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by Sam Smith

Industry Types: Andrew Manning (Lyn McAllister Music)

by Sam Smith

Industry Types: Andrew Manning (Lyn McAllister Music)

In what can appear as a glamorous industry, where musicians, publicists and big label bosses garner a lot of the attention, often it is the somewhat overlooked aspects of the music industry that appear more interesting. Lyn McAllister Music has long been importing instruments to NZ for subsequent distribution to retail music stores, and have come to specialise in particular in Martin products and ukuleles. They have survived in a cut-throat industry despite the advent of the digital age and climate change affecting the building and importation of guitars. Sam Smith spoke to Lyn McAllister Music’s GM Andrew Manning, about the importing and distribution of musical instruments, and his time elsewhere in the music industry.

How did you get into instrument importing?

It was literally a part-time job advertisement in the paper. I have just celebrated my 25th anniversary at Lyn Mcallister Music, when I started Lyn McAllister [the founder] had the business, and there was her and two others, plus me. We were just operating out of a warehouse in Newton – and 25 years later that is where I still am. I took over the business from Lyn when she retired about six years ago.

Were you involved in the music industry before your time here?

No, but it is interesting that 1994 was when stuff did start to happen for me musically. So I had an interest in music, I had studied music at school but hadn’t really properly been in a band. I had discovered 95bFM, so I was getting into good music then. What I didn’t have was an appreciation of good acoustic instruments, which is what our speciality is. We bring Martin guitars into NZ, so I was a bogan and was into electric guitars and starting to play bass then. I literally just needed a job! I was a part-time university student on the way out and I needed income.

And you have been in the business ever since?

I have been there ever since! It was a wonderful company to have the opportunity to grow in. When you have got small numbers in a company everyone has to be a jack of any trades, and Lyn was really good at helping me grow in many aspects. So I got really good at the warehousing, and then after I got good product knowledge I became a sales rep. Once you start to see the people, you are dealing with customers all the time, that is when you are about ready to start taking on some management of the business.

What does your day to day role involve?

Lots of things. Again, it comes down to us being a small company, so depending on how busy we are. When you deal with customers who have monthly accounts you tend to have busy periods of the months and slightly less busy periods. So in the first couple of weeks of a month, it’s all hands to the pump. We get orders in and want to maintain our reputation as being a great wholesaler by getting those products out to the music stores quickly. So I chip in with that and answer emails. We tend to get supplier emails overnight, and if you answer those promptly you get prompt responses. I’m also out on the road quite a lot visiting stores throughout NZ.

What does the company primarily import?

In terms of dollar value of our inventory at any given time, there is a lot tied up in Martin guitars and Martin strings, that is the big one. Another really big aspect of our business is ukuleles – we’ve been importing Kala and Makala brand ukuleles from the Kala company for about 12 years. Those are very big aspects of our business in terms of turnover.

Do you think the fact ukuleles have become so popular is because more schools have started teaching ukulele?

I think in NZ we are perhaps even gone beyond that, where the introduction of ukuleles into schools is in a wider sense bringing in a ‘stringed instrument’ to a school. So I think learning a ukulele which is easier than a guitar, you are kind of set up to be able to learn guitar as well as, not instead of, a ukulele. But having more ukuleles going home with the kids meant that mum and dad and the family generally started to think that ukuleles are a nice way to have fun together.

When I look at our range of ukuleles, we do sell a lot of what you would consider being school models, colourful, small, cheaper, but we do great business with better quality ukuleles and slightly different sounding ukuleles with different back and side wood; skinnier, pickups so you can plug them in, and stuff. That’s why I love the Kala range, because there is something for everyone.

Has business increased over the last few years in terms of the number of imports that are coming into NZ?

It fluctuates, it really does. So as a wholesaler you always want the stock to sell. But in terms of being a good wholesaler, who is a good businessperson, you want to make money on each shipment that comes in. So timing your shipments is an interesting thing, you don’t always have all the possible range in stock all the time. It can actually be better for your GP if you hold off on that – which is something I have had to learn. When you’re out sales repping you always want the stock so that you can look good for customers – so that you can always say, ‘Yeah, we can supply that.’ But being considerate of cash flow by spacing out orders is something that I have to take into consideration.

How does the process work in terms of the instruments being shipped out across NZ?

It is as simple as having orders, or sometimes having un-filled back orders. We take the order, we say thanks, stock pick the requests, invoice them and send it out by courier. We have got one of the better reputations I think for getting products out to the shops fast.

Is there is still plenty of store-based demand for instruments?

Yes. A little advantage that we have – in regard to the Martins is that Martin guitars are a handmade item. Some of those guitars can take up to four or five months to build because they are on a production line in the States, or in Mexico where some models are made. And when you get to that level, even if it is the same model, two D28s say, are not always exactly the same. They are not facsimile copies, they have been made by hand, and have perhaps had different people working on different aspects. Online buying circumvents the sort of traditional distribution model that we have, where our supplier goes to a distributor then to a retailer. But I think at the high end of acoustic level, people really want to know what it is they are getting before they drop five grand on it, so we still have an advantage in that sense.

In recent times there has been talk of a shortage of the required wood to make a lot of guitars due to things like climate change. Is that a concern to your future business?

Oh yeah, there are issues around sourcing of wood and where it comes from and depleting stocks, and it is a concern for all guitar manufacturers, absolutely. The have grouped together and formed alliances and established groups that deal directly with owners of the forests where the wood is coming from. They also spend some time and money in lobbying various governments. But I will stick up for the music industry here – for the most part it is not the music industry that has depleted stocks of these rare and exotic woods – but we are certainly affected by it.

There is a huge amount of paperwork that goes through the crossing of any borders with flora and fauna under the Cities Agreement and my suppliers have got very good at ticking all the boxes and making sure everything is ready to go because it is an intergovernmental thing as well. Using Martin as an example; they deal with the US Fishing and Wildlife Service. We have got DOC and MPI and there is a little paperwork exchange that goes on and involves people in the middle. It costs a bit of money, but it means that you can continue to do business, which is what we are about.

Looking ahead, do you think people are going to continue to want to buy and play physical instruments rather than making music on computers? Do you think there is always going to be that space?

I think that the digital aspect will continue to grow and will be coming up with things in 10 – 20 years where the nucleus of those ideas is only just forming now and that is absolutely the way technology is going to develop. But I don’t think it is necessarily a digital future instead of acoustic instruments or traditional instruments. Electric guitars have been doing a pretty good job for 60 years and acoustic guitars go back to nylon string guitars in Spain, over 200 years ago.

Anything else you would like to add?

I feel like I am very lucky to be working in an industry that I love. I’m also very fortunate to work with wonderful and very capable people, critical in a small business in NZ!

I’ve always had an interest in music and I knew I wanted to do musical things but didn’t really know where I’d fit. I didn’t know that this aspect of it was going to nurture that interest and make me feel satisfied and interested in all the aspects of running a business like this one.

At various times of my life I’ve had other musical hats to wear but now at my age, mid-40s with a family and with a business to run and all the considerations that come along with that, I think I am in a good place and a happy place.

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