|The Ovation Fan Club|
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| How your favorite Guitar gets from the Factory to the Store and to the Artists|
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Location: The Great Pacific Northwest
How your favorite Guitar gets from the Factory to the Store and to the Artists
As guitarists, enthusiasts and collectors, we spend a disproportionate amount of time on our passion for guitars. We talk to other collectors and players, spend time in internet chartrooms, visit music stores and go to live gigs. This is all in pursuit of becoming as knowledgeable as we can about guitars.
Alexander M. Pepiak (AMP): When Ovation first came out, it was a non traditional instrument in a world of stubborn traditionalist musicians. How did your father, Charlie Kaman, go about getting interest in this new instrument?
C. W. Kaman II (CWKII): It has always been artist oriented. From the beginning, it was to build a better guitar that sounded better; they had in their mind what the definition of better was, and once this sound was achieved it was taken to players. The first person approached was Charlie Byrd and he said "it has a good sound and is interesting but it is not my style, but Josh White is probably someone who would be interested in this and he's playing in town tonight". So my father went across town to where Josh was playing and asked him what he though of it. I think Josh's exact quote was "this has the biggest motherfucking balls I ever heard!" It always was about taking it to the players to determine what they think about the guitar because they can appreciate and understand the sound. The people interested in performance are more important than those interested in the looks.
AMP: That may be true, but how do you strike a balance between "the look" and the sound in the product?
CWKII: We never worried about the look until after we had the sound. Then we worked on "the look". Getting that right was often harder to get than the sound! Also, other people began to get involved and with more sets of eyes, you have more opinions and we all know about them. In the end, it takes someone to step up and say, this is the sound and this is the look for this model and that's it.
AMP: How do you feel about artist endorsed guitars?
CWKII: Josh was the first and Glen Campbell was the second, although they tried with Buffy St. Marie before Glen. They even made a different shaped bowl for her, similar to a OOO mid depth size. It didn't go anywhere. Generally, manufacturers steer clear of artist named models since the artist receives royalties from their name on the instrument. On those first two models Ovation did it since they felt there was a good horse to ride, but, generally at that time in the industry there were not many artist models. Gibson, at the time, had the Les Paul; Tal Farlow; Trini Lopez; Gretsch the George Van Eps, Guild had Duane Eddy, so it really wasn't done that much back then. Mostly, it was because they did not have to or want to and you should not need to. If a Legend or Adamas is good it should be played by many people performing a variety of styles of music. Look at how many hundreds of players use Martin D28's. They crosscut all styles of music.
AMP: Don't you feel that artist named instruments can also be a problem for a company? Recently almost every major guitar manufacturer has an instrument named after an artist.
CWKII: Recently we have seen Martin go completely overboard with that. Although it may be a selling tool, it may be a negative because it pigeonholes that particular guitar. Although it has not with the Les Paul, you will probably not get a blues guy to pick up a Joe Satriani or Steve Vai model guitar. I've been wondering how 25-40 years from now the vintage market will value the Del McCoury model, the one with the large pickguard, not the small one.
AMP: Essentially the guitar needs to stand up on its own merits and not on what it can glom off of the artist's credibility.
CWKII: Correct. Hamer did the Rick Neilsen model. This was a good way to introduce the Futura as I called it and it was a good way to recognize Rick for all he's done with Hamer. For many years, he has been a constant, and still is. If you take a guitarist du jour and make his model, it pretty much ends when that guitarist is out of favor. Hamer made the Steve Stevens model and once he wasn't so hot anymore, the sales for the guitar fell way off.
Currently, Ovation has the Al Dimiola and the Melissa Etheridge model, and some of that is in reaction to the current state of the industry. In the days when Loraine and I, (or Jim Hennessey, John Scammon, David Bergstrom and Rick Wheldon) were visiting artists, it was enough to sell them a guitar, or if budget allowed, place a guitar with them in exchange for the publicity, but some of that has now changed.
AMP: What type of agreements did you make with artists to have them play Ovation instruments?
CWKII: In the seventies and eighties, we would approach a band or artist and introduce them to the guitar and try to sell it to them, or if we felt they were big enough, we would give them a guitar in exchange for the right to use their picture in connection to the instrument in advertising. That was the trade off. We could use their name in print, etc. Paul McCartney told us we could use his image but not his name and that is how we had to proceed on that one. He would not publicly endorse the guitar, but passively he would.
AMP: What changes have you seen in the artist endorsement scene?
CWKII: Well, the rumor in the industry was that Ibanez paid a large sum to get Joe Satriani to endorse their guitars. After that, it seemed that you had to buy endorsements. It got crazy at that point and I personally backed away from it. In the industry, you always had to buy drummers, but in exchange they would do clinics for you. The clinics got morphed into meet and greets and sales opportunities. When you start getting big numbers associated with the endorsees it becomes problematic. Perhaps this is why we're seeing these Artist models now; they get the royalties but not the big check up front. If the sales don't happen the company doesn't have to pay.
AMP: What about the companies that have a huge roster of artists? Do you think they are paying them all?
CWKII: I really don't know. I suspect not. They may or may not be getting a percentage of the guitar that has their name on it. Many just want the prestige of having their own model guitar, which is a positive, and the negative is that I don't want to be left out, so lesser marketable artists may get instrument deals, maybe only for a free guitar.
AMP: Product placement on TV, movies, etc is really big right now. How does a company involve themselves in this? The first time I noticed product placement for guitars were the Beatles who used Vox amps, the Gretsch instruments the Monkees used which even resulted in a Monkees model, and the Partridge Family was sponsored by Ovation and had all Ovation products on their set.
CWKII: These associations are usually cultivated by artist relations. In the case of the Partridge Family, the artist relations person knew a producer, wiggled their way in, got a contact and for the exposure, and we supplied them with whatever they would need, provided they would only use our instruments.
The artist relation person needs to make the contacts with producers, directors, prop people etc. If it is a large enough deal maybe it would be the product manager or VP of marketing or even the President of the company.
Many times people doing movies will contact manufacturers and ask for products to use in their movies. If there was a movie with a bunch of guitar playing, they could ask for some instruments in exchange for exposure and ultimately free advertising in the film.
AMP: How about the School of Rock movie, which would have been an incredible opportunity for Hamer or Ovation?
CWKII: Of course, it would have been incredible exposure, but so much of that comes with being in the right place at the right time. You have to know about these opportunities a year or sometimes more before they actually happen. You have to be in the know at the planning stages of the project. You need your connections and you have to work your connections, and it is a constant job working those things. There are always new people coming up and the people you may know may be on the outs now.
AMP: That is an issue that comes up with Ovation players all the time. The fact that so many of the endorsees are now no longer playing the instrument in public forums. But as music trends change and people get older, you must cultivate the new comers by having the product they want.
CWKII: Old established artists that are on the back side of the hill are good to have on your roster but you must keep interest of your product in the new artists coming up.
AMP: Once you have an artist how do you keep them?
CWKII: You have to keep working with them. Make sure they are happy, follow up, introduce the new instruments, ask their opinions and be prepared; if they want to switch to something different in your line, you let them switch. If they want to go somewhere else you do all you can to prevent it. That's the part of the job where the artist relations person really earns their pay, when they can prevent a defection. You have to keep in touch and good contact and service the account.
A good example of this is that we had Vince Gill for years. He was with Pure Prairie League and when my wife left the company in 82 she told the Artist Relations people that you better take care of this guy because he is going to be huge. Well, they let him slide and look at him now! And look at the J-200 he plays. The follow up is almost as important as getting the artist in the first place, because it may prevent them from jumping to another brand. If they are a desirable endorsee they are going to be hit on all the time.
AMP: Here is a unique situation. Josh Homme is using an Ovation instrument that is not being made anymore yet he is getting tons of publicity just the same.
CWKII: You have two choices. You don't do anything or you work with him and say, "You are using this guitar, keep it up, if we can help you with some current product line we can do that," or you can reintroduce the guitar.
AMP: It is unfortunate that Josh is not playing a current production model guitar, although I think he probably likes the fact that he plays a guitar that you can't get.
CWKII: Well, you can always release the guitar as a Hamer although that would probably not "get it". You are right. He probably likes the vintage mystique.
AMP: Was there any person that you actively sought out to play Ovation guitars?
CWKII: Each year we (the AR guys, the factory R&D guys, myself, and key others who were "in the know" would come up with a list of potential endorsees and from that you try to decide who you would want to get, and if you got a quarter of the list, then you would be lucky. We would determine who were up and coming bands and artists. We would contact their management, send them catalogs and make "sales" contacts. You would try to go by and see them if they were touring locally. During the course of the year you would also pick up other artists that maybe you did not think were possible or new people who came out of nowhere. It was a combination of effort.
Of course, you are always dealing with the budget. It depends on how much you can spend on advertising, how much you can give away, and that is a major factor. You have to balance all these things. Bands may want you to give them a bunch of gear and you may have to agree to give them one or two, but letting them buy the rest.
Often we would get a reference from one artist to another or we would get referrals and work off of that. It all depends on how big the artist is. With Preston Reed, when we got him, he has a unique style and so we built a guitar for him. Adrian Legg was also the same way. He used to work for out UK distributor and he developed what he liked in a guitar and we built a guitar for him. Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits used Ovations and they were all off the shelf models. He mostly liked the Adamas but didn't like the carving of the Adamas 1 so he was one of the first to get the Adamas II guitars.
AMP: Can you think of any improvements to the guitars that have come from the relationship with the artists?
CWKII: The first one was the pickup from Glen Campbell who did not want to have a microphone between him and the camera. He also wanted more "cut" in the sound so the mid depth bowl was introduced. Mark Knopfler loved the Adamas I but hated the look and that is where the Adamas II came from. We gave the guitar a plainer look. Cutaways came because many of the hotter players were asking for them. The 93 Collectors series brought back the mid bowl and slanted saddle because Steve Sutton asked for it. The list goes on and on.
AMP: How do you deal with an artist who is no longer using your guitar?
CWKII: You have to be on top of it and approach the artist and see if you can build something new that will meet their new needs or alter an existing product to meet their needs. A lot of it is that their needs just change, and you cannot do anything about that. At one point when we had Bon Jovi, Jon was playing a thunderbolt and Ritchie was playing an Adamas, I think. Then Jon started playing a Takamine. So we asked him why he was not playing an Ovation and he said because Richie was playing an Ovation. Ok, so which Ovation model would you like? None. If he is playing one, I am not. End of story.
With the rise of Takamine, people wanted the old style look, the wood look and they did not care what the guitars sounded like. They probably sound better today then they did 10-15 years ago when they took off, but they wanted that "look". They also had the second best pickup system at the time so they worked well on stage.
AMP: What type of things did you take into account when the original Adamas was introduced? I imagine that the Adamas had its own set of problems when introducing it to the public and ultimately to the players who tend to be very traditional.
CWKII: The introduction of this guitar was closely tied to Glen Campbell and Marcel Dadi. We figured that if they were happy it was a good product and the rest would follow from there. Basically it did. Marcel used to come and hang out at Charlie's house every trip he made to the states. He'd stay for 3-4 days and they'd play and record stuff. Funny thing, CHK would usually send him off with the latest guitar when he went back to France. Smart guy, get free room and board and go home with a new prototype, all you have to do is give 2-3 private pickin lessons!
AMP: What were the initial reactions from the salesman who had to introduce this new product and the retailers who had to sell it? I imagine it was met with much resistance.
CWKII: By then, they were used to strange things coming from Ovation. Because the guitar was so unique and sounded really good, there wasn't a ton of resistance. Of course some said it was too ugly and it was too expensive. I think that if you make everyone happy right out of the box, you haven't done it right (LOL)
AMP: When you have more than one brand of guitar under one parent company that must be difficult, if you do not separate artist relations guys.
CWKII: It is a problem when you have products competing against each other and in the end something always has to suffer. The easy and in demand product is the one that gets placed, and not the other instrument that needs to be pushed. The AR people take the easy out. In fairness, sometimes it's the only out. There are many opportunities out there; you just have to work all of them, not just the easy ones. Corporate budgets also affect this, I can sell a Tak or give away an Ovation, my budget is tight and I can't afford to give away any more stuff this month so…. The Tak gets in the artists hands.
If you have separate AR guys they spend more time competing with each other and you look stupid to the customers and the bands will play one against the other. And you still have the budget issues to deal with.
AMP: So while it sounds great, doing Artist Relations must be a rather demanding job.
CWKII: Everyone thinks it's so glamorous, getting to hang out with the stars all the time and being backstage and all that. The other side is that you have to deal with the managers who can be difficult. The KMC home office always wants the instruments with all the hottest guys and it always seems that the best ones won't talk to you. Your work day starts sometimes visiting dealers in the area and at 4:00pm you go to the sound check and it ends, often, in the wee hours when you have to pack up your stuff, keep the roadies from stealing a guitar for their nephew and go back to your hotel where you have cheese crackers and a coke from the machine for dinner. Then your phone rings at 8:00am and it's the boss wanting to know why Glen was playing a telecaster on TV last night. You're in Birmingham with 3 hours sleep and don't know what he's talking about. Yeah, it's a real glamorous job!
It's not a job for everyone. Also, I think it's a job that you can only do for 5-10 years. After that you'll get burned out or loose touch with the "hot guys" of the day. There are exceptions to this of course. Another pit fall for the real good AR guy who's been at it for several years is there's a tendency to start thinking that you're the star and I won't deal with that artist because he's not good enough for me to take my time to see him. He can come see me or call the office. Sometimes that's the right way to deal with some bands (because you really don't want them) but sometimes its just believing your own press releases too much.
In all it's a tough job, you're really in the spotlight, so to speak. When you get the product on stage you're a hero. When the player switches to another brand you're an asshole and everyone can tell you just exactly what you did wrong and what you should do now (and of course 99% of them are clueless as to how it really is).
AMP: I thought that Ovation missed the boat on the unplugged thing. I remember Ray Davies playing an Ovation and not any others, yet Ovation was the pioneer in the acoustic electric sound.
CWKII: Slaughter played Ovation when they were on the unplugged show. There were probably others but I can't recall them. You're probably right on that Ovation got nowhere near its share of exposure.
AMP: During that time everyone and their mother raced to make an acoustic bass.
CWKII: Ovation has a great acoustic bass. Between that one and the Martin and the old Guild acoustic basses, they were the only serious instruments out there. The rest were just toys and junk. Everyone and their Korean brother were making one and they just turned out being stage props instead of serious instruments.
To keep a presence on TV you really need to work the back stage. You need to have a presence with instruments and have them hooked up in rehearsal studios. Keep a locker full of your stuff there so they can just pull one out when someone has the need. It's working the angles to get you exposure that you would not otherwise get.
Of course every one of these opportunities has a price tag attached to it. And it is difficult to choose which ones to make happen that will give you the most return for your limited advertising dollars.
AMP: How does the dealer play in the development and marketing of an instrument?
CWKII: The dealer plays an important part. He's where your customers go for the product. He can tell you what the kids walking in the door are asking for and what price points are moving. That's important information. However not too many dealers can tell you, as an example, what will be the right guitar model for the new wave of bluegrass bands that will hit next fall. To know that info you have to be in touch with the players that are forming those bands now. That comes from the AR department. I always found that the guys in R&D were pretty well in touch with these guys too.
I always found that in developing a new model you look to the players and their needs. Make a guitar that makes them happy. THEN take it to a dealer for their reaction. Add in their changes and then bring it to market. Quite often this will give you the guitar you wanted, Model A, and the one with the dealers suggestions, model B, which will usually sell for a lower list price. Now you have the best of both worlds.
As stated earlier, I left KMC in 98 to go run a gas station for airplanes. My knowledge of the industry since then has been a bit more distant. It is my impression now that the dealers are playing a much greater role in defining product. I attribute this to the rise of GC and Ash and the others that have such a large presence in the market place. When a customer this large speaks, you tend to listen. Particularly when he was x% of your business 10 years ago and now he's xyzabc% and growing all the time. Another factor is that these big stores are run like real businesses, not like the mom and pop guitar stores of 20 years ago. To be that successful and that big, they have to be. What this brings though is less desire for risk when taking on a new product. First, they can't take 2, they take 200 (2 in each of their 100 stores) and if they won't sell out they don't take them. Nothing personal, just business. I suspect that's one of the reasons there are so many Celebrities and other imports and so little US made Ovations. They know they'll move out the door because they are low priced.
AMP: How can you keep a balance between the demands of the chain stores, the Mom and Pop stores, and ultimately the needs of the players?
CWKII: You keep in touch with all of them and keep knowing what they want. When I was at KMC, I got this information from different people. The sales force lets you know what the big box stores need. I knew several M&P stores and would keep in touch with them as well as a few artists. The AR dept would fill in the rest from the player's side. Like we mentioned before someone needs to chew through all this input and make the call.
AMP: There are thousands of guitars built in and imported to the USA every year. It seems like almost an impossible task to keep up on all the trends, the needs of the market and the musician.
CWKII: So? That's why they call it a job! First off it's not all that big and second there aren't that many people in the industry. There are new bands all the time, but they usually have worked with someone you know from before or have some of the same roadies or managers. If you've built your network you use it and add to it.
AMP: The Ovation solid body guitar line was very innovative, but ultimately a flop in the marketplace. Can you shed any insight as to why that happened?
CWKII: Great guitars designed by engineers who wanted to show what could be done without wondering if anyone had asked for it yet. A marketing department that did their homework and got it 90% right (that last 10% can kill you sometimes!) Probably not enough AR push. Not enough budget to get the job all the way done. It didn't say Gibson or Fender on the peghead. There are lots of reasons but the G&F one is pretty strong.
I remember Larry DiMarzio telling us that the UK2 needed to have standard size pickups so they could be switched. I replied that any Ovation pickup would fit in them. His reply was to laugh and say that nobody wanted Ovation pickups and that they didn't all want his either, but Duncans or Gibsons or whatever were all on the same frame and were interchangeable. Guess he got that one right! The other important part of guitar design is knowing when to listen to people!(LOL) And then you also need to know which ones to listen to.
AMP: Many people have been predicting the demise of the guitar since the beginnings of rap and the popularity of turntables as instruments. How does a manufacturer face these challenges?
CWKII: Same way we did in the 80's when the computer and video game was going to take over the world and all the teenagers in it. People will still play guitar. Just figure out how to reach the customer today and then do it. Your competitor will.
Reaching the customer and staying ahead of the competition seem to be a major part of this equation. Bill Kaman's experience in the music industry with both successes and failures provides an interesting insight into how an instruments gets developed made and ultimately distributed.
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