What’s Next for Fender Next with Fender’s Helena Ngo

May 2, 2023

Fender recently announced the newest class of their annual Fender Next™ Program. Fender Next is an artist development program designed to elevate rising musicians that are pushing guitar forward in music and culture. The program guides members through the ever-evolving landscape of today’s music industry with a mix of gear, opportunity, insight and exposure. Currently in its 5th year, the program has amassed an impressive track record for tapping into new talent with notable alumni like The Black Pumas, Little Simz, Foushee, Ambre, Melanie Faye, Kingfish Ingram, Nova Twins and many more. The program is a master stroke of genius with Fender’s growing market share with players who are younger and more diverse, especially women with the Fender Next Classes averaging about fifty percent women. The 2023 class includes 25 rising artists from North America, Australia, Europe, Asia and Latin America that span genres, generations, genders and backgrounds. The list includes Ruti, Adi Oasis, Jean Dawson, Bartees Strange and my new Spotify addition Chili Beans from Japan.  To learn more about Fender Next and what’s next, we spoke with Helena Ngo, Director of Artist Marketing at Fender. Take a look at the list to find your favorite new artist or if your draft pick made the cut.

Afropunk: What made Fender start the Fender Next Program?

Fender: Artists are integral to our mission at Fender, and it’s been that way since Leo Fender founded the company in 1946. He noted that artists are angels and it’s “our job to give them wings to fly,” which remains our vision today. From the products we design, to the stories shared in our marketing campaigns – artists and players from all backgrounds remain front and center. Fender’s role is to enable musical expression and amplify artists, and even better if those artists can inspire others. What Fender Next allows us to do is put the spotlight on players pushing guitar music and culture forward – those we’re excited by, see the future in, and know can inspire others to find their voice as well. 

Afropunk: What is the process for an artist to be chosen as part of Fender Next?

Fender: We have an open submission process for Fender Next. Artists from around the world and across any genre are eligible to apply to the program. The program has historically focused on newer, diverse acts from across the globe that are bringing something new to the sonic landscape and pioneering a path forward for aspiring guitarists. 

Afropunk: How are they chosen? Is there criteria? A submission?

Fender: From the nearly thousands of submissions we receive each year, we curate each class of Fender Next artists with a range of genres, cultures, regions, and styles represented. The common and crucial factor is that these artists have guitar as a core part of their musical identity. In addition, we love to hear boundary-pushing aspects of their sound with guitar being a key ingredient in that creativity. This is best exemplified in the talent we’ve empowered since the start of Fender Next in 2019, and have since seen them launch into critical acclaim and success. Artists like The Black Pumas, Little Simz, Kingfish, Omar Apollo, Ambré, Phoebe Bridgers, Nova Twins, Blu DeTiger, and more. We’re just as supportive of the journeys that artists in the 2023 class are on, which includes Bartees Strange, Adi Oasis, Ruti, Devon Gilfillian, Deyaz, Bratty, Sunset Rollercoaster, DannyLux, and Luna Li, just to name a few. 

Afropunk: Outside of the Fender items what do artists get for being named as a member of Fender Next?

Fender: We view ourselves as an extension of their team and are here to play an important role in their artistic and career development. That commitment is to support them in all the ways we can, from gear for their tour needs to amplifying them to our audience. We spend a lot of effort upfront in seeing where we can lean in to elevate them through the right marketing content and campaign opportunities, but that is just the start to the relationships we’re building for years to come. There’s even a dedicated Fender Next content series for Fender’s Tik Tok and Instagram channels introducing them to our audience – keep an eye out as the first one goes live this month!  

Another example is with ‘Fender Sessions,’ a social content series highlighting incredible artists from around the world via a live performance and intimate conversation. One episode featured Ed Maverick who is part of the Next 2022 class, and it racked up over 4.9M views. We did one with The Cavemen last year too, which was really great in showcasing the use of guitar in their fresh take on Nigerian highlife music. We also included several Fender Next alums in marketing of our products, such as our Player and Player Plus campaigns featuring Nova Twins, Blu DeTiger, Gabriel Garzón-Montano, Japanese Breakfast, and others. 

Afropunk: The first class was in 2019. From then to now how has it developed? Any things you have changed? Or refined? Perhaps what’s the biggest change from the start to now.

Fender: There were a couple of changes we made after year 1 of the program. One change was to reduce the class from 50 to 25 total artists. This helped us find greater focus and offer deeper support for the artists we select. With the first year of the program being pre-pandemic, we were also able to host a multi-day Fender Next activation at SXSW. In the years following, we had to rely more on social/digital and content marketing opportunities to launch Fender Next and support chosen artists. We look forward to exploring live events again in the future for Fender Next.

Afropunk: There have been a few initiatives similar to this like the XXL Freshman class for example, what makes Fender’s unique?

Fender: The Fender Next program is designed to create personalized, long-term partnerships with each artist. After highlighting them within the initial announcement, we dive into understanding how we can be a good partner to them over time – usually starting with how we equip them with the tools to express, create and perform. From there, it’s an open conversation where we understand their aspirations and where we can play a role that can yield in new opportunities only Fender can provide. This could mean helping share their story or music with a wider audience via content, aligning them to new collaborations with Fender or our brand partners that suit their goals, and essentially being there for them anytime guitar is present. 

Afropunk: What are the goals of the Fender Next initiative?

Fender: Simply put, it’s about promoting awareness of the best-emerging talent in guitar-driven music and being additive to their journeys. In some cases – like with Kingfish, we’ve seen Fender Next alumni grow into Fender Signature artists over time. What’s important to us is that we’re there from day one and demonstrating a tangible commitment to each artist. If we can give a platform to share their unique stories to our millions of social followers, showcase what makes them unique, and ensure they’re represented in the way they want with a Fender guitar in hand, we know we’re successful with Fender Next.

Afropunk: The Guitar market had a boom over the past couple of years. Social media has guitar players all over it. But there’s also technology, AI, etc. So where do you see the future of guitar going? And what role does Fender want the Next Program to play in that?

Fender: Guitar will remain one of the best tools for artists to convey artistic expression. We’re excited by the boom of guitarists sharing their art and building their presence online through the popularity of social media trends and communities like “GuitarTok.” It’s allowed us to discover amazing up-and-coming talent, and for players, it’s opened up the accessibility to learn from others online. Especially with how easy it is to learn how to play through apps like Fender Play. I expect we’ll continue to see artists’ creativity thrive as they find innovative ways to incorporate guitar in their recordings and performances. We believe those types of artists will continue to feed into the Fender Next program and inspire others for years to come.

Checkout the Fender Next Class of 2023 and a Spotify playlist of each artist’s top singles.