By Amanda Julius
In all corners of the borough ukuleles are flying off music store shelves faster than you can say Tiny Tim, leaving bemused salesmen wondering why.
Explanations for this wave of increasing sales are manifold, ranging from recession-chic to the death of rock n’ roll. The spike in ukulele popularity comes after a steady incline that has snowballed in recent months, sending sales in some stores to 4 or 5 times where they stood this time last year. At Williamsburg’s Main Drag, on Wythe Avenue, ukulele sales leapt from $519.21 per month to $1960.45 from October 2008 to October 2009, with growth also recorded in later months. Sam Ash in Flatbush estimates they have sold 80 percent more ukuleles in the past few months than in recent years, although exact sales figures are not available. Stores in Mill Basin, Midwood, and Boerum Hill report similar statistics.
Brooklyn is part of a global trend, according to Mike Upton, the owner of Kala ukulele company in California. Sales at Kala, one of the ukulele world’s biggest brands, were up 70% in 2009, and look set to rise again in 2010. “I’ve had this company for 5 years and been playing for over 10 years,” Upton said. “Now it’s become more on the radar for a general audience, its come out of the underground. New York is experiencing its own kind of little movement.”
In early December, an 11-hour performance of The Beatles’ entire back catalogue at Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Bowl attracted close to 3,000 fans who descended on the neighborhood en masse, leaving cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and discarded grass skirts in their wake. In true Williamsburg style, the performance was billed as a benefit for Warren Buffet, the richest man in the world.
Not all interest has been ironic, however, and for the small ukulele economy it has meant big business. In Manhattan, the last week of January was the busiest and most profitable in the history of the New York Ukulele School in Midtown, and last month’s lessons were up 15 percent on January 2009. After beginning uke lessons in January to accommodate growing demand, Shane Chapman of the Brooklyn Guitar School, on 4th Avenue, has only one complaint: his students can’t get their hands on enough ukuleles. They are often sold out at the nearby Brooklyn Guitar Center.
Experts point to three possibilities for this sudden wave of interest. Ken Bari Murray, who will curate New York City’s Uke Fest in May, and Mark Michaels, owner of the New York Ukulele School, believe Japanese guitarist Jake Shimabukuro set the trend in motion 3 years ago. “You don’t know anything about ukulele popularity unless you know about Shimabukuro,” said Murray.
When Shimabukuro took his ukulele to Central Park to pay tribute to fallen Beatle George Harrison in the summer of 2006, the recording he later posted online went viral, pushing up ukulele sales for the first time in 70 years. Shimabukuro’s influence goes some way to explaining the distant roots of the recent boom, but as the sales figures show, it is the past four or five months that have seen the most rapid growth even within that 3-year period. The google trend map for the search term ‘ukulele’ shows that there has been a steady increase in search volume since Shimabukuro’s uke debut, but significant jumps in 2009 suggest other influences at work.
The economy is also a convincing explanation, as the uke’s popularity coincides with the recession, and the 1930s show a precedent for this trend. Ukulele prices start at just under $50, making the instrument very affordable for those looking to save a buck, and its reputation as a less serious alternative to the guitar make it a popular pick-me-up. Recession scrimping helped raise the ukulele to its peak popularity in the 1930s, when bluegrass took off, and for many the instrument is still associated with that period. At the same time, the profile of folk music has grown rapidly in the past few years, edging the traditional rock n’ roll instruments out of the limelight for new players.
According to Upton, the ukulele fits the recession perfectly. “It’s just very inexpensive,” he said. “You can spend under $100 and have a quality instrument.” Kala has changed its marketing strategy to capitalize on the spurt in sales in tandem with the recession. “We’re trying to get the ukulele taught in schools, we’re doing a big push,” he said. “Schools have had budget cuts and they’re looking to cut costs, the ukulele is a perfect instrument for that.”
The ukulele is “depression-friendly,” agreed Park Slope musician Ellia Bisker, who runs a burlesque-themed ukulele night in Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theater. “There’s even a joke from that era about being so poor you’re paying for your ukulele on the installment plan.”
Even Warren Buffet bears out this explanation. In an interview he gave to the organizers of his Brooklyn benefit, he offered his take on the uke’s connection to the recession.
“As soon as the stimulus fails and the tax cuts fail,” he said, “the ukulele will make an appearance.” It already has.