This month, The Retailer shares with you an in-depth conversation with Blackstar Amplification Managing Director Ian Robinson, who’s immersed himself in the technology and engineering principles of excellent sound since his teenage years. Robinson traces his career path, starting with a fortuitous beginning at Marshall Amplification and continuing with Blackstar’s creation, and he reflects on the guiding vision that’s shaped the latter company’s growth and development. He also discusses Blackstar’s highly effective partnership with U.S. distributor Korg USA and the company’s deep, abiding commitment to working with the dealer channel to service its countless fans.
Dive into the conversation, and enjoy.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Let’s begin with your personal background. Trace your own history with music making, musical instruments and pro-audio gear. Touch on what initially captured your interest. How did you translate that initial interest into a successful career in the music products industry?
Ian Robinson: I come from, one could say, a musical family. My father was a jazz musician…a professional for about 20 years during the ’50s and ’60s. He actually used to travel to New York regularly on cruise ships. He used to go out and see all the cool jazz players of the day play. He was very influenced by U.S. jazz back in the day. So, I grew up around music. I’ve kind of got a big family, and the family’s older than me. So, I grew up with a lot of rock ‘n’ roll in the household. The first music I was really familiar with was Bad Company, Black Sabbath and all that kind of ’70s rock. My brothers and sisters were all listening to that on vinyl and compact cassette back in the day. So, I was surrounded by music.
I started to play guitar when I was 12. I’m a quite technical person, so my education was more technical. I never studied music in school or at college. Instead, I always did the technical stuff. So, I went and did an electronics degree when I was in my early 20s at the University of Salford in England. It was one of the few universities that had acoustics and music associated with its electronics courses. And the reason I did electronics and didn’t study music was, although my father was a very good player technically and probably creatively, he never really made any money out of it. So, I always thought I’d rather do something more technical that I could maybe have a more secure career in. But, obviously, being around music was really important to me.
The reason I took electronics was because I was interested in guitar amplifier design. Obviously, when you’re an electric guitar player, you have the guitar and an amp. And I’ve always thought the amp is, by far, the more dominant part in terms of getting the sound that you want. The guitar is important, but the amp is so much more important. It’s almost 80/20 for me. So, that’s where my interest in electronics started. I had no interest in doing any kind of other job than designing guitar amps. I was very, very lucky that, just as I was finishing my degree, Marshall was recruiting for design engineers. So, I was able, very luckily, to get a job with them even before I finished my degree. And that’s where I started. It was really fortunate.
I spent eight years at Marshall, and then I progressed to Blackstar. Marshall was an amazing learning experience for me, because I was involved in a lot of stuff. With my technical background and playing background, my expertise in the Marshall days was listening and voicing. You know…how the amps sound. And then I managed all their overseas manufacturing for about six years. That’s when I hooked up with the rest of the guys from Blackstar. You know, together, we were a very strong team. So, we moved on to do our thing with Blackstar.
In short, I was driven passionately to try to find out why guitar amps sounded the way they do. That was my passion in life, and that was the connection between music and the technical piece. And, I’ve always been interested in business. So, when we had the opportunity to start the business, it was kind of a natural thing for me to link the product part of what we do with the business side. So, that’s been my role with Blackstar.
The Retailer: Tell me about Blackstar as a brand and a company. Tell us about how Blackstar was born and how it’s evolved over the years since its creation. What are some of the most notable highlights of the brand’s history?
Robinson: So, the four of us—myself, Bruce Keir, Paul Hayhoe and Richard Frost—were the new product development team at Marshall for a time…about four years. We completely overhauled the way they did things. Toward the end of our time, for one reason or another, we decided it was time to move on. And, we thought we’d like to carry on working together. The way we felt in those days was it was kind of the best rock ‘n’ roll band we’d never been in. You know, I was in lots of rock ‘n’ roll bands, and I never felt I’d make it. In that band of people—myself and the other three guys—we were so good at what we did that we almost felt like we couldn’t fail. The four of us knew what the rest of the industry liked. The four of us had a lot of technical expertise—we were good with sound—and we had quite good business sense. So, we decided to give it a go and start Blackstar.
Right from the start, we planned to develop a global brand. We did that very much on purpose. So, we started with the high-end products. We spent three-and-a-half years in technical research and business planning. We came up with a couple of key patents in the early days. The high-end products opened the door to some of the key endorsers and artists in the early days, and they developed our reputation as a brand that innovates and produces quality products. Over time, it was always our plan to deliver that superior sound quality and performance at lower price points. In some ways, we’re getting to the end of that first stage of launching the business now. We thought it would take five years, but it’s taken nine. For us, our key mission is to give guitarists the ultimate tool for self-expression. That, and to give our partners a good, profitable business. That still very much remains our aim and mission today.
As it relates to highlights, one would be Messe Frankfurt in 2007, where we launched. It was amazing. Probably even bigger, though, was the first NAMM Show that we did, when we set up Blackstar USA. Basically, we hooked up with our U.S. guy, Loren Molinare. It was so exciting to sign up independent dealers at that first trade show in the U.S. Keith Dudley, our Export Sales Manager, who, very sadly, passed away almost two years ago now, was instrumental in putting that together with Loren. We literally had dealers swarming the booth to sign up with us.
From the early days, the U.S. independent dealer network really fell in love with Blackstar…the kind of rock ‘n’ roll, punk rock ethic that we try to maintain today. Our relationship with the key indie dealers is super important. And that first NAMM Show, where we really engaged the U.S. market for the first time, was just so exciting.
The other really key, super-exciting moment for us was when we had the opportunity to work with Korg USA. We looked after ourselves for about two years, but the scale of the U.S. market is very difficult to handle from the U.K. as a growing small business. When we had the opportunity to work with Korg, we gave it about five minutes’ thought before we said absolutely yes. We’d worked with Korg during the Marshall days, and we knew how incredibly professional and passionate Korg USA is. It was really a match made in heaven, and it still is. We’re here today talking to them about future strategy, and we have an amazing relationship.
The Retailer: In your role as Managing Director of Blackstar, you’re presumably involved in numerous tasks centered on sales, marketing and brand development. What are the best, most fulfilling aspects of your job? What keeps you inspired through the years? What makes you excited to come to work in the morning?
Robinson: I think it’s products. It’s pretty straightforward. I still work every day with the engineering team. Myself, Paul and Richard have a daily meeting with the R&D guys to talk about the products under development and future products. I absolutely love that. I still get involved with the final sign-off of the products and the way they sound. So, I very much still see myself as a product person. I think the other thing that’s really interesting is thinking about future strategy. As a business, we’re very keen on planning. So, every year, we write quite an extensive business plan for the year, and the next three years out. We have quite the structure within the business for implementing all that strategy. So, that’s another area of the business that I find quite interesting.
I actually find learning about business generally very fulfilling, because I think there’s nothing more challenging and rewarding than running your own business. It can challenge you in lots of ways: intellectually, in terms of relationships, managing people and processes, the numbers side of it. It’s all very fulfilling. You can get into individual parts of that as deep as you like. I do find that every day is a learning process for me.
The Retailer: When you look at Blackstar as the organization currently exists, what would you say you’re the proudest of? What makes the brand stand apart not only from its direct competitors, but also from companies in the broader MI industry? What’s the “secret sauce” at Blackstar?
Robinson: I think the secret sauce starts with the sound, if I’m honest with you. That, and our approach to design. I think the thing that I’m most proud of is the fact that every single product that we’ve launched has won an award, and we’ve benchmarked very closely against the rest of the market. I think, if there was a secret, it was doing things on purpose and not by “black magic.” Even in the most subjective parts of our business, we put in a lot of effort to make our decision making evidence-based. Never sign a single channel off a single amp without listening to what else is in the market and listening to our other amps. It’s just important to be able to verify which direction we’re going. So, yeah, I’d say the things I’m most proud of are the products and the sound.
The team ethic we have at Blackstar is really important, too. We have around 40 highly dedicated staff, and what we do is very collaborative. We’re always looking to add the best talent in all areas.
I also think we’ve done an amazing job with the brand. Paul’s done a fantastic job with it. “The sound in your head” has become synonymous with Blackstar. The innovation that we continually drive in the business is big, too. And, obviously, so is the team. Every single person in the business is committed to, and passionate about, the brand and what we do. So, I’d say that and the products are probably the two aspects I’m most proud of.
The Retailer: Tell us about some of the most exciting, most innovative new products that are in Blackstar’s portfolio. Have you recently released anything that’s especially groundbreaking? Do you have anything in the pipeline of which you could give us an early preview?
Robinson: The important thing, which goes right back to when we started, is that we don’t see ourselves as a valve company or a digital company…a high-end company or a low-end company. We see ourselves as being able to innovate in all technologies and deliver the best possible products to all different market areas. For us, it’s about the fact that we innovate in all technologies, with all products. You know, if we’ve got a $99 amp, we don’t cut back on the innovation.
You asked about specific products…I’ll give you a great example. The Fly 3 product is a little, three-watt, battery-powered amp that costs $59. And that market…it’s matured. There have been products in that market for 25 or 30 years. When we came to market with our product, we designed that product absolutely from the ground up. It’s got a lot of innovation, which means, actually, that the Fly 3 is arguably entirely market-redefining in terms of its performance against our competitors. I think that’s a really good example where, just because someone’s paying $59 for an amp, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t expect really great performance. It’s about sound and it’s about feel. And, it’s about inspiring people to play. I mean, I use the Fly 3 at home and, sometimes, I’m happy to use that over using a small valve amp or something. It’s such a great product.
We’ve had the same philosophy even since our Marshall days, where, at every price point, we put everything into it. We never go, “This product can’t be too good at $199 or $299.” We do everything we can to give the end user the best possible product. That’s a key guiding principle of ours.
The Retailer: Discuss Blackstar’s commitment to the brick-and-mortar MI store channel. Is working collaboratively with brick-and-mortar music dealers a key, unchanging part of Blackstar’s fundamental approach to doing business? Expound on your dealer-focused philosophy.
Robinson: Yes, working with the dealer channel is a key part of what we do. We have amazing relationships with our dealers. I think we’re in a really good position in the fact that, when we started in the U.S. in 2009 with Blackstar USA, Loren and Keith established relationships with probably the top 150 indie dealers. We have good personal relationships. We traveled almost nonstop in those early days, and we still visit regularly. Once every couple of months, we travel extensively in the U.S.
The reason why, I suppose, is that we’ve been around music stores since our teenage years. We understand that, when you’re finding out about a product, especially our kind of product, you have to physically experience what the amp sounds like and feels like to make a good buying decision. For us, talking selfishly, it’s absolutely imperative that we have good geographical coverage and good support in the stores, if we’re going to be successful in the business. Because people have to go and try the products for themselves.
I think the amazing thing about the U.S. market in particular is that there’s a high degree of knowledge and passion within the dealer base. The professionalism among the retailers in the U.S., I’d say, is really strong. It always impresses me how committed to growing the user base the dealers are: how many stores have lessons programs and rehearsal studios, how many do deals to help younger players with financing, and stuff like that. The U.S. is the most proactive market in the world in terms of growing the user base. That’s so important. And I know that NAMM, as an organization, is constantly engaged with that, as is the MIA in the U.K. The dealers have a key part to play in that, though, and that’s why they’re so important.
I’ll tell you, I should mention another key thing for us with dealers, which shows our commitment to the independent channel in particular. We have our own full-time demonstrator in the U.S., Jay Hayes. Jay plays an absolutely fundamental role for us. He’s visited, on an ongoing basis, five or six dealers a week. Maybe more…maybe 10 dealers a week. He’s engaging with the guys on the shop floor, really explaining what’s important about Blackstar and why Blackstar’s different. There is a story to tell. It’s not just a story of four guys from Marshall; it’s more a story of what our philosophy is in terms of developing these products that inspire people to play because they sound better.
We’ve known Jay for a long time, and he’s the archetypal professional. He’s well liked among the guys in the stores. And, you know, we get a weekly report directly back from his experiences in the U.S. market with the dealers. That goes to me, Paul, and the sales and marketing guys. Jay’s constantly feeding back into the company the comments from the dealer shop floors. It’s invaluable for us. We get a lot of information from Korg, and that’s further augmented by the information from Jay. And Jay doesn’t sell products. Basically, he goes in and evangelizes the brand, and he does an amazing job of it.
The Retailer: Describe Blackstar’s relationship with Korg USA. Why is that partnership so fortuitous as it relates to Blackstar’s strength in the U.S. market?
Robinson: I was just talking to Joe Castronovo this morning, actually, about how, all the time, they’re renewing their engagement with the dealer network. He was saying that a key strategy for them over the past 12 months has been for the management of Korg to get out and visit stores even more…to engage with the dealers. When we talk to Korg, we not only talk to management, but we also talk to the sales guys. They’re open with us about sharing the details of the market, whether it’s about trends with products or specific product requirements. They’re as forthcoming as, if not more forthcoming than, any of our other distributors.
So, the way that we work together is a true partnership. It’s very open, particularly on the new products side. We’re very open about what our product lookout is. We are with all of our distributors, and we value them all, but there’s something special about the relationship with Korg in terms of Korg’s thorough understanding of the market and what players require. That’s invaluable to us in developing new products and setting a new product strategy.
Because we distribute ourselves in the U.K. market, we learn quite a lot from Korg, as well. They’re a very professional company in terms of their sales channel management, the way that they support the dealers and all the not-so-glamorous stuff they do on the back side. Their service is brilliant. The way they support their dealers with financing, helping them with shipping and all that stuff….they’re really a model distributor.
The Retailer: Is there anything the dealer channel could do that would be helpful to Blackstar as a brand? Do you have any suggestions for the dealer channel that you believe would be helpful to retailers, in addition to being helpful to your own bottom line?
Robinson: I think they should continue to create their own future. That’s got to be the key one, and it’s the same for everybody. They should engage with the local community and make sure more people are visiting the store. The most successful stores are very good at engaging the local community and creating the next generation of customers. That’s important for us, but it’s really important for them. That’s a general one. In terms of supporting Blackstar, I think it’s about being educated and being able to add value to the end user’s experience. The consumer can go online and learn a lot. However, there is no substitute for going to a store and talking to someone who really knows his stuff…someone who can explain why products sound the way they do and what the buying choice is. To be as educated and as open minded as possible is key.
The Retailer: As people watch Blackstar over the next year…three years…five years, what can they expect to see? Do you have clear benchmarks and goals for the short-term and intermediate-term future?
Robinson: We want to continue to grow our business and we want to continue to increase our market share. That’s somewhat self-serving, because we want to grow the business commercially. But we also want people to have the best guitar sound, if I’m honest with you. So, more people playing Blackstar is what we want for the immediate and mid-term future. We’re constantly looking at our product portfolio and looking at opportunities in the market. Some of that is reactive. So, we’re monitoring how trends are changing and making sure we’re meeting the requirements of guitarists.
Just as importantly, we’re providing the market with innovation and driving the market by offering it something different. So, that’s what we’re going to continue to do. We’re going to continue to innovate in all technologies and at all price points. It’s also very important for us to make sure that we continue to support the independent retailers worldwide and in the U.S.
Our core values of innovation and being experts in sound are transferrable into other market sectors. Maybe there’ll be some surprises along the way there, where we’ll be looking to open up some other channels or sectors within the business. We don’t want to lose focus, however, on the core part of our business, which is guitar amplifier products.
The Retailer: Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask about?
Robinson: Yes. What makes a Blackstar amplifier sound so good? I’ll start by telling an interesting story. When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time in guitar stores. I used to constantly be looking for the sound on the albums. You’d be listening to Black Sabbath or whatever, and you’d be thinking, “How did those guys get that sound?” I used to try a lot of amps, and they really didn’t deliver on that. So, when we started in the business and when we began our journey in the Marshall days, I was driven by trying to get the sound. You know? And by trying to understand what the sound is. The reason our amps sound different is because we’ve gone to a lot of effort to find out why amplifiers, and sound-generation products like pedals, sound the way they do.
There’s so much B.S. spoken in this industry by amplifier gurus and designers, who don’t really understand the technical nature of some of the circuits they’re working with. I shouldn’t be negative about the rest of the industry…I don’t mean to be. I should say positively that we understand why our products sound the way that they do. From first principles, we understand what is required within an amp: In those old designs, what really made them sound good and what, in fact, we could get rid of and improve. Right from the start, we’ve always had a bottom-up, blank-piece-of-paper approach. We don’t change just for the sake of it. If it’s good, we keep it. But innovation in terms of the design is what we do every day.
We have three current patents, and we’re presently working on a couple more. So, there are these big, key deliverables like ISF or DPR. But then, at every single stage of the design, we’re constantly refining and trying to find out how to make the product sound better. So, in short, the reason why our products sound so good is a lot of hard work, based on engineering principles. And we never stop trying to improve. So, already, we’re starting to do some mark twos of our original products. It’s about constant improvement in what we do, based upon engineering research.