Ulster Firm Hopes to Call the Tune on the Global Stage; If Music Is the Universal Language, Then One Local Company Is Making Sure That, by Making Superior Musical Instruments, It Will Become a Universal Favourite. as DEBORAH DUNDAS Reports from Canada, It's Already Well on Its Way
Byline: DEBORAH DUNDAS
IF YOU'VE not yet heard of a Lowden guitar, just wait a few years. The Newtownards-based Lowden Guitars, operating since 1987, is becoming known as much for its quality as it is for the stars who are using it - Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan among them.
If the overnight success that took 20 years is a clich in the music industry, it's one that Lowden happily reflects. The Lowden guitar was first developed in 1974. But after a licensing deal with a Japanese company and a failed effort by the inventor of the Lowden guitar to manufacture it, the current company bought the license to manufacture the guitars. That happened in 1989. But by 1998, it needed a new management team. Part of that team was Steve McIlwrath, Lowden's general manager. Over the past four years, the company - and the reputation of the guitar - has grown rapidly.
"Our growth pretty much mirrors the growing trend for acoustic guitar music," says McIlwrath.
"You'll probably recall there was a trend for "unplugged" music (music that didn't rely on amplifiers and other electronic means)." It was part of a trend towards acoustic music, that was given a boost, surprisingly, by the new-age movement.
"The new age genre exploded in the early 1980s, and was led by acoustic guitar music, particularly finger-style acoustic guitar music. When it started to gain more of a profile, the whole genre really revived itself."
In 1998, when the new management team came in, the company decided that it was going to push seriously into the North American market.
"Our immediate focus was to revive our presence in North America," says McIlwrath.
"It's the most important market in the world for musical instruments. There's no accurate data, but most people reckon it accounts for 40 per cent of the world market. There's a high level of musical instrument ownership and musicality."
Plus, he says, success in North America sets a trend. "If a brand succeeds in North America, it instantly sets a profile for Europe and Japan."
Asians, he cites as an example, look to American music magazines for the latest trends.
But the roots of the music, like this guitar, is in the UK.
"From way back in the early 1960s people like John Renbourt and Bert Jansch were leading exponents of what was termed folk music - with a strong emphasis on finger-style guitar. An offshoot is Celtic finger-style guitar. That brings us to North America, where there is a renaissance on the East Coast of Canada."
He says that pursuing the North American market "was a strategic decision. …