By Dan Ferrisi
We all know that the guitar market, encompassing both acoustics and electrics, is an enormously competitive space in which countless manufacturers—many with venerable, well-respected names—duke it out to win guitar players’ business and earn the endorsements of those whom today’s garage band rockers seek to emulate. And, when you talk about a venerable name in the industry, Godin Guitars comes inescapably to mind. The Retailer had an opportunity to sit down with Robert Godin, who, this year, is celebrating his 40th year in business. Our discussion ranges from trends in the guitar market to what makes Godin Guitars unique to the challenges that “new kids on the block” face.
Let’s get started.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Let’s start with some basics. Give us a 10,000-foot overview of Godin Guitars, covering key facts about the company, its longevity and its global reach.
Robert Godin: Well, as a matter of fact, 2012 is my 40th anniversary being in business. It’s nice. People don’t realize, but it’s 40 years that we are in business. Now, I think, we’re the largest producer in the Americas of guitars. Many of my competitors are in China and they produce little in America…even big names. Everything we offer is made by us. As we say: “From the tree to the stage.” We have seven brands and six factories. It is quite a statement, as now we cover 65 countries.
We’re very happy. But we’ve never been the flashiest people. But, now, some of the biggest artists are starting to notice and play our guitars: Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Arcade Fire and John McLaughlin, to name a few. We have solid people. It’s going very well for us.
The Retailer: Share some of the highlights of your own story as it pertains to the music products industry. Tell me about the path that you’ve traveled, bringing us right up to the present day and where you are currently.
Godin: I started very young. I had one of the first custom shop guitar places in Montreal. Even at age 15, I had my own shop in Montreal. And it’s a long story, so I won’t get into all of that, but I had the first strobotuner in Canada, made by Conn. It was almost the size of a fridge. [Laughs.] At that time, it was $6,000 or $7,000 that I paid. But, doing intonation, in ’65…nobody knew about intonation on guitars. And I started like that…I had this machine. My place became very renowned, you know, after a few years.
I started a guitar factory by pure coincidence. I never thought that I would go through that. I started with an old window factory in Eastern Townships of Quebec. I started with Norman Guitars at that time. I started that in 1972. But I never thought that I would be a guitar manufacturer one day. It was more my shop and these things. It’s a pure coincidence. But, I was fascinated with the idea, and we started like that.
The acoustic really came up at that time, and we were successful with the first guitar: the Norman guitar. We sold a lot in Canada, England and France. But, in the beginning, the name “Norman” was slower to catch on in the United States. That’s why I created something different with Seagull Guitars. I made the guitars more advanced, with a different look. That’s the acoustic we pushed for the United States.
The Retailer: Describe selling acoustics versus electrics, and the relative difficulty your company experienced.
Godin: Well, electric is the toughest, as far as reaching success. And that’s because, with electric, people are really interested in the brand name or the artists who play the guitar. If you remember the Acousticaster, it’s a semi-acoustic featuring a mechanical harp with 18 tuned metal tines inside. But it’s an electric neck and electric body. And it features a solid spruce top. I made this semi-acoustic sound like a big flattop guitar. And this was the first success I had with Godin. We did very, very well with that guitar. But, with Godin, it was very costly to really make it. For eight years, we lost money. You have to advertise. You have to promote. And it’s hard to bring the big volume. Big volume comes more with the entry-level, of course. But I was selling more of the high-end guitars. But, the acoustics, in this case, subsidized the electrics. The Seagulls…the Normans…they’re the ones that really helped me get going.
Now, actually, the electrics are our biggest sellers. We sell more Godin guitars than all the acoustics that we make, all together. It’s the third year that Godin has a bigger number than the acoustics have. But it took a long time. That’s why we see so many small electric guitar companies start, but they last one or two years and then they’re out. You don’t see them anymore. It’s very expensive, and you have to be extremely patient to get results.
The Retailer: Tell us a bit about the evolution of Godin Guitars.
Godin: It’s totally different now. We’ve just done so many different concepts. Say the Multiacs, for example: nylon-string electro-acoustic guitars. We do incredible business all through South America, in countries such as Brazil and Argentina. We do a lot in Japan, as well. This is a new concept: It’s a nylon-string guitar that a steel-string player can play. No feedback. It’s a new generation, and we’re the only ones who make this type of guitar. We have some segments that nobody else really touches or succeeds with. It’s all originality. We never make something that’s exactly a copy of the other guy.
And we do solid bodies, of course. We do a lot of them. And we produce like Asia can produce, in terms of value. We have guitars on the market for $495 that are handmade in North America. I think you’ll find we’re the only ones who can produce those kinds of instruments, and we offer guitars in all price ranges, as well.
So, in terms of an evolution, it’s been a technological and product evolution, rather than an evolution of the core fundamentals of the company.
The Retailer: In terms of what you accomplish day-to-day within Godin Guitars, what are your key duties and roles? What do you most enjoy doing?
Godin: I’m involved more in the research department. I do large seminars all over the world. Every month, I’m somewhere different with musicians. And I try to see what the market needs: what to bring back to the company and, eventually, create. We do a lot of research in our company, and continue to introduce interesting new products. This is my main goal.
The Retailer: When you look at Godin Guitars as the company currently exists, of what would you say you’re the proudest? What makes the company stand apart not only from competitors in the market, but also from all manufacturers in the music products industry?
Godin: I think the key differentiator is the electro-acoustic aspect of a lot of our models. And I’m not talking about an acoustic guitar with a pick-up, but, instead, the comfort of an electric guitar with amazing acoustic sound, which can be played live and loud without feedback. Models in the Multiac line, the A-series and the Acousticaster are all examples of that. Those are so far apart from anything on the market. Also, we did the LGX line. We’ve had 13-pin connectors in our guitars for 15 years. We were the first ones to come out with that. It’s more high-tech. It’s guitars for the music of today. That’s the main goal.
The technologies are of the highest caliber, but it’s with a classic look, too. You can bring the most innovative product, but musicians are very conservative. Guitar players, especially, are extremely conservative. Bass players are more open. When it comes to a guitarist, he’s going to look for the highest technology for his effects, but, for his guitar, he’s very conservative. It’s a matter of pleasing them and still bringing new things. This is the difficulty of designing the guitar. They have to recognize something on it because, otherwise, they won’t touch it.
The Retailer: In the music products segment, there are often a great number of creative individuals who work within manufacturers. Would you say that the Godin Guitars team is a very creative one, where the products you manufacture and sell are actually a big part of the team’s own lives?
Godin: Oh, yeah. Definitely. If you come here, everybody is a guitar player. And they test everything, evaluating prototypes all the time. We have top designers and everything here at the head office in Montreal. And I believe that the people actually being guitar players, and knowing the instruments very well, is a benefit to Godin Guitars and gives us a competitive advantage in the market. Definitely.
The Retailer: Highlight some of Godin’s most recent product developments. Going forward, what are you going to be pushing most aggressively? What do you have in the pipeline that you might want to preview? Why are these products important additions to the market?
Godin: Sure. For instance, now, this year, we’re coming with electric guitars and basses with USB audio out. You can go straight to your Apple computer with our guitars. Nobody has that. It looks simple, you know, with a USB jack. But you have to tune this USB for the frequency of a guitar so that it responds with the computer. It’s very complicated, and we’ve succeeded on that. And this was featured at the most recent NAMM show.
The Retailer: Do you find there to be a big push to make these products Apple-compatible or PC-compatible? Do people want to combine their music making with their computing technology?
Godin: First of all, the beauty of it is to practice. If you have an Apple computer, you have GarageBand ready to go. It’s perfect for the person who plays at home and creates on his or her own. Maybe they’re not working in the music scene, but they still practice. With a computer, you can have your bass, drums and everything, and you can play with a band alone at home. It’s fantastic! The ability to use a computer for this—Wow!—it’s the future. It is! Not to be programming new sounds…it’s just that the computer is your band now.
The Retailer: How would you say that Godin is positioned within the marketplace, in terms of its target customers?
Godin: We have so many different directions. We’re involved with the Jazz guitar. We have our 5th Avenue archtop models with F-holes. But these are archtops made for the music of today, not for the ’40s, you see. We made an F-hole guitar that you can buy for $500 in the stores, and it’s made in Canada. A lot of the young people, they don’t like the flattop acoustic guitar…they don’t like the feel. This one, the neck feel is more like an electric guitar. A lot of teenagers, they like this type of acoustic. We have acoustics, we have electrics, but the archtop models are huge for us.
There are products available for every type of musician. And this is the direction we have chosen: to try to please the biggest variety of players. But, of course, you can’t win everywhere. And we’re known very much for our electro-acoustic models, guitars that have 13-pin capabilities and are compatible with computers…things like that.
We have guitars selling from $300 to $3,000. We cover a full range. That’s the beauty. We have the technology to make them at every price level.
The Retailer: What is your philosophy when it comes to working with dealers and the dealer channel? Would you say that working closely with dealers is a big part of Godin’s approach to business?
Godin: For sure, for sure. We sell directly to dealers. We don’t use distributors; we have our own distribution. We don’t sell to everyone. We’re very careful of whom we work with. We thoroughly train the staff. And we have 26 reps on the road, just for America. Plus, now, we have our own distribution in Europe, based in Holland. But it’s everything direct to stores.
The Retailer: Why is it important, both to Godin Guitars and to the industry in general, to work through the dealer channel?
Godin: It could not work separately. If the dealer doesn’t support our product, we’re out of business. We have to work with them. We have to bring a range that they can sell. Music stores’ cash registers ring every day with our products. This is success! We do amazingly well with this relationship. And they stock our products because they make a living with us. They earn a good profit. We work with them. We don’t just sell to anyone.
All of our representatives know everything about the products. They know how to train the salespeople and staff on the floor. We do a lot more than a distributor does. Some distributors have so many lines and so many products, they just try to sell what they can. But, for us, it’s different. We push our own brand. We can’t afford to say, “Well, if the guitar doesn’t work, we can sell drums tomorrow.” The guitar has to work…has to sell…has to be everything.
The Retailer: Is there anything that the dealer channel could do that would be helpful to you, as a manufacturer? Do you have any suggestions to give the channel, which would help them sell Godin products even better?
Godin: The biggest thing, as far as general advice, is to buy directly from the manufacturer, rather than from a distributor. Go to the source: Buy directly. Today, it’s impossible to carry every brand that exists. You do the NAMM show, and there are 1,500 exhibitors. How can a retail store carry one article from each? The store has to be confident in the brands it carries, and not worry if it doesn’t carry some at all. And, what you do carry, carry it right! You can’t have two guitars from one brand, one from another, etc. The consumer is more and more alert. He or she reads and goes on the Internet. He or she wants to go somewhere and see 30, 40 or 50 pieces from a brand. This is where they’re confident. They see, they do their homework and they want to hear it for themselves.
And a lot of the retail stores are changing, even the biggest ones. They work more with their customers. They want to learn more…they want some training. They don’t carry just any brand that exists. That’s a sign that the mentality is changing.
The Retailer: How was 2011 for Godin Guitars, business-wise?
Godin: We just finished the year with a 20-percent increase. And it’s just because we bring the right products and we work closely with our dealers. That’s it. Those are the secrets to our success. A lot of things elsewhere fell apart, such as these importers who buy Chinese products. They tried to dump that into the stores. It’s not going to work. Musicians want a lot more. And, when I say “musicians,” I don’t even mean professionals. Amateurs want way more. They demand a lot more. And that’s what we’re focusing on. The market has been fantastic for us. The ones who suffer are the ones who flood the market and, now, they have a hard time.
The Retailer: What about 2008, 2009 and 2010? Have you been strong for the last four or five years?
Godin: It wasn’t 20 percent every year, of course, but we didn’t lower our numbers. We maintained pretty well, with small increases of two percent or three percent. But, now, for 2011, and even into this year, we’re doing exceptionally well. It’s because we have the products that people want.
The Retailer: Tell me more about this new reality of customers focusing on quality, rather than just the least expensive product.
Godin: We’re very close to the dealers who sell our products, and they support us strongly. Since the recession, dealers are more careful about what they carry in their stores. And there are some very successful stores at the moment, even though there are also some that are less successful. Consumers are just more alert, and they really want something innovative and having a name that, of course, means made in America. But who has products that are made in America? So much is imported, and you have people wanting to buy something for a dollar and sell it for two.
For us, we have between 600 and 700 employees all the time. We have 430,000 square feet of manufacturing. It took all my life, with battles over everything, to maintain this. It’s much easier to make a design, go to China, say, “Make me this” and then try to sell it. But that’s over now. And a lot of guys are now suffering because of it.
The Retailer: There must be challenges, too, with having such a strong name in the industry and among dealers. There must be pressure never to slip in any way.
Godin: Well, we work harder. Since 10 years ago, it’s amazing how much harder we work. We change our technologies. We invest more in design and research than ever before. The success didn’t come by itself. Now, I have my two sons, who have taken the company over. It gives me a lot of energy, just to be helping them.
The Retailer: What does the future hold for Godin? Do you foresee any major changes or shifts in terms of products, market segments, business relationships or company strategy? What can we expect to see?
Godin: I don’t really want to say, because I don’t want to give all the secrets to my competitors. But, one thing is, we’re not going to sit on what we’re doing now. We have to go with the flow…with what’s coming. Look, the planet is so small now with communication and with the Internet, we have to be able to change our strategy. We have to be able to change our way of promoting products and attracting consumers. It’s a totally different game from what it was 10 years ago. And that’s why we fight every day to be up to date.
Ten years ago, we didn’t have writers at the company or social media. Now, we do all that ourselves, along with our own videos, Web sites, graphic design… all our overall marketing is done in-house. We have a lot more people working on those things. Not just to put an ad in a magazine and then wait for a miracle to happen but, instead, to be proactive. You have to be way more interactive than we were. You just have to. Designing and manufacturing products is only about 50 percent of the work. The other 50 percent is to get the message through…to get the musician to know about it. This is what has really changed, and it’s changed a lot.
The Retailer: Do you have any closing thoughts?
Godin: If you want to succeed these days, you have to work twice as hard as we worked 25 or 30 years ago. You have to be passionate about what you’re doing, or you’re not going to survive. More and more people are passionate about music and technology. If you go into business and say, “Hey, let’s make some money,” you’re never going to make it. And it’s also particularly difficult for any new company because, today, you almost have to be big to be able to survive. For the new young kids, it’s difficult. Before, you could survive with your own little company, but, today, wow. You have to finance everything…your dealers, etc. You have to have a lot of money to start with. It’s harder than it was for me when I was just starting out. You have to create something very unique and extremely special to get people excited these days.