- POPULAR TUNES Ukulele sales are expected to top $20 million this year.
'It's just gone ballistic, worldwide," says Mike Upton.
Don't worry, he's not talking politics, he's talking ukuleles. Upton is the founder and owner of Petaluma-based Kala Brand Music Company, which sells and distributes handmade ukuleles in over 50 countries today. "It's really a global thing," he says. "Which is crazy—nobody saw it coming."
Nobody, except for Upton, apparently, who founded Kala Brand in 2005 to specialize in introducing high-quality ukulele instruments to music lovers from Iceland to Israel.
Upton grew up in Sunnyvale, when "there wasn't much there except apricot and cherry trees," he says. He played music from a young age, and in 1989 moved to Hawaii to play professionally there.
During his five years in Hawaii, he saw the roots of ukulele's popularity growing. He also met and married his wife, and when the couple moved back to the mainland in 1995, they relocated to her hometown of Petaluma.
Upton started selling instruments through Hohner and spent a decade watching ukulele sales steadily climb. By the time he founded Kala, ukulele's revival was just getting started. He estimates ukulele sales will surpass $20 million this year alone.
For Upton, the miniature, nylon-stringed instrument's success is no mystery. "It's fun to play, it's a happy sounding instrument and it's easy to learn," he says.
Learning a new instrument can be daunting at any age. But there's no break-in period for a ukulele, making it an unintimidating introduction for many budding musicians.
"It's also a real community instrument," says Upton. "People love to get together and learn songs from one another and sing. There's no big pressure to be a professional musician to hop in. That attracts a lot of people."
While a large part of Kala's business involves working with state-of-the-art factories in Asia, Kala also employs a division of crafters in Petaluma who hand-build custom-order ukuleles that often incorporate exotic woods. In addition to their North Bay headquarters and a warehouse in Hawaii, Kala recently opened a location in Ashland, Va.
As sales begin to spike for the holiday season, Kala's extensive catalogue—which also includes bass ukuleles and acoustic guitars—can be seen online or at any independent music store in the North Bay. Tall Toad Music in downtown Petaluma carries a wide selection of Kala's ukes. Prices start at under a hundred dollars for some models.
Kala has also developed an online program that quickly teaches new uke owners proper technique and popular songs. "Everybody can be a musician," he says. "And we're into making more musicians."
For more info, visit kalabrand.com.