Outside the Glare of the Spotlight
A look at the careers of three alumni making waves in the music products industry
For many people seeking a career in the music business, the goal is to become a performer, but a closer look reveals that for every artist who has made his or her mark onstage, there are countless others who play vital behind-the-scenes roles. Now more than ever, trained musicians are finding and developing satisfying and creative music career paths outside the spotlight. The three alumni featured in this article, Johnny Rabb '95, Tom Love '82, and Micah Solomon '82, have focused their talents on providing musicians with the tools of the trade. As the following illustrates, it takes a bit of thinking outside the box and sometimes a bit of risk-taking to succeed.
Johnny Rabb: One for the record books
Over the past four years, Johnny Rabb's ideas went from sketches on a piece of paper to the founding of johnny raBB Drumstick Company in Toone, Tennessee. They have become a competitive force that is turning heads in the drumstick field.
Rabb grew up in Carmichael, California, and pursued a dual major in music education and performance during his Berklee years. "My studies enhanced my career in a way that I never thought they would," said Rabb. Following graduation, he was offered a teaching position at the Driscoll School in Brookline and had to do some soul searching. "I did not want to turn down that job, but I really wanted to play. Being 22, I also knew that if I didn't try to work as a professional drummer, I might not ever get a shot at it."
Rabb returned to northern California and worked there with a few groups but soon realized the need to live in a music hub. He relocated to Nashville, and within six months, he had started playing with such artists as Tanya Tucker, Hank Williams III, and Billy Yates. After a short time, he turned his attention from performing to trying to get an established company to put out a signature model of the drumstick he had invented.
Rabb dubbed his creation the "RhythmSaw." It has deep grooves along the length of its shaft that can be used to imitate sounds made by deejays and for effects fitting for hip hop, jungle, and Latin styles. He shopped his single prototype stick around to 15 or 20 companies who all turned him away.
A friend ultimately introduced him to Gerald Hooper, a lumber-milling professional in Tennessee who would become Rabb's business partner. The timing was perfect; Hooper's company had been looking to diversify beyond selling hardwoods to manufacturers to making an end-user product.
"Our first meeting was fantastic," said Rabb. "Gerald's family has been in the lumber business for over 100 years, so he is a great person for me to work with. He came out to hear me play, and he looked at the RhythmSaw and decided to go for it.
I think he saw me as someone who could come up with new product ideas and get out there to demonstrate them." Hooper started the drumstick company from scratch. Rabb describes their first facility was little more than a hay barn. The company now occupies a 40,000-square-foot factory stocked with high-tech machinery and operated by a staff of 30.
"The RhythmSaw was our first model," said Rabb. "It took a while to get the tooling right, it was nine months before we could make a perfect stick every time. We have a great advantage because Gerald's family company, Hooper Lumber, owns acres of timber. We are the only drumstick company that starts at the tree. Every other stick company buys dowels."
Hooper's expertise and resources were critical to Rabb. As the company's CEO, Hooper manages the logistics and has designed manufacturing technology and processes for the company. Rabb is the company's creative force who generates designs and assists with the marketing efforts through clinic tours and artist alliances with other companies (Evans Drumheads, Meinl Cymbals, and Drum Workshop). Company president Ed Sargent, who is a drummer himself, rounds out the team.
"In the beginning, Gerald, Ed, and I each got on the phones as part of our marketing campaign," Rabb said. "I learned quickly what to do and what not to do when trying to get our products into the hands of distributors and retail stores. We proved ourselves at trade shows and conventions and by distributing videos. Now a lot of people know about the company and our products."
According to Ed Sargent, johnny raBB Drumsticks has agreements with six of the largest distributors in the United States, giving them access to virtually every domestic music store. RaBB products are also available in 50 countries across the globe. After starting with a single innovative stick design a few years ago, the company now offers 100 different models including a standard drumstick line, brushes, mallets, and marching drum lines.
Rabb's prowess as a drummer proved to be a tremendous marketing boon to the company. In April of 2000, Rabb was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's fastest drummer for playing 1,026 single strokes in one minute. Setting the record generated publicity that got Rabb on VH1 and coverage in drum magazines.
Rabb is still the most visible man at the company. "I do over 100 clinics each year," Rabb said. "My role is to get out there. Some of the bigger events like the Montreal Drum Fest and the Percussive Arts Society International convention give us great exposure." Among the other projects that have helped include Rabb's book called, Jungle Drums 'n' Bass (Warner Bros Music), instructional videos, and a Johnny Rabb signature line of cymbals made by the Meinl cymbal company in Germany.
Rabb works primarily out of the company's artist-relations office in Nashville, but he also goes to the factory a few times a week. "It's funny to be on the other side of things now," said Rabb. "We get flooded with promo packs from drummers. Now I have seen both sides. A few years ago, I was the one sending my package out to companies." To date, the company has 150 endorsers, including heavy hitters like Jim Keltner.
Rabb couldn't be more satisfied with the way things are going. "It was exciting to look a recent issue of Drum Business magazine and see that our products were in the listings of what's hot in music stores" he said. "To, me that is kind of like opening Billboard magazine and seeing your record on the top-10 charts. We have a good buzz going on, and I want to see this thing go through the roof." For more information, visit www.johnnyrabb.com.
Micah Solomon: Creating an Oasis
Micah Solomon is another alumnus who found his place in the music-products and services sector. After nearly 11 years in business, his company, Oasis CD in Flint Hill, Virginia, is one of the largest independent-oriented CD manufacturing facilities in the nation.
Oasis manufactures an average of 62 titles a week for independent recording artists and labels in various genresjazz, folk, urban, and more. Like most entrepreneurial types, Solomon felt he could create a better product than he saw others making. It should be noted that Solomon's fortune to be in "the right place at the right time" was directly related to his willingness to change directions to seize an opportunity.
In 1988, several years after he left Berklee where he majored in piano performance, Solomon was working at various temp jobs. He had dreamed of opening a recording studio and maxed out his credit cards after making the decision to invest in recording equipment. "I realize now that doing it with credit cards could have been a disaster if things hadn't worked out," he said. "But the studio was successful right off the bat." After a few years of operating the studio, he found that details beyond his control were affecting the quality of his final product. "We would make great masters and send them off for duplication only to be disappointed with the results we got back," he said. "It made me start thinking about moving into the duplication business."
At the time (circa 1990), cassettes made up a larger part of the duplicating business than CDs, so Solomon bought a bunch of tape decks and a few computers for graphic-design work and went in a new direction. By 1992 he had closed the studio to focus on CD duplication exclusively. Back then, he only had two other employees, both of whom were also musicians. Now his company employs 32. This spring, he will move out of the two buildings which the company presently occupies in Flint Hill and move into a 13,500-square-foot facility in nearby Sperryville, Virginia.
From the beginning, Solomon had his sights set on the national rather than a local market. He had taught himself about business and advertising by reading books and applying what he learned. He had read that many large corporations estimate that up to half of their advertising dollars are spent on efforts that have little impact.
He decided to make each dollar count. "We spent all of our budget on full-page ads so we would appear bigger than we were," Solomon said. "We didn't do a bunch of small ads in a lot of places, we bought a few full-page ads in bigger music-trade-publications. After that, we really tracked the responses to learn where our customers were coming from." Solomon's calculated risk paid off, and business started pouring in. Soon, word of mouth among his satisfied customers became his best advertising.
One factor enabling Solomon and Oasis CD to attain a profile in the duplication business is his sensitivity to the nonmusical needs of his clients. Oasis offers a range of services to provide artists who produce their own CDs with a final product that both looks and sounds great. In addition to options like single-speed glass mastering for audiophile sound quality, Oasis offers graphic-design services, various packaging options, and items such as bar codes and top-spine stickers that make an indie artist's CD ready to be sold by retailers.
He also offers to do more than deliver 1,000 or more retail-ready CDs to his clients and wish them luck. For those who don't know what to do next, Solomon gives his clients a jump-start in marketing and distributing their CDs. Oasis produces CD samplers by genre in the categories of alternative, urban, acoustic, blues, country, world music, rock and roots, and jazz.
The samplers are sent to hundreds of radio stations, and each artist with a song on the CD is provided with a list of stations that received the sampler so that they can follow up. Oasis offers distribution to all of its clients through web-based businesses like CD Baby, CDNOW, amazon.com, and Barnes&Noble.com [bn.com], and Buy.com. CDs by Oasis clients can also be entered in a database that is a resource for many national retailers.
For those who might someday become music products entrepreneurs, Solomon counsels, "Nobody cares more about music than musiciansnot fans, nobody. I've found that if you deliver a truly great product, musicians will care about your company and will seek you out."
To learn more about Solomon's company, visit the company site at www.oasiscd.com.
Tom Love: Hidden talents
Keyboardist Tom Love has worked for seven years as the electronics marketing manager for the Kawai America Corporation. He majored in jazz composition and arranging at Berklee and returned to his native Georgia shortly after completing his studies.
"After I relocated to Atlanta," Love said, "I soon found the music scene there wasn't as vibrant as the one in Boston. So I started teaching at a music-retail outfit called Southern Keyboards and did sales part time."
Love and his employers recognized his hidden talents in the marketing and sales area, and he moved into it full time. "My first sales at Southern Keyboard were to my students," he said. "I was recommending the products to those students in whom I had a personal interest. I mostly sold Kawai products because I owned several Kawai instruments and was very positive about them. Throughout my sales career, my approach has been to treat all of my customers as if they were students or parents of students." It was through Southern Keyboards, a large Kawai dealer, that Love made initial contact with people in the Kawai management strata.
There were a few other stops along the way, though. Love took a job as a consultant to Kodak when they wanted to launch their photo CD players and did freelance work in the music industry traveling around the country to major musical instrument retailers. Love helped organize large retail campaigns, trained their sales staffs, and did in-store promotional events. His skill in marketing and producing larger events grew over time. "I did a major campaign for the Kurzweil K250, their flagship sampler and workstation unit in the early 1980s," recalled Love. "It was a huge launch and we ended up selling a lot of product. It was a big success."
Love worked as a sales rep for Roland Corporation before joining the Kawai staff in 1995. During his tenure with Kawai, the company has seen its brand gain currency and several products that Love has worked on have won awards.
Part of his role is to get involved at the start of the development of a new Kawai product. "Those responsible for marketing and sales are in from the very beginning or may even propose ideas for a new product to the research-and-development staff," he said. "The company's engineers will come to the States from Japan to meet with me and my team to figure out the specifications, price points, operation, and enhancements for a new product. That way Kawai can make products that we know will work for American musicians.
I explain to people that if someone were to come to me with a question about making kotos for Japanese musicians, I'd have no idea what they want in an instrument. But when it comes to digital pianos and other products for the North American market, I know that area intimately."
Love's experience in music-synthesis classes and recording sessions has helped him in his work with hardware and software engineers in product planning and design meetings. "My experiences at Berklee come into play almost daily," he said. "That's where I developed my chops, my ears, and my musical sensibilities to a high level. I learned about recording, programming synthesizers, and getting experience with the music technology which enables me to talk to the engineers. If a sound is not right, I can tell them that they need to balance the digital oscillators, resample a sound, or work on the filters. I can communicate with the developers and engineers as well as professional musicians in our artist program. They all know that I'm not just a sales guy."
Love says that being involved at many levels keeps his work exciting. "I'm not locked into only one aspect of the business," he said. "I have an active role in all of the phases of what Kawai does with electronic instruments. I see it as a big circle. Ideas about what is needed come from customers in the marketplace and then go to the salespeople and dealers. From there, the research-and-development cycle begins in Japan. It then comes back to us as a finished product. We get it to the dealers, who finally take it to the customers. I follow the process from beginning to end. It is very challenging and is not just sales, marketing, or product development; it is a synergy of all three."
For those wanting to work at a musical instrument manufacturer, Loves says that knowing about gear and possessing musical ability helps. However, you should also develop personal skills and public-speaking abilities. "In this business, we want people who can demonstrate products effectively and who can help develop music data like samples, demos of songs, and data used inside the instruments, like registrations, instrument patches, and memory setups. There are all kinds of things we need people for, so there is a wide range of opportunities for people coming out of Berklee."