BY PHIL HOOD
If the modern era of boutique drum making has a father, it’s Joe Montineri. His snare drums in the ‘80s were the first exposure many had to the idea of custom drum building. Since then many people have given it a go, but relatively few have succeeded to the point that they became larger companies, or household names in the world of percussion. Companies such as SJC, Craviotto, Dunnett, C&C, Trick, Black Swamp, Pork Pie, and others come to mind as ones who have grown their business over several decades, in some cases going from a one-person shop to a modest factory. More recently, newer builders such as RBH, Doc Sweeney, and others have gained wide respect for their woodworking skills and quality.
We started featuring custom drum builders in the “Meet Your Maker” column in Drum! Magazine more than 15 years ago. Since then we’ve covered nearly 200 of them. And yet there are even more individuals trying to establish themselves in the world of drum building today than when we started. If you could locate all the custom builders around the world, it might total over 1,000.
Of all these builders, only a few find great success. Many will make and sell kits for a few years, but never grow beyond their local market, or quit their day job, or reach whatever metric they might choose to define success. The hill you climb to make and sell drums can be steep. Of course, if you work in music in any capacity then you are working out of love, and not just for money. If all you want is riches there are easier fields to try. For many small artisans, the respect of great musicians and a small but steady stream of orders from a few dealers would be all the success they need.
The biggest challenge is that drum making is a business. And, as Bruce Hagwood of RBH drums puts it, “making the drums is the easy part.” Finding your niche, working closely with good suppliers, taking care of customers, marketing, and managing money and employees take up increasing amounts of time as you grow. With that in mind I thought I’d ask some custom drum builders what they thought were the keys to success, and what challenges they had to overcome to find success in the boutique drum-building world. I’ve boiled their responses down to a few simple rules.
Don’t charge too little. If you think the problem that you will solve is that there is not a good custom snare drum available for $250 then think again. Major drum companies can create low-end products that are pretty good at a cost lower than you can ever achieve on your own. The drums that carry your badge presumably are very good, or you wouldn’t have your badge on them. So don’t be afraid to charge a price that reflects the individuality of what you do and the money you need to make. Craviotto drums are expensive, but Craviotto customers love them and many say they are the finest drums they’ve ever owned. The high prices reflect a desirable object and reinforce how valuable they are.
To thine own self be true. I used to hear custom builders say, “I’ll build anything a customer wants, any color, any wrap, any lug.” That was what local customers may have wanted in the ’90s, but no more. If your designs and your sound meet your goals then be confident in it. It’s better to be known for your specific designs than your ability to copy others. BMW will not build you a car that includes a Mercedes grill and a Chevy paint job.
Stay Consistent. Perhaps nothing is more important to establishing an identity as a builder than consistency, according to Ronn Dunnett. It’s great if you have a customer who wants a beavertail snare with Tama lugs, but what does that drum say about you once it leaves the shop?
The corollary is that Standardization Is Okay. Produce a line of drums, not just one-offs. Very early on SJC was known for making outrageously appointed drums. But they gained traction when they started offering a standard series at a mid-market price and saving the wild designs mostly for endorsers. Steve Stecher of Doc Sweeney Drums says that as a custom builder you need to produce some products over and over to attain “a semblance of economies of scale. You’ll never be a big boy but you need to be able to produce on a consistent basis and sell it at a price point that appeals to a buyer.”
Know Your Buyers. Hagwood of RBH says that over time his business has found its level with two different groups of customers. “When I first started the demographic I wanted were people like me. An older buyer wants a nice drum in the home studio. The problem with that, though, is it makes a small market even smaller. Today the majority of my customers are either people my age (approaching 60) or college kids.”
You can even Segment Your Audience much further if it makes sense for you. Pork Pie Drums operates more like a tiny version of a large drum company than a boutique builder. Bill Detamore became famous for his idiosyncratic paint jobs 30 years ago. But today his company makes thrones, imports snare drums from China for Guitar Center, builds mid-level drums with imported shells that are then hand-finished and assembled in California, and still does custom paint jobs. The buyer of a Little Squealer snare has less to spend than someone who wants a seven-piece kit with custom finishes, but they each get Pork Pie’s design, aesthetics, personal attention, and quality control.
Make Your Own Damn Lugs. Okay, this isn’t a principle like the other points, but it’s worthwhile advice. Lugs may be the easiest way to make your drums recognizable without building a complete line of custom hardware. Some parts are too expensive for even the most well-heeled builders to tackle. Doc Sweeney’s Stecher says, “Metal hoops just are not cost-effective in the US.” But a lug design that you like, even if it’s one that plays off the traditional designs, is worth consideration. Hagwood says, “I don’t have any inventions like fancy throw-offs. I designed my own lug and people say it looks at lot like Noble & Cooley’s. Still, I just like the like the looks of it.”
Tell The World About It! Press releases, social media, video, email, traditional ads, your web site, interviews, and reviews are all important. But that doesn’t mean you have to do all of them. I’ve never spoken to a builder who is completely happy with his or her marketing. Especially for a one-person shop, there is never enough time or resources to do it all. But every opportunity to communicate is a chance to put your name, your badge, or your product in front of another prospect. The ones who have been most successful, whether you measure that in dollars, or in more personal terms, have put forth the effort and expense to get their name out there and keep it there. What’s your plan?