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The Music People founder Jim Hennessey (center) with co-Presidents Sharon and John Hennessey.

The Music People Marks
40 Years

How ingenuity and a fearless determination to find solutions turned a fragile start-up into one of the industry’s leading suppliers.

FOR YOUNG JIM HENNESSEY, the first light bulb moment came during a late-’70s concert headlined by Crosby, Stills & Nash. Through the years, more concerts brought more artists and more light bulbs, some of them later realized as innovative products from The Music People, the company he founded in 1979 and now runs with his daughter and son, co-Presidents Sharon and John Hennessey. The company now holds more than 15 patents, and the On-Stage name is trademarked around the world. Combined, The Music People’s various On-Stage brands, TMP Pro Distribution, and thriving OEM business chalked up 23% growth in 2018, with global sales in the neighborhood of $60 million. Not bad for a company, now 40 years old, that barely made it past five.

Following an apprenticeship as a jet engine metalsmith at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, in 1970 Jim became a sheet metal draftsman for Kaman Aircraft. Assigned to a project for the company’s Ovation Guitar division, his talents caught the eye of Charlie Kaman, and soon he was transferred to Ovation. There, his broad range of technical and creative skills suited him to many roles including product development, marketing, artist relations, and tradeshow booth design.

Among the rewards from his time at Ovation, over the years Jim established strong relationships with many industry manufacturers. One that would become pivotal years later was Schaller GmbH, whose pickups and other parts were integral components of the Ovation guitar design—and whose advertising Jim had created.

But the Ovation gig’s greatest perk was how close it got him to many of the world’s top artists. By the time he was officially in charge of the company’s advertising, Jim was spending countless hours roving from backstage to foot of the stage, soundcheck to encore, delivering guitars and rubbing shoulders with acts including Pink Floyd, the Doobie Brothers, Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, and more than 300 others. The experience gave him an invaluable perspective on the challenges performers face at the most critical moments. And it aligned perfectly with his engineer’s mind, always analyzing inefficiencies, inconveniences, problems…and devising solutions.

That’s how it happened at the Crosby, Stills & Nash concert, where throughout the performance an ungainly parade of guitar techs, lugging one guitar at a time, on and off stage, dissipated the show’s energy and momentum. Hard-wired to see how things could be made better, within days Jim had devised a way to securely stage and carry multiple guitars at once.

Though it was disappointing at the time, fate was actually smiling when Kaman management declined to help Jim develop his multi-guitar stand idea. That rejection ultimately motivated him to start his own company, tapping levels of focus, passion, and commitment that perhaps only a family-owned business can inspire. With Jim leading the creative efforts, the venture was joined by industry veteran Tom Fay, whose strengths were in finance. Together, they launched The Music People in 1979 with a war chest of $25,000.

Lessons learned from top performers like Paul McCartney have informed all of Jim Hennessey’s subsequent years of product design.


Getting started, Jim ran the business on a shoestring—literally out of his basement. When the double and triple guitar stands proved too expensive to manufacture in the U.S., he moved production to Japan. And in short order the company introduced the Tune-Up guitar tuner, the Drumfire five-channel analog drum synth, the Hotwire guitar cable with an anti-“pop” switch, and the first A-frame guitar stand designed to hold either an acoustic or an electric.

But despite Jim’s fertile innovation and brisk pace of product launchings, the business side of the business was struggling, and several forces nearly killed The Music People in its infancy. First, the yen’s soaring exchange rate made the products it sourced in Japan too expensive for the market. Meanwhile, U.S. interest rates had climbed north of 15%, depressing consumer spending and making operational capital, not to mention dollars for capital investment, expensive and scarce. These obstacles exacerbated a more fundamental challenge: The Music People hadn’t achieved critical scale or cash flow, and after four years it was $375,000 in the red. Adding insult to injury, the company’s signature multi-guitar stands, left unpatented, were soon copied by other manufacturers. (Insisting that this wasn’t a rookie mistake, Jim explains, “I didn’t have enough money to put a patent on it.”)

Though Jim’s real genius was in product invention, around 1982 the company sought to improve its cash flow by launching a parallel venture in pro audio distribution. He called on his old friend René Schaller, and The Music People became one of a small number of importer/distributors of Schaller products for aftermarket sales in the U.S. Around the same time, with help from pro audio veteran and Music People Sales Manager Buzz Goodwin, Jim convinced Shure, whose U.S. distributors at the time were buying a very limited selection of the microphone giant’s models, that his company would take on the entire line. Working with a marquee brand like Shure yielded numerous benefits. Extended payment terms provided positive cash flow and precious working capital to fuel the import operation. After starting with Shure, The Music People began importing the full lines of Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, Neumann...eventually totaling a dozen top-tier brands and earning a reputation as the industry’s microphone expert. The acclaim was backed in part by Jim’s years around Ovation artists and in countless conversations with their sound techs. “We knew every mic and every application,” he recalls.

Microphones represented the ideal start for The Music People’s fledgling import business. Small and lightweight, they kept shipment costs manageable despite the “double” shipping—from manufacturer to distributor and distributor to retailer. But over time, in addition to winning over dealers, the company’s renown as a microphone expert attracted a broader range of pro audio specialists to join its ranks. This growing talent pool encouraged The Music People to expand more comprehensively into loudspeakers, amplifiers, mixing consoles, and other related gear. This evolution was codified in 1985 with the launch of TMP Pro Distribution, whose portfolio has grown to more than 200 of the industry’s most respected brands. “Kudos to our employees,” says John, “for leading us into the full range of pro audio, and for earning that market’s respect.” Meanwhile, as TMP Pro’s line card grew in both scope and stature, it became a one-stop resource for its growing dealer base, including smaller independents who needed to fulfill all their pro audio needs on a single skid.

One of the first electronic guitar tuners in 1979.


Stopping The Red Ink

Along with stanching the flow of red ink and stimulating the company’s sales, the distribution initiative was instrumental in establishing The Music People’s own brands. Cold-calling retailers who had never placed an On-Stage stands order became much more fruitful when the company could also sell them Shure SM57s and 58s. Over the years, that halo effect flipped, Sharon points out, as The Music People’s reputation for fast, fair, and reliable service made relatively untested brands more appealing to prospective buyers.

Back in the ’70s, while Jim’s wife Ann was home looking after their two oldest children, Sharon and John often joined Jim at his office on weekends. They recall roaming around Ovation’s offices, the sharp smell of the company’s fiberglass guitar bodies, and pretending to be employees, intercom-ing each other—with Sharon issuing reprimands such as “I told you to get me that report an hour ago!” Later, at The Music People’s “headquarters” in their basement, they licked stamps for company mailings and stamped “battery not included” on Tune-Up Tuner packaging.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in special education, Sharon attended her first NAMM show. After spending that week staying up late to watch rock bands, sleeping in, and spending leisurely hours by the hotel pool, she declared she was “ready to join the industry.” Reality hit soon and hard after she joined the company full-time in 1989 and her duties included singlehandedly unloading a 40-foot container (John points out that in the family business, “everyone did everything”) and going on the road to visit retail stores, set up for grand openings, and generally represent the On-Stage brand.

Taking a more deliberate path to the company, John studied finance in college to complement his father’s strengths in product innovation and creative marketing. After graduating, he joined The Music People in 1991 and began a critical analysis of the company’s structural challenges.

Among other rewards, Sharon’s retail store visits honed her eye for merchandising. Her hands-on experience informed her ideas about On-Stage packaging, which, through working with her father, evolved to be recognized with awards for its aesthetics and functionality. On-Stage was a pioneer of “silent salesman” packaging that both caught the consumer’s eye and provided the information customers typically ask retail staff. And thanks to the boxes’ attractive color graphics, retailers often staged them on the sales floor, quite a departure from stashing the then-standard brown boxes in back storage areas.

After being with the company for just two years, Sharon moved to California to open a West Coast distribution center and sales office. Though she started with virtually no experience in sales and no clue how to build a sales staff, she gradually cultivated relationships with several major retailers. It was there that she first contacted Larry Thomas and Marty Albertson and “began to answer some questions for Guitar Center.” In addition to supplying its On-Stage branded products to GC—a triumph unto itself—her savvy answers also eventually led to an agreement to OEM some of the retail giant’s private label lines. Combined, these developments thrust the Hennesseys into a different league of suppliers, with all the attending rewards and responsibilities—and a very steep learning curve.

Their baptism by fire came with Guitar Center’s opening order of 32 ocean shipping containers of On-Stage keyboard stands. At the time, neither GC nor The Music People had a distribution center large enough to warehouse an order of that size, and GC had provided no store distribution breakdown until the stands were already “on the water.” Tapping his still nascent business skills—and perhaps a little hereditary ingenuity—John developed a software solution that allowed The Music People staff to quickly scan and affix a shipping label on individual boxes as they arrived at the Long Beach, California FedEx terminal. Only momentarily intercepted, the boxes were immediately turned around for shipment to individual GC locations. The Music People Director of Product Development Josh Berger suggests that the resourcefulness and poise on display that day could serve as the company’s current m.o. “We see an opportunity, and we don’t let obstacles stop us,” he says. “We find solutions; we do what it takes to serve our customers. That’s been true for the entire history of the company.”

Risk Management
The Music People’s grace under pressure has been tempered repeatedly over 40 years, not least through its high-level OEM operation. “As an OEM supplier to some of biggest brands in the industry, we’re exposed to a fair amount of risk,” Sharon explains. “When something we may know nothing about pops up, we have to become the experts to ensure that our OEM partners are completely risk-free.” As an example, she cites the company’s professional response to “Prop 65,” California’s Safe Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, quickly addressing the Act’s complex compliance requirements and reformulating its brands’ materials to ensure that they contained no harmful chemicals. With such high-profile companies, she continues, “you can’t have defective containers or something go wrong. They’ve come to expect that when they put something into our hands, we’ve got it covered; we’ll manage it; we’ll run through walls to come up with solutions for our customers.”

When Sharon returned to Connecticut, she was asked to take over an existing sales territory. She consented, but absolutely dreaded the prospect, certain that she had no affinity for sales. But one of her first sales calls, with Ted Brown Music in Washington, taught her a lasting lesson: “Sales isn’t about selling,” she says. “It’s about talking about a brand that I understand, I believe in, and I’m passionate about—On-Stage. I quickly became friends with that dealer, and after that it was almost impossible to not get an order. Selling is about sharing your passion; it’s about relationships.”

Landmark products that kept The Music People in business during the lean years and helped shape its identity include the GS7462B A-Frame Guitar Stand, the MS7701 Tripod Mic Stand, and the Deluxe Folding GS7221 Double and GS7231 Triple Guitar Stands. Other consistent sellers include the KT7800 Three-Position X-Style Bench, KS7190 Single X Keyboard Stand, XCG-4 Single Tripod Guitar Stand, and SS7761 All-Aluminum Tripod Speaker Stand.

Enjoying strong growth in global markets, The Music People’s wares are now sold in more than 80 nations. Its On-Stage range offers in excess of 800 SKUs, and its TMP Pro division represents more than 200 pro audio brands—now including 17 lines of microphones. This broad product selection helps dealer customers maximize their freight efficiency by consolidating heavy shipments of stands with audio products. “Our pro audio business has grown with customers who were already purchasing our On-Stage Stands products,” Jim explains. “It’s easy for them to realize freight savings when we add relatively lightweight microphones to a shipment of heavy stands.”

Reflecting the ongoing growth of the company, The Music People completed a major physical expansion in 2014. Relocating its warehouse and distribution center to a spacious new complex nearby facilitated renovation of its Berlin, Connecticut headquarters, whose area doubled with new offices and work spaces, interactive conference rooms, a product demonstration room, and an audio/video production room. In the fall of 2015, John and Sharon purchased the property, seizing “a great opportunity to become our own landlord.”

The company now operates three U.S. distribution centers, in Cheshire, Connecticut; Perris, California; and Florence, Kentucky. An additional distribution center in China, opened in 2012, has helped the company expand its product development team and enhance materials sourcing, quality control, and intellectual property protection. Over the years, The Music People has developed strong relationships with the 25 different factories that make its products, a broad foundation that helps it maintain performance, quality, and stability regardless of how the political and economic winds are blowing.

The full Music People team, with Ann, Jim, John, and Sharon Hennessey front and center, at a recent company gathering. The company takes pride in consistently being ranked as one of the best places to work in Connecticut.


Adapting To New Channels

Adapting to the new generation’s various sales platforms, The Music People has recognized the need to make its products “as compelling in the online world as in the brick-and-mortar world.” The requirements for freight, packaging, and sometimes even SKU assortments, Sharon continues, are very different depending on which platform is selling them. The Hennesseys are committed to maintaining strong relationships with their retail customers. “Whatever their business model,” she says, “our innovation and product development are shaped with our retail and OEM partners in mind.”

John points to The Music People’s 113% growth between 2008 and 2013, one of the most economically challenging periods in U.S. history. He attributes this success to its products’ affordability, making them painless for dealers to stock, as well as its distribution business coming to the aid of retailers who couldn’t meet order minimums from multiple manufacturers.

The Music People’s 23% sales surge in 2018 will contribute to ongoing reinvestment in its systems, processes, CRM, etc., and management will continue seeking “top talent to join our team.” Sharon adds that The Music People is proud, especially as a family-owned business, to be ranked 78th among The Music Trades’ Top 225 Global Suppliers, but hints that it would rank “quite high” in a list sorted by revenue per employee. It was recently recognized for the third time as the top workplace in Connecticut by The Hartford Courant.

Within the company’s sizable team of long-term employees, John credits the expertise of its sales department with expanding the distribution side of the business. “They’ve developed a tremendous reputation both with the pro audio companies we represent and the m.i. retailers who sell pro audio and do pro audio installations,” he says. “But [the company’s success] goes beyond the sales department. Our controller has been with us for 35 years. Whether it’s IT or product development or even warehousing and administrative roles, everyone has really contributed using their own unique strengths and skills. They’re the ‘people’ part of The Music People who have made us really successful.” Meanwhile, Jim, now 83, still comes into the office every day to design and develop new products.

“We’re enjoying a lot of momentum,” Sharon concludes. “There are a lot of projects on our doorstep, and we’ve never been more invigorated for the next 40 years. It just goes to show that even a family-owned start-up can really get somewhere by following their dreams.”

www.themusicpeople.com
www.on-stage.com
www.tmppro.com

 

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