The Kala Brand Toy Fair booth
Among the first-timers at last month's Toy Fair was Kala Brand Music Co., maker of the Kala line of ukuleles.
"My focus is expanding the [ukulele] audience," said Dave Cafiero, Kala's executive VP. "I don't come from the music industry—and see a wide appeal for ukes outside the music industry."
Cafiero, who is based at Kala's Petaluma, Calif. headquarters, specified a "big surf market" for ukuleles, as the instrument, which originated in Hawaii, would naturally appeal to the surfing set. But he also noted that the uke "is an approachable instrument" that can be marketed by informing consumers that it has four strings with which one can make "100 chords with one or two fingers," and that it's affordable, in that American-made models cost as low as $40—and as much as $2,500.
Of course, the small ukuleles also have appeal in their portability, added Cafiero, who attended Toy Fair last year, but only to "walk the floor."
"The point is, a ukulele is not a toy that fits in with the concept of toys," Cafiero observed. "Play is education, and a ukulele provides a fun entry level instrument to learn on, as opposed to a toy. And it's scalable: You start out simple, and can become a virtuoso like [uke master/composer] Jake Shimabukuro."
Kala was launched in 2005 by Mike Upton.
"Mike was formerly a Hohner rep, and identified a need for an affordable ukulele in Hawaii," said Cafiero. "They went for either $15 or $1,500, with nothing in between. So he sourced out a $100 uke and gained a lot of customers in Hawaii. Consumer loyalty followed, and he expanded the line."
Himself a bass player, Upton also created Kala's small U—Bass. As for the company's ukuleles, Cafiero concludes, "We make sure they like our instruments in Hawaii. That's our business model: If customers in Hawaii like our product, we know it's a good product."