D'Addario's New Sales Driver: Music Videos Starring the Best Musicians You May Never Have Heard Of
Sarah Thawer, a self-taught drumming whiz in Toronto, isn't a household name, but a year and a half ago she got a call that led to her starring in a music video for an unlikely producer: D'Addario, the century-old, family-owned maker of guitar strings and other musical accessories.
Shooting in New York this summer, Thawer appeared on set in a futuristic suit on a sleek, metal spaceship, acting as if she was just waking up. She looked befuddled until an eerie, robotic voice directed her to move to the drum kit in the center of the room and pick up the sticks. Once she was seated, she was put through the ringer, being directed to pivot from rock, funk, dancehall and jazz rhythms to Indian beats like garba and dhol. The space sequence will be part of D'Addario's Set the Tone web video series, aimed at teaching drummers new skills while helping the company sell its Evans drumheads.
"This is not common," Thawer told Billboard after the shoot. "I've never seen it before -- that's why I think Evans is so special."
Thawer is part of a growing class of quirky virtuosos with big online followings who are helping instrument companies reach new customers. While D'Addario's sponsored roster also includes starry names like Red Hot Chili Peppers' Josh Klinghoffer and Cage the Elephant's Brad Shultz, the company is seeing more traction with smaller, social media-savvy musicians and has consequently been inundated with emails from managers, publicists and labels hoping to put their acts in its videos.
"There's a lot of value in seeing the in-between, the stuff that's not perfect, the stuff that's just conversational," says Yvette Young, who plays math rock -- known for its unconventional time signatures -- in D'Addario's Guitar Power series and has 130,000 Instagram followers.
D'Addario's video-content strategy appears to be working, as the Long Island, New York, company grows its music-gear sales much faster than competitors. While Music Trades reports the fretted guitar string industry has grown just 3.1 percent in the previous five years, for example, D'Addario's fretted business has skyrocketed by 30.1 percent. Meanwhile Evans Drumheads sales went up 15.7 percent and D'Addario's drumstick business rose 7.5 percent over the same period, despite 19 percent declines in drumhead and drumstick sales industrywide.
"We want to make sure everything we're doing has utility to the world," says Andrew Whitelaw, D'Addario's global director of strategy and planning. "We want to make useful products from the content perspective for our audience as much as you want to make useful products in the physical sense."
As part of its content strategy, which has been in development for the past three years, D'Addario has created several flagship video series: Guitar Power, the drum-centric Set the Tone and Built to Compete, which focuses specifically on marching bands. These videos are the opposite of the grueling technical instruction videos found by the thousands on YouTube, focusing more on an artist's journey with their instrument than rigorous mastery of technique.
There's no shortage of young brand ambassadors to choose from, either: Dweezil Zappa, who's been hosting Guitar Power for two seasons, has seen the skill level of young musicians increase exponentially during that time. "You have to liken it to the difference of what Olympic athletes can do now compared to 50 years ago. You see kids that are 12, 15 that have unbelievable skill that normally would have taken somebody 30 years to master, and they've done it in two-and-a-half years," says Zappa.
Amy D'Addario, the director of brand and one of eight D'Addarios at the 1,100-person company, says the content strategy is based on the company's extensive market research that details the motivations, aspirations and beliefs of their target customers, many of whom are young musicians ready to take the love of their instrument to the next level.
"We have so many brands to service, and musicians are so wonderfully finicky in each category, so it's a really, really interesting market," says D'Addario.
Videos aside, the company is also benefiting from another market trend: consumers have been spending more money on fewer instruments, with the value of guitar sales up by 27.9 percent over the last 10 years and the number of units sold down 4.9 percent, according to the National Association of Music Merchants. That means customers are likely to prioritize the quality of the strings and other accessories that companies like D'Addario make. Guitar companies like Fender and Gibson, meanwhile, have battled well-publicized dips in profit, with Gibson filing for bankruptcy protection earlier this year.
But even as the largest instrument accessory brand in the market, you can't forget that every artist is an individual, D'Addario says, adding: "You couldn't just go to an ad agency and be like, "'Hey, help me sell my whatever.'"