_MG_0110This month, The Retailer is proud to bring you an in-depth, deeply thoughtful interview with one of the music products industry’s most widely respected veterans…someone whose career in the MI industry goes back more than 25 years and whose personal connection to music can be traced to early childhood. Andy Rossi, who this year was named Korg USA’s Senior VP, Sales and Marketing, reflects on the storied career that’s brought him to this point and elaborates on how Korg USA represented so uniquely appealing an opportunity. He also articulates some of his concerns about the MI industry as currently constituted and shares his ideas on how to fortify the market and move it in a more progressive direction.
In short, it’s everything our readers look for in a “Five Minutes With” conversation.

The Music & Sound Retailer: Let’s start with your background. Trace your history with music and with professional audio and technology, touching on what initially captured your interest. How did you translate that into a successful career? Discuss a bit about your career trajectory, mentioning some of the key positions you’ve held.

Andy Rossi: I grew up in a very musical family here in the New York area. My mother and father are graduates of Julliard and classically trained pianists. My father made his living as a music educator and he was a music teacher. My parents were also very much into art and were partners in a specialty retail business that sold the art pieces they created for 30 years.

Rossi-headshotMy upbringing was unique: my environment was filled 24/7 with the arts, music, lessons, and friends and family who were deep into that world. So, truly from birth to now at 51 years old, I have always had a great appreciation and high regard for the arts and a priority placed on music. So, that’s really where it started.

Then somewhere in there, being a child who was really of the ’70s, I became infatuated and really inspired by and interested in all the same rock ‘n’ roll bands as everybody else during that decade. The power and majesty of rock ‘n’ roll just captivated me and I was mesmerized by the whole electric guitar movement: the playing, the gear…all of it. One day, after seeing Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin sort of out in the media and in front of me, I said to my dad, “I think I want to try playing guitar.” And, since he was a supportive musical parent, the next day there was a little Giannini acoustic nylon-stringed guitar in a box waiting for me. I would absolutely say that moment was the moment that kicked it off for me. I am always hopeful that, when kids express an interest in making music, they have a parent or anyone in their lives who can see that spark and fans that flame.

So, from there, I took a pretty normal trajectory into guitar lessons at local community music schools and retail shops. I migrated to bands. By the time I was a teenager in high school, I was playing in lots of local bands. It was my passion and I was getting into the gear and the whole music business. From high school, I went to Berklee College of Music and I played in bands…covers, originals and so on. I was also in studios. I opened up for a lot of what were, at the time, major acts like Robin Trower and the Allman Brothers and other artists like that. I really cut my teeth in the world of performing, musical gear, working with guitars, amplifiers, drums, keyboards, management and the overall business of music.

And then, when I wasn’t on the road, I gave lessons and started to work in retail. I worked in various local retail shops. I was just a super-passionate music industry nut about it all. But, as I got into my mid-20s, it started to wear on me…being on the road and not really having the ability to live a more normal life. I mean, you’re not really making money and things like that. So then, I quickly decided, “You know what? I’m working in a music store, and I’m on the road playing a lot. I see these guys coming in called sales reps, and it seems like a cool job! They come in and they’re trying to sell me guitars and amps and other stuff like that. I think I can do that! I think I can work for a company that makes musical gear.”

So, I proceeded to get a job at a little guitar company called Steinberger Guitars. I was sort of the resident guitar player in the building. I was working closely with Ned Steinberger. That’s when I really started to get introduced to the MI side of things. I started going to industry shows, such as NAMM and Musikmesse, and I would travel around the U.S. and Canada doing clinics. I would ride with reps and visit retailers. I immersed myself in it. I really became a student of the industry, which I still am. I find that I learn something new or interesting all the time, even now.

From there—this was around the late ’80s—Korg USA was looking for a local New York Marshall rep. They were experimenting with splitting off the more rock ‘n’ roll side of the business from the tech and synth side. That’s when I got my first full-time, major-brand rep job. That was during the height of New York-area retail when 48th St. was really cranking: you had Manny’s, Sam Ash and all that. I had a territory. That’s when I really first learned how to be a rep and deal with the business side of the industry: retail, customer service, traveling, seeing retailers…all that kind of stuff. It was a great education to learn from the country’s top retailers. They really put reps through the mill back then. You had to be on your game to survive and do well for yourself, your company and your retail customers.

I was a guy who had a good reputation in New York for being a hard worker, knowledgeable and an overall stand-up guy. I always tried to avoid that sort of salesman stereotype and do something that was a little more progressive. One day, I got a call from Fender and I became the New York-area Fender rep, which, at the time, was one of the most prestigious rep gigs in the country. So, I was very fortunate to have had that opportunity, and I knew it. This is when learning really went into high gear.

My time at Fender was nothing short of being in a rock ‘n’ roll, music business, Ivy League university education for the music industry, and I immersed myself in it. I went from being the local New York rep to the East Coast Regional Manager. And then, Bill Schultz and Bill Mendello—the heads of Fender at the time—tried to get me to move to Phoenix. I didn’t want to leave New York. But they said, “You know what? We think you’re a field guy who would transition well into the inside exec team.”

I was doing really great at Fender. I was winning awards. I was breaking all these sales records and coming up with all these new sales methods. I was one of the first guys to have a laptop computer with an order-entry system in it. So, I was sort of pioneering little rep techniques and rep things, and really enjoying it. Plus, I was learning so much about the business. It was a great experience and a great time for the industry and me. There were so many great industry people and retailers around to learn from. It was fantastic, and I was so grateful to be crossing paths with and learning from the true greats of the industry, whether they were competitors, retailers, rock stars, businesspeople…you name it.

But then I decided, if I wanted to progress, I needed to go inside. So, I relocated to Phoenix and become the National Sales Manager, then VP of Sales, then Senior VP for Sales and Marketing and then, ultimately, for the last many years, Senior VP for Global Sales for FMIC and the entire brand portfolio. I, along with a great team of people at Fender, helped to build that early “next version” of FMIC. It’s a bit sad to have seen that coming apart in recent days, but it was exciting back then and that’s when I really started to learn about the global music market. I traveled extensively throughout the United States, South America, all over Asia, Europe…really, all over the world. Only a small number of people really understand the global music market: how it all fits together and how all the markets differ.

Then, in later years, as you know, Fender started to change its direction and had a few different changes in upper management…CEOs…and, eventually, there was a difference of opinion as to what the direction of the company should be and my time there came to an end. I had been on the road at that point for many, many years, and I was really, really tired. I actually considered leaving the music industry after 25 years. I had all this experience, but I was a little burned out and I had a lot of thoughts on how I wanted to do things. So, after Fender, I took a little bit of time and I only called a few close friends in the industry. I didn’t really look for a job. I just said, “I’m out. I’m on the loose. Not sure what I want to do.”

The Retailer: What inspired you to rejoin Korg USA after a couple decades? What about the company did you find attractive?

Rossi: Well, one thing I did know was that I wanted to have the freedom to apply my global experience and everything I had done in the last 25 years in ways that made sense. Plus, I wanted to apply it to a company that had great products and a lot of growth opportunity to see if I could help a business grow. I wasn’t just seeking to sell products; I was looking for a chance to lead and do great things for a business and its people and customers. So, Korg was a logical next step for me.

Korg USA’s CEO, Joe Castronovo, whom I knew, contacted me because he was thinking about the next steps for Korg USA. Joe was, and still is, very committed to reigniting the company. After speaking with him, I felt that Korg USA had an interesting business model that would allow for growth, and I wanted to be part of the team that reignited it. Joe was leading a great team that is very open to change and progressing. That’s why I came, and that’s what we’re doing now. Korg USA, the company, is an interesting mix of brands that it owns, like Korg and VOX, and brands that it distributes, like Blackstar and others. The company model is interesting in that the company is able to own and/or acquire brands, and then do the necessary sales, marketing and back-end infrastructure processes needed to grow those brands. We have the field infrastructure with salespeople, as well as the inside infrastructure with phone support, customer service and warehousing. So, any company that might not be able to grow its brand because of the many complexities—these include the cost of sales and marketing, and field salespeople, and payroll…all the things you have to do to run a business—can simply come to Korg USA and say, “We want to make the product, but we want you to sell and market it.” Korg USA is well known for building brands and sustaining those brands with high-quality sales and marketing efforts.

So, I liked the fact that Korg USA can both own brands and distribute brands, because it opens up lots of opportunity. The other thing I liked is that the Korg brand itself is a tech brand and I was very interested in learning more about it. I knew a lot about the guitar and amp side…the more analog side. But now, I wanted to learn more about the tech side, because that opens up a whole other segment: whether it’s keyboards, Kaoss pads or EDM products. It would introduce me to a whole other customer segment…a whole new musical segment…that, at Fender, I wasn’t really that involved in.
So, I thought the Korg brand itself would really help to round out my view of the music market, and the brand has a lot of innovation in its history: M1s, Tritons, Kronos…and then there’s what Korg has done with tuners. So, it has this great mix of tech stuff that I wanted to learn about and innovation in its history, with which I was proud to be associated. I went out and spoke to a lot of dealers before I joined Korg and I asked them, “Do I have the right to be very proud when working for Korg USA?” And they said, “Yes, you do.” And so, I was very happy that I would be able to represent a brand and a company that was well loved and respected throughout the industry.

And, the people here, both the long-timers who built this business, like Joe and Diana, and the newer people here, are top notch and well-respected, high-integrity people. The teams here are filled with dedicated, passionate people who are among the best I have seen in the industry. And the leadership in Japan, along with the engineering talent and sales and marketing teams there, are great, too. They’re really dedicated to doing good things for the industry and for customers globally.

The Retailer: Can you describe your principal responsibilities as Senior VP, Sales and Marketing, and what your immediate-term and intermediate-term goals might be?

Rossi: Korg USA had not really had one person who was in charge of both sales and marketing, and I’m a believer that those two functions somewhere in the organization chain have to be connected. It truly is the one-two punch for growth. You can’t have sales not interacting, coordinating and aligning with marketing, or vice versa, which is often an issue at larger companies. My responsibility is to help the company grow by maximizing the effectiveness of the sales and marketing groups. A broad statement, I know, but it’s the overriding theme that trickles down to a multitude of B2B and B2C goals, strategies and tactics that create good, solid, healthy, long-term growth for Korg USA and its partners, while supporting the needs of both retail and consumer customers. And, along the way, we’ll make sure we are always enabling music creation by bringing great music-making tools to market, which Korg was certainly doing long before I arrived.

The first thing I’m working on is creating a highly efficient, highly functioning, highly successful sales group—same for marketing—but then linking them together so they’re working together to grow the company. A lot of those ingredients were already here at Korg. There was a great sales function as well as a great marketing function. My responsibilities are to run and improve sales and marketing, but also to coordinate and align them. That was also one of my first goals. That’s sort of what I’m in the middle of right now. We’re adjusting the organization—and the operations within the organization—to make sure sales and marketing are really working together. That’s a lot tougher than it sounds, but it’s really going well.

The Retailer: What continues to keep you, as somebody who’s been part of the music products and audio technology industries for over 20 years, inspired and motivated? What makes you excited to get out of bed in the morning and go into work?

Rossi: That’s like asking a touring musician what keeps him or her going. The answer always seems to be, “When I hit that stage….” Sure, there are days when it’s tough, and I am worried about the music industry. I’m watching the many changes that are occurring in the way people participate in music, as well as the way they consume and listen to music, and it’s all tied together: the changes in musical styles, the changes in the devices people are using to listen to music. People are able to be spectators, but it’s not as easy to participate in playing music, which, of course, is what leads to buying products. So, the world is changing, and there’s a lot of pressure on the industry’s ability to grow. If you look at the industry numbers—U.S. and worldwide—they’re sort of hovering somewhere in the $5 to $7 billion range. But, it’s not really growing. So, as an industry veteran, I look at our industry and I do become concerned about its ability to grow. And on those days when it’s tough, I do think, “Where are we all going?”

But then you “hit that stage” and do what you do, and the absolute energy and power of the arts and the business of creating and enabling music makers just powers you through. It’s already been said—and I know it’s a bit cliché—but the people in our industry and the customers and characters we all deal with are just so colorful and inspiring, and are so inspired by what we do, that it’s just impossible not to want to keep at it every single day. We are all very fortunate to be in this business, and we all need to remember that. And as I said, I am very committed to the task of growing a business with a great team of people to work with. It’s all very rewarding in so many ways when you look back at accomplishments and say, “We did that.”

I think the industry could be a lot more progressive in what it does to fuel growth. We all have to work together on that. But, how can you not be madly inspired by what we do? We make music. We make the tools that make music. It’s the art…the people and the characters you meet. Whether it’s in our industry or the artists or the consumers or the retailers…they’re really colorful and really robust. And, of course, it’s a very passion-filled industry. And that’s what excites me. There are days when I wake up and say, “Wow! I can’t believe the world I live in! This crazy, rock ‘n’ roll, colorful, beautiful musical instrument world.” That, I still really love. And I still love listening to and playing music. So, how can you not love working in the field that you love personally?

The Retailer: When you talk about your concerns about the MI industry’s growth and its ability to attract new people, what are your suggestions? If you were the benevolent dictator of the MI world and you could shape the broader market forces, what would you like to see the market do to strengthen itself?

Rossi: My feeling on that is that the various manufacturers in various segments—whether it’s keyboards or guitars or tech stuff or pro audio and so on—and the various retailers really need to do a better job of working cooperatively together to do more for the ongoing campaign to grow music. If we continue to battle each other and circle each other—wondering who’s a partner, who’s an adversary, who’s a competitor—and if we cling to old beliefs while consumers are rapidly changing, we will never grow our market.

We really have to work together to create more innovation. It can be more innovation in products, or it can be more innovation in campaigns to grow and interest people in music. It can be more innovation in what’s happening at retail. It can be more innovation in what’s happening in the way companies work together. More innovation in the manner we reach and teach consumers. Battling over the same old issues is a waste of time.

Wishing things never changed or gripping onto the past and saying the future is all doom and gloom is wrong, but some of us can’t seem to get away from that.

So, I would like to sit in sort of a think-tank environment with a lot of progressive manufacturers and retailers. Check your competitive ego at the door, and sit down with everybody and say, “We’ve got to do something.” Because, right now, we’re all just pulling business from each other. The market’s not growing; we’re all just battling it out for a sale from each other…and that’s not going to last long. It’s a death spiral. We’ve got to do something more progressive than that, and I think we can. We are a group of people noted for creating things: art, music products, etc. Is it possible we can apply that creative energy toward a better musical future? I’d like to think so.

It drives me crazy when all these venture capital or other outside-of-the-MI-industry people look at MI and say we are 10 years behind the evolution curve of other, more progressive industries…but I can see why they say it. But it’s not true that we can’t be an industry that’s also progressive and evolving and maturing and creating. We can do it. We just really need to start doing it from the inside out.

The Retailer: Discuss Korg USA’s commitment to the dealer channel. Is working in a collaborative fashion with brick-and-mortar music dealers a key part of Korg’s fundamental philosophy and approach to business?

Rossi: It is for sure. I think Korg USA, like every company, is looking for new and better ways to partner with retailers. So, we’ll try different things, and some are hits and some are misses. But, the overriding philosophy is for those retailers who are open-minded, who are asking the right questions, who are trying to be progressive—what we’re saying is, “We want to talk to you, work with you and win with you.”

Over the last month, we’ve had several meetings with key dealers and the message that I always try to leave them with is, “Look…when you’re having meetings outside of Korg USA, and it’s just your meeting in your music store with your staff, and you’re talking about how you’re going to grow, what I’d like you to do is always say to yourself, ‘You know what? Korg USA is open-minded. They want to pursue growth. Let’s call them and see what’s up. Let’s call them and see what they think or what they want to do with us.’ Or, ‘If we come to them with a good idea, let’s see if they’re game.’”

So, the message that I’m trying to send to retailers throughout the Korg USA dealer network is, “Don’t forget that you have an open door at Korg USA and we want to speak to you about any methodology, any philosophy, any program, any idea overall that could lead to healthy growth.” Our overriding philosophy is, “The door is open to partner with anyone who wants to do it.” We reach out, but we also want people to reach in to us.

The Retailer: What does the future hold for Korg USA? What can company-watchers expect over the next six months? One year? Five years?

Rossi: In the short term—let’s say, over the next six months—retailers are going to see a real polishing, refining, modifying and updating of all Korg USA’s policies and procedures in a way that is meant to lead to healthy business and healthy growth. So, over the years, there have been a lot of different policies, programs, procedures and methodologies. As the industry has changed, as Korg USA has changed and as the Korg USA team has changed, some of them have drifted from their original intent. Some of them just need to be dusted off and polished, whereas some of them need to be completely redone to evolve with the market and with what customers want.

So, one of the things I’m doing right now is I’m sort of going through all areas of sales and marketing—and other areas of the company, as well—and updating and reinvigorating everything we do to be more relevant for today’s business. That way, dealers have the best possible outcome for themselves, and we do, as well. And, of course, we’re ultimately focused on making sure consumers are happy with our products and their experience with the brand.

In the long term, I think you’ll see more brands in the Korg USA portfolio. We’re looking for more brands actively. And, slowly, the organization will change and modify: again, to meet today’s business. Also, we’re prepping the business for obvious changes: working more with e-commerce dealers, targeting the specific challenges and maximizing what great brick-and-mortar retailers can offer, and reaching out more to consumers. A lot of that’s pretty obvious.

I think Korg is, and will continue to be, viewed as a very progressive, hip and high-tech, yet still artsy, company that is able to move between the tech world and the analog world—sort of the art and the science—very freely and very effectively. And, as I said earlier, we have that ability. We’re not stuck into one type of reputation or expectation. Innovation will continue to be a core element of the manner in which we work, and it was a key part of Korg culture long before I arrived here.

The Retailer:  Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask that you’d like to discuss?
Rossi: No, I don’t think there’s anything you haven’t covered. I appreciate your excellent questions. I just want to make sure the dealer network really understands that Korg USA is very seriously dedicated to the next levels of growth and we really want to interact with dealers in a highly progressive way. We’re inviting that.

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