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New Fender Digital Division Aims To Spur Guitar Sales

...that a newly formed Fender Digital Products division can meaningfully trim the dropout rate. Headed by Chief Digital Products Officer Ethan Kaplan, the Burbank, California-based division is charged with developing a suite of apps, websites, and other digital offerings that will give players an enhanced musical experience.

Kaplan brings an unusual mix of music and technology expertise to the challenge of developing digital offerings relevant to the community of Fender enthusiasts. As a teenager in Orange County, California, his free time was divided between playing in local coffee houses and writing computer code. While he was still in high school, his computer skills sufficiently impressed the management of the Orange County Register that they tapped him to develop an online version of the newspaper. Surreptitiously, he used the newspaper’s server to develop a website for his favorite band, R.E.M. The site quickly became a magnet for fans, brought Kaplan to the attention of R.E.M. and its management, and later led to a job offer from the Warner Music Group. R.E.M.’s manager described him as a “geek who knows music.”

At Warner, Kaplan developed a digital product division that presided over 600 artist websites, fan clubs, and a direct-to-consumer sales channel. He left Warner to head product, technology, and engineering at Live Nation Entertainment’s Lab division, where he built an online platform from the ground up. “We offered more than just a ticket buying experience,” he says. “We developed content that enhanced the fans’ concert-going experience before, during, and after the show.” Most recently, he served as senior vice president and general manager of Music at Gracenote, which provides video and music content and technology to top streaming services including iTunes.

Fender’s Digital division is still in the early development stage, but plans call for offering online lesson programs, high-quality tablature, back-up tracks, tuning solutions, and even amplifier simulators. Although there are already sites offering some of these services, Mooney and Kaplan contend that Fender, with its credibility among musicians and its substantial artist roster, is uniquely positioned to become the go-to site for players of all levels. Kaplan says that the digital division will present more than just a series of discrete applications. “We’re creating an entire ecosystem,” he explains, “a connected series of applications for players to make them better, to make it easier, to make it more fun, to connect them with other players, and to celebrate what it means to be a player. We want to make it a joyful experience that people want to pick up and open.” Like many apps, Fender’s digital offerings will be available free, but Kaplan anticipates charging for “premium” versions. “The ultimate goal is to make something sufficiently valuable that people are willing to pay for it,” he says.

Fender artists will play a prominent role in delivering this “joyful experience,” providing online lessons, interviews, and an occasional performance. “We’ll still be supplying instruments for artists to use on stage,” says Mooney, “but now we’ll also be asking them for their time to provide encouragement to the next generation of players.” He elaborates, “For the complete novice who’s just picked up a Squier Strat, he’ll be able to access tuning and set-up guides, some cowboy chords, and everything else he needs to get started. When he gets more proficient, he’ll be able to find online lessons from an artist like Edge.”

Decades of building acclaimed instruments has earned Fender an enormous global fan base. With the digital division, the company hopes to bring these enthusiasts together to create a closer-knit community. Mooney envisions applications to help players form bands, for linking teachers and students, or for directing buyers to retailers. He also expects that a lively exchange within the community will provide a better understanding of consumer needs and wants. “Based on our online interactions with consumers last year,” he says, “we determined that a Strat profile with a particular color and configuration was the one they’d be most likely to buy, yet we didn’t have it in our line, and no dealer ever asked for it. Insights like this will benefit Fender and its entire dealer network. And at the point where we do a new product introduction, we can press a button, and millions of Fender aficionados will hear about it.”

Expect Fender’s digital offerings, including apps for all smart devices, websites, and web applications, to evolve constantly, Kaplan says, “You’re never quite sure what to make until you start talking to people and asking them what they want. The beauty of digital is that you get instantaneous return data so you can adapt quickly.”

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