This is our DJ/lighting issue, so what better time to check in with John Powell, president of Pioneer DJ Americas Inc.? Powell took on this role on April 1, and he has had a storied career in the industry, dating back to the late 1980s. He has plenty of information to share, including how his new role has been going and if there have been any surprises thus far. Enjoy.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Please take us through your career.
John Powell: I started out at JBL International in the late ‘80s. I sold pro audio, home audio and car audio. Internationally, we covered everywhere but the U.S. and Mexico. I mainly helped out in Latin America and Middle-Eastern Africa because I speak Spanish. Speaking another language was very useful. At the time, JBL mostly sold pro-audio components. Everyone was making their own boxes, so there were a ton of compression drivers, woofers and more. It was a great introduction to international business. I got to travel most of the world, and it really gave me a good appreciation for our own country. It was a great experience. I was there about six years.
I wanted to move on from there, so I went to Boston Acoustics in 1995. I got there when home theater was really blowing up. So that was really cool. It was very technical there, with a lot of training, so I learned a lot about audio and surround systems. That was a good six years also. When consumer audio had a downturn, though, I said, “Enough of this. I am going back to pro audio.” I reached out to a good friend whom I had worked with before, Mark Terry. A month later, I got a call from Harman Music Group in Salt Lake City. I went to work for Harman handling signal-processing sales, looking after Canada, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. I was at Harman for 16 years, handling a variety of roles. That was both before and after we acquired Martin Audio and AMX. So, it was JBL, Soundcraft, AKG, Crown amplifiers — pretty much the whole pro-audio gamut. I worked with distributors overseas, and working with Canada was great. I got to know a lot of the consultants, integrators, retailers and more.
In 2012, I was asked to run JBL’s worldwide sales. I had previously worked on a project with DigiTech in Europe for a couple of months. That was truly a global role, and [it was] when I started to work with the U.S. market. I knew some people in the U.S., of course, but it was eye opening meeting the key players and learning the ins and outs. I got to meet some really nice people and establish strong relationships. It was a dark time at JBL when I started, but I was on a team that really turned it around. Shortly after, not just because of me, but because of the way our team worked, JBL became a much stronger brand both internally and externally. That was a great time. A lot of it was about basics of business — increasing communications with the global sales team as well as key customers. We worked in a collaborative manner, the way I have always worked. Everybody has a role to play, but it’s a team effort. The team wins or loses together.
The Retailer: You joined Pioneer in 2017. Tell us why you wanted to make that switch and about some of the sales strategies you have implemented since.
Powell: There were a lot of shuffles at Harman, where they changed the roles and nobody worked for a brand anymore. I got put into a role that didn’t excite me because it didn’t challenge me. I need to be challenged, so I said, “I love the company. I love the brands. But it’s time to move on.” Pioneer offered me an opportunity to grow professionally. I came in as the senior vice president of sales. The division I work for, Pioneer DJ Americas, as the name implies, covers all of the Americas. It was an attractive offer to go from one market leader to another market leader. I went from a very strong player in professional audio to the No. 1 player in the DJ market. It was a great opportunity, and I haven’t regretted it for a second.
The Retailer: Can you tell us about the moment you learned you would become president?
Powell: There was a succession plan. [My predecessor] Yoshinori Kataoka knew it was likely he would go back to Japan, and I knew it was possible I would earn this role. When I found out he was promoted to [chief operating officer] of our company, I was thrilled. He is the right guy to go back to Pioneer headquarters and implement some changes. The company definitely wasn’t stale, but I think it’s good to do things from a different perspective. He was in the United States for many years. So, I was not surprised, but extremely pleased that management decided to grant me this opportunity. It certainly wasn’t a given, especially at a foreign-owned company. Many times, someone from the head office is brought in to run the satellite division. I was very grateful to be given the opportunity.
The Retailer: Speaking of your predecessor, what have you learned from him? What advice did he impart upon you?
Powell: We have spoken every day. He taught me a lot about how Pioneer DJ does business. I’ve worked for several companies, but they were always American owned with an American way of doing business. Working for a Japanese company is a little bit different. Business is business, but the way you go about it is somewhat different. There is a lot more forecasting and planning with a Japanese company. Things can be taken more slowly because things are thought out more, with everyone having a chance to voice their opinion, and then you move forward. He also explained how the mindset of a DJ can be different from how a guitar player, drummer, front-of-house engineer or installer might think. I hadn’t dealt with DJs much, so he gave me a lot of perspective on how DJs think and how they use our products. A lot of DJs make a living out of it, but many do it as a hobby or do it as a gig once in a while. You need to listen to the voice of the customer and always put them first. You can’t have too many layers between management and users of the products. Here, our Americas group is small, so we are close to the end user. End users come in the office and offer ideas you may have never even considered.
The Retailer: You started your new role on April 1. Can you tell us how it has gone so far? Any surprises thus far along the way?
Powell: It has gone great. It has been fun. Nothing overly surprising. We are not a big group, so everyone knows what is going on all the time. My role is different. A lot more meetings. A lot more things that require my signature. I had to get used to the fact that the buck stops here. My biggest challenge is spending more of my day thinking strategically than before. My previous job was a lot more tactical. It was about making your sales number month to month. It is still some of that, but it’s more about what we can put in place to be where we want to be in six months. It’s not surprising, but how my day has changed.
The Retailer: Pioneer certainly has had a strong reputation over the years. What new philosophies might you impart? What is your overall management approach?
Powell: A collaborative approach is the best way to describe it. I did a lot of coaching of my kids’ sports teams when they were younger. Sometimes with a team, you need to be a coach, like I do here. But if I have to micromanage somebody, forget it. It’s not what I’m about. If I have to teach you something new or coach you, I will of course do that short term. I can’t have someone come in every 10 minutes asking what to do next though. That’s not the way I work. My role is clearing the hurdles. What resources do you need? What’s blocking you or holding you up? Let me remove that so you can do what you need to do. That’s the way I worked with the team at JBL and definitely the way I manage.
As for philosophies, it’s not new, but we like to play the cards close to the vest when it comes to products. We may come out with a press release and the next day, we start selling it. I’ve been places where we announced a product and hopefully start shipping it six months later. We are also showing concepts to trusted partners in advance to get their feedback. I think that is important. You can’t do it with everyone, but you pick a handful of people who have a vested interest, like we have, and we get honest feedback and opinions. We will do that more in all aspects of our business. That’s true not only with DJ products but music production and pro-audio products as well.
Also, we want to contribute to the overall success of our community and support it as best as we can. As leaders in the industry, it is important for us to give back. How do we help our industry thrive and be successful? We want to partner with organizations that have the same goal.
We also have an app (Kuvo) that allows someone in a club listening to a track to find out what music it is. A group called Pro is helping us with that, which helps distribute royalties. Royalties aren’t paid out the way they were 15 years ago.
The Retailer: What are some of your goals for Pioneer during the next few years?
Powell: We certainly want to continue to dominate with industry-leading products that consumers can enjoy. When you are out in front, you have a target on your back. How do you keep innovating? As the industry and products mature, it gets harder and harder to come out with innovative products. So, there are some challenges. We have to keep doing it and live up to our name. We have to continue to “pioneer.” I often bring up to our product development team about how we can pioneer something new. We have many things in the product pipeline that will do that, but sometimes, you need that evolutionary product.
We also want to make sure we provide professional DJs with something that allows them to inspire and entertain. Sometimes, you need to think outside the box. One of the things we have done is, we opened up our pro DJ link, an internal thing, which is how we communicate one device with another. We opened that protocol so third-party software suppliers can use it. It allows DJs to sync their lighting and video content. The music is something we’ve got down pat, but lighting and visual is a way to improve what we do and what we offer our customers.
Another goal is to continue to grow our pro-audio business. It’s doing well. But we entered a crowded market with companies that have been doing it for decades. Our name is known, but not necessarily in that space. It started before I got here, and we have expanded on pro audio since I’ve been here.
Something else we are doing is working more closely with schools and other educational institutions. One of the challenges for all of us, but certainly Pioneer DJ, is how do we get more people into DJing? We have a dominant position overall, but how do you grow the market? We have been working with schools to suggest curriculum to teach [students] how to DJ. There are tons of guitar classes, drum classes and keyboard classes, but very few DJ classes. Finally, we are going to continue to develop our music-production products. They are different products. A DJ can certainly use them, but they’re not just for DJs.
The Retailer: What is the state of the DJ industry today?
Powell: I think the industry is strong. I see with my kids and their friends that electronic music is mainstream now. When I grew up, DJs played music and not much else. But now, DJs are creating new music. They may be taking existing tracks, but they are mashing them up and adding elements that fundamentally change the music. There is a lot more creativity involved. The younger generation really likes music, and each generation that comes of age is getting more used to having immediate gratification. There are a lot more things to occupy your mind than I had as a kid growing up. The fact you could go to a two-hour class and afterwards be able to do some basic DJing bodes well for us. Whereas with guitars, you can take a two-hour class and maybe play one chord. I know; I have tried to play the guitar. Of course, to be a really good DJ, you have to put in as much time as any other musical instrument. But to be able to make some basic entertainment at a family gathering can be done pretty quickly.
The Retailer: Can you tell us about some recent product launches?
Powell: We recently launched three products, one of which is the DDJ-200. It’s a smart DJ controller. It’s an entry-level product with a street price of $149. I saw that product from the early concept phase to final development. When you introduce an entry-level product, you always run the risk of cannibalizing more expensive products. But with all the feedback we received, we feel the DDJ-200 is great for anyone who wants to start DJing with a really low barrier to entry. You can really have fun with it. Of course, if you wanted to move up, you would have to step up to that next level of product. You connect your portable device by Bluetooth MIDI to the controller and can project audio out of your phone. It’s great for people who want to make a modest investment, use a controller with their phone. We have a video of young people who get together, use it and are really rocking. It’s a really exciting product at a beginner level. Initial orders are strong.
We also launched our DDJ-800. It replaced the DDJ-RR. It’s a mid-priced controller with a street price of $899. It has microphone feedback suppression, our first product to have that. It’s a good hobbyist product or for people who perform at smaller venues, perhaps over the weekend. If someone wishes to become a good festival or club DJ, this is a really good starting point. That has been selling well.
And then in our TORAIZ line, we launched a new sequencer called SQUID. That has done really well for us. In fact, it has sold out.
The Retailer: What is your approach regarding Pioneer’s relationship with MI retailers?
Powell: They are our lifeblood. Whether brick and mortar or online, it’s where the customer wants to shop. All of our retail customers are extremely important to us. They always have been. Our products are primarily sold at retail stores. In fact, I think it’s about 95 percent of our business. We work closely with all of our key partners. We have been revamping some of our programs to make them more effective for retailers. We are working to provide the best possible consumer experience, whether point-of-purchase displays for brick-and-mortar stores or for online retailers, making sure people really get what they want. We are trying to add value in any way we can.