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Drum Party!

...a reported 5,451 visitors—a solid showing for Indy shows and slightly more than last year’s—to celebrate all matters percussion. By the convention’s end, PAS had staged more than 120 concerts, clinics, labs, workshops, panel discussions, and academic paper presentations by top artists and experts from all over the world.

Performance highlights included: Zappa alum Chad Wackerman in a high-powered fusion trio; Journey drummer Steve Smith in a solo clinic plus the show’s finale with The U.S. Air Force’s Airmen of Note Big Band; Beyoncé vet Nikki Glaspie with her progressive soul group Nth Power; performance art/percussion franchise phenomenon Blue Man Group (sans makeup); Suicidal Tendencies drummer Eric Moore II; S-o Percussion; the Blue Devils Performing Arts Corps; and the Eastman (School of Music) Percussion Ensemble.
The show’s International Drum & Percussion Expo showcased 113 exhibitors including manufacturers, publishers, institutions, and retailers. Exhibiting manufacturers displayed, demonstrated, and in some cases sold their wares to an ideal “focus group” of mostly young—and all passionately engaged—drummers and percussionists.

As in PAS’s most successful conventions held in Indy, PASIC17 coincided with the huge Bands of America Grand National Championships in the nearby Lucas Oil Stadium. Musicians from the competing BoA high school bands were naturally drawn to PASIC’s own Marching Festival, Drumline Battle, and Small Chamber Ensemble Competition—not to mention the huge constellation of drum and percussion stars on its performance program.

Held just ahead of Thanksgiving, PASIC is its own kind of family gathering that evokes a sense of community and encourages conversation. Among the industry’s suppliers and retailers, the obvious topic, naturally, is “How are you doing?” Remo CEO Brock Kaericher’s analysis of the drum sector’s vitals started with a “perfect storm” of economic factors dragging down foreign drum and percussion markets in late 2016: “Last fall we got beat up with the drop in the value of the Mexican peso; the strength of the U.S. dollar against the yen; Brexit woes and social upheaval all over Europe; Brazil with no president, so its economy basically ground to a halt; Argentina with new import controls.... It all came at once, and it lasted for three or four months. But we’ve come out of that and our business has been wonderful for about the last six months. There’s been a sense of settling in Europe: Even though the effects of Brexit are still unknown, people are saying, ‘we know it’s coming, but we have to go about our business.’”

The Sun Keeps Coming Up
Several suppliers echoed Kaericher’s take on last year’s foreign markets downturn, but most also share his more sanguine view of current trends, both at home and abroad. Dream Cymbals & Gongs President Andy Morris reports that in October 2017 his company doubled its previous best month. Sabian Cymbals CEO Andy Zildjian says business is “beginning to expand in Europe a little bit. People were very concerned about Brexit, but they found that the sun keeps coming up in the morning, and sales have been growing. Precisely who benefits tends to slide around: Independents were struggling early this year, but now they’re picking up as the national accounts aren’t quite as strong.”

Kaericher also attributes gains to the improving U.S. economy and “money flowing to the schools. The education market has grown for four or five years, which means that the pipeline for tomorrow’s market is filled.” While conceding that the drumset market “isn’t what it was ten years ago,” he points to a few encouraging signs. “We make the heads for virtually all major drumset manufacturers—none of the heads we make in China go to the aftermarket. We can see that our OEM volume has turned up, which means that kit manufacturers are supplying a growing demand.”

Dave Levine, president of both TRX Cymbals and marketing consultancy Full Circle Management, says, “There’s a sense that the business has stabilized.” Part of that stabilization, however, is a product of the more cautious “survivors’ market.” “We don’t see a lot of new brands emerging now, because everybody understands that there’s no room,” he continues. “Traditional retail is very closed to smaller brands: How many drum brands can a brick-and-mortar store carry and sell profitably? The suppliers who are trying to find a path to the consumer are tending to sell direct or through online platforms.”

PASIC also brings together some of the sector’s most respected retailers, either to exhibit and sell products, or just to take the pulse of the market. “Overall, drumset sales are flat, but we’re hanging in there,” says Robert Anderson of Lonestar Percussion, which enjoyed robust sales at its PASIC Exposition booth. “The schools and universities are our bread and butter. We’re in Texas, where football is king—which makes marching band king as well.”

Ray Fransen’s Drum Center near New Orleans is one of several retailers reporting a recent uptick in sales. Fransen has sold several custom-ordered kits in the $3,000-$4,000 range over the past year—“to guys over 45,” he stipulates, adding that higher-end sales to younger buyers—“guys who want a great kit but can’t make the nut on a new one”—are being blunted by the vibrant used gear market.

Endorsements “Out Of Hand”
While admitting that his store has benefited as a number of local competitors retired or otherwise went out of business, Fransen knows from conversations with his peers that “independents seem to be picking up a bit of steam right now. Most of this calendar year we’ve been up,” he says, “maybe following the stock market, or from pent-up demand. Unfortunately, not knowing why we’re way up or way down over any given period makes it very difficult to develop a game plan.”

Agreeing that the market is unpredictable, Jim Rupp, owner of Columbus Pro Percussion in Columbus, Ohio, adds that Amazon is also making life more difficult. “We were mining some niches and got into the market early with some special products,” he says, “creating some videos to promote them—and we were killing with them. All of a sudden, the door shuts, and we see that Amazon Prime is selling them direct.” His only recourse? “Punt,” he quips. “Try to find the next hot item—and support the manufacturers that support us.”

Several retailers bemoaned “fairly widespread” practices in the drum corps and marching category that affect their profitability and weigh heavily on their brand selection strategies. Fransen’s Drum Center teaches about 160 private students, and it has strong connections with most of the area’s school music programs. Over the years, Fransen has maneuvered much of that business toward companies that support his store’s profitability. He cites two pervasive wrongs, related in their impact on his bottom line: retailers who sell products “at cost, only for the 7% rebate” to corps, colleges, and even high school bands; and endorsement deals that have retailers “selling against the manufacturer. Discounting in the school market makes it very difficult for us to make a profit,” he says. “So we steer our customers toward quality instruments that generate a profit, and we feel really good about our relationships with the companies that make them.”

Rupp agrees that corps and school band “endorsements” have “gotten way out of hand. It’s no longer a few top corps and college bands” that get endorsement deals, he complains. “It’s gone down to mediocre high school groups and colleges.” To win influence over the corps or band director’s brand loyalties, he says, some suppliers are willing to forsake their dealers who otherwise would be serving them.

While the drumset market is considered challengingly “mature” in the U.S., it has excellent growth potential in other regions including Mexico, Indonesia, and especially China. Sabian’s Andy Zildjian says, “I’m always happy with our business in Asia nowadays.” And after a recent trip to drum manufacturers in China and Japan, Kaericher recalls, “The one thing they had in common was the explosive growth of the drumset market in China.” (Unsubstantiated estimates put the total number of drummers in China at 16 million.)

A major factor in this growth is the Chinese government’s $6.2 billion commitment to school music education in its 2016-2020 Five Year Plan, whose benefits to the music products industry will be realized for decades, if not generations. Impacting the drumset market in particular are China’s many commercial music schools, led by the Tianjin-based Nine Beats network. Established in 2006 and offering lessons on guitar, bass, drumset, marching percussion, and marimba, Nine Beats currently teaches some 200,000 students at nearly 800 locations throughout China—and these numbers are growing.

Opportunity In China
“Musically, China is still developing as it assimilates Western musical styles, much like Japan was doing in the 1950s and early ’60s,” says Levine. “But that development is happening very, very rapidly. And because there are five times as many people [in China], there are potentially five times as many drummers, guitarists, everything.” He adds that a surprisingly high percentage of Nine Beats’ more than 6,000 teachers are women, which may contribute to the high percentage of female drummers in China, relative to the U.S. “Many of the kids start at age four or five,” he explains, “and female teachers are more patient with the younger kids.”

The Nine Beats phenomenon is relevant to the global drum industry for another reason: Epitomizing China’s growing middle class, Nine Beats parents value education and they invest substantially not only in the organization’s lesson programs, but also in instruments, recording equipment, and accessories, and typically their aspirations for their children aren’t met by the cheap domestic brands’ products. “Of course there are plenty of Chinese drum brands available,” says Levine, “but I’m seeing all the major Western brands getting established in China, and those are the drums that many of the kids want to play. Most of the drum schools I visit are equipped with PDP and lower-end Tama, Pearl, and Yamaha kits.”

The U.S. drumset industry faces cultural and pop music trend headwinds similar to those in the electric guitar market, and there is a consensus among the category’s suppliers and retailers that increasing the number of female drummers, currently represented in single digits, is an obvious and important objective in growing the market. Some manufacturers have added more females to their artist rosters, plus ads and product demo videos to spotlight musical role models. On a more grass-roots level, the Hit Like A Girl Drum Contest, now in its seventh year, has engaged, inspired, connected, and celebrated female drummers all over the world. The 2017 competition was entered by hundreds of girls from more than 50 countries. Regional champions were honored in France, Japan, and England, and in 2018 the fast-growing markets in China (where an estimated 20% of drummers are female) and Mexico will also stage regional championships. As part of PAS’s goal to cultivate “a more diverse and inclusive drumming community,” PASIC featured performances by three 2017 Hit Like A Girl champions.

PASIC17 also showcased female drumset artists in the convention center’s large Ballroom 500 in prime performance slots. In addition to the aforementioned Glaspie, Prince alumna and 3rdEyeGirl drummer Hannah Ford-Welton rocked the house and offered encouraging words to young drummers, both male and female, about chasing their dreams. (Once a member of the Louisville Leopard Percussionists program for seven- to 16-year-olds, Ford-Welton gave a special shout-out to dozens of current Leopards in the audience.)

Some Expo exhibitors take advantage of PASIC’s assemblage of mostly young consumers to unveil prototypes and new products that will be officially introduced two months later at the Winter NAMM Show. Responses from this hyper-engaged “focus group” can, in some cases, be used to tweak designs or fine-tune marketing strategies.

Breakthroughs in Electronics
For a couple of reasons, it’s not surprising that the most notable product debuts at PASIC17 belonged to the electronic percussion subcategory: First, while acoustic percussion’s instrument designs (and its market) are basically mature, electronics reflect advances in rapidly evolving technologies. Second, while the drumset market has been making a modest comeback in recent months, it is roughly half the size it was 15 years ago. Over the same period, the electronic percussion market has grown almost 300%, despite a dip during the recession.

Pearl captivated the PASIC crowd with its new malletSTATION Adjustable Range Electronic Mallet Controller. Powered by an iPhone, laptop, or tablet—which is where its sounds reside, as software—this highly portable, 16 lb. instrument is ideal for practice at home, in dorm rooms, and in school. It also gives mallet players access to a world of new sounds, opening doors (or opening them wider) to performance settings including pit orchestras, churches, clubs, and drum corps pit ensembles.

Also in the realm of electronics, Yamaha introduced its EAD10 acoustic drum module system, which is designed to enhance the way drummers practice, perform, and record their acoustic drums. (See EAD10 product spotlight on page 116.)

Offering a note of optimism in the face of the industry’s challenges, Levine says, “Drumming has been around for 5,000 years, and humans have a desire to be rhythmic.”

Next year’s PASIC will be held in Indianapolis November 14-17.

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