The Music & Sound Retailer: Who was your greatest influence or mentor and why?
Brad Smith: First, thanks for asking these questions. It’s given me a chance to reflect. It’s inspiring to be reminded how fortunate I am to work in the music products industry. Along the way, I’ve worked closely with some great minds that have certainly influenced my career.
My most influential mentors are my parents Curt and Joan Smith, who showed by example how to conduct and pursue one’s ambitions. It amazes me how much I was learning while I wasn’t even paying attention. My career influencers are my first boss, David Schwartz (founder of Mix magazine), Hal Blaine (how to work with musicians), Marv Hagopian (father in-law, man of huge integrity and humor), Walt Disney (amazing capacity to have wild ideas come alive: the ultimate “doer”), Bill Shultz (education is the gateway to future players), Fred Gretsch (commitment to quality and customer engagement), Neil Young (always follow your muse) and Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing,” a simple creed that helps motivate me.
The Retailer: What was the best advice you ever received?
Smith: From Keith Mardak, Hal Leonard’s chairman, who told me to work on the written form of communication. In business, it’s a critical part of moving a good idea forward. Also, he advised me, when in Japan, try the shabu-shabu.
The Retailer: What was your first experience with a musical instrument?
Smith: Does air-guitar strumming to Beatles songs when I was eight count? (see photo above) My first real performance was playing an acoustic guitar in a church group. The church is one of the best breeding grounds for young, barely competent players. That experience gave me the confidence to keep playing.
The Retailer: What instrument do you most enjoying playing?
Smith: I started playing guitar when I was 10 and still play almost every day. I appreciate the thrill of controlling the sound and the nuances one has with a palm mute or finger tremolo. Aren’t we all amazed at how 10 people could play the same guitar, and they all would have some slight variance of time, rhythm and selection of voicings? It’s an amazingly versatile instrument. The cello is an instrument I wish I played. I love seeing a drummer give the band a great workout. The living metronome for the band and the crowd.
The Retailer: Tell us something about yourself that others do not know or would be surprised to learn.
Smith: I played a basketball shooting game with Katy Perry on an arena stage in front of 15,000 people. Google “Brad the Dad Katy” and get a good laugh. Also, my younger brother is the drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Those facts are entirely unrelated.
The Retailer: What’s your favorite activity to do when you’re not at work?
Smith: Seeing local talent perform, especially when it’s my kids. To see and hear that music spark flourish in our next generations is a thrill … and the price is right. Also traveling is the spice of life, and I love to visit new cities.
The Retailer: What is the best concert you’ve been to?
Smith: December 2007 Led Zeppelin reunion concert in London honoring Ahmet Ertegun, compliments of my rock star brother — the closest feeling I’ll have to winning the Willy Wonka golden ticket. We sat behind Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page’s wife, and to my left was Dave Grohl, screaming like a fanboy from ’72. The whole show was surreal.
The Retailer: If you could see any musician, alive or deceased, play a concert for one night, who would it be and why?
Smith: I love seeing the originals. The ones who set the bar so high that there are generations of players still trying to reach for it. So, my top five of those who’ve passed would be Hendrix, Buddy Rich, Elvis, Sinatra and, of course, The Beatles on their first American tour. Seeing footage of those shows represents to me the “Big Bang of Rock.”
The Retailer: What musician are you hoping to see play in the near future?
Smith: Right now, my wife Lori and I are obsessed with seeing Cat Stevens.
The Retailer: What song was most memorable for you throughout your childhood and what do you remember about it the most?
Smith: “Venus” by the Shocking Blue and “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. I can tell you every detail of the artwork of the 45 and lip sync every word and yodel. Those songs are little pop gems that still drip with vibe. Also, my Dad played Johnny Cash constantly in our house, something for which I am eternally grateful. Other childhood songs that still give me chills are “An American Trilogy” by Elvis, “The Way You Look Tonight” by Sinatra, and the song where words and music are perfectly married, “Over the Rainbow.”
The Retailer: What songs are on your smartphone/iPod, etc. right now?
Smith: I mostly stream Spotify when I’m on the move and listen to CDs and vinyl when home. As you can sense, my taste is very eclectic, but my DNA is infused with classic rock. Swing music is the happiest music ever recorded. That was the golden era of songwriting and musicianship. Any party gets a lift when you put on a Louis Prima or Perez Prado recording.
The Retailer: What’s the most fun thing you saw/did at a NAMM Show?
Smith: Last Winter show, Erik Paiste warmed up a 90-inch Paiste gong until it roared like a jet engine to conclude the show. It was a physical and aural sensation that I’ve never experienced. I saw Danny Gatton play guitar at a musician magazine-sponsored NAMM event at the Cubby Bear in Chicago in the early ‘90s. I never witnessed so many guitar players weeping. Last year at the annual GAMA (Guitar & Accessories Marketing Association) reception, we awarded James Burton the first Guitar Ambassador award. Upon acceptance he went on a storytelling jag that covered Elvis, Ricky Nelson TV shows, and the early days of touring in the ’50s. It’s those moments that I tell myself I am one lucky guy to call these moments “work-related.”
The Retailer: If you had to select three people, past or present, to have dinner with, who would they be and what would you ask them?
Smith: Harold Edstrom, Everett (Leonard) Edstrom and Roger Busdiker, the founders of Hal Leonard. I’d want to hear about those moments after World War II when they decided to start the company that I’ve now worked for over 25 years. We could talk about how this company they started has arguably had the most impact on making more musicians than any other single company in our modern history. People want access to play their favorite songs. That is why people pick up an instrument, and Hal Leonard arranges songs so they are accessible to any level of player. Of course, our Chairman Keith Mardak and President Larry Morton would have to join us, and I’d get to pick up the tab.
The Retailer: Tell us about your most memorable experience with an MI retailer.
Smith: It’s our local retailers who join us in community outreach that are my most memorable experiences. This past June, we worked with a local retailer to promote Make Music Day. Every year the Percussion Marketing Council sponsors a Free Drum Lesson tent at the Vans Warped Tour and Hal Leonard is the Milwaukee host, along with a local retailer. It’s amazing how generous our local retailers have been with their time and talent as we work side by side and give boys and girls their first pair of sticks. That annual connection for me has been a blast.
The Retailer: What is the best thing about MI?
Smith: The people and the mission. Music is religion to me and we are providing the tools and the instruction for folks to join in the long history of music makers. Music is woven into every part of our life and the MI industry makes sure we give people — at any stage of life — the ability to participate. Think how music is always a part of the important activities in our lives. From graduations to funerals, from weddings to road trips, music is our soundtrack, so to be part of the industry that makes us all have a voice… it is the greatest industry for me.
The Retailer: Who do you admire most outside of the music industry and why?
Smith: I consider Paul McCartney outside because he is an industry unto his own. He could stay home and cash checks but he tours and keeps writing and keeps pushing. Didn’t he play drums on a song from the Foo Fighters’ last studio recording? The secret to a long life is staying active in making music. Paul is a world treasure. My personal champ is my wife Lori, who is on the front line of raising our children, Milo and Alma. She definitely works harder than I do. And she does not get to punch out or hang with James Burton. I could not do this without her support.
The Retailer: What technology could change MI down the road?
Smith: Affordable, accessible, interactive, life-size holograms. Can you imagine: “Jam with Jimi Hendrix! Select his outfit — white Woodstock or the military London garb. Ready? ‘Wild Thing’ in the key of E!”
Seriously, we seem to be on the verge of reliable, long-distance, no-latency collaboration video in real time. I’d love to jam with my college bandmates, even if we live across the country. Avid has done it with Pro Tools recording. The ability to have a meaningful long-distance, real-time jam session could create a whole new way to enjoy making music.
The Retailer: If you weren’t in the music industry, what would you be doing and why?
Smith: I’d love to play pro sports, but that requires skills and talent. I’d enjoy being a publisher or documentary film maker. The thrill of bringing a story to life and connecting people and events is satisfying.
The Retailer: Tell us about your hometown and why you enjoy living there.
Smith: Wauwatosa, Wis., just west of Milwaukee, has a great balance of city amenities and suburban comfort. It’s 10 minutes from Hal Leonard and has four ice cream (or frozen custard stands) nearby. Concerts are free on summer Wednesdays.
The Retailer: What are your most prized possession(s)?
Smith: A 1929 Dobro resonator (my mom’s childhood guitar), a 45th anniversary Les Paul (a gift from my brother), an Al Kaline autographed baseball (I got when I was 8), a 1963 Ford Falcon (honoring my Dad who worked for Ford for 30 years), and my wedding ring (the secret to daily happiness).
The Retailer: What’s your favorite book and why?
Smith: “Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew,” since that was my first book that was published by a company I worked for (Mix Books). I got to go on a mini author tour with Hal that has brought me in touch with many famous and interesting people I still know today. Another one is “The Soul of Tone” written by the late Tom Wheeler for Hal Leonard Books. Tom was a master storyteller, and he was so good at explaining our fascination with the confluence of art and science.