Music to their ears

The western musical instruments industry is poised to enter its most exciting phase

Soumik Kar

At 18, you’d naturally expect Samarth Swarup’s latest indulgence to be a fancy smartphone. Instead, it’s a Yamaha APX700 acoustic guitar. At ₹40,000, a tidy sum for this Class XII student at the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan Vidyashram in Jaipur, the Yamaha is one in a line of six guitars and three keyboards Swarup accumulated over the past few years. These, and an amplifier, set him back by a cool ₹1.25 lakh. “Most of it was my own money,” he says, of the savings he made from tutoring others on the guitar. 

Evidently, this isn’t just the impulsive splurge of an affluent teenager. Swarup’s collection is for a purpose. Helped by friends, the self-taught musician is working on a solo music album titled Teri Yaadein, and his first single recently released on the internet. 

People like Swarup make sellers of musical instruments in India happy. Many of them are seriously eyeing a career in music, others are out to have some serious fun. Young and passionate about Western music, they lap up everything from high-end guitars to top-of-the-line keyboards and drums. And, unlike in the past, they have big brands in the business literally knocking at their doors. For Swarup, the Yamaha Music Square in his city’s Mansarovar locality made the decision a lot easier. He could try out guitars in the store’s sound-proof rooms before making his purchase. “The sound is the most important factor in a guitar and this store had the one I was looking for,” says Swarup.

Bittersweet melodies 

Homegrown retailers and global manufacturers like Yamaha, Casio, Roland, Fender and Pearl are tuning in to such customer insights, and ramping up on distribution and marketing. Yamaha, which was previously selling through local importers, opened its first experiential store in 2008. “That year, we decided that India was an important destination and launched the Yamaha Music Square stores,” says Tarun Sehgal, regional manager (west), Yamaha Music India. Today, 17 such outlets mark their presence in second tier cities such as Kochi, Indore, Lucknow, Shillong, Jaipur and Guwahati. 

Figures for the size of the Indian musical instruments market are hard to come by. That’s not surprising. “This is a very new industry for all of us,” says Anthony Gomes, partner at BX Furtado & Sons in Mumbai, which set up shop 147 years ago. He tells us that Western musical instruments like the piano, keyboard, guitar and drums drive most of the demand now, thanks to a shifting cultural context. “It is the result of MTV and Channel V. Customers are hugely influenced by what they watch,” he says. TechSci Research, a Noida-based market research firm, has estimated this segment at ₹370 crore in revenues (2011).

Not too long ago, the business served a small but informed community of music professionals and students, and margins were modest. Things are different now. Brijesh Bhargava, director, Bharagava’s Musik, a leading music distributor and retailer in Mumbai, recalls how a decision, in 1998, to import 300 guitars from China for the firm’s own brand GBA almost blew up in his face. Priced at ₹3,000 apiece, a princely sum those days, they took a year to sell. “We ultimately made only ₹40 a piece,” he says ruefully.

 “Today, we sell about 10 times that number each month, at just about the same price,” says Bhargava. Falling import duties, from 300% to 60% in 1998 and to 23% now, have made prices affordable. Gomes adds that 90% of products sold such as guitars, keyboards, drums and pianos, are imported from the US, China, Indonesia and Japan, and lowered duties make a huge difference. One could acquire a good guitar for ₹5,000, a violin for ₹4,500, and a feature-rich synthesiser keyboard for ₹10,000. 

It’s a pie that’s growing but at the cost of Indian instruments. “Sales for Indian instruments have dropped by 50% each year,” says Bhargava. At his western Mumbai outlet, the tabla, flute and harmonium occupy a small portion of products on display. Buyers for these are typically in the 40-50 year age bracket. A good quality Indian flute costs just ₹700 while a tabla set comes for ₹6,500. “People think it’s not cool to be seen with those,” Bhargava explains. No one’s complaining, though. At Furtados Music, the retail enterprise of Furtados Group, revenues have been climbing 25% annually on the back of Western instrument sales, according to managing director Phillip Rodrigues. 

So who’s buying? Parents looking to gift their children, middle-age professionals seeking to rekindle a long-cherished dream, and hobbyists among others. Many are first-time customers and importantly, they have the money to spare. Rodrigues remembers how a forty-something couple once walked into his Juhu outlet to buy picks (used to pluck or strum strings) for their son. After browsing around, they bought a piano worth ₹1.5 lakh. 

Beyond expectations

If there’s newfound optimism in the industry, it’s mostly due to the opportunity unfolding in small-town India. “The growth rate in tier 2 cities is higher than in the metros,” affirms Karan Chechi, research director, TechSci Research. Furtados Music is a case in point. Till 2007, it had two stores each in Mumbai and Goa. Since then, it has expanded to Ahmedabad, Mangalore, Dimapur and Ludhiana, among other locations. “We didn’t expect Ahmedabad to be a large market when we opened there last year. In almost no time, we had sold two pianos for ₹2 lakh and ₹5 lakh each,” says Rodrigues.

Contemporary cinema and television shows have played their part. And backed by higher disposable incomes, music has become an acceptable career choice or at least a creatively satisfying pursuit. “It is clear that parents want their children to learn music,” says Rodrigues. Live music shows too help promote interest, according to Sehgal. “IT hubs such as Bengaluru and Hyderabad are seeing a greater orientation towards music, which is good news,” he says.

Sahil Makhija, 30, is a professional musician associated with four heavy metal bands in Mumbai. As the founder of Demonstealer Records, an independent record label based in Mumbai, he’s often juggling his recording studio, organising bookings for other bands, and drumming up support for the genre. His bands perform in smaller centres like Jalandhar, Anand, Dhanbad and Silchar, where they are popular among young student audiences. Makhija owes his success in large measure to the internet and its role in opening up niche, and sometimes obscure, music genres to young Indians in every corner of the country. Heavy metal requires high-end guitars and drums, which often cost a packet and are not easily available here, says Makhija. “Duties are very high and we still have to procure instruments from overseas.” But he hopes that’ll change soon.

Online retail is picking up, but the bulk of buying continues to take place in the physical stores. “Last year, 10% of our business came from the online channel and this included high-end guitars that cost at least ₹20,000. That is a big opportunity,” says Rodrigues, who expects online sales to contribute twice as much in the near future.

Everyone’s invited

There’s been little advertising given that the business serves to a limited audience. Instead, community building is the most effective market development tool. Furtados brings in artists from abroad to perform and conduct workshops. It has roped in leading Indian names like Lucky Ali and Usha Uthup for its artiste endorsement programme. “We recently started an ‘Open Mic’ event, where local musicians and singers can perform spontaneously to a live audience. We promote young bands and local music under our Support the Artistes initiative,” says Rodrigues. 

TechSci’s Chechi sees good times for this industry ahead. “In the next five years, we expect an increase in the number of musicians to boost demand. E-retailing and a rising number of music schools will also be key growth drivers,” he says. Yamaha is replicating its global Music Schools Program, and building partnerships with music schools here. A pilot project in Delhi, Gurgaon, Noida, Chennai and Bengaluru is currently on. 

Meanwhile, Swarup cannot wait to complete his MBA, by which time he’d have saved enough to acquire his dream guitars — a Gibson Hummingbird (₹3 lakh) and a Gibson J-200 (₹5 lakh). Who knows, by then, he could buy them for a song.