When Matt Joule took over as MD of Aria Distribution in May this year, sceptics wondered if he had accepted a poison chalice.
It’s not that there was anything at all wrong with Aria’s own products (save a puzzling lack of promotion), more that the distribution side of the company had seemed to drift for some years, with a proliferation of brands which, though often interesting individually, hadn’t always taken the market by storm. It had, moreover, lost several of those, following the departure of the previous MD, Martin Hartwell, to Rosetti.
But word in the trade suggests that Joule has steadied the ship well since his arrival and a sudden, noticeable, increase in marketing activity hints that Aria is fighting back. Joule has a good background for the job, having been an experienced sales representative with one of the industry’s best run distributors, Barnes and Mullins - a good background from which to re-launch the Aria name.
Time to speak with Matt Joule and find out how he has found the new role and what are his plans for the long-established distributor.
Joule is frank about the challenges he faced. “I always felt Aria was a neglected line in the UK. It was a line that few talked about, apart from a few hardcore dealers and yet for no good reason - it just hadn’t been marketed and given a profile.”
Aria, first established as Gigsville by the late Pete Tulett in the mid-1970s, made its name by what were, at the time, two novel features. The first was it sold affordable Japanese made guitars that were frequently better than the American equivalents of the era and, more importantly, it employed a luthier to set-up every instrument that left the warehouse. Suddenly, British retailers had high quality, affordable, guitars that were playable out of the box - and to say that was rare in the 1970s would be a gross understatement. Within a few years, Aria was one of the country’s top-selling brands.
Joule says that the quality of setting-up is one thing that hasn’t changed however. “Lee Burt, our guitar tech here, still sets-up every Aria guitar that leaves us. I know from my years out on the road that dealers haven’t got the time to set-up guitars. It all comes back to how the guitars feels when they take it out of the box and decide whether they can put it on the wall and sell it. If it’s not set-up and if you keep sending out guitars that need setting-up, it just doesn’t do your reputation any good.”
One of the first things Joule did when he joined the company was to start looking for new brands and first two that he settled on were both ukuleles.
“We’ve taken on two uke lines. Eleuke Peanut ukuleles is a line that FCN had and which has been fantastic - we’ve sold everything that we’ve ordered from them to date, and the other, called Eddy Finn, again, from the off that has been fantastic, with really positive results.”
The explosion of uke sales in the UK is one that no retailer us going to have missed but Joule feels it’s part of a wider trend and makes an interesting observation.
“The ukulele market has caught a lot of people in the industry unawares. It’s not a market that one would have expected to take off at all but it has and it’s part of a wider change. I thought it was quite telling that it was the electric guitar show was cancelled recently, but the acoustic show was a success and that should be telling everyone that there has been a definite shift in the market from the Rock and Roll electric market to acoustic and folk-based products.”
Can readers take that as a hint that he and Aria - already on record saying it is actively looking for new lines to distribute - will be focusing on this sector?
“I think we will stay true to the core of electric guitars but it’s sensible to start backing the acoustic market quite heavily, because that’s the direction it’s heading in. Certainly, the sales of acoustic guitars show no sign of slowing and the spin-off from that has been the uke market.”
Aria has an edge here, too and it’s one Joule is keen to stress. With the world and his wife jumping on the acoustic bandwagon, unknown brands can struggle to make their presence felt in a crowded marketplace but Aria, with a reputation stretching back to the 1950s and having had a presence in the UK since the Seventies, has been a round a long while, so is a name many will be familiar with. It’s an edge that helps the Aria stockist, he says, along with the fact that Aria isn’t one of those brands that suffers heavy discounting.
Another line that Aria has taken on is TKL, the gig bag range, so gradually the gaps are being filled, and Joule is moving ahead with his plans to re-establish the company.
“When I started here I said to Japan that I felt that Aria had spread itself too thinly across some fairly vague lines. Our intention now is consolidation and our focus is on Aria products with the intention of building-up the Aria brand again and then back the lines that we’ve got. With the current market conditions you have to be careful that what you put into the market is relevant and that you can afford to stock it - and if you can’t do either of those things you have to ask yourself whether lines are worth continuing with.”
Confirming that, in common with most in the industry, business dipped during the Olympics, Joule says, though it has picked up since he feels, as a trade, that we still have some adjusting to do.
“We have to face facts that we’re trading now in a market that will stay like this for a long time and we just have to get used to that. Some things just won’t bounce back. Retailing has changed, the route to market has changed, the way that consumers buy products has changed - all of those things are processes that we now have to work round - the biggest factor being the way that the consumer is buying products. We have to respond to all these factors but I still believe there is very much a place for the bricks and mortar retailer, for the customer who wants to go out and pick up a guitar or uke or whatever and actually feel it in his hands before buying.
“There’s an awful lot of goodwill towards Aria from retailers. I believe it’s a well-liked company that has never mistreated people and has always tried to look after retailers. I think that counts for a lot. We try and support retailers as much as we can and give them a good product that’s ready to sell.
“We haven’t, as a company, advertised ourselves to the end-users but that’s something I’m going to change, so that both the retailer and the consumer will get to know Aria better. Things are changing. If you haven’t seen reviews of Aria products, you will now and you will see advertising with a higher profile than we’ve had.
“A retailer will only back a product if they see the distributor is backing it too. He only has a few minutes to grab somebody’s attention: he hasn’t got time to start telling them who the company is - that’s our job”