Having begun my journalism career writing for Sound & Communications, sister publication to The Music & Sound Retailer, I’ve covered Audio-Technica since 2004 and, during that time, I’ve watched the company closely. It’s a manufacturer that is, of course, known for its excellent audio products, which span several categories and numerous markets, but the company is also recognized within the industry for its driving spirit of innovation and its commendable corporate citizenship. This month, The Retailer sits down with Phil Cajka, Audio-Technica’s longtime President and CEO, and delves into not only the exciting products that A-T debuted at the NAMM Show, but also the internal dynamics that serve to distinguish the company from its peers in the market.
Cajka speaks from a position of deep experience, and with evident affection for the company he helms. It’s an interview worth sharing.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Let’s begin with your personal background. Trace your own history with music products, audio technology and the music industry. Touch on what initially captured your attention. During your earliest years, what steps did you take to pursue your interest? Describe your career progression.
Phil Cajka: I had the good fortune of attending a high school with an excellent music program. And, although I played the role of bad drummer within that program, it nevertheless instilled in me—as I think it did for most of my peers—a lifelong love of music and appreciation for what musicians do. It was my business acumen that got me the job at Audio-Technica. That continues to be my strength, but it’s my passion for music, acquired at any early age, that keeps me excited about what we do at Audio-Technica.
The Retailer: Now, let’s turn to discussing Audio-Technica. When was the company founded? Describe a bit about its history, while also discussing the company’s evolution and some of its milestones over the past several decades. What have been among its most important moments?
Cajka: Audio-Technica was founded in Tokyo in 1962 by Hideo Matsushita. The company began as a manufacturer of high-end phono cartridges and tone arms; during its first decade, it remained committed to those products. Then, in the mid-1970s, after A-T U.S. was formed, we started to branch out into the world of headphones and microphones, making models for the home user. So, even with this expansion, we were still very much a consumer audio company. But, in the late ’70s, our 800 Series microphones evolved into the Artist Series, a line of mics very much geared toward the professional performing musician. This was the start of our swing toward pro audio. The successful launch of our UniPoint installed-sound microphones in 1985 further shifted our focus to the pro market. Our dedication to the market was cemented in 1991 when we introduced the AT4033: the first high-quality, side-address studio microphone to retail for less than $1,000.
Similarly, with our headphones, we shifted from developing audiophile models for the home user to creating professional-grade headphones, leading ultimately to our M-Series and, in particular, the ATH-M50x, which has been one of our most successful products. Although the M50x headphones were great performers in the studio and valued by pros, we found that home users also coveted the sound they produced and that those consumers were, in fact, driving a good deal of the sales.
With the unexpected resurgence of vinyl, we’ve also experienced a huge growth in the sales of our turntables and a renewed interest in the product that got us started more than 50 years ago: our phono cartridges. So, the history of Audio-Technica can be viewed as one of cycles, with the focus shifting between consumer and pro products as the market demands, while, of course, maintaining a commitment to both. I think our ability to cycle in this manner is something that sets us apart in the audio industry, and it speaks to the core of our business. Ultimately, we’re a transducer company.
I should also mention the importance of the people we employ at A-T. We have made a concerted effort to create a family-type environment that fosters open, supportive working relationships. And, we work to extend that environment to our dealer channel and our customers, in the belief that what brings us all together is a shared passion for music and the finest possible audio. We all benefit from an open dialogue about our products.
The Retailer: You’ve worked with Audio-Technica since 1981, having ascended to the role of President and CEO in 1996. Having helmed the company for nearly 20 years now, what continues to keep you motivated, excited and engaged? What makes you eager to go to the office in the morning and delve into the work of leading A-T?
Cajka: Wow…yeah, at times, it’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years! But, as I mentioned earlier, the thing that has really kept me passionate about my work throughout that time is my love of music. Over the years, I have had the great fortune of meeting and talking with a number of very talented artists, engineers and other audio professionals. It’s always fascinating to hear them discuss their work, to observe them working and to see the role Audio-Technica products play in their creative process. Seeing how A-T is valued by these people motivates me not only to ensure that we maintain the high-quality standards of our products, but also to innovate and introduce the next line of products that can have a positive impact on the music and audio industries. No one was ever going to invite me to be their session drummer, but I’ve found another way to contribute. It’s something for which I’m forever grateful. There’s just something special about being part of an exciting brand like A-T. Working with the people here and our customers…it never stops being fun.
The Retailer: When you look at Audio-Technica as it currently exists, what would you say you’re most proud of? What makes the company stand apart not only from direct competitors in the microphone, headphone and audio products spaces, but also from companies in the broader MI industry? What’s the “secret sauce” at Audio-Technica?
Cajka: Again, besides the high quality of our products, I think we can attribute much of our success to the people who work at Audio-Technica, as well as the strong relationships we have built both inside the company and with our dealers and customers. When you call our office, you get to talk to a real person. Customers who have questions or who need assistance with a product can call our Audio Solutions Department and speak with one of our experts. It’s easy to overlook the importance of that kind of human interaction, but few things are more frustrating for customers than being forced into an automated answering loop where they’re confined to pushing buttons on a phone and talking to a machine.
We also follow this model internally. One example is the quarterly meeting I have with all our employees: It’s something we call “Breakfast with Phil.” Over breakfast sandwiches, Danish and coffee, I review how the company is performing, talk about where we’d like to go and answer any questions employees have. This type of open, face-to-face communication is vital, I feel, to the success of Audio-Technica. Incidentally, Breakfast with Phil also points to a long history of eating and drinking well at A-T, which has further contributed to our family-type atmosphere. We are, however, starting to get some pushback on this tradition from our wellness committee!
The Retailer: What was Audio-Technica’s biggest, most important news at the just recently concluded NAMM Show in Anaheim? Was this year’s show a big one for the company? What were some of your new product highlights?
Cajka: It was a big show for us. One of the best pieces of news was that our ATH-R70x professional open-back reference headphones won a TEC Award for achievement in headphone/earpiece technology. That really meant a lot to us, and we’re grateful to all those who voted to recognize the R70x. And, of course, The Music & Sound Retailer named our AT2020USBi “Best Cabled Microphone of 2015.” Thank you very much!
As for our new products at NAMM, we were excited to introduce the E-Series professional in-ear headphones (ATH-E70, ATH-E50 and ATH-E40), which are designed primarily for use on stage. The E-Series complements our M-Series closed-back monitor headphones and R-Series open-back reference headphones, giving us a complete range of pro headphones. And speaking of the M-Series, we also debuted the ATH-M50xMG at NAMM. That’s a limited-edition matte gray model of our popular M50x headphones.
On the microphone front, we introduced two new dynamic instrument mics that excel in high-SPL applications: the ATM230 hypercardioid mic, which has a rugged, low-profile design and that’s especially suited for miking toms and other percussion instruments; and the AE2300 cardioid mic, which features our proprietary double-dome diaphragm and which is designed for miking guitar amps, brass and percussion instruments.
We also made a point of featuring the System 10 PRO digital wireless system at the show, highlighting the benefits of operating in the 2.4-gigahertz band and the versatility gained by the system’s remote-mountable receiver units. Plus, we introduced two new System 10 PRO transmitters that are designed to be used in conference settings: the ATW-T1006 boundary microphone/transmitter and the ATW-T1007 microphone desk stand transmitter, which works with gooseneck microphones.
So, yes, it was an exciting show for us. We received a wonderful response from those who stopped by our booth.
The Retailer: Tell me about Audio-Technica’s involvement with charitable causes, good works and philanthropy, particularly as it relates to music education and ensuring that all children have access to musical instruments and music instruction. In what ways is Audio-Technica a leader in working to support music education?
Cajka: Each year since 1998, Audio-Technica has held a One-Day Charity Sale to raise funds for a number of worthy non-profit organizations. One of those organizations is MusiCares, which provides a safety net of critical assistance for music people in times of need. Notes for Notes—an organization that builds, equips and staffs after-school recording studios inside Boys & Girls Clubs and after-school facilities—is another one we proudly support; we provide microphones and headphones for many of the locations.
For several years now, we’ve also been a sponsor of the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, the state-of-the-art mobile recording and multimedia studio that travels the country and offers free, hands-on experience in music and video production to students of all ages. We’re proud to supply the Lennon Bus with A-T headphones and microphones, and to support those educational efforts.
Similarly, we also provide equipment to the West Suburban YMCA in Newton MA, in support of its Center for Creative Arts, which boasts a fully equipped recording studio, including instruments, to teach students the art of making music and recording. And, since 2012, we’ve supplied mics and headphones to The Record Company in Boston, which is a community-based studio committed to youth music education and independent record-making.
Our latest educational effort was developed to honor the legacy of someone we had the privilege of working with over the years: talented audio engineer Csaba Petocz, who, sadly, died last year. We’ll be sponsoring a memorial mentoring program at the Recording Connection, wherein an aspiring audio engineer will be selected to mentor under a master engineer. Famed music producer, mixer and engineer Joe Chiccarelli will be the program’s initial mentor.
We are also involved with many non-music-related charity campaigns, in particular those of our local United Way. We are proud to be among the 100 largest supporters of the United Way in Summit County, in Ohio, where A-T U.S. is headquartered. For more than 15 years now, our employees have increased their yearly giving.
The Retailer: Discuss Audio-Technica’s commitment to the brick-and-mortar MI store channel. Is working collaboratively with brick-and-mortar music dealers a key part of A-T’s bedrock, fundamental approach to doing business? Expound on Audio-Technica’s dealer-focused philosophy.
Cajka: Yes, we feel that there is still a tremendous opportunity in brick-and-mortar stores. We do, of course, sell online, as well. However, traditional stores are still a key part of the industry. It’s so important that customers can go into a store and try out products before they buy, as well as discuss those products with—and get recommendations from—the professionals at the store. The brick-and-mortar music stores are also important in that they often offer music lessons, which, aside from the educational benefit, also bring people into the stores and expose them to products they might not have found just by poking around online.
Audio-Technica is strongly committed to partnering with dealers. That’s how we view our relationship with dealers: They are our partners in selling to the customers. We have dealers who have worked with us for 40 years, and independent reps who have been with us for 20 years. Those long-term relationships are important to us, and they’ve helped us maintain a consistent presence in the market. In fact, we’re one of the original supporters of AIMM: the Alliance of Independent Music Merchants. We continue to be a vendor of microphones, headphones and wireless systems for them.
One thing that certainly has changed over the years is the increasing need for dealers to diversify their businesses. Many dealers now are developing local niche markets for themselves: for example, by installing sound systems for schools and churches. I think this type of diversification is critical in today’s market, and we’re happy to support our dealers in those efforts.
The Retailer: Is there anything the dealer channel could do that would be helpful to Audio-Technica as a company? Do you have any suggestions for the dealer channel that you believe would be helpful to retailers, in addition to being helpful to your company?
Cajka: We like to have a brand partnership with our dealers. We don’t want dealers simply to represent one specific Audio-Technica product line but, rather, to represent the brand as a whole. That’s the ideal relationship for us. The most valuable dealers for us are those that can bring Audio-Technica to customers to whom we didn’t previously have access. And it’s important that dealers have a strong relationship with those customers and have the ability to influence their purchasing decisions.
It’s also important that we team up with our dealers to make effective use of all the promotional tools at our disposal. It’s essential to work together on cooperative marketing efforts, one-off national and regional campaigns, in-store events, social media efforts, the creation of content and graphics, and other initiatives that can be mutually beneficial.
The Retailer: What does the future hold for Audio-Technica? What can company-watchers expect over the next year…five years…10 years?
Cajka: We’re continuing to develop new wireless technology to address the issues that surround spectrum regulation and availability. I think you can also expect to see an evolution in consumer products that will place a greater emphasis on interactivity, so your watch, perhaps, will be able to communicate with your headphones and so forth. Audio-Technica is also strengthening its presence as a global group. So, customers and dealers will see a more unified company with more consistent messaging and product offerings throughout the world. That should help to further elevate Audio-Technica’s status as a strong global player in the audio industry.