In Frankfurt, Making Sense Of A Changing Market
By what yardstick do you judge an event like the Frankfurt fair? In truth the show has always been more than just one thing—literally, with its combined staging of the Musikmesse and Prolight + Sound shows on a single fairground. In recent years, especially since the launch of organizer Messe Frankfurt’s “New Concept” in 2016, it’s spun off into even more things. Today’s Frankfurt fair is a trade show and a consumer show, a merchandising exhibition, a musical discovery zone for children and, since the launch of its “Festival” component two years ago, a web of concerts in venues all over Frankfurt. Dionne Warwick and the New Philharmonic of Frankfurt, among many other acts, drew 20,000 music fans to the city’s clubs and concert halls for this year’s edition. As for the Frankfurt fair itself, attendees gathered from April 10-13 for Prolight + Sound, and from April 11-14 for Musikmesse, where the contours of the show remain in flux. What the international music industry continues to ask is: What should this show be? Where is it succeeding and where is it falling short? And what will make it the best version of itself? “How do you judge the show?” posed one exhibitor. “I think that depends on what you want from it.”
Messe Frankfurt reports that more than 90,000 people from 152 countries attended this year’s trade fair duo, some of whom felt lucky to arrive in Germany after a German airline workers’ strike canceled hundreds of flights just before the start of the fair. (A public sector strike portentously timed for Friday the 13th also threw a wrench into local transit while the fair was still in session.) 1,803 companies from 56 countries exhibited at the two fairs, a 6% dropoff from last year—though Messe Frankfurt reports that total trade visitors were up 10% from 2017. As for total attendance, it’s hard to make comparisons for more than one reason. First off: unlike in recent years, Messe Frankfurt didn’t report separate attendance for Musikmesse vs. Prolight + Sound, citing new integration between the two sides. The MerchDays exhibition, a forum for suppliers of fan merchandise and other branded products, was held for the first time in conjunction with the Frankfurt fair and open to both Prolight + Sound and Musikmesse goers, blurring the boundaries between the shows. In addition, Messe Frankfurt cut back the consumer portion of the shows from all four days (its format for 2016 and 2017) to the day-and-half period from Friday afternoon through closing time on Saturday—thus drawing fewer members of the general public than in recent years. It can also be surmised that the airline strike didn’t help. With all that said, total attendance was down 10% from last year’s figure of around 100,000.
Words hardly convey the sheer size of the Messe Frankfurt fairground, which covers 150 acres in central Frankfurt. (The Anaheim Convention Center, by comparison, packs Winter NAMM crowds into less than 40 acres.) Possibly that’s why the venue invites so much scrutiny into how the space is being used, and how well it’s being filled. Before this year, attendance numbers showed Prolight + Sound on an upward trajectory while Musikmesse lagged—the combined result of competition from other trade shows, a so-so European economy, and technologies that make it easy to do business from a distance. Messe Frankfurt’s New Concept was the organizer’s take on revitalizing the event: reformatting the fairground to give more square footage to the growing Prolight + Sound side while setting up Musikmesse in a more compact space. In addition, the fairs were opened more broadly to consumers and the “Festival” concept brought live music to the mix. The objective was to make Frankfurt a magnet for anyone, musician to manufacturer, with a stake in the music world. Three years in, the figures reveal mixed results: Overall attendance for the combined shows grew in the first two years of the New Concept, though numbers on the Musikmesse side continued to tick down. With no breakdown in this year’s figures, we don’t know for sure if the trend continued. Anecdotally, Musikmesse exhibitors tended to say traffic seemed about the same as last year.
What may have changed is the mindset around Frankfurt, where many exhibitors had found some equilibrium: While many wished for more traffic, especially dealer traffic, probably more were upbeat about getting the most out of the show on its own terms. Among the most common sentiments around the halls was that Frankfurt remains a great place to fill gaps in global distribution. While major markets such as France, the U.K. and, yes, Germany are well represented at the NAMM show, many said Musikmesse is their best opportunity to meet with distributors from Eastern Europe and Russia, plus the Middle East, North Africa, and even Asia. One exhibitor pointed out that for citizens of many such countries, especially some Eastern European nations in the European Economic Area (EEA), a trip to Germany is visa-free while a visit to the U.S. for NAMM is not. “It’s very cost-effective to be able to come here and see folks from 15 or 16 countries,” said Patrick Schuleit, vice president, international sales at Gator. “There are only so many days in a month, so many months in a year, and it would be almost impossible to visit all of these markets otherwise.” As another exhibitor reported: “Our international sales manager is in meetings with distributors literally every hour on the hour.”
For some exhibitors, this year’s show was about using face-to-face meetings to cement developing business relationships. Hal Leonard, fresh off its acquisition of U.K.-based Music Sales, devoted much of the show to blending the two operations and their many partners: “This show is a lot about lining up interests so we can provide a good experience for customers who do business with each company,” said Hal Leonard President Larry Morton. At the Music Link booth, the fretted instruments maker was using the show as a launching pad for its new European headquarters in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Vice President of Sales Scott Thompson said that until a few months ago, the only way to import Music Link products into Europe was for larger European outlets to bring in containers from China. In its first Musikmesse since opening the Maastricht base, the company was making use of the doors it’s opened. “Last year I was at this show assuring people we’d be opening our warehouse soon—and this year I’m saying, ‘I can ship to you Monday,’” Thompson said. “It’s been a great show for us. I’ve made a lot of contacts and a lot of those contacts are now coming back to me and buying.”
Incidentally, one of the treats of exploring an m.i. trade show where exhibitors showcase everything from mandolins to high-tech mixers is witnessing how new trends and technologies collide with tradition. On a walk through Musikmesse 2018, your ear might have been caught by a brass ensemble’s cover of the indie rock hit “Shut Up And Dance,” or an edgy rendition of “Ode To Joy” on electric strings. All in all, though, this edition of the Frankfurt fair had a distinct “next-generation” feel to it. On the Prolight + Sound side, one popular attraction was an hourly drone show staged by Zurich-based Verity Studios, which uses a proprietary tracking system to choreograph fleets of 50-gram “micro-drones” for displays in such venues as Madison Square Garden and the Singapore Airport. On the m.i. side, BAM Cases of France was just one company promoting a technological companion to its products, a GPS system and app for locating an instrument in its case, anywhere in the world, while measuring temperature and humidity levels inside. At a booth hosted by U.S.-based used gear marketplace Reverb.com, a newly launched German website and payment gateway for European customers signaled the platform’s growing influence on international markets.
As for the European market at large, consensus at the fair was that business is stable but more or less flat, which tracks with sales figures out of Europe. As of the latest full-year data published by Music Trades, every significant European market was either up or down by single digits, with a continent-wide average of flat to slightly down. The last decade-plus has seen consolidation at the retail level, brought on in part by the growth of major online dealers including Germany-based Musikhaus Thomann, Netherlands-based Bax Music, and U.K.-based Gear4Music—not to mention Amazon. According to Messe Frankfurt statistics, the number of music retail outlets in Germany has declined by about a third since 2004, surely one reason many exhibitors complained that they’re seeing fewer German dealers at the show. “The way people purchase, the way people seek information—it’s in flux the way it is in America,” one exhibitor said. Economic ups and downs aside, more than one exhibitor noted that the European countries are mature markets for most established m.i. manufacturers—one reason some companies have shifted their trade show budgets toward the October Music China show (also a Messe Frankfurt production). Attracted by the newer, faster-growing markets represented there, some see more bang for their buck in Shanghai.
It’s also sometimes said that Musikmesse’s impact is blunted by its timing, less than three months after major manufacturers have launched the year’s big introductions at Winter NAMM. As one exhibitor summed up, “I wish this show were in May.” Others, however, say calendar-year cycles aren’t as important as responding to fast-moving demand—at any time. Just as the “fast fashion” movement speeds new styles from the runway to the retail rack, some exhibitors say today’s music industry demands an “always on” mentality and nimbler, more frequent updates. “This show represents a sales cycle apart,” said Saga Musical Instruments’ David Gartland. “If you’re working your business properly, you know you can use the NAMM Show to present products for the first quarter—then you hit Musikmesse and you’ve sold that stuff, and now you have another round of thinking to do.” As others noted, the rise of YouTube and social media means the patterns driving the market sometimes aren’t trends so much as blips: Blink and you might be too late to respond. “When Ed Sheeran has a new hit, we can’t make enough small-bodied guitars,” said Steve Harvey, Martin Guitar’s international marketing consultant for Europe. “If Mumford & Sons are touring and they’re playing big dreadnoughts, that’s where the emphasis goes. It depends what’s on the radio, what’s on the charts. It’s a fluid, moving thing.”
At both Saga and Martin, in fact, exhibitors were highlighting products made to respond to new facts on the ground—in this case, the strict regulations on all rosewood species unloaded by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Since the new rules took effect in early 2017, guitar makers’ search for alternative tonewoods has been jacked into overdrive, and the results have started popping up in product lines. At the Saga booth, rosewood once used in the Blueridge guitar range had been replaced by Brazilian Pau Ferro—billed as an upgrade that also solves the problem. At Martin, the new introductions included a range of guitars with backs and sides in black walnut, which falls tonally somewhere between rosewood and mahogany with a hint of koa, Harvey said. “We’re pushing the boundaries of looking at alternative tonewoods,” he explained. “As a company, we need to be ecologically responsible, and certainly the CITES regulations have sped up the urgency and impetus. Particularly for Europe, coming up with guitars that are permit-free is really important.”
A Consumer Show?
One much-debated facet of the Frankfurt fair’s “New Concept” has been which level of consumer access, if any, is the right level. On one end of that spectrum an exhibitor said: “We just want to do our business without explaining to a kid what makes a steel-string guitar a steel-string guitar. We all love our kids, but that’s not why we come here.” Others, though, say they get a lot out of the consumer give-and-take. At Saga, Gartland called it a chance to build bridges with young players who create and listen to music in new ways and look up to their own generation of musicians. “One of the things we want to do here is to educate people,” he said. At the Bigsby booth, Thomas Jones said consumer visits were an ideal way to give hands-on instruction on a complex product line. “We get to answer a lot of questions for people,” he said. “We show them how to keep their guitar in tune with a Bigsby, how to install, where to buy in Europe. It’s going really well.”
Probably more vocal than either the “yeas” or the “nays” on consumer access, however, are those exhibitors who simply feel stretched thin by the challenge of catering to both consumer and trade visitors. As more than one noted, a well-appointed trade booth showcases a broad cross-section of current products—but not a dozen of each to sell to every consumer who wants one. As Schuleit put it, “To have a booth organized as a consumer booth as opposed to a trade booth are two completely different animals. We would like a strong sign that it’s one or the other.”
In fact, some exhibitors said that based on discussions they’d had about booth space for next year, the show could be heading for another significant format change, possibly touching on both consumer access and fair layout. Messe Frankfurt did not confirm these reports by press time, though it did state that the two fairs would “move closer together spatially” next year. The organizer also announced some scheduling changes to next year’s event set for Tuesday April 2 through Friday April 5. While Musikmesse and Prolight + Sound have been staggered under the New Concept, overlapping first by two days and this year by three days, the two shows will again be held concurrently in 2019. The Festival concert series will be extended by one additional day, through Saturday April 6.
“The positive echo from the exhibitors of the two fairs and the high visitor standard indicate that we are on the right track,” said Detlef Braun, a member Messe Frankfurt’s executive board. “We aim to build on the strengths of the trade-fair duo in the future, too. Accordingly, we are setting course for a Musikmesse and Prolight + Sound in 2019 which focus even more on the wishes of our customers for an international meeting place for the music and event technology sector and exploit synergistic effects between the event to the utmost.”