I’ve been running businesses for as long as I can remember. There’s a story my parents always tell of a teacher breaking up a fight between two kids in the playground and both kids pulling out a little bit of paper with “karate licence” written on it. A short interrogation of the offenders later and a 7-year-old me is in the headteacher’s office for, apparently, being a genius.
Ten Pence each I sold them for, exactly the price of a pack of crisps at break time. My punishment? I was put in charge of the tuck shop, running a team of 4, selling the crisps and drinks at break and doing the stock and take. We could learn a lot from Mr Patten.
The first business I ran that had anything to do with music was a by-product of being utterly fed up with the local music scene. Nobody wanted to book my band and I wasn’t willing to brown-nose anyone that potentially might, or ingratiate myself with the crowd, and so I did it myself with a little help from my friends. While all the other lads from college were playing Pink Floyd covers and acoustic renditions of “Working Class Hero” for the tenth time that night down the local pub, we had booked our own function room to play in.
We played loud, we shouted a lot, and we had songs like “Countdown to Love”; a brash punk late-night booty call from Richard Whitely to Carol Vorderman, which had a 2 guitar, bass and drum arrangement of the last five seconds of the Countdown clock as the middle eight. There was also “Rocketfish”; a song about a fish with a rocket pack backpack who fought crime and apparently “shall never be dead-ed”. And then, obviously, we did the classic local band stuff; For Whom The Bell Tolls, Teenage Kicks, Where Is My Mind, Turning Japanese…all that. We captured the hearts, minds, and spirit of fellow local moshers who were also trying to emotionally and physically navigate a deprived scouse spillover town filled with kids in trackies with names like “Danny Mac”, and drive-by abuse from happy hardcore hatchbacks with a hole in the exhaust. Zaney songs, fat riffs, fatter pants: our music brought them out in their droves. Our people were free and we turned our two-fish-and-five-loaves outfit into a steady diet of some of the best underground bands in the UK scene.
Before we knew what was going on, it had morphed into a walk-in crowd of 200-300 people every month. We had a police liaison, we were in national magazines, we’d made the front pages of the local papers for being a menace to society, and I had a full time job for 4 years. For any bands that were knocking around in the early 2000s onwards, Monsters Of Mayhem at The Quayside - that was me.
"The first night we set up where nobody would book our band": Marc, Soundlad Liverpool
From there, I have done equipment hire, studio consulting, live sound, dep’ing, function work…you just end up doing whatever comes up, and to be honest once you’re in, there’s no getting out. I’ve tried and here I am, 20 years later, writing a blog for a business involved in music about a business I run in music.
Most of the work I have done has been live sound, small venue stuff. I’ve mixed different bands of the same sort of genres in the same room (your “rock club” gig), the same band in different rooms (your “tour” gig), and then the same room with country one night and hardcore the next (the “live music venue” gig). You develop profiles in your head. A band walks in with a fiddle player, a lap-steel and 5 singers all holding guitars and wanting a mic, so you go, “right, ‘Callin’ Baton Rouge,’” and you apply that profile. I like to think of it as live production not sound engineering. It’s an imposition on the band at the end of the day but since there’s no objective route to a good sound - it’s bound to happen - you may as well bring something to the table. And you do, eventually. You start to develop a talent for being able to tease out the great things about the band you are working with that night; you learn how to present a cohesive and creative image that fits with the room for the people in it and eventually this becomes your reputation.
See, for most people there is a separation between your job and your hobbies, and music for the majority is a hobby. One night during the first week of a 72 consecutive night booking (with each night featuring three 45-minute sets), our singer was approached by someone who was in a band too, of course, who thought she lacked passion and should “give a little more”. And granted, when you have a further 65 dates ahead of you, your commitment to making sure you entirely encapsulate the spirit of Tina Turner in her version of Proud Mary at the start of your third set, four days into a 72-day gig may indeed seem a little lacklustre to the passionate amateur. The reality, however, for a professional is entirely different. Whether you like it or not, your voice has to last the course. Whether you like it or not, sound check is for 30 minutes and the doors will open at 7:30. Whether you like it or not, there’s other people’s livelihoods at stake.
Don’t get me wrong, nobody in this business got their job down at the local job centre or received on-the-job training from a conscientious supervisor. We all got into this for the passion and all through different means, but at the end of the day there’s a job to be done and the true professional hasn’t got time for all the indulgences of the amateur. The professional is married to their industry in a way the singleton amateur can’t understand - and that’s fine.
The Tandy Electronics Lab
In another one of these famous stories from my childhood, I put two wires from my Tandy Electronics Lab in the neutral and live sockets of my bedside plug, secured them in place with my Thomas The Tank Engine night light and blew every fuse in the house when I switched it on. My Grandads fault. He was a huge radio enthusiast and a bit of a legend in the amateur radio world; he taught me everything I know. I’m going to let you in on a little secret now. Ham radio guys are like the illuminati of the electronics world. They’re embedded in every facet of the electronics and signal processing industry. They have little ways of spotting each other, little emblems they wear, and they have code names that start with things like “G1”, or “M7”, or “2E3”. The headquarters of the Radio Society of Great Britain are actually situated in a hut in Bletchley Park which, for the uninitiated or anyone who hasn’t seen “The Imitation Game”, was a top secret facility during World War II where Alan Turing created the world’s first computer to help crack the German codes. Turns out if you can build a radio you can build anything, and everyone in the business knows this.
How To Start a Guitar Pedal Company
Starting a pedal company? It’s in there somewhere. In our first year-and-a-bit as a company, SoundLad Liverpool has built nearly 750 pedals, an absolutely cracking start and we appreciate every sale. But in a wider view, we’re still quite a small outfit. From what experiences I have had so far, I think I can probably do the old man thing and offer up a couple of pointers, but I certainly couldn’t give a definitive guide because I’ve got no idea how it happened! So for the “skip ahead to the good bits” types:
5 Things You Need to Know Before Starting a Guitar Pedal Company
Write things down – Ideas are the hardest part of any design. Ideas are the unconscious synthesis of your experiences. You are not responsible for the ideas you have. Every now and then you’ll catch a bubble that comes up from the region of your brain somewhere between where you go when you fall asleep and what some people might call God, and it will disappear just as quickly as it appears. Don’t limit your experiences. Go and see weird bands, avoid consensus, carry a book, and always have a pen handy to write things down before that bubble pops.
Just build – even if you have no ideas whatsoever, just build. Build a Tubescreamer. Build an MXR Distortion+. Find any schematics you can and just build them. Design PCBs for Big Muffs, anything, just build. Every circuit has something to offer. Every time you put that puzzle together you learn something. I personally never got caught up in paint finishing etc, I’m all about the circuits, but you never know - that might be the most rewarding part for you! In which case, offer re-fins to people for free. Just buy enclosures and practice, sell them on to circuit designers; there’s room for everyone, just build. Build pedals. Build your skill set. Build your experience. Build yourself, brick by brick.
There is no spectator gallery in a guitar shop – Listen and tweak your designs “in the mix”. You’ll be surprised how awful most guitar tones are when taken out of the mix and isolated. Find yourself some backing tracks where there is no guitar and play your design, but keep it in context. If you want to make a big fuzzy thing that’s tight up top but flubby and unruly at the bottom end then find the “profile” in your head, go “yeah ok, I think a Black Keys-y thing will work with this,” get a backing track that sounds like that and then play and adjust the pedal in context. Hit record and listen back to it, quite often you can be fooled by the sound of your guitar while it’s in your hand. In your DAW roll off with a nice natural shelf anything over 5kHz and anything under the crossover frequency of a set of subs - 100Hz is a nice ballpark - that’s the first thing any engineer will do. Now does it sit right? Eventually you will get a feel for what tones will “work” and which ones are just for the bedroom. In these testing scenarios having one amp, one mic, one guitar and one set of headphones you know incredibly well is better than having 10 of each that you barely know at all. Notice though, when I was talking about my perspective as a working musician, a sound engineer, and a promoter, I didn’t mention “tone” once. Electric guitarists are in quite a privileged class of musicians that are able to collaboratively sculpt their voice; tone is important, hugely so. Tone can and has defined entire genres of music and there is no underestimating how tightly intertwined the evolution of guitar tone and culture in general are, but if it is not integrated into the whole it is ultimately a detriment. There is no spectator gallery in a guitar shop.
You can’t learn how to swim from reading a book – At some point you have to build your first pedal. You have to. You’re going to look back at it in 10 years’ time and think it is garbage no matter what you do but don’t let that stop you. And when you have built that first pedal keep it and build another. Sell that other pedal for what the parts cost you. Build another and do the same. Sell everything you make. It doesn’t matter that it’s not masterful, you’ll get there. Along the way you’ll learn on a small scale learn how to manage stock levels, what people like and don’t, how to produce consistently, and you’ll be constantly informing your practise the whole time. Hopefully one day you’ll be in a position where you’ve got orders coming out your ears. Maybe you won’t, but wherever you’re at, you’ll have half a clue how to manage it. Grow organically. First impressions matter. You can intellectualise every aspect of everything and spend all the time researching this that and the other, but at the end of the day you can’t learn how to swim by reading a book and you certainly shouldn’t be trying to jump in at the deep end!
Be honest with yourself and others – I’ve worked in and around this business most of my life, and most of my friends still do too. The other half of SoundLad Liverpool, my brother, is an LSL Guitars artist. We grew up in “this”, we are “this”. I’ve swapped Hertz for Electronvolts these days and many of the hard skills from my sound engineering days are exactly the reason I have this job; signals is signals. But just as important are the soft skills I picked up along the way: honesty, tolerance, transparency. Be honest and upfront about where you are and don’t try and deceive people. A lot of people involved in music are emotional people. They tend to be very high in emotional intelligence and they’ll sniff you out if you’re a little rat. Know that everyone around you is on to you, whoever you are, and if you’re ok with that then proceed. If you’re all business, be all business. People like them need people like you; this is the “Music Business” after all - two words, capital “M”, capital “B”. But have a reason for wanting to work with people, be honest about it, and get on with doing it. Again, there’s room for everyone.
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