It's the downside with reading mainstream press articles that choose to deal with the 'rise of the humble ukulele' that they just tend to annoy me now. I see so many of them. Lazy journalism from the hacks with space to fill who overheard at last weeks party that this ukulele thing is quite the fashion... it's cool, that they are quick to fill their pages with articles that say pretty much nothing to the established player and provide bad advice to the uke curious. Are we going to see more of this in 2015? Is the 'uke boom' going to wane? Or can we be a little more positive?
It's 7 January 2015 and I have already read two mainstream articles THIS YEAR that jump on the bandwagon of flying the flag for the uke. Please don't assume this piece is one of those 'yeah but I liked the ukulele before it was cool' rants, it really isn't. I'm sat here writing what is a totally mainstream blog aimed at beginners and nothing pleases me more than promotion of the instrument. I don't want it to be cool only for the cool kids. But these articles to me, fell in to the typical lazy method of picking up general clippings from the world of media and just putting them together again in a different order. Saying nothing new. Continuing to breed the myths.
Jake Smimabukuro mentioned? Check! Reference to a small guitar? Check! And then there is the price thing.... One article loved the fact that 'ukuleles are cheap', even claiming it to be a 'good thing' that they could be cheaper than 'a Disney Frozen Playset'. Ugghh.. What is that about?? Sorry parents but if you want to introduce your little Jimmy to playing the ukulele then price should not be your top priority, and certainly not getting it lower than a lump of chinese manufacutured plastic aimed at filling the coffers of Disney... What happened to people realising that a musical instrument is a technical 'thing' that requires a certain amount of care to be made correctly? When do you see people wanting, no, 'expecting' a violin / flute/ guitar / saxophone for school practice at the price of a couple of McDonalds? You don't. In fact why are people not writing about that in anything other than the specialist media?
|Cheap junk, NOT actually a musical instrument in any sense!|
If the uke is selling as well as we are told it is (some stores saying they are outstripping guitar sales), then where are the articles that focus on the serious side of the good instruments?
Yet even by the close of 2014 the general market seemed to be stuck with the assumption that because the ukulele is small then it MUST be cheap to buy. (I'd just slip in at this point that a harmonica is even smaller and for a decent one you will pay more than you will for one of the glut of cheap bright Chinese ukes on the market..). Read forums and uke groups and you will see much the same from the new players. The questioning post of 'hi, I am looking to buy my first ukulele, and my budget is $25)....
At this point no doubt the internet haters typing fingers will be getting twitchy. How dare you tell us what to spend (i'm not), how dare you claim that you must spend top dollar on a ukulele (i'm not), My cheap Mahalo is superb (I'm pleased for you but many are not).... All I wanted to 'spout' at the start of another year was that, isn't it about time that the market started to help the new market in education on what these things are about?
As a prediction, I personally think things are going to get a whole lot worse for brand new players on this front. The Chinese factories will up their production and we are going to see even more £20 ukulele brands hitting the shelves and ending up in new players laps. Some good ones may get through of course (see footnote!), but generally speaking I would expect two main things will happen:
1. The majority will be put off by the horrible, thin sound, the tuning issues and the rough builds (at best) and never play them again - they'll put it down to experience and then the cycle just continues..
2. Those who want to commit to the instrument will buy a better one soon after. No bad thing you may say, but to me it just says 'a waste of £20 in the first place'.
But in the ukulele circles I move in (for what they are worth..) I do sense there could be a change coming. A great many people I know have been through this process and are now looking to upgrade quite significantly. Better put, they have worked out that a good intermediate instrument or above DOES actually bring more to the table than the £20 fans say they do. They DO sound better (sweeter, better tone, sustain, volume, build quality), but they also just play better. And not necessarily for top dollar either. There are some great starter ukes of high quality out there for about £100 upwards if you take the right advice. (And advice is surely something anyone buying a musical instrument should take right?)
So should we as players start exclaiming this fact - shouting from the rooftops what we learned from our development with the ukulele? Why the hell not? The uke community helps itself out in all sorts of ways and I have lost count of the times I have heard that it is the 'friendliest around'.
So if a friend is considering a uke, advise them carefully. When they raise an eyebrow when you suggest that there are better models out there if they spend a little more, explain why. When they say 'yes but I am just testing the water' explain that the £20 models may actually put them off without them ever really having experienced what a uke has to offer. Tell them that its a myth that they MUST be cheap. Hell, just tell them that they can't expect miracles for something costing a round of drinks in the pub... And music shops should also take note. My readers will know that I believe there are some superb music stores around who take the instrument seriously, but for every one of those, yet another music store jumps on the bandwagon and fills their wall with nothing but cheap nasty instruments. I was in a very well known music store with multiple city outlets only the other day and their uke selection was woeful. Some instruments I had never even heard of, and when inspected, pretty dreadful. In fact, a wall of ukes chosen to suit the price myth rather than playability and I think that is a disgrace. See one of these shops? Tell the sales assistant that you demand more.
As for wishes going forward, I hope to see more development from new players who choose to move into the realms of more professionally made instruments. Perhaps, even, we should call for 2015 to be the year of the Uke Luthier - they are not necessarily as expensive as most people believe they are and should certainly be investigated in my book. In fact they should be celebrated. For those with tight budgets, perhaps explore the extremely healthy world of the used ukulele where some bargains can be found without resorting to the cheap and nasty. To go back to my example above on violins and flutes, parents buying those for schoolchildren don't have the option of £19.99 violins, and rely heavily on the second hand market to get on the ladder (violins brand new are not cheap). Why not the same for the ukulele?
Or is it actually (and I worry this may be true) forever damned by shonky journalism, the 'toy' tag and the fact it's just a 'small guitar'. I certainly hope not, and here's to 2015 as being a year the uke really starts to get taken seriously as an instrument. It will need YOUR help to make that happen though..
(Footnote - really sadly I need to tail this with a health warning - this is just a blog - a place for personal thoughts, and there is really no need to get all 'enraged of Tunbridge Wells'. I am not telling anyone that they MUST do this or that, just musings thats all. If you want to fill your music room with cheap Chinese tat, then be my guest. It's your choice not mine..)