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Niche Manufacturing: Guitar Pedals and Boutique Everything

I play guitar. I know, it’s a terrible and expensive habit but, it’s part of my life. I have been steadily disappointing myself with this exertion for approximately 25 years now. In those years, a great deal has changed with regards to the instrument’s marketplace. From what guitar styles are popular to the vintage explosion, nearly everything has transformed since that ugly, second-hand Gibson knock-off gave me my first calluses.

Manufacturing of guitars has changed as well. With the industry adopting CNC methods to improve mass production, the number of employees a major company requires to keep up with demand is far fewer than before. This, however, isn’t always the best thing to happen in manufacturing Technology is fantastic in lending itself to streamlined and lean manufacturing but what about the “feel” and “character” of the processes that got you there?

In recent years there has been major growth in “boutique” products. Hyper-specific items that are typically produced by small businesses, aimed at fulfilling micro-niche markets. These products can have prices that are typically much higher than their mass produced counter parts yet, maintain a customer base that is insistent on the superior quality of the item. Not just guitars and amplifiers but even furniture and food has seen the artisanal shift. The amount of consumers willing to sacrifice paying a premium to obtain value added benefits is increasing every day.

As a marketer who also happens to be a consumer of both the guitar industry’s products, and a fan of most popular music mediums, I can only attempt to convey how exciting this movement is to witness. From the wild experimentation inherent in guitar effects pedals, to the shift back to analog music such as vinyl records, the sonic architecture currently underway in music is inspiring.

Since the earliest days of popular music, guitarists looking to obtain a certain sound would utilize effects pedals to alter the guitar’s signal prior to it entering the amplifier. These effects pedals encompass a vast landscape of different sounds and features. In the beginning they were slightly limited and typically only available through an underground network of people who were either DIY’ers themselves or, knew someone who was. But, as years passed and electronics began to shrink, companies started popping up offering the same effects pedals the professionals used for sale to the general public.

All was well in the industry and many companies found themselves needing to fill a swelling demand for their products. This, along with changes in electrical components, led to “lower quality” products being passed off on the consumers. Technology had brought us ways to produce these products on a much smaller scale and with the high demand these companies wanted to reach the largest number of consumers possible. This brought about utilizing lower quality components to cut costs and produce these products in mass quantities.

This was a classic lesson of companies forgetting what had gotten them to where they were by striving to simply fill the market with enough product. However, effects are ultimately all about the sound. Whether it is a certain type of overdrive driving an amplifier to produce different harmonic quirks, or a lush, almost liquid flowing chorus, the sound is the factor that matters.

Once all of the effects being produced started to become smaller and more affordable and were attempting to recreate the sounds that had previously been produced, a schism occurred. The offshoot that sprang up was comprised of a bunch of “purists” looking to capture the since discontinued products of the past. Why try to emulate or mimic something with low cost materials when many of the actual components to make the exact sound are still available? The factors of the vintage market explosion and the growing scarcity of the original products both played a part in the never ending jones to achieve tone (ugh, that was not planned). This brought about people who began learning rudimentary electrical engineering and reproducing these effects themselves. The internet also played a major role in that now this entire community had a way of connecting.

Expanding on these effects was also an inevitable byproduct of the schism. Enthusiasts, hold up in their shops and garages, were experimenting with new combinations of components in an attempt to discover sonic innovation that would give them the sound of their favorite artist or simply mimic what they heard in their own heads. These shade-tree inventors soon took to the internet to share their creations to the community and an entire industry was redefined. Once the electronically challenged guitarists, like myself, began to hear these Franken-creations, we could not wait to give our money to the mad scientists responsible. This is by far the most fun way in which a niche market is created. Without specific cause or adjudication, but rather some mutated accident, spawned out of discovery and previously unknown desire.

Of course the larger companies that had held sway in the industry for many years were not simply blind to this new market. They also began to create offerings to appease the appetite of the boutique crowd. The terms; hand-wired, true-bypass, and transparent, began to appear on the products of the major companies. Some even began to offer reissues of the vintage effects pedals that had gained them notoriety in the early days of the industry. The impact of these boutique products had made their mark and proven that sometimes consumers are willing to pay more to obtain exactly what they are searching for.

This feat can prove to be an achievable one throughout small business manufacturing. The ability to focus on a hyper specific area of expertise and take full advantage of this knowledge is a matter of reaching the correct market. In the example above you are already looking at a very specific market; guitar players who use effects pedals. But then to delve deeper, you find a niche within a niche, those who are looking for a very specific entity that exists inside the original article. These small or micro-niches, exist in nearly every aspect of commerce. While many feel that they may not be robust enough to sustain a business, it is the movement away from all-affordable, all of the time, toward the quality that these products offer that will continue to grow these markets.

Whether you call it; niche, boutique, artisan, or whatever, this movement is flourishing. We as American manufacturers always shout about how our products are superior in quality to foreign competition… well this could very well be the opportunity to show how that quality is worth the price tag. By searching for and finding the hyper focused markets where our experience and knowledge thrive, we may all benefit and achieve new growth.

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