During a five-day music festival in the Indian tourism capital of Jodhpur, Spring Valley businessman Greg Deering received a great deal of attention just walking around with one of his signature banjos.
Musicians from across the country approached him to admire the banjo, not because they enjoy American bluegrass and Dixieland music, but because it was similar to the drumlike string instruments used in their own folk traditions.
The couple’s recent three-week sales trip confirmed two things he and his wife, Janet, already suspected: International sales have the potential to be a big part of their company’s future—and they need to start manufacturing a low-price model Greg has been developing for the last 10 years.
Overseas demand accounts for about a fifth of Deering Banjo Co.’s sales of more than 10,000 instruments per year. With greater focus on markets in India, China and Europe, Janet said, international sales should rise an additional 15 percent.
Several efforts may have to come together before that is likely to happen — including a cultural shift in India and establishment of a new production facility or two.
Western European musicians have embraced Deering banjos in recent years, partly because of surging interest in bluegrass. The Deerings also credit the work of United Kingdom dealership Eagle Music, which sells some 600 banjos per year — far and away the largest among independent dealers carrying instruments made in Spring Valley.
“The banjo is booming!” Eagle Music owner Steve Noon said in a written statement. More than 200 banjo players and their friends attended an Oct. 22 celebration hosted by the dealership and joined by the Deerings, he noted.
“We have held the banjo event here in the U.K. for the past 10 years and have noted that each year there has been a progression of more youthful players attending the event,” Noon wrote. Eagle sells to musicians in England, Europe and elsewhere around the world.
China is shaping up to be a lucrative market for Deering, as well. The country’s growing middle class has taken an interest in bluegrass, Greg and Janet said.
They recalled a crowd forming around Greg as he played banjo at a recent trade show in Shanghai. People were video-recording him with their cellphones.
“Being an American in China playing an American instrument, it drew crowds,” he said.
India is another case entirely. Although the country is home to millions of wealthy individuals who could afford to buy one of Deering’s high-end banjos, priced at upward of $2,000, the poverty afflicting most Indians means they would have to settle for a model priced around $100, or about a fifth of the company’s lowest-priced banjo. And that doesn’t exist — yet.
A $100 Model
Banjos tend to cost more than guitars partly because they feature hard metal pieces used for tightening the skin of the instrument’s circular drum. For years, Greg tried to come up with a less expensive design. He ultimately succeeded with a product for which he recently secured a patent.
Making the $100 model is a separate matter. Greg said it probably wouldn’t be feasible to produce the instrument at the company’s 50-employee factory in Spring Valley. Although he hasn’t ruled out opening a second plant in San Diego County, he is scoping properties near Tucson, Ariz., where the couple is considering buying a ranch for weekend getaways.
That might not even be enough for the company to keep up with demand. If the Asian market grows as the company anticipates, Deering might need to open a factory in India.
“Just the sheer economics of it could require that,” Greg said. He emphasized the company has no plans to close its existing plant.
Sales activity doesn’t support that kind of move presently. While the Deerings were encouraged by Indian musical instrument distributors “repeatedly” asking when the $100 model will be ready, the couple sees plenty of work ahead in promoting the instrument.
Planting a Seed
During October’s sales trip, Greg and Janet gave one of India’s best-known musicians, composer Ehsaan Noorani, three Deering models in an effort to promote the instrument. Their hope is that he will use them to record music.
The Deerings insist they are not out to change Indian music, only the instruments with which it can be played.
The country’s oldest stringed instruments date back more than 1,000 years and are often played with a bow. But such instruments are gradually losing favor as the country adopts more Western tastes, Greg said.
“It’s just time for the modern banjo to take its place,” he said.
During their trip to India, Greg and Janet received an invitation to have dinner at the home of a man whose foundation exists to preserve the country’s music and traditional instruments. That evening the man performed for them using an instrument he had built himself.
The performance convinced them their task is not to replace traditional music but to introduce new sounds.
“The old music is wonderful and the new music is wonderful,” Greg said.