My recent interview with Jason DeSalvo of Fodera Guitars concludes with a candid discussion of pricing and their commitment to prioritize quality above profit. He also took the time to address my students, and artists everywhere, as we pursue a lifetime filled with music.
You mentioned pricing… I don’t want to dwell on that, but I think a common misconception is that the high price of a Fodera means you guys are raking in the big money.
Yep, that is a very common misconception. The reality is that Fodera’s first two back-to-back profitable years were 2011 and 2012 and we averaged around a 10% profit margin. So you are not getting rich building 300 instruments at a 10% profit margin. Realistically, 3½ or 4 years ago we raised the prices to a level that would allow us that margin because until that point, the business was either below or right at break even. Vinny, Joey, myself, and the staff take salaries, but they’re not exorbitant. If you look at Joey and Vinny and what they are in the pantheon of builders, they’re not paid an exorbitant wage at all. We hope to one day become more profitable as we grow, but we do everything in a very thorough, time-consuming and (therefore) costly manner.
All of our employees have fully paid health insurance and a 401k with a match that’s fully paid by the company. Real estate in Brooklyn is not cheap to lease. The materials that we use are extremely expensive. We go to our wood dealers and say that we want only the best. Even when they send us the best and charge us accordingly, we still send back between 10-30% of what they send us as being unusable. Some suppliers won’t tolerate that so we have to keep it and use it for firewood or throw it in the garbage.
There’s a very serious misconception that Fodera makes a ton of money. I was fortunate enough to have made my living in other businesses. If I wasn’t impassioned about this business — about bass guitar, and about what Joey and Vinny are doing — there’s no way I would have invested my money into this business. I knew that going in. I knew that it was going to be as much an act of love as a business act. The only way this business can make sizable dollars is with volume. It’s just not a high-margin business, no matter what segment of the business you’re in. Whether you’re building $200 knock-offs, or you’re building $10,000 Foderas, the reality is that the costs scale according to quality and building at this level is incredibly labor intensive. We have a lot of wasted material because we only use the best material. Our preamp is expensive, our wood is expensive, our bridge is expensive, but the biggest thing is labor. We have very skilled labor and we have a fair amount of it. So yeah… that’s a very common misconception and it’s really sad. There are a lot people out there in the camp of “Fodera’s are over-priced.” A couple of times we’ve been able to convince some of those people to come in and see the shop to watch Joey, Vinny, myself, and the team in action.
For me, tomorrow will start at 5:30 when I get in my car to beat rush hour. I’m in the shop by 6:30 or 7:00. I’m pulling woods for people, taking pictures for people, and sending those pictures to them. I’m completely covered in sawdust before most people have breakfast. Joey and Vinny usually get in between 7:00 and 8:30. They’re at their benches completely filthy and engrossed in work by 9:00. Our day is spent with customers, with wood, with pickups, electronics, and strings. Joey, Vinny, and me are all very actively hands-on. The thing I would say to anyone who thinks that Foderas are overpriced is, “Come spend a day with us in the shop. If you still think they’re overpriced at the end of the day and you just don’t get it, then Fodera’s not the right brand for you.” And that’s fine. But 9 out of 10 people that come to the shop are blown away by how labor intensive and how hands-on it is. I’ve not seen anything else like this in the modern age. You have to go back to the 1800’s or early 1900’s to see things being built this way.
We have a CNC machine now. We also have a PLEK machine, which is a CNC based machine. But the way in which we employ those things… there are certain things that machines can do, and certain things they can’t. Say we’ve got to cut out the shape of a body 30 times for a Monarch 4 Standard. The basic shape of the body, rather than doing that by hand on a jigsaw, is now done by a CNC router. As soon as it comes off of there, everything else is done by hand from that point. There are other shops that use CNC machines to get an instrument basically 99% done. But that’s just not our ethos. Every piece of wood is different and every piece of wood wants to be carved slightly differently. “This piece is a little heavier; we need to make it a little thinner. This piece, because of the grain pattern, we want to carve a little differently.” It’s especially that way with the neck.
In the summer, there are people who are working when it’s 105 degrees. In the winter, sometimes our shop is 45 degrees. It’s a lifestyle choice. It’s not something you do purely for economic gain. Some people just don’t get that. They think that Vinny and Joey are fierce capitalists that sit back and collect money, but it just isn’t so.
I have a lot of students, a lot of young people, who love music but for one reason or another are hesitant about making it into a profession. What advice would you give them about the challenges of pursuing a profession in the arts?
It’s a bit of a cliché but, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Now, the path to it is not necessarily straight, especially in this day and age — in a culture that doesn’t embrace art as much as I wish it would. There’s a very different mindset. You know, in Japan, Vinny and Joey are revered and their work is considered high art. Our Japanese customers never negotiate our prices. They basically ask how much it is and pay it. The American ethos is, “I can get a bass for $2000 that’s just as good.” It’s a very different cultural thing that we have in this country. It really is antithetical to art and art doesn’t always make sense economically. You don’t sit down to write a piece of music — at least if you’re a real artist — you don’t sit down and write a piece of music to get rich. You sit down to write a piece of music because there’s something that’s not complete if you don’t write that piece of music. That passion… you have to start from your passion. But you also have to be realistic with whether or not your passion will afford you a living. You may be an incredibly talented musician whose music is so “out there,” that no one digs it and it’s never going to be commercial. So you’ve got to figure out a way to have that be a part of your life, but still put bread on your table. You’ve got to be real with that. You’ve got to be open to the fact that your art is a necessity for you to make, but it may not be a vehicle for you to earn a living. And that’s the reality. I think we see that in our own industry, as luthiers. There are a lot of really talented young luthiers today, but how are you going to make a name for yourself? What are you going to do that’s different? Ok, so you can make a perfect knock-off Fodera, but you have to charge $1500 for it because if you charge more, someone will want the genuine article. You’re not going to earn a living that way.
Something about the arts in this country and culture… the arts are not supported. It’s not like Europe and even that’s beginning to change with the financial crisis. But you make your art because you have to make your art. I joined Vinny and Joey because I had to help this company survive. I felt that it is an incredibly important institution. I have sacrificed financially, fairy significantly so, to do it. I could have taken the money that I made in my other entrepreneurial endeavors and invested in something where I would’ve worked one-third as hard and made ten times, or a hundred times, as much money. But most days when I’m going to Fodera, when I’m at Fodera, and when I’m coming home — I’m smiling. If your ledger is only a financial one, most artists are going to suffer because most art gives you joy in many ways that don’t involve the dollar. So you have to be real with yourself.
For me personally, I was a bass player when I was 13. I was reasonably talented as a musician, but not exceptional. I made some really fun music that never became commercially successful. I went back to business school, learned a trade, and then was able to do something with music and the bass guitar later in life because I had laid that foundation. I did things that allowed me financial freedom, but there was always a part of me that felt like I was selling my soul when I was doing that. I was working, making good money, and really doing a wonderful business, but also feeling unfulfilled in certain aspects of my work. It’s hard. You’ve got to be true to yourself. You have to really look in the mirror. They’ve [your students] got to be themselves. What I would say to them is, “Ok, get some of Victor’s licks under your fingers, some of Marcus’ licks under your fingers, but then forget them. No one’s going to pay you to be Victor Wooten; no one’s going to pay you to be Marcus Miller. If you have any chance of making it in the arts, it’s because people want you to be you, and because what you are doing is different and unique. Be open to the fact that you do your art because it’s your passion and then think about the finances. If you are fortunate enough to do your art and make money doing it, then that can be cobbled together in any number of ways — you can teach, you can record, you can tour. But you also have to be honest with yourself if you can’t do those things. Think about how you can have art in your life, but still make a living.” I played bass most of the time that I wasn’t involved in the industry per se because I loved it. But I was under no illusions that I was going to buy a big house on the hill with my talent. I had to be realistic.
A huge thank you to Jason and everyone at Fodera. It’s been great working together on this interview. Hopefully, we’ll be able to work together again, but this time towards a new bass and/or guitar. All the best, guys. Until next time.
Be sure to check out all things Fodera, including their latest creations, at Fodera.com.
In case you missed it, click here for part 1 of the interview.