Ukulele Boom Generates Global Sales for Hawaii Companies

Some local companies turn to Asian manufacturers to meet demand

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Photo: Courtesy Hawaii Tourism Authority

Four or five times a year, Mike Upton closes the door in Petaluma, Calif., and flies to China to check an operation that’s making several hundred-thousand Hawaii-inspired ukuleles a year.

Originally based in Hawaii, Upton moved to California but maintains a distribution center in Honolulu for his Kala Ukulele brand. The company has grown in six years into a multimillion-dollar business that produces 120 different models, and ships them to 20 countries.

“We have big markets in Europe and England, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong … all over the world,” Upton says by phone from Petaluma. “It’s probably grown five or six times over – 500 or 600 percent. That aloha spirit definitely translates well in any country.”

Ukulele sales are growing so rapidly that NAMM – the 9,000-member National Association of Music Merchants – started tracking domestic sales two years ago as part of its global sales report. U.S. sales jumped 16 percent in 2010 over the previous year and the organization expects a similar increase this year.

Photo: David Croxford

“Ukuleles are a hot ticket right now,” says NAMM marketing and communications director Scott Robertson. “The popularity of the instrument continues to surge. There are quite a few popular artists including ukuleles in their music and people are responding to that. Plus it’s a less intimidating instrument, very portable, and easy to get started and play your troubles away.”

The humble “jumping flea” instrument migrated from Portugal to Hawaii in the 19th century and has since become identified worldwide with the Islands’ musical heritage. Long-time Hawaii manufacturers, such as the prestigious Kamaka Hawaii Inc., continue to build only in Hawaii, but many other brands have outsourced some of their production to China, Indonesia and elsewhere.

Koolau Guitar & Ukulele, a respected 20-year-old Hawaii producer, added a line of imported instruments five years ago. Shop manager Noa Bonk says the company tries to use wood that is grown in the country where the instruments are made but also imports other types of wood.

“In China, we use maple. In Indonesia, we use mahogany, which grows there, and acacia, which is a form of koa. The Koolaus we build here we have koa from Oahu and the Big Island, and then we use maple from Washington and myrtlewood from Oregon. It’s almost like ordering a custom guitar.”

Photo: Courtesy Hawaii Tourism Authority

Ukulele sales have been so robust that many manufacturers haven’t been hurt by the economic downturn.

“We didn’t really see a recession,” Upton says. “As a matter of fact, it got more popular the worse the economy got. It could be that people are spending less money on expensive toys and more on inexpensive hobbies, and doing things that are more engaging and less costly. It doesn’t cost much to play the ukulele.”

Even with overseas operations, manufacturers struggle to keep up with demand. Upton says he can’t get enough instruments for his distributors. “It’s now going into Russia, the Middle East, Africa, Israel. … And it keeps growing,” he says. “It’s gone way beyond what everybody thought it was limited to.”

Another respected local brand, the Kanilea, has expanded some of its production to China to meet demand, and is constantly looking for new production sources, says owner Joe Souza. He says he hopes to make contact with manufacturers from Thailand and Korea during a fall trade show in China.

Currently, Souza says, standard orders to distributors have a five- or six-month wait, and maybe three months for custom orders.  “We know we could sell 10,000 a month if we could get them.”

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