COMPANIES TO WATCH
|Celebrated resonator player Phil Leadbetter recently collaborated on a signature model with The Music Link.
THE MUSIC LINK
Capturing the spirit of Golden Age frets pays off in movie sighting, artist models, and sales growth.
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, the Coen Brothers film released last year, opens with a singing cowboy strumming a guitar as he rides a white horse through the desert. For the team at The Music Link, the best part is that it’s their guitar. Street-priced around $150, the Recording King Dirty 30s Single-0 model chosen for the movie was nothing fancy—which was exactly what made it perfect for the Coen Brothers’ cowboy tale. The vintage features and stripped-down aesthetic typical of the Dirty 30s series, comprising around two dozen guitars, banjos, resonators, and mandolins, was meant to evoke the Dustbowl era, arriving just in time for a resurgence in Roots styles on the American music scene. Of course, says The Music Link’s Ashley Atz, director of artist relations and social media, the specific model used in Buster Scruggs has drawn some extra publicity since the movie. Increasingly, though, The Music Link has been gaining recognition for its broader project of the past decade-plus: the rediscovery of Golden Age American instruments, brought to market in models that are playable, affordable, and true to their roots.
“We’ve been mining this retro vein for a long time,” says Atz. “And the fact that the Coen brothers, who have a really advanced visual palette, picked our instrument to fit the vibe of their cowboy setting—which is obviously the vibe that we’ve been going for too—was a pretty good reinforcement of our design concept.”
Dating back to the 1930s, when it was a house brand for Montgomery Ward, Recording King was originally known for its acoustic and resonator guitars, as well as banjos. The brand was acquired and revived by The Music Link in 2006. The Loar, named for the famed 1920s-era mandolin maker Lloyd Loar, likewise operates under the Music Link umbrella. Both have contributed to The Music Link’s association with old-time country, blues, and Americana styles. For the past several years, The Music Link has been showcasing them at SXSW as well as Americanafest in Nashville, offering demos and giveaways while aligning its brand with the music scene it was meant to inhabit. A Recording King banjo, the RK-R20 model, was also recently used in a promotion for Country Music, the new documentary by Ken Burns. “That was another validation of our proof of concept,” Atz says.
It was one of Recording King’s original niches—resonator guitars—that’s inspired one of its specialties today. After noticing that there was a “hole in the market” where a more complete resonator segment ought to be, The Music Link built out its own selection, pouring R&D into a range of resonators in square and round neck options; classic wood bodies and metal bodies; options for slide, blues, and bluegrass styles. “We’ve invested a lot in putting our resonator flag out there,” says Atz, “and we’ve developed what I would say are the best resonators for the price on the market.” In one special project, The Music Link collaborated last year with award-winning resonator player Phil Leadbetter on a signature model that’s now the company’s flagship square-neck resonator, “and it sounds absolutely amazing,” says Atz. “Phil was very hands-on—trying to get that sound that we both were looking for. We’ve received a lot of positive response on it.”
A resonator model was, in fact, the first significant instrument to come out of The Music Link more than 20 years ago. Founded by Steve Patrino, a Bay Area native who started the company out of his garage, The Music Link has since been recognized as a source for high-quality Asian imports. Guitars arriving from China at the end of the 20th century were largely of poor quality, and The Music Link addressed that—forming a close relationship with a Chinese guitar factory and investing in machinery to avoid quality control problems. As competition proliferated in the early 2000s, The Music Link began its push to acquire brands with authentic stories behind them, building its identity on quality and a sense of connection with its players. Along with Recording King and The Loar, the company would take up AXL electric guitars and VHT amps, the brand originally founded out of Studio City, California. Music Link products are now exported to 25 countries.
Until about two-and-a-half years ago, though, the company’s presence in Europe depended on a disjointed network of individual distributors with no central hub to organize them. That changed when The Music Link opened its own warehouse in Maastricht, the Netherlands, in July 2017. Since then, the company’s products have been shipping from Music Link workshops to the Maastricht warehouse before being dispersed to distributors across the continent. Shipping from within the EU, says Atz, means price-competitive sales in Europe that would be otherwise impossible. “It’s definitely given us a much larger foothold in Europe,” he says.
On the U.S. side, just last year, The Music Link made a play for closer artists relations—and ties to the music world at large—by opening a Nashville showroom to complement its home base in Hayward, California. Headed up by Atz, the location in trendy East Nashville has been set up as a showcase where dealers, touring artists, and Summer NAMM attendees can peruse the Music Link selection in a well-appointed private space. “It’s a quiet place where we can invite artists or dealers to take in that one-on-one white-glove experience and check out our newest instruments first-hand,” says Atz. “We have the pick of all our best instruments here.”
Today, the newest—yet oldest—products out The Music Link are its just-released acoustic guitar with “30-year aged tops,” made from carefully aged wood literally set aside three decades ago. After patiently awaiting their moment, The Music Link team decided just this year that the wood had been aged to perfection. “We said, ‘Let’s put them in these guitars and shoot for the moon,’” says Atz. “So far the response has been awesome.” In another ongoing project, the company has been working to manufacture its full selection of Series 11 guitars, an all-solid wood range of acoustics from Recording King, in environmentally-friendly “zero-VOC” finishes. With the first batch now shipping, the company hopes to have the entire Series 11 range—and possibly other series—converted to zero-VOC finishes next year. And with the Phil Leadbetter signature model setting the pace in 2019, The Music Link is planning for further artist collaborations in 2020. “We’ll be out with at least one more pretty cool signature instrument,” says Atz, “if not two.”