Ninety percent of people trying to learn guitar quit in the first year. That’s a big problem for the musical instrument industry, but also a big opportunity for one of the top guitar makers — Fender. If Fender can use digital tools like a new tuner app it’s building to keep musicians engaged, it stands to sell them a lot more guitars, amplifiers and more over their lifetime.
That’s why today Fender is announcing the hiring of one of the smartest people in music tech, Ethan Kaplan, as its new Chief Digital Products Officer.
Kaplan was a long-time SVP of technology for Warner Bros. Records before helping start Live Nation Labs, a tech arm for the concert ticket giant. He spent the last seven months as the general manager of audio fingerprinting pioneer Gracenote.
I’ve seen Kaplan speak at music tech conferences, and his no B.S. attitude about what will and won’t work is refreshing in an industry of pipe dreamers. Few have Kaplan’s historical context mixed with modern understanding that’s necessary to see how music will evolve in the face of technology.
Kaplan tells me he’s aiming to build a complement to Fender’s big instrument sales business by using technology to ease “the journey from being a beginner to intermediate to being an advanced player.” To do that, Kaplan says “we’ve got to listen to players” to find out what they need.
Fender’s recently hired CEO Andy Mooney explains that “We have a problem getting the consumers who buy their first guitar to commit for life.” If Fender succeeds in keeping up a musician’s momentum, they’ll end up earning a ton of money buying multiple guitars and amps. “We just need to reduce abandonment of first-time players by 10% to double the industry,” Mooney believes.
I tried learning guitar when I was 15, but got frustrated because I couldn’t find super easy songs to play with the few chords I knew. Without the satisfaction of hearing real songs come out of my instrument, I quit. It was almost 10 years before I picked up the axe again, and I only stuck with it because I stumbled upon some exceedingly easy tabs for tunes by a singer I love, Bright Eyes.
Mooney had a similar experience. Growing up he was “struggling” because he couldn’t figure out how to play his favorite song. It was 20 years before he figured out it was in a different tuning. Fender wants to deconstruct these obstacles.
Eventually, the company wants to build apps for guitar tablature (basic instructions for how to play songs), track downloads, and deeper music education. But the first step in Fender’s digital transformation will be a new guitar tuning app Kaplan is building.
Breaking out in this crowded vertical won’t be easy. There are already slews of popular indepedently developed tuning apps, as well as ones from music powerhouses like Gibson. Fender will have to work hard to differentiate itself.
That’s where Kaplan’s knowledge of software and networks comes in. He’s working on an identity layer to link the tuning app with future Fender digital products. This way, Fender can learn about a musician and then personalize each experience.
For example, if the tuner knows what kind of music you like, it could recommend different tuning configurations to try. Or if it knows what you’re tuned to or what chords you know how to play, it could suggest tabs for songs you’ll be able to quickly learn. If Fender’s apps can hear your play or at least know how frequently you do, it could recommend you buy new guitar strings or one of its effects pedals. Shortcuts from app to app to products could keep players in the Fender ecosystem.
“It’s not just about making a tuning app, then another app, and another,” Kaplan says. “It’s about how do we build a product that does something more and enables the overall journey, not just the utility. It looks like the ties that bind a bunch of products together.”
Outside of tuners, the landscape becomes more chaotic and rife with potential for Fender. Most tabs online aren’t verified as accurate, and musicians spend hours coming through mediocre tutorial videos on YouTube looking for assistance. They’re eager to learn all the skills necessary, and Mooney says “We think we’re uniquely suited to connect those dots.”
You might expect the rise of DJing and Electronic Dance Music to be causing hard times for analog instrument makers like Fender. But it turns out traditional instrument sales are still growing, albeit slowly. Mooney says Taylor Swift is inspiring a new generation of young women to pick up a Fender Stratocaster. If Kaplan’s tools can make Swift’s songs easier to learn, those fans might put more guitars in the “Blank Space” on their wish list.