Considering he has spent a lifetime in the music industry, Korg USA senior vice president of sales and marketing, Andy Rossi, has plenty of great information to share. We got the opportunity to pick his brain during in an in-person interview at the company’s Melville, N.Y., headquarters. So, let’s get to the interview, starting with a rundown of his storied career.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Take us through your background and career in the MI industry. Of course, many know you were at Fender. Tell us about that experience, as well as why you wanted to join Korg USA.
Andy Rossi: It’s a common story. I’ve spent a lifetime in the music industry. I come from a very musical family, played in bands in the New York area, worked retail, attended music schools and gained a lot of great experience doing all that. I was one of the smart guys in the band, helping to handle the money and logistics, strategy and such. But that means one of two things: You are smart enough to take the band somewhere, or you are smart enough to know when it’s time to get out. For me, I knew that life was not for me, and I wanted more stability, to have a family and so on. Early on, I joined Steinberger Guitars and started to learn about the MI business. On a quick side note, now that Korg USA purchased Spector, Ned Steinberger was here [at our headquarters] just a couple of weeks ago. He and I reconnected. He designed one of the earliest Spector basses, so the circle came all the way around.
After a few years at Steinberger, I joined Korg USA when it was splitting the sales team to handle Marshall and Korg. At the time, they were hiring reps just for Marshall. I was a rock and roll guitar player with great sales chops and a good feel for what makes this industry tick. So I was offered the position with Korg selling Marshall. I remember thinking, Oh my god, this is heaven. And it was heaven. It was a great job. During those years, big stacks were still very popular. I did that for a few years, and it was really fun. I got to work with all the iconic New York retailers in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and really learned a lot. From there, I went on to a be a Fender sales rep, did that for a few years and became the east coast regional sales manager for Fender. I spent 20 years at Fender, working all the way up to senior vice president of global sales. During my time at Fender, I started to travel around the world, getting a global education of what the music industry was really like. I got my “master’s degree” in the global music industry. I give a lot of thanks to Fender for that.
As things were changing at Fender, my time came to an end there. I left Fender and was living in Phoenix. I started to wonder, What’s next? I didn’t want to just get any job. I wanted to see if I could apply what I learned in business, not just selling guitars, but to be part of a team that was trying to grow and go to a company that had good growth potential. So, I contacted Joe Castronovo, the president and CEO of Korg USA. I told him I was interested in joining a good team at a smaller company than where I was at. I didn’t want a big corporation. Joe and I talked, and I came back to New York as senior vice president of sales and marketing at Korg USA. The company was reconfiguring itself, and Joe was rebuilding the company and I wanted to be part of that. In the five years I’ve been here, we’ve really reconfigured the brands, reconfigured the organization and reconfigured a lot of our programs. The company is on a straight path for growth now, and we have more to do. The most recent change was Korg USA purchasing Spector, as I mentioned. We were the distributor of Spector and knew there was more potential that could be met if we owned it. We have a diverse environment here. We are not just a distributor. Of course, we also own Korg and Vox. From minute to minute, we can be talking about Spector sales in the Europe and then Blackstar or Korg sales in the U.S. It’s a lot of fun. Never a dull moment. Keeps you on your toes for sure.
The Retailer: You mentioned owning Spector instead of distributing it. In general, what’s the difference in owning a brand versus distributing it? What benefit does it provide for you?
Rossi: That’s a great question, and there is a great answer for it. When you are the distributor, you are partnering with somebody — an owner of a brand. If it’s a good brand and company, they have a global marketing plan with global sales goals. They are determining the direction of that brand. That brand owner is asking a distributor like Korg USA to partner in the USA to further their agenda and asks us to add in what we can as the local in-market experts. So, Korg is the local expert in the United States for the brands we distribute and we are acting as a partner for.
When you own a brand, you are making all the decisions. So, the [Melville, N.Y.] office is the U.S. headquarters so to speak, for the brands we distribute, but it is also the worldwide headquarters for Spector. So, when it comes to Spector, all decisions, ranging from strategy, manufacturing, models, pricing, programs and marketing are all made in this office among this group. So when we own the brand, we own all the decisions as opposed to when we are partnering with a company like our friends at Blackstar, we are listening to their plan and contributing to it. Both scenarios, partner or owner are a lot of fun, and the skills needed to operate on both sides of that coin are very diverse. You need it all to be successful here. No room for limited thinking here!
The Retailer: Can you tell us about some of the brands you own and distribute?
Rossi: Korg, Vox and now Spector are the brands we own. All three are long-standing brands that date back to the start of both rock and roll and this industry. Korg goes back decades with a history of innovation, as do Vox and Spector. On the distribution side, we have Blackstar, which about a decade ago really burst onto the scene and quickly took its place as one of the main amp brands out there. Cole Clark, a new brand for us, is an Australian-based maker of unique acoustic guitars. Then there’s Tanglewood guitars, Right On! Straps, a Spanish-based maker of leather straps, Stay stands, a really cool keyboard stand that comes out of South America. Waldorf, which is a synth brand. We just took on Darkglass at the last NAMM Show. We are really excited about that brand. Sakae and Crush drums, as well as Sequenz accessories, are part of the lineup.
We try to take on brands where we feel there is potential. We don’t want to take on every brand. We do get calls about certain brands that we don’t feel fit our profile, and we won’t just grab those to grab them. Once we see a brand that has potential or already is really strong and we can take it to the next level, we are interested. That’s what Darkglass was for us, for example. We felt the brand is very unique, has a plan, a great team, consumers love it, we can contribute to its success etc. And they wanted to make their next move in order to get more penetration in the market. We met them in Prague of all places, discussed the future and now here we are.
The Retailer: You have brands in so many different areas, including guitars, amps, percussion, keyboards, etc. How do you juggle all those different kinds of brands?
Rossi: Another great question. We are asked that a lot. It’s all about the people here and the way we are configured. We are good at understanding what a brand’s needs are. Some brands have great market awareness, but what they need is a great sales mechanism. For those brands, we are doing a good job providing a strong sales team. Some brands need more marketing and branding. So, our marketing department looks at that. We also have high-level brand managers that are segmented. For example, we have a tech brand manager, who is in charge of brands like Korg and Waldorf. And we have a guitar and amp group focusing on the fretted and amp segments. And we are very careful to give each brand the think time it needs. That’s another reason we don’t just grab every brand. At some point you really can’t give each brand what it needs if you have too many.
We constantly meet about what the needs are for each brand in each market. We don’t have a “peanut butter” approach where we create a one strategy fits all and spread it across all the brands. All the brands are approached with an eye toward what makes them unique and what they need. You need a good group of people with diverse talents and expertise, and we have that here for sure. A really great group.
The Retailer: To add to the last question, you’ve taken on a lot of global brands. It’s hard to know international markets well. How do you solve that problem?
Rossi: That comes up most when it relates to Spector. Everyone here does have at least some level of global awareness and expertise, and some of us here, like myself, spent many, many years working in the global industry and have the actual experience. We are also out in those markets often. And, because we are a distributor as well, we know what it’s like to have a brand owner come to us and say, “Here’s what I need in this market. How can you help me?” We are sensitive to that. We are used to being on that side of the coin. Again, that’s along with several people here who have global experience. When it comes to Spector, we travel to those markets, and we talk to those distributors about that partnership I described earlier. It requires a lot of listening and being insightful and thoughtful about markets outside your home market.
We realize, for example, that a distributor is the local expert in their market, and we make sure to talk to them about it. It’s about good-old communication and having a lot of respect for people who are in the market and understand it, all while we support them and discuss our global plans and strategies.
The Retailer: We revealed in last month’s issue that guitar sales were excellent in 2018. But what are your overall thoughts about MI today? Are you optimistic?
Rossi: We are definitely optimistic. We have seen in the data and our sales that the entire music industry bounced back from its low point about 10 years ago. The data has shown that, every year since then, the market has come back. But the interesting thing is, as it has come back, it has changed. Various segments like home keyboards, acoustic guitars and amplifiers have all seen changes in growth up or down, average price points, etc. Then there was a whole drama [in 2017] debating the “guitar is dead” concept, something I never believed. By the way, all that talk about the guitar being dead or the true opportunity to have more females become more involved in guitar playing is all good stuff to wonder and support for positive growth, but what’s also interesting is you don’t see that subject matter really being as big an issue in the keyboard world. I’m not aware of any discussion going on that playing keyboards or piano is dead, or there’s not enough women playing piano etc. It was a conversation not so much about the entire industry. It was more about guitars. Some of it could be going on in other areas, but regarding many of the segments we work with, you don’t see those headlines in quite that same way. We all want more participators in music making for sure. But there are many areas of the industry where it is thriving without the drama that one particular article started on the guitar side. In any case, that seems to have settled down and was ill conceived anyway.
One of the biggest changes is the entrance of Reverb, and I think they do a great job. And this introduces a whole new level of competition — in some cases against your own products — that have been in the market for many decades. But it also introduces a whole new opportunity to reach more buyers in what can be a healthy manner. Overall, I think it’s a good thing. It raises awareness. More people having access to products helps everyone. All of these factors play into what we feel is a healthier market today.
Meeting your goals is not as easy as it was 20 years ago, when I was running around selling stuff as a rep. It does take you working harder and smarter these days. The way people consume and listen to music has changed. Technology has changed and the way they get information has changed. So, we are optimistic, we see there have been opportunities for growth, but we are very aware, like all good people in the industry are. A lot of change has occurred, and you have to learn to ride with that change. You can’t fight the market. Consumers always rule. If they decide they will buy music on their phones or will use technology to have more information that enables them to be smarter shoppers, you can’t change that. Consumers have a lot of power, which keeps manufacturers on their toes. I think that’s a good thing.
The Retailer: It also keeps the MI retailers on their toes.
Rossi: No doubt about it. Manufacturers are working hard to reach their goals and make great products. But retailers as well have had to adapt. Those who are adapting and innovating are doing great. You can see dealers throughout the country who are more specialized are thriving. Retailers who offer great service, great staff and a nice showing of product will attract knowledgeable customers who are going to expect knowledgeable retailers — and when that match happens, everything goes well. When there is a mismatch there, it becomes a little more diffi cult.
The Retailer: On the flip side, what is something about the MI industry that either could be better or keeps you up at night?
Rossi: I think there is so much information out there that is available to everyone that really understanding what information is real or unreal, helpful or harmful, necessary or unnecessary [can be a challenge]. These days, being aware of fast-changing markets is something you really have to stay sharp on. You can’t say, “Well, 40 years ago, this is how we did it.” Sometimes, old school is good school. There are certain things that were a certain way 50 years ago, are that way now, and will be that way 50 years from now, and that’s cool. But then, there’s rapid change. Keeping up, or ahead, of that change is always a concern. You have to be fresh. If you are lackadaisical, it will go right by you. That’s something you have to watch for.
The Retailer: How do you keep ahead when it comes to product launches and making them even better?
Rossi: It is hard. Launching multiple types of products takes a good deal of forethought and coordination in many ways. Korg is a very engineering-based company in Japan. There are very talented engineers there who are always racking their brains to create compelling products. Sometimes, it’s an epiphany and sometimes, it’s a lot of hard work. Like many companies, we have many new products and many that have lasted the test of time. And over time, innovation on purpose becomes more difficult as you check things off the list. Midi will never be invented again. So, what’s the next platform? It will happen though. Just when you think there will never be another Beatles or Led Zeppelin, a new great band shows up. There may be no guitar hero today, but tomorrow, one will pop up. Perhaps in a different way then when I was a kid. But for sure, newness happens.
For new products, it takes engineers, designers, vision, feel and sometimes just guts. But fi nding people to be in the music industry is another challenge. Finding good sales reps, engineers, innovators and marketers and so on is difficult. I wish it wasn’t as difficult. I think the young kids who are going to music business type schools think of music business as only the record industry. They don’t think so much about the music instrument side. We need good people to get into retail. We need good sales reps. We need people who go to school for electrical engineering degrees but end up designing synthesizers and amplifiers. That’s hard to find. I do think we as an industry could do better to recruit mainstream people talent into our niche industry. We need to make our industry even more attractive to talent. Companies often worry about their product inventory. I worry about our people inventory and having great talent to work with. It’s here at Korg, and it’s at other companies. But we need a more consistent stream of talented people interested in the MI segment to keep us all moving this industry forward.
The Retailer: You said early on during this interview that you wanted to come to Korg to be part of the growth for the next several decades. Can you give us an idea what the game plan for the future looks like?
Rossi: Certainly, the overall relationship with consumers is key, but also, a lot of it relates to the relationship we have with retailers. It is very important for companies to realize that retailers large and small, bricks and clicks, have a place in this industry that is very important. They create the backbone of this industry. You have to be open minded and diligent when working with retailers of all shapes and sizes, whether national or local. That is very much in our DNA. Another thing is being aware we need to have really compelling products. You can’t create products that don’t excite the marketplace, don’t excite dealers and don’t excite consumers and expect to just jam them into the channel. When you create compelling products and you get the message out — which goes back to sales and marketing — and then you combine that with a strong relationship with consumers and retailers, you end up doing well. It’s a pretty simple formula that is not always easy to execute on. But when you do, you create success for everybody.