Bob Newby - An Interview with a Different Kind of Guitar Hero
With all the Wiki pages, Google Searchs, About pages and other aggregators of information on the web, one would think that locating a highly qualified repairperson or a noted luthier would be a fairly simple process. Think again! Tracking down one of these craftsman can be more cumbersome than trying to learn a Fernando Sor piece, playing left-handed (for our many right-handed brethern) while missing the low "E" string of your guitar. Okay, that may be a bit of hyperbole to prove the point but the truth of the matter is, there isn't a single destination where one can research luthiers (instrument makers) and repair people and better understand, who they are, what they do, where they are located and what are their services.
Enter one Bob Newby, software architect, software engineer and guitar practitioner. He came up against this very issue and decided that he could do something about it. Bob took a few minutes to sit down with us and chat about LuthierBuilt.net, his endeavor to bring crafts people and musicians together.
Guitar.com: Tell us how you got started with the whole notion of Luthier Built.net?
Bob Newby: Well, I became involved with this in effect due to a prolonged disability of my wifes’, where I stopped working. I’m a software architect and software engineer. I had been working for a start-up that develops financial software. In a nutshell, it became apparent that I needed to be at home and doing whatever I could in order to help her through this. It was very tough at times and during one of the toughest phases, I said “Bob, you gotta do something for yourself.” So I pulled out of the closet, sort of a student grade, Taiwanese-built Yamaha classical guitar that I had acquired back around 1980. And it had been sitting in the closet, you know, as I think often happens with people who are young, start doing something and then life and making a living happens. In many cases, these types of things get dropped and so I found myself an instructor, about my age and it was really nice. But after a while he said to me “you know this is really not that bad of a guitar, the woods are great but there are a couple of things I would change, like, I would change the plastic nut and saddle with bone. And maybe put some new tuners on it. So I ended up doing a little scouring around on the internet. I found a guy who is an expert repair and restoration person for acoustic steel string guitars and I had him do the work.
My instructor, Lance, went over to check the instrument before the work was finished and he told repairperson, he said “this is all wrong.” This was the first part of my learning curve. The repair guy knew steel string guitars but they’re not the same as a classical guitar. The saddle wasn’t shaped properly and then there was the nut. In terms of string height and whatever, it wasn't quite right so Lance had him change it. By the time I got it back it was fine. And then I acquired a vintage handcrafted instrument, an old Yamaha from their custom Taiwan operation but it needed a little bit of work. But I was reluctant to take it back to the same repairperson. So I started my odyssey of trying to find someone to do, just some minor restoration work on this instrument. I’m fairly expert using the Internet but I’m not heavily plugged into the musician community, however, my instructor is because he’s been doing this all his life. He’s into the Boston Classical Guitar Society and everything in eastern New England. And neither of us were able to come up with the name of somebody. Finally I called Stephan Connor, a very famous classical maker, and he says “why don’t you get in touch with my apprentice, Toby (Rzepka)?” And Toby was just setting up shop in Portland Maine, and he ended up doing the work. When I talked to Toby I said “It was really hard for me to find someone to do this” and he said “Bob, it’s really hard to get going in this business of being an instrument builder.”
So, I started thinking to myself, I need to make a living where, my wife and I can be working from anywhere, meaning over the Internet. I have a certain skill set and this particular little problem that I had, can’t be particular to me, number one. Number two, I started to realize, because I started to ask people I’d met that had played instruments recreationally, I’d asked “if you were going to buy a new instrument, what would you do?” Unanimously, they said that they would go to a store, you know, like a chain or I’d go to a catalog online. But nobody said, “you know, if I had the money, I’d go find a luthier but most of them had never even heard what that is. Because I asked them – “do you know what a luthier is?” And they’d look at me like – some of the responses I’d get would be – “is that someone who makes lightbulbs?” – “Do you mean a Lutheran?” (laughs) I’m not kidding you. And I started to see that there was certainly a near term issue, which is that there is no master resource for easily finding people, even if you know you’re looking for them. And especially if you’re not one who’s “in the loop,” like being a wine enthusiast, as this is very similar to sort of being into wine.
So the majority of people although may appreciate fine wine, may not know that’s its available and they have this mythology in their minds that by definition that if I work with an artisan, in particular if I’m looking to get a new instrument, that if I work with an artisan by definition, it’s extraordinarily expensive. Which depending upon the person may or may not be the case. And it’s not always the case and yet the quality can be very good. Plus, I began to perceive much like wine, when you think back, 2 or 3 decades ago in North America there was very little widespread awareness of small-scale winemakers and now there is.
So I said to myself, “I think I can make a difference.” I think I can catalyze a shift where more musicians are aware that they have an alternative to stock instruments. And that that difference won’t appeal to everybody but it will appeal to those individuals who also value the notion of having a collaborative, creative relationship with a builder. So that was kind of the nexus or the crystallization of this idea and at the same time, I was doing some reading on social media. It just really came to me, the economics of the industry, they’re changing – of all industries, small business, small people have much more power of their reach to communicate their message because of the technology that’s available today. So the idea came to me,…..it’s put together a platform that’s content-based. In other words, it has good content. The content is contributed almost 100% by the members of the platform. And it’s essentially a collective marketing platform, so collectively makers have a voicd that begins to pull up to some degreee with those larger companies that have larger marketing budgets so that’s the gist of it.
Guitar.com: That’s certainly introduces a very unique resource to a community that in one sense, isn’t even aware of the value of your site. There will be a need to blast your message to a broad audience but the focus of the matter is that this information is really for a much narrower audience, a micro-focused market. That's become a very important element for websites.
Newby: Exactly, when I was starting this process, someone said to me right off, so basically this is a “hyper-niche” not just a niche but a hyper-niche.
Guitar.com: Well you’re certainly right in that regard. I can’t think of a place to go to gather the knowledge necessary to research something like, getting a guitar built for myself.
Newby: This is that void that I want LuthierBuilt.net to bridge basically. Luthier Built should be viewed as a site or as a community. I think it would be ludicrous of me to think “hey let’s put up another instrument makers forum or a musicians forum.” Or try to replicate the activities of those who put on events like the Montreal Guitar Show or whatever. I think it’s filling a different space that compliments all of those. It has a natural relationship to all of them. And with the site, I don’t want Luthier Built to get involved with the transaction or engaged with their customers. I just want it to be a marketing vehicle because when I flip through the various publications, it’s arduous looking for somebody. And I feel I can bridge that with a business model that for an instrument maker or maintainer or restorer, their annual cost, if they acquire just one new build customer a year, they’ve more than paid for the service.
Guitar.com: That’s very interesting. Have you ever heard of Gbase.com?
Newby: No, I don’t think so.
Guitar.com: Gbase is known as the Musicians Gear Resource and they focus largely on Vintage, Used and New gear of all sorts; guitars, amps, basses, EFX pedals, sort of the full spectrum. But they has a very similar model in that, they have a dealer base of about 350 dealers and they purposefully stand outside of the transaction. The concept, not unlike yours, is that they want to match buyers with sellers. Provide the mechanism to find what you’re looking for and then remove themselves from the process, allowing the seller to work out the details with the buyer. So now that you’ve got the site live and you finished the rebuild we talked about back in October, yes?
Newby: Yes, we completed that a little while back.
Guitar.com: So how are you planning on getting your message out to your audience?
Newby: I’m still wrestling with the issue of messaging, although I’m starting to get traction with the help of some people that you know (D’Addario Strings). There are two audiences to reach; one audience is the paying customer. And primarily those are folks that I’m looking to obtain “premium” memberships, that’s the marketing-oriented membership. There’s another audience behind the scenes that I don’t know if it will ever gain traction over the longer run, but it’s a community membership, kind of oriented towards student makers and things like that. But I’m not focused on that even though the technology is in place. The site is centered around groups as well as around a directory. There are two directories on the front end that anyone can browse what’s called the Luthierie Resources. And that might be extended to include handcrafted accessories but those are all driving off the same information. Behind the scenes there’s another directory which drives off more peronsal information and it expands both the premium members and the community members. So there’s a directory where people can find one another very easily and at the same time, you must be familiar with Linked In, yes?
Guitar.com: The networking site? Yes, of course.
Newby: So much like Linked In, they have groups but the groups...uh.....well not to criticize Linked in groups but let’s just say Linked in has groups. However, their groups are much more viable than Facebook’s attempt to do groups. Facebook groups are just another big wall as where the Linked In groups really ARE groups where you have membership and people can discuss things. So behind the scenes there is that community capability where if you’re a member, you can create a group, just like on Linked in, you can control it. You can say anyone on the Lutheir built community behind the scene can join this, without me intervening or at the other end of the spectrum, I need to totally control the group, in fact, you may not want anyone to know that the group is even in existence except for those who are members of the group. I might want to have a group because I’m talking to Baker Rorick (organizer of the Woodstock Guitar Festival) or a builder about details of a guitar he's making or, let’s say, about something, some project let's say and we’re just using the technology as a way of having our discussion all in one place. Technically it's very simple. So that’s what’s behind the scene, again, whether or not that ever gains traction, I don’t know but the capability exists today and it’s used to a modest extent.
But getting back to your original question about, how am I getting my message out, there are two constituencies out there, instrument makers and maintainers and restorers but mostly I’m focusing on instrument makers right now. And that’s all stringed instruments of any kind. The other audience is musicians and that’s the harder nut to crack. I’m a sole proprietor and I don’t have a huge budget. So right now I’m doing a little advertising but to be honest the key is the contribution to the Lutheir built site in the way of content. If you look at statistics on social media venues, they say, there’s a great book by Clay Shirky called Here Comes Everybody but generally it’s like 20% of the members of a site are very active. They can say “Luthier Built not only allows me to put up a business profile which is my core thing. It’s analogous to a print listing in the Strad but richer. They can go in an edit it anytime but I can also publish events of my own cause I might be holding an open house. Or within my constituency’s area, let’s say, I build classical guitars as well as viola da gamba’s and there’s this great viola da gamba concert going to be held in my area. Well I’m going to put it up on Lutheir Built as an event, not that I’m hosting but that my fans know about and they I’ll push that out to my Facebook wall etcetera. So you can publish events and each premium member has their own blog. They can create as many blog entries as they want just like with any blog they can go back in and update it an existing entry and open it up for commentary and respond to comments. Therefore the key to gain traffic from musicians to the site is not so much advertising the Luthier Built name as having rich content because I can tell you that Google is very heavily indexing this site, very aggressively.
Guitar.com: So in other words, people doing prelimary searches for resources on Luthiers or builders should appear higher in Google’s rankings simply because you’re the only game in town so to speak.
Newby: That’s right. So if you go into the site and click on the “Find By Instrument” menu listing, that’s going directly into a formal Taxonomy from a classification scheme for instruments and if you click on any of those names, at whatever level, you bring a search mechanism on the site and it’s got all content with different weighting attached to different content types but it’s basically indexing all that content. Every piece of content that’s using tags for example, like “type of instrument,” Google’s hitting those too and following through on the tags and that’s why there’s been so much traffic to the site so far.
Guitar.com: There are all sorts of Guitar shows, vintage shows, classical congresses, the list goes on and on. Have you given much thought to taking your message to the street?
Newby: I’m certainly thinking about going to one or at least several. I’m at the age or even when I was younger, I’m not that great of an event person but there’s certainly some possibility that I’ll show up at A.S.I.A. (Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans) or at the Montreal Guitar Show or maybe even Healdsburg (Guitar Festival) and I’d love to get to an event in Europe. But there are two practical constraints; one is finances and the other is that mostly I don’t travel independently from my wife. So reaching out to musicians while I’m chipping away is establishing some informal co-marketing partnering arrangements with other venues that are strong destinations with musicians. For example there is one that’s fairly new – that’s called Mandolin Moments. I’ve been talking to the guy who runs that. The California Bluegrass Association has a site, maybe I’ll get a regular blog on that site or maybe what we’ll do is take an approach where if there’s enough decent content in the nature of blogs on the Luther Built blog site, that can be syndicated out through an RSS feed. But I don’t really know yet what’s going to work on the side of getting attention from instrument makers, I think the traction is beginning to happen naturally.
Guitar.com: We attend quite a few shows around the country in fact, we have the Dallas Guitar Show coming up in just a few. You should check that show out – you can find it at www.guitarshow.com
Newby: Excellent, I’ll add that to our calendar on the site. We’re still building out the events calendar as a resource so I’ll add that. But further to the question of marketing, I’m starting to get some small co-marketing arrangements. I’ve had a discussion with some organizations about how to become more integrated with their efforts. So I think we’ll get some reasonable co-marketing relationships, mostly in-kind, which in effect allows that person to have on the site a premium membership but also a partner listing. Partner listings aren’t public yet but I’m looking to have that menu in place which enables them to have presence on the site and be easily found. However I think on the musician side, that’s just going to take time.
Guitar.com: So how will you broach your business model with regard to advertising? Will this be more of media based site or will you limit that to your partners only or...?
Newby: I can give a quite rich partner presence on the site and I can’t expect anybody else to match the nature of the presence but on the other hand, the other sites have a different kind of traffic. That’s a key tactic that I’m going to continue to persue. This is not a site where you’re going to see random link listings. So the site is free of advertisments. And that’s for one of two reasons; I can only deal with so much complexity personally and I really just want my financial metric to be very simple and that is I’m meeting the need of my core customers. So that would be my one revenue stream. But on the other side of that, it’s to provide a venue to musicians that is an oasis from all the sites that have all the ads popping up from all over the place. And that makes a very subtle difference over time.
Guitar.com: So how would you depict your traffic to date?
Newby: Thus far traffic to the site, if you look at a time slice for the last 30 days, and this is pretty indicative, geographically more than half of the traffic is coming from North America. That was an objective right from the start that the site be an international site. The same is true about current membership on the site.
Guitar.com: How many members do you currently have on the site?
Newby: Currently the number is approximately 100 who actually have business profiles in place.
Guitar.com: Where do you see the site going over the course of the next year or three?
Newby: If things continue to go reasonably well, by this time next year, I think the site will not only be just stringed-instruments. I’ve had several conversations with tonewood suppliers who have said the exact same thing happens for makers of woodwind instruments or all these independent artisans out there. So it will continue to have the same name and all that but essentially I’ll be doing a fairly simple thing to extend the instrument taxonomy. That’s really all that’s involved. That’s the big thing for me to be putting in motion over the next year or so.
Guitar.com: I think the unique thing that Luthier Built has going for it is, you have a sought after value proposition. There’s only so many resources for Luthiers to promote their skills out there and yours is a dedicated model. That has to give them a very unique incentive.
Newby: Those makers who understand the social media proposition and there’s a huge number of them out there who do. They're already on Facebook constantly putting up photo albums of their new instruments but Facebook doesn’t provide them with the mechanism where anyone can find them. Let alone where they can collectively have a way to convey their message.
Guitar.com: Well it's very exciting to hear about your new site. We wish you much success and we’ll do our best to spread the word amongst our audience.
Newby: I want to thank you for reaching out and setting up interview up along with many others within the industry. Without that help and encouragement……well it’s really hard, what I’m trying to accomplish, it’s really hard.
Guitar.com: Very best of luck Bob and keep in touch!