Find A Rhythm That Works: Trends & Opportunities in Drum & Percussion Retail

Friday, September 2nd, 2016

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This article originally appeared in the August/September 2016 issue of Canadian Music Trade magazine

By Ryan Shuvera

Spotting and tracking emerging trends in any industry can be a difficult task. Certain markers of measurement can often be used to narrow down the range of interest. For example, sales numbers, production numbers, or interest on social media can give a glimpse into specific elements, but trend-tracking can remain as elusive a task to the untrained eye as tuning can be to the untrained ear. It requires commitment, patience, and the ability to follow through on a few good hunches. Certainly, some good research skills and insight will help, too.

Ultimately, there is no simple formula, but one thing is clear: the phenomenon of “trends” and trying to track them demonstrates a willingness to remain open to learning and trying new things on a regular basis.

Allan Harding

Allan Harding of Rufus Drum Shop

With some brief pondering about the business and value of trends and trend-tracking out there for collective mulling, let’s break down some of the latest trends – and subsequent opportunities – in the world of percussion. Canadian Music Trade reached out to a group of insiders to find some consensus on where retailers of drum and percussion products should be focusing their attention in the near future. We’ve tapped the minds of drum connoisseurs from across the country, including Allan Harding of Rufus Drum Shop in Vancouver, Dave Hamilton of Just Drums in Toronto, Dave Dudley of Dave’s Drum Shop in Ottawa, and Jean-Marc Jetté of Drum Bazar in Montréal.

Keep in mind that each voice represents a unique perspective, store, market, and situation. This is not to say that there are huge discrepancies in drum trends across the country, but there are certain uncategorizable factors that can influence the life, significance, and death of a trend in different places. With that in mind, let’s get going.

Electronics

First, we’ll look at the sway and utility of electronic drum kits. There’s no doubt that electronic kits – especially the higher-end models – are beautiful pieces of technology. For gigging players, they offer a plethora of sounds in a very portable package, and conversely, there’s also the fact that instant access to hundreds of sounds can go far in piquing a young player’s curiosity and engaging their sense of discovery and fun.

That said, Hamilton notes that a decision to purchase an electronic drum kit – which is most often the case for entry-level players – is more out of necessity than it is about a pure desire to play electronic drums.

Dave Dudley

Dave Dudley of Dave’s Drum Shop

He says, “There’s a real component of discovery and a whole library of sounds that you can’t get out of an acoustic drum set,” but is quick to add that he doesn’t think acoustic drums are going away any time soon. Ultimately, the electronic kits help people who, as Hamilton says, are “constantly trying to get a drum set experience in an environment where volume is challenged.”

Out in Vancouver, Harding sees a similar situation. “I’ll say that because we’re more geared to be a pro shop, we do more acoustics, but we probably do more electronic entry-level than we do acoustic entry-level,” he says, echoing Hamilton’s findings.

Despite new drummers finding themselves in these situations, Harding doesn’t want to just make a sale simply because one presents itself. He emphasizes, “When people come in here looking for electronic kits, we want to make sure they’re after one for the right reasons. We still push and believe in the acoustic kit as the real drum instrument.” After all, learning the fundamentals on an acoustic kit makes it much easier to transition to an electronic one if so desired, instead of vice-versa. What’s more, ensuring that an electronic kit is the right purchase for any given customer goes a long way in retaining that individual as a long-time music maker.

Harding says he tries to turn new drummers (and their parents) towards dampening pads or low-volume cymbals to control volume. Similarly, out in Ottawa, Dudley says he’s never really focused on electronic kits too much because “the mesh heads and the low volume cymbals are gaining popularity to address volume concerns,” ranging from beginners to pro players. Since most drummers at some point in their lives will find themselves in volume-restricted situations, these noise-dampening products are popular because they are portable and easy to apply to an existing acoustic kit.

In Montréal, Jetté is noticing a dip in the popularity of electronic drums, which indicates a more disconcerting trend. “My perception is that I don’t see as many teenagers starting to play drums, and that was the biggest part of the business a few years ago.”

Journey's Steve Smith & Dave Hamilton of Just Drums

Journey’s Steve Smith & Dave Hamilton of Just Drums

Hamilton certainly agrees with this sentiment, saying, “What we’re seeing unfortunately is a lack of commitment to the instruments. People are drawn to making music through the drum set, they like it, they see it as easy, but then they realize that to get good at it, they have to commit time and effort. Our challenge is to get people to stay with the instrument,” he adds. “In the digital world, everybody’s swiping instead of strumming and drumming.”

Committing to practice – and therefore continually renewing one’s interest in the instrument – remains the biggest challenge and hurdle for musicians and instrument shop owners; however, one should not confuse or conflate an inconsistent commitment to practice with the quality of the products on the market. That is, a lack of interest in practicing from newer drummers does not mean that the quality of drumming products has declined.

“The manufacturers have got great products,” Hamilton reinforces. “The cymbal companies are doing a great job to bring new sounds and new products to the fold, which we feel encourages people to want to accessorize. That’s a big part of the instrument. Once they buy a drum set, the idea of personalizing comes through the accessories.”

Accessories

Accessorizing one’s drum set is not necessarily a new phenomenon, but certain elements and particular accessories are slowly stimulating the market.

Although electronic drum kits may not be as appealing to mid-to-high level and professional drummers, adding electronic accessories like triggers and sample pads – or “hybriding,” as Hamilton dubs it – is growing in popularity.

Jetté describes it as a complementary process for drummers. They incorporate electronic elements into the acoustic kit, which gives them a larger selection of sounds alongside the reliable feel and power of the acoustic instrument. The hope is that with a few more options, the creative horizons of drummers might expand as well. Ultimately, Jetté says, “It’s a good idea,” and interestingly, he says he doesn’t see enough of that type of drummer.

Dudley tells a similar story of his customer base. He says he receives a lot of inquiries about adding electronic elements but hasn’t necessarily seen a huge sales increase at this point. “I haven’t seen it adopted as a regular thing across the board, but a lot of people do talk about it. The sample pads are the first step, I think, and then after that, they add on extra triggers and stuff. It’s a big step to take for a lot of people. If you’re going to be playing live, it changes your whole ‘set your kit up and go’ idea.”

Classic accessories such as cowbells, tambourines, and shakers haven’t necessarily lost any ground with the proliferation of electronic accessories into the market. They also do not change the vibe or structure of your set-up in the way that Dudley notes electronic accessories can. This is not to say that there is less thought put into the purchase of classic accessories, nor does it mean that they inspire less creative potential; rather, making changes to a kit is like changing things up at the office. It requires a good plan, and you need to consider things that are more difficult to measure like comfort, feel, and its effect on those working around you. Drummers are simply more familiar with classic accessories and this is likely why, although gaining popularity, it takes some time to incorporate electronic accessories into a set-up.

Alternative “Accessorizing”

Hand percussion instruments sit in a unique position in that they can be both “accessories” for a kit, but are a whole other game of their own. You could argue that this is the case with most percussion instruments and accessories, but hand percussion – djembes, cajons, bongos, and the like – are key pieces. They are the kind of instruments you can spontaneously pull out in an unconventional jam situation and play all day and night. At the same time, they can serve as an accessory to a drummer’s repertoire of sounds.

Jean-Marc Jetté of Drum Bazar

Jean-Marc Jetté of Drum Bazar

Like cowbells and tambourines, hand percussion instruments are not necessarily new to the seasoned drummer’s mix of sounds; however, the taste for certain types of hand percussion certainly shifts much like anything else. Harding notes that djembes are not moving as fast as they have before, but this could be for a number of reasons. As a boutique shop, Rufus Drum Shop carries more high-end products and Harding emphasizes that they try to carry and push some locally hand-crafted hand percussion instruments. The locally-made cajons in particular have been the biggest hit as of late to the point where “the local guys are outselling the brand name cajons for us,” he says. He also admits that he pushes the cajons simply because “they sound beautiful and it’s more like a drum kit than a djembe is.”

Hamilton sees hand percussion as a “great introduction to drums and rhythm.” What he calls the “tap and response or call and answer” drumming is powerful and attracts many enthusiasts, but he recognizes that they are a different type of clientele. Similar to how the electronic drums serve a certain client with a unique situation or set of needs, hand percussion serves individuals who don’t always find themselves requiring or having the space, access, or even desire for a full kit, but still want to have a decent range of rhythmic sound options.

Dudley also sees a different demographic of clientele coming into the store to purchase hand percussion. Like Harding, he has seen cajons rise in popularity over the past year, but he adds that meditative or yoga related practices have contributed to the increase in popularity of certain styles of hand drums like buffalo style drums. “It’s kind of outside of my traditional client base” he says, “but I sell quite a bit of it.”

Interestingly, Jetté says he used to sell more djemebes and cajons a few years ago, but not as of late. He says the business is moving more towards “custom building drum sets and having a lot of different cymbals, for example – not only the big names, but the future is with many different brands.”

Vintage, Vintage-Type & Used Drums

Jetté’s hunch on a future focused on custom building kits with many brands to choose from (big name and boutique alike) brings us to an interesting crossroads for a discussion of drum trends.

This isn’t anything out of left field, as the idea is reflective of Hamilton’s emphasis on the importance and role of accessorizing for a drummer. As much as we can speculate, a future built around custom-building kits would deal with more than just choosing colours and sizes. Customizing allows a drummer to bring together old and new pieces, unique and common sounds, risky and reliable ideas, in order to create something that fits their particular needs and desires. It is what has allowed boutique manufacturers to thrive in recent years.

If we follow out this loose theme that has developed concerning the customizing and hybriding of technology and nature in the world of drumming, another trend that isn’t necessarily new but has gone through some changes and is likely to remain strong moving into the future is the use of vintage instruments and the desire for vintage sounds.

Vintage drums are in consistent demand, which, according to Hamilton, “has always been there.” Jetté agrees and attributes this to the fact that he sees more people over 40 playing drums and says, “It’s normal for people looking for drums to look for the drums that they used to see when they were a teenager.”

“Vintage in general has been a big thing for me over the years” Dudley says. “I’ve sold C&C Drums for quite a few years now and there’s a lot of people jumping on their Player Date bandwagon it seems, because they’ve been very successful with that.”

Interestingly, he also says with a slew of big-name drum and cymbal brands focusing or re-focusing on sounds and looks from the ’50s, ’60s, or ’70s, an important distinction between vintage products and “vintage-type” products has developed. He further adds that the attention given to vintage-style drums has actually helped to raise the value of actual vintage drums. He sees a high demand for both.

Harding has high demand for vintage and vintage-type drums in his market out west as well. “I think, over the years, drums have been kind of overbuilt. Bigger hardware, thicker, better this… But people are listening to the kits from the ’60s again and going, ‘Jeez man, that sounded good!’” He thinks the drum companies are smart in recognizing a general interest and taste for vintage instruments and says, “The new vintage reissue kit that Sonor did to mark their 140-year anniversary, that kit has been hot for us, because if you can’t get vintage, then what’s the next best thing? The reissue.”

The hunt for actual vintage drums is not an easy one. Harding says he has a difficult time accumulating vintage drums and, once he does come upon some, they move quickly. This is all a part of the cycle of trading, buying, and consigning used drums that Harding says is such a huge part of the business. “I love working with people to find a deal that makes everyone happy. It takes work and it takes a bit of a specialty to know what you’re looking at and know the market, but it’s what we want to be doing. It’s exciting because collectors are coming to me to sell and buy, and then every time you come into our store there’s something you haven’t seen and something that’s not typical.”

Jetté and Dudley acknowledge the significance of the used market as well. Jetté says most of the acoustic kits he sells are used and since people are buying so many used kits, he has started carrying lots of parts and pieces to fix or complete kits that have seem some mileage over the years. This huge flow of product comes through the used market.

Dudley says he’s amazed, first of all, just by how much stuff there is out there already. Second, he says he can’t believe how much used gear he gets that is in relatively unused condition. “I don’t know if that speaks to the education of people when they’re buying their equipment? Maybe they buy it on a whim and they don’t really use it that much and then get rid of it 10 years later or whatever, but there’s an enormous amount of used stuff on the market now,” he adds.

The amount of used equipment circulating and the massive business around it highlights the interest that people have in rhythm and in playing drums. Sure, some people might only take it up for a short while, but should they choose to get rid of their kit, there will always be someone waiting to grab that used kit or cajon and give it a new life. The used market also reaches all levels of drummers. Entry-level drummers unsure about how deep their interest may go can develop their skills on a used kit and go from there. More experienced drummers also turn to the used market to find particular sounds, styles, and parts.

It helps to know a thing or two about the market or the instrument of interest before diving in, as our drum connoisseurs have noted. The beauty of a rundown like this is the convenience of having their voices together in one place to help the rest of us pick up a few tips. That being said, nothing beats walking into a drum shop or music shop and spending some time soaking up the atmosphere, chatting with people who know the instrument and business, and trying some things out. Until we can plug our brains in at night to download the “play like Neil Peart software” and wake up and play like Neil Peart, the best way to learn is to get out there just drum, and retailers across the country can go a long way in helping people do just that.

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Ryan Shuvera is a music journalist and an avid music fan. He loves to talk and write about all things music related. He has a passion for Canadian music and can be found lost in the stacks of used book and record stores when not writing. Follow him on Twitter @ryebread891.