Larry Thomas, CEO of Fender Musical Instruments, is reflected in an Ovation… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
Downtown L.A.'s Staples Center may be home to the Grammys, but it's a relatively nondescript industrial complex in Burbank that's attracting some of the awards show's most notable nominees this week.
Fender Musical Instruments' new artist showroom has become a hub for well-known musicians of all stripes. And with the Grammy Awards scheduled to air Sunday, business is brisk.
Just as dress designers clamor to get their gowns on Oscar contenders, makers of musical equipment such as Fender are doing their best to get their newest products in the hands of Grammy-nominated pop stars.
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On Monday, Bruno Mars stopped in and picked out a Gretsch Duo-Jet guitar to use during his spot on the CBS-TV telecast, shortly after Florence and the Machine guitarist Robert Ackroyd singled out a Guild acoustic guitar for his group's moment in the spotlight.
Former Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan popped in the same day to pick up one of his signature-series basses to autograph before donating it to a charity auction. And that was just before veteran British rocker Dave Mason came by to try out a new acoustic guitar.
"These people are all pretty approachable here," said McKagan, now a member of indie-rock band Walking Papers, adding that the folks at Fender "really know what's going on with you."
This artist showroom is one of nearly a dozen that different companies operate at the same staging facility in Burbank. It's the outgrowth of increasingly ambitious ways that Fender, Gibson, Martin, Yamaha, Roland, Steinway and other major manufacturers get musicians whatever they need to do their jobs.
What do these companies get out of it? High-profile recognition.
Fender Chief Executive Larry Thomas, who was on site discussing the merits of a bass amp rig with McKagan, says the showroom is part of the company's expanding emphasis on artist relations. It reflects a corner of the music business that's shifted from passive to aggressive (albeit still personable) in recent years.
"This business is an aspirational business," said Thomas, formerly chief executive of the Guitar Center chain before joining Fender nearly three years ago. "It's why all of us, I think, are playing the instruments — because we were inspired somewhere, by somebody. If we can have a great relationship with the artists who are the influencers, and if we can provide products that will satisfy them, then the people who are aspirational will buy those products."
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"Martin has always had artists that played their guitars, but the company didn't have the level of artist involvement that Gibson did," said Fred Greene, vice president of guitars for the family-run, 180-year-old Nazareth, Pa.-based Martin Guitar company, and a 15-year Gibson executive before joining Martin about a decade ago. "At Martin there were one or two guys who worked at the factory, and if somebody needed something, we sent it to them."
Within the last decade, however, Martin has joined companies that have traded the passive role for a more active one, courting musicians to ensure that the musicians who serve as the public face for the products are aware of their latest innovations.
That ups the odds of a high-profile artist ending up on prime-time TV showcasing a particular guitar, or another instrument being featured on an album cover, a magazine photo spread or in a show like the Yamaha piano custom built for Elton John's Las Vegas production of "The Million Dollar Piano," the successor to his earlier keyboard-centric show, "The Red Piano."
"He came to Yamaha by accident" nearly 20 years ago, said Chris Gero, Yamaha's vice president of artist relations. His piano, from a Yamaha competitor, broke down while he was on tour, and John contacted Yamaha about a replacement.
"We said, 'We have a piano we'll let you borrow,'" Gero said. "We delivered it to him and it never returned. He played that piano in front of 2 billion people when Princess Diana died. We were there because Yamaha stepped up. Elton said he needed the piano shipped overnight to London, and that's what we did."
"Relationship" is the word representatives at many companies repeat like a mantra.
"We're a pretty aggressive company, and we ask for as much as we can get" in its artist endorsement deals, said Gibson Guitar Chief Executive Henry Juszkiewicz. "But if we don't have a relationship with an artist, you can ask all you want and you're not going to get it.
"We're not after one-time deals, a movie placement or a Super Bowl something. We build relationships that are long-term. That's rare in the entertainment business, which is so episode- and project-based. ... What we really want to be is a stable friend in a turbulent environment. These relationships don't always start at the top," Juszkiewicz said. "In fact, few start at the top. Many start at the very bottom."