukuleles, which still befuddles me as to what the driving force would be — but we’re very happy that it’s happening.
What’s going on with the ukulele, exactly?
Growth in ukulele really only seems to have happened in the last five years, but it’s been very, very high growth, and it doesn’t seem to be abating. We just launched this month a Grace Vanderwaal signature ukulele, and sales of that have been through the roof. I have a 12-year-old daughter and she asked me for a ukulele six months ago because all the kids in her class were playing it and they wanted to learn songs together. There’s kind of a social aspect to it that creates very young players picking up a fretted instrument for the very first time.
How do you see digital music tools — samplers, drum machines, Auto-Tune — in relation to the fretted instruments business?
I don’t see it as competing because when you look at the total universe of guitar players, the people who want to play for notoriety are in the 10 percent or less range. The percentage that then wants to create music with digital tools is even smaller.
I see digital tools as just tools. [People] expect me to hate them, but I like them all, because they’re all just tools to help people create more music. We’re also seeing Grimes, Skrillex, EDM artists using guitar almost as an input device, which is another twist I would never have predicted.
Does Fender have any plans to expend into other instruments or other spaces right now?
Not at this time. We’ve got our hands more than full dealing with growth in the industry and are ambitious to grow our share within the industry. We’re pretty focused on fretted instruments right now.
What’s the biggest challenge ahead right now?
One of my goals coming into the organization was to really elevate the quality level of our products in all our categories to equal that of our electric guitars and amps. The first place we did that was effects pedals. They’re really important for contemporary guitarists, so we’re in our second offering of pedals and the response to those has been really positive.
The next one is acoustic guitars. We’ve always been strong in $1,000-or-below acoustic guitars, but we’ve never really had American-made acoustic guitars of the levels that artists would feel really good about playing onstage. That has been a two-year R&D project for us — my treasured R&D project — and you’ll see the fruits of that labor coming out at a trade show in January of next year. The artists have been completely blown away by what we’ve been able to do, because it feels completely new for Fender to have that quality level of an acoustic instrument.
How have you been measuring that response? By sales figures, projections, social media engagement?
Last week, we had a funny situation where we had Phil Collen of Def Leppard come into our Corona factory to work on a signature heavy metal Charvel guitar. He saw the acoustic we were building there, picked it up and wanted to use it onstage that night. We had to say, “No, but as soon as we get it out in the spring of next year we’ll give it to you!” So a lot of it is anecdotal at this point. But when you start to see artists who literally want to steal your guitar from the showroom and play it that night, that’s pretty encouraging for us.