Enthusiasm for, and excitement about, various types of instruments tends to wax and wane, sometimes owing to larger music industry trends, sometimes attributable to a new technological innovation, and sometimes because other factors conspire to bring a particular product to the fore. There probably has been no bigger craze in the music products space over the last few years than that associated with ukuleles; truly, the early part of the 21st century has been a renaissance of sorts for ukes. The possible reasons for this trend are numerous: ukes are easy to learn to play, they’re relatively inexpensive as compared to other instruments, they’re portable and they tend to make “happy music” that puts a smile on people’s faces. There’s also something quite communal about the instrument, a fact testified to by the prevalence of ukulele clubs and ukulele circles.
When a particular type of product gets “hot,” it is only to be expected that the market will flood with newcomers seeking to take advantage of the overwhelming demand. Scott Emmerman, Director Marketing and Sales, Hohner, Inc.—Lanikai’s exclusive authorized U.S. distributor—noted just such a development in the uke space. “People who had never made ukuleles before, and who weren’t even in the business, jumped into the fray,” he said. “You saw ukuleles coming from pretty much every fretted manufacturer in the world, plus tons of little companies. Even small retailers would import a container from China and try to compete in the uke business with an unknown brand.” This stands in stark contrast to Lanikai itself, which has been in the ukulele market for a decade or more, enabling it to capitalize on market growth organically.
According to 2012 import statistics, Lanikai captured approximately 40% of the total U.S. ukulele market, putting it in a premier position. In short, Lanikai felt that, in order to remain in that position both during the craze and after it potentially cools off, it would have to differentiate its product line from competitors. “We wanted our ukuleles to offer something unique…some aspect that provided an improved playing experience and that would truly resonate with players, as opposed to being gimmicky,” said Emmerman. “So, we started looking and researching options.” Already, the company has broken ground in terms of product innovation: inexpensive acoustic ukuleles with onboard chromatic tuners represent one breakthrough, as do the company’s Tuna Uke-equipped ukuleles that achieve a dramatic improvement in intonation. But perhaps the biggest “Wow” must be reserved for UkeSB, the first USB-equipped ukulele in production, which enables musicians to record their performances onto computers or iPads easily, thus allowing them to produce videos that have great audio quality efficiently.
Drew Lewis, former Lanikai Ukuleles “Big Kahuna,” who has just recently been promoted to Harmonica Product Manager for Hohner, said the company spent more than a year bringing the product to fruition, working in partnership with Fishman. “There was an inkling in 2012 at NAMM; that’s when we started discussing it,” Lewis revealed. “They mentioned the possibility to us, and we jumped all over it. We said, ‘Yes, that is exactly what we want for our ukes moving forward.’” He continued, “It has taken a year to get just right…to make sure it works with everything. And it really does.” The UkeSB is compatible with PCs, Macs, iPads (using an adaptor supplied with registration of the product), webcams and all digital audio workstations, such as GarageBand and Logic Pro.
Lanikai is initially offering six models, including four LK series ukes. Models in that series feature koa top, back and sides and encompass all four sizes: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. Rounding out the offering are two LKS series models, which have a solid spruce top with koa back and sides; they come in concert and tenor sizes.
Emmerman was enthusiastic in mentioning the features, which are common across both series. “We feature Grover tuners,” he enthused. “We put on genuine mother of pearl inlays. And it’s one of our first ukes with a high-gloss finish in about four years.” And, as far as connectivity, Lewis summed things up by saying, “We haven’t found anything yet that it hasn’t worked with.”
Why is a USB-equipped ukulele desirable, you ask? The millions of hits received by ukulele videos on YouTube, and the increasing number of ukulele players who record their performances via digital audio workstations, tell the tale. “We wanted to make digital recording easy for uke players who may not yet have made the investment in mics, preamps, cables and computer interfaces,” commented Emmerman. And, given that video performances are at top of mind for many uke enthusiasts, aesthetics have become increasingly important. “The UkeSB, with mother of pearl block inlays across the fingerboard, is very distinctive,” Lewis explained. “No other uke company is doing that. Plus, we put a faux truss rod cover up on the top that’s mother of pearl, as well, and has our UkeSB logo.” He added, “That is just the exact frame that you normally see on videos.”
The product was presented initially at the NAMM show this January, earning strong praise and plenty of media interest, including press from outside-the-industry heavyweights like USA Today, which featured UkeSB in its tech section. Lewis said the response has been positive everywhere he turns. “I haven’t come across anybody who doesn’t get the concept,” he said. “The Facebook team…they’re abuzz with this. Any time we launch it out in social media land, the response is fantastic. The forums are all talking about it.” During their conversation with The Retailer, Emmerman and Lewis discussed the planning for the retail rollout, saying that MI industry big boys like Guitar Center are on board, but that Lanikai will also seek to capitalize on the small-store, mom-and-pop MI channel.
To complement the UkeSB launch, Lanikai is also providing new in-store merchandising solutions. Included with every UkeSB model is a “USB Shout-Out Tag,” which is suspended under each instrument and promotes that the uke is equipped with a USB plug. Further driving the message home for customers is a wall-mounted, three-dimensional PoP display in the shape of a laptop. The printed “monitor” shows YouTube videos with thousands of hits and tells the customer how easy it is to record with the ukulele. The display can be mounted on both slat wall and pegboard, and it holds two UkeSB ukuleles. Dealers qualify for this free display with the purchase of any three UkeSB ukuleles. Acceptance of this display authorizes dealers to be part of the Big Kahuna program, which provides additional discounts, free UkeSB exclusive advertising and exclusive models. Clearly, Lanikai is pushing this product innovation with guns blazing.
The six current UkeSB models are only the beginning; the line will expand in the months ahead, as products roll out to dealers and the marketplace eagerly accepts them. UkeSB price points range from a retail of $650 for the soprano koa model to $799 for the solid spruce tenor model. Shipping began this month.