Ohio native Kyle Thomas had been playing drums for several years professionally, but in 2016 he decided he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to join D’Addario, where he works out of both the company’s Brooklyn, N.Y., and Farmingdale, N.Y., offices. He offers plenty of information about the percussion industry, maintaining and strengthening school music education programs and much more. Enjoy.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Take us through your background and career.
Kyle Thomas: I started at D’Addario in January 2016. Prior to D’Addario, I was a performer. It’s been a unique experience being a performer in the orchestral space. I’ve played with various orchestras throughout the Midwest. I’ve been a drummer since the sixth grade. I’ve played drum sets, orchestral, keyboard instruments like marimbas and vibraphones, as well as Latin and world percussion instruments. I earned an undergraduate music performance degree from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. And I pursued further education in the master’s program at Cleveland State with Tom Freer and the Cleveland Orchestra. I discontinued my master’s to pursue this opportunity with D’Addario.
The Retailer: What enticed you to work for D’Addario?
Thomas: It was the right timing. I was coming up on the time of my life as a performer where you need to decide if you will go for freelance work by taking gigs or attempt to do something with salary and benefits. When the position opened up at D’Addario, it was lucky timing. I had always admired D’Addario from afar for the work it did with Evans and Promark, two brands I was definitely aware of as a performer. I used Evans drumheads basically from day one. Before I even knew what I was using, I was using Evans. So, I grew up with the Evans sound in my ear, and that was the brand I had aligned best with as a performer.
As for Promark, I spent a lot of time playing the products prior to the D’Addario acquisition. The teacher I had in my master’s program was a signature Promark artist who designed an entire line of sticks, timpani mallets and keyboard mallets. So, I was pretty aware of Promark during those days. Promark did go through a reimagining when it was purchased by D’Addario. Around the late 1990s and early 2000s, Promark wasn’t investing in machinery. There were some quality issues that pushed me away from Promark at the time. But when D’Addario took it over, I was inspired by the work it was doing to bring Promark back. After D’Addario took over, the quality had a noticeable improvement after D’Addario reinvested in what Promark could be in the music space.
So, to get back to the question, it was a personal decision to move away from the performance arena, and a professional decision whereby I was really impressed with the types of things D’Addario was doing at the time as the umbrella organization for Evans and Promark. It ended up becoming a perfect fit for me.
The Retailer: You’re certainly not alone in making the decision to leave performance and join the MI industry.
Thomas: [Laughs] As a performer, you get to a point where you say to yourself, Well, I can do this. I can definitely put together a living doing freelance. But it won’t be easy. It will be a hustle, and will be a hustle endlessly. A lot of the reasons I found success at D’Addario are due to skills I learned as a performer. It was nice to take those skills and apply them to a different project.
The Retailer: What’s happening in the percussion industry today? Electronic sets and hybrid sets are some of the things we’ve heard talked about lately.
Thomas: The industry is ever-changing. We’re constantly trying to be aware of the shifting landscape. Electronic drums are becoming a much larger component of any drummer’s arsenal. You even see legendary drummers who are up on stage with sampling pads to the left of their snare drum. They can call up sound at any moment that they might not be able to produce with an acoustic drum set. I think electronic will continue to be a bigger component of what drummers do. That being said, I’m of the belief that electronic pads and electronic drums are enhancing a musician’s palette. Having sampling pads and different ways of producing music are giving musicians new tools to do what they do with music.
We always worry about the downfall of acoustic instruments because we are a manufacturer of acoustic instrument accessories, such as drumheads, drum sticks, reeds, mouthpieces and strings. I know more and more people are purchasing and performing with electronic instruments, but I don’t think it means they are not performing with acoustic instruments. I find people just utilize new instruments as they come. That, for me, is really exciting. As technology continues to develop, musicians will find new and unique ways to utilize that technology. But I don’t think it means they will stop using the old technology. Drummers will still drum, especially in marching bands. School music, marching bands, DCI (Drum Corps International) and WGI (Winter Guard International) are activities that are continuing to grow annually. Kids want to be involved in music, and they want to be involved in music at an early age. Our challenge as educators and adults of the world is to keep them in music and to continue to provide a passion for playing, as opposed to being a spectator. There’s nothing wrong with being an audience member, but we want them to continue playing instruments beyond high school and college.
To come back to electronics, because kids grow up with a smartphone in their hand, I think electronics can be an avenue to get kids to play music longer. I’m hopeful — and we are already seeing it with kids involved in marching activities and taking to YouTube to express themselves in music — that kids express themselves in new ways. But they still have a drum or guitar to do so. That, to me, is really exciting.
To wrap it up, I don’t prescribe to the doom-and-gloom theory about music. I’m fortunate to work every day with musicians and educators who are in school music programs. I’m inspired by the work they do every day. The growth I’m seeing is only good for us as a society and as a manufacturer.
The Retailer: To your point, despite an article in 2017 to the contrary, it certainly doesn’t seem like music is declining.
Thomas: I’m close with programs that are teaching kids in sixth, seventh and eighth grades and beyond about the power of music. I have firsthand experience watching these programs grow from a 10-person band to a 100-person band in just a matter of three years. I can’t prescribe to the doom-and-gloom thing. I haven’t seen enough evidence music is declining. Granted, I will say that it is changing. Retailers that are resistant to change will feel it more than those who are embracing technology, digital channels, social media and ecommerce. I believe the state of MI is optimistic.
The Retailer: To get back to the electronic drum point, you brought up keeping people in music as they reach adulthood. How about the beginners and novice players? Can electronic drum sets help regarding parents who don’t want to hear a loud acoustic drum set in their house? Yes, it’s anecdotal, but can this be a source for growth?
Thomas: I do think there is validity to your statement. I am of the millennial generation. My dad did exactly what you described. My first drum set was a set of Roland V Drums. My dad didn’t want to hear me drumming all day long. He decided that instead of buying me a cheap drum set I could put in the corner, he would rather invest the money in his mental health [laughs]. So, he got me an electronic drum set, on which I learned to play. My mom was a musician, so she didn’t care [about the noise]. But my dad was not. He was really into me playing drums. He just didn’t want to hear it. I ended up becoming a professional musician by way of an electronic drum set. Now, I’d rather play on an acoustic drum set, because I like its natural feel. I was an educator with a percussion specialty for fi ve or six years and I had incredibly supportive parents at any program I taught at. I was surprised how supportive parents were regarding getting their kids involved in music.
The Retailer: Clearly, school music is vital. What efforts do you take to make sure school music programs aren’t cut back or cut out all together?
Thomas: There are two things school districts and administrators have to understand. There is an incredible importance to continue music programs, even during hard economic times. Study after study and statistic after statistic prove the benefits of music, and specifically, school music programs on the long-term success of a student. What it does for test scores. What it does for socialization. What is does for growth in communication skills. But I would argue none of that is as important as the track record of culture. Music [has been] a part of society since there has been a society. It has been used in every civilization. The ways people learn music changes, of course. But music as a means for enjoyment, communication and comradery has been around forever. To take that away from the next generation is not just a disservice. It’s the worst possible thing you can do for kids. To me, that’s more important than higher test scores. Learning a musical instrument, to sing or musical theater is really important to grow into a well-rounded human being. Culturally, music is so important to us as human beings. It’s something I’m really passionate about as a former educator. When you are teaching a kid and they are not getting it, but then have an “a-ha” moment, is a game changer. That is the absolute best feeling you can have as a teacher. It doesn’t even feel like work when that happens. Kids experiencing this feeling will experience it for the rest of their lives. That’s why they continue to play music.
The Retailer: Administrators may also deemphasize music because they don’t feel kids will become rock stars. But you are a great example of someone who proves you can earn a career in MI even if you are not the next music superstar.
Thomas: Absolutely. I know people I went to college with who have music performance degrees and are now accountants or working in the nonprofit sector. Some are music teachers of course. The types of skills we learned in music allow us to take our next step. For me, I took those skills to D’Addario.
The Retailer: Let’s shift back to D’Addario. What’s coming down the pike? What are some products we might see soon?
Thomas: The focus we’ve had at D’Addario is in the growing band and orchestra space. That encompasses marching bands, orchestral, chamber music and school music. We’ve done a lot of work on the product development side and marketing side. We’ve invested a significant amount of resources to this specific segment of the market because it is growing [and] we know [it] will help better position D’Addario long-term. But we also know supporting music education is an altruistic value that, as a corporate entity, we have the resources to assist.
A perfect example is with the D’Addario Foundation, which is specifically dedicated to growing music education and serving underprivileged communities and schools that have school music programs that can’t afford basic items, such as instruments and accessories, or bringing music to schools that don’t have a music program, in terms of performances and clinics. The D’Addario Foundation is our philanthropic education arm. It is something unique and beautiful in our portfolio.
On the manufacturer side, we’ve worked on developing new snare sticks, the Concert 1 and Concert 2, designed to help progress student learning. We also put a significant investment in the redevelopment of keyboard mallets, which incorporates our wrapping technology, which we took from 400 years of string-winding technology. This shows our attention and interest in continuing to grow the B&O space and give players more choices and better products.
Also, last year, we introduced Ascenté, which is a “student” orchestral string. It’s been performing extremely well because of school music programs. It’s affordable and high quality. In our fretted division, I know they are working on something student oriented as well. In the next months and years, expect to see attention paid to the school market space.
The Retailer: Being a performer and customer of products, and now and executive at a manufacturer, you offer a different perspective. Can you provide advice for MI retailers when selling your products?
Thomas: The biggest thing for MI retailers to do is utilize the tools we are giving them. We’re pretty adamant that when we have a marketing campaign, it’s ultimately for retailers. In any campaign, it’s a key strategy for us to build digital assets, like banners, and send them to retailers. We tell them, “Whatever you want to do with them is your prerogative.” If there is anything retailers need, definitely let us know, and we will try to curate it. We want our retailers to be successful.
Also, there is no substitute for product knowledge. Retailers have hundreds, if not thousands of brands in their stores. We have seven brands, which is a lot, but not much compared to the hundreds of brands retailers carry. It’s important to become knowledgeable about new products. If there is something retailers don’t understand, our sales team is knowledgeable. Retailers can ask questions and get clarity about new products. That’s really important, especially in an industry that’s really crowded. For example, there are a lot of drumsticks in the world. Being able to differentiate what we do from what a competitor does is hard. It has to be impossible if you have 1,000 SKUs of drumsticks in your store. We are doing everything possible to differentiate ourselves for retailers.