There’s simply no other way to say it: Yamaha is one of the precious few truly iconic names in the areas of electronics and technology. From its robust presence in home AV solutions straight through to its recognized leadership in the music products space, it’s a company whose innovation and breadth of products are beyond dispute. This month, we speak to Tom Sumner, Senior VP, Yamaha Corp. of America, who delves into his personal musical background and describes how it contributed to a 26-year-strong career with the Yamaha organization. Sumner elucidates the company’s unique strengths and competitive advantages, while also describing some of its newest product developments. Finally, he analyzes the state of the industry, offering his own characterization of the relative strength of the market as we approach the new year.
This conversation is one you won’t want to miss.

The Music & Sound Retailer: Let’s start with your personal background. Trace your own history with music, professional audio and technology, touching on what initially captured your interest. How did you translate that personal interest into a successful career?

Tom Sumner: I hate to say this, but I guess I’ve always been sort of a music geek. [Laughs.] When I was in school, being a geek probably wasn’t all that cool. When I was in junior high school and high school, I actually built speakers for both live sound applications and home stereo applications. I sold them to friends and families around the area. In my late teens, I created and ran my own live sound company, so I used some of those cabinets and bought some PA equipment that I was using with bands. I ran the live sound company for a year, until I figured out it was really difficult to make money doing it. [Laughs.]

I’ve been a musician my whole life, starting off with the guitar. My father had a guitar when I was really young, and he was playing sort of the Kingston Trio stuff. He basically said, “Don’t ever touch that guitar. I don’t want anything to happen to that guitar.” And, of course, I couldn’t really stay away from it. So, I actually learned to play it. I used all of his Mel Bay books, and pretty much got through all of those before he figured out I was actually playing it. At some point, I played his guitar for him and his reaction was, “Wow…you’re playing way, way better than I ever could.”

Then, he went out and bought me a guitar from Sears, and I’ve been playing ever since. I played in bands all through high school and college, and even after college for an extended period of time. They were bands that played original stuff, as well as cover bands. What initially attracts you to music? It’s hard to say. But, you know, just the sound of the guitar…the feel and everything else. If I go into a music store, I’ll still gaze longingly at the guitars on the wall. So, that’s kind of the basis.

I also started teaching guitar as a teenager in a local music store where I worked. It was a pretty interesting and valuable experience, because, even today, lessons are a big part of many music stores’ profitability, as well as their customer retention. As a teacher, I initially thought my job was just to teach guitar to kids or adults. Then, I started hearing, “Well, if they’re at the point where they need a new guitar, you’ve got to take them out onto the floor and talk to them about guitars and really try to get them involved in the store, in the community and all that other stuff.” So, that was a really good background to have in music, because it was broad and incorporated a lot of different interests.

The Retailer: Discuss a bit about your career trajectory, starting from the beginning of your career and bringing us to your arrival at Yamaha.

Sumner: I’ve been with Yamaha now about 26 years. All through college, I was working at music stores, playing in bands and teaching guitar, both to make money and to have fun while I was going to college. When I got out of college, I wanted to get a business background. I went to work for Macy’s. For about five years, I managed a retail sales floor. I was also a Buyer and had a few other positions. It was an absolutely great experience in terms of customer service, retail and learning about the world of business through a major operation like Macy’s. They were very methodical, and were successful because they had a strong business plan and lots of processes in place to carry that out and meet the needs of their customers. In my work with Yamaha today, I still rely on the foundation of experience, knowledge, and attention to detail and customer service that I gained during my time with Macy’s.

I first fell in love with the Yamaha brand when I was working in music stores during college. I was selling all sorts of things—keyboards, PA systems, guitars—and I always knew I could sell a Yamaha and be confident that it would be a good product for the customer. I could trust that, if it was an instrument or another product from Yamaha, the customer would be happy with it. That was simply good business. And so, when I was a Buyer for Macy’s, personal keyboards were being sold through department stores among other retailers, and that was one of the categories I was in charge of buying. At one point, one of my sales reps from Yamaha said, “Would you like to work for Yamaha?” and I jumped at the chance. That’s how I got involved with Yamaha. Initially, I was on the road selling personal keyboards for a number of years.

The Retailer: Tell us about your ascension through the ranks of the Yamaha organization.

Sumner: One of the things I love about Yamaha is we do quite a few different things. So, it’s not hard to find something new and interesting to do. And so, along the way, probably one of the biggest milestones for me was when Japan developed computer peripherals, including speakers and CD recorders and things like that, that were meant to go with the multimedia PC boom that happened in the ’90s. I jumped at the chance to get involved with that new technology, and I helped Yamaha grow that business here in the United States. Eventually, Yamaha made me the head of that division. In about 2003, Yamaha asked me to lead the pro audio and combo division, which involved leading a large group of very talented people and a really wide variety of products: from digital pianos to guitars to PA systems to music production. In 2006, Yamaha asked me to lead the consumer audio group, which, at the time, was a separate company called Yamaha Electronics Corp., focused on home theater products. But, it was a separate company under Yamaha Corp. of America.

When Terry Lewis left Yamaha as Senior VP, Rick Young and I were asked to be Senior VPs, and that’s what I’ve been doing since, although the various things that I’ve done and that I’ve been responsible for have changed quite a bit. But it’s constantly fun and constantly changing.

The Retailer: Describe your principal responsibilities as Senior VP of Yamaha. What are the most important tasks you tackle day to day? What’s the best, most exciting part of your job?

Sumner: My basic responsibility is for Yamaha marketing in the U.S. I lead our marketing efforts, including our in-house ad agency. Although we have leaders in each of these areas, I oversee our keyboard division, our home audio group and the Steinberg recording team. As part of marketing, I’m also responsible for customer support and artist relations. I consider myself one of the many dedicated leaders we have at Yamaha, which is why we remain successful and a trusted brand in so many categories.

As for a typical workday, I have no problem getting to the office in the morning, because I look forward to my job. It’s always fun and it’s always something new. Certainly, one of the most exciting things is seeing new products well before they’re available. Yamaha engineers are really talented, and they always have something that’s just ridiculously cool. You just say, “Oh my gosh! How did you even think of that?” I guess it goes back to always being a music geek. It’s a real thrill to see that kind of inventiveness, creativity and craftsmanship. One of the things I remember is that I was in Japan and I had to stay the weekend because I had meetings one week into the next. I got to see one of the earliest versions of our Tyros keyboard, which, although not a super-popular keyboard in the U.S., is an arranger workstation keyboard. And I remember hearing what it was doing: sort of mimicking an entire band and sounding like an entire band…not like a synthesized band. I thought, “How the heck do you do that?” You have to be awfully clever to do that. That’s definitely one of the cool things: seeing that marriage of music and technology that has come to be one of Yamaha’s biggest strengths.

The other cool thing is really the education part of it, and Yamaha does a lot with music education. Getting to see our Junior Original Concerts, which is our music-education group. These really young kids who are amazing players—they play piano just ridiculously well—but then who also compose. You listen to these kids and it either makes you want to play more…or it makes you want to stop playing because they’re just really good. [Laughs.] I get the same excitement from school bands that Yamaha supports. It’s just fun to see a group of high school musicians having a blast, working their tails off and enjoying the heck out of music. Those are great perks of my job, and something I’m really proud to see Yamaha involved with.


The Retailer: Speaking of pride in Yamaha, what about the company as it currently exists would you say you’re proudest of? What makes the company stand apart not only from direct competitors, but also from all companies in the professional audio, music and technology spaces? What’s the “secret sauce” at Yamaha?

Sumner: There was a spoof article in The Onion about how Yamaha makes all these different things, but I think Yamaha acts more like a group of boutique companies as opposed to just one monolithic company. We’re all under the Yamaha brand, but our band folks, for instance, are very dedicated and very specialized. That’s the case with our guitar folks, our audio folks, our drum folks and so on. All are experts in their particular area, under the Yamaha umbrella. Yamaha acts like a group of boutique companies, but they’re all tied together with a common purpose and with Yamaha’s core standards of quality craftsmanship, superior sound and performance, and unparalleled customer support. In my mind, that’s the “secret sauce.” There’s this foundation of quality: not just product quality, but also engineering quality and the quality of support we provide to our end users and our dealers. Truthfully, it’s the same today as it was when I got my first job in that music store. I’m confident that, when any customer purchases a Yamaha product, they’ll be happy with it. That’s still good business, and it’s definitely something I’m very proud of.

The Retailer: Shine a light on some of Yamaha’s most recent product launches and initiatives. What new product offerings are you currently pushing most aggressively?

Sumner: One that really stands out to me is the TransAcoustic piano, which we launched at the last NAMM show and which just recently started shipping. To me, it’s important because the piano has not changed much in 300 years. But the TransAcoustic really embodies how Yamaha is innovative in a product category that has remained essentially unchanged for centuries. Yamaha basically invented digital pianos with the Clavinova; we invented digital reproducing pianos with Disklavier; and we invented the hybrid piano with our AvantGrand. Now, the TransAcoustic is the next step in that legacy. The TransAcoustic brings together the 300-year-old tradition of piano music with 21st century technology. It’s another case in which Yamaha has shown that, even with a very old product, if you will, there’s still plenty of room to innovate.

The Retailer: Can you give us a sneak peek, even in general terms, of what we might be able to expect during the upcoming NAMM show in Anaheim?

Sumner: Last year’s NAMM show was interesting because Yamaha and Line 6 had just gotten together. So, even though we had a lot of cool new products, there was a lot of focus on the Line 6 acquisition. Although NAMM is an international show, we do focus on our domestic dealer base and making sure that we get them what they need at the show. That’s a lot of hands-on access and also time with the whole team: all the executives, our President and everyone else. That’s really what we focus on. And then for the next layer—outside of the people who can attend the show—we’ve been broadcasting the show for a number of years and really trying to get content from NAMM out to the mass music consumer. I certainly remember thinking when I was young, “Gee, it would be great to go to the NAMM show. That looks amazingly fun.” Today, it’s still a very cool event and there are a lot of exciting things happening. So, aside from interacting with the dealers, our goal is to help get the excitement of NAMM out to music consumers. Hopefully, afterward, consumers will head to the stores looking for some of the great new products they saw that came out of NAMM.

The Retailer: Discuss Yamaha’s commitment to the brick-and-mortar MI store channel. Is working collaboratively with brick-and-mortar music dealers a key part of Yamaha’s core philosophy and fundamental approach to business?

Sumner: If you look at retail overall, there are a lot of folks who somehow think that online sales are going to overtake brick-and-mortar sales, or that brick-and-mortar is going away. I’ve actually heard people say that. But the benefit of using musical instruments is that they’re experiential. The interaction between the player and the instrument is really key. So, as a guitar player, I have never bought a guitar online. And I don’t think I ever will, because I want to experience it before I purchase it. So, with dealers, we try to put together programs, training and other support that will help them not only in their day-to-day selling of Yamaha, but also in a larger sense. The dealer is still the place to experience an instrument or product before purchasing it; that’s something you just can’t do online.

As an example, we’ve been running a program for several years called Financial Advantage, where we bring certain dealers in for a couple of days and Alan Friedman, CPA, conducts Finance 101 and 102 with the dealers. It’s been extremely helpful for them. For us, the brick-and-mortar dealer base is critical. As I said, it’s really where people are going to experience products. And most of the products that we make really require interaction and understanding by the consumers. Whether you’re talking about acoustic instruments or live sound systems, the dealer plays a critical role, and I don’t think that will be changing. Therefore, we do all we can to help our dealers to carry out their role of being the point of personal contact for music lovers and other consumers.

The Retailer: Is there anything the dealer channel could do that would be helpful to Yamaha as a company? Do you have any suggestions for the dealer channel that would help retailers, in addition to helping the company itself?

Sumner: There are plenty of dealers that do this, but I think one of the key advantages of a local, brick-and-mortar dealer is that they’re local. The best dealers really develop communities. It’s not just a store that somebody goes to and buys things. A dealer is really a multi-faceted center for a local music community. They are involved in all things musical in a given area, be it music in schools, music outside of schools or otherwise somehow connecting to a community’s broad passion for music. We’ve seen what really works is for brick-and-mortar dealers to really develop that sense of community within their town or area. That’s how they can be successful and get people into the store more often—not just for the occasional purchase. Because it’s the central point for a music community. There are a lot of examples out there of dealers that do an absolutely fabulous job of that. They really don’t have to worry about competing with the Internet if dealers build a strong, local music community.

The Retailer: What is your sense of the relative strength—or weakness—of the broad music products and professional audio markets? Are you feeling optimistic about our industry? Do you see challenges ahead that we, as an industry, must try to overcome?

Sumner: In general, the business is OK, right? It’s kind of flat for the overall music products industry, and there are still plenty of challenges. In today’s connected world, there are a lot more things for people to do and learn about. There’s soccer, there’s video games, there’s the Internet and all sorts of other things that steer people’s attention away from music. One of the things we’re trying to do is to use that connectivity to grow interest in music. Even though there’s more than ever to choose from in terms of interests and activities, music is as important as ever on so many levels. We want to help grow musicians, which is why we support music education so strongly. The good news is that people’s interest in music and people’s love of music haven’t really changed. It’s kind of innate in human nature, I think, that we love music. But we just need to focus people’s attention more on playing music and making music, and the joys of doing it. So, I think we’ve got challenges ahead because there’s continued fracturing of people’s interests. But we’ve got a really strong core. People just love music and they want to keep playing it.

The Retailer: Yamaha started a music label a few years ago. What’s up with that?

Sumner: That’s been a tremendous learning experience for us over the past couple of years. We started, really, because it was very tough for musicians to find a label that wasn’t seemingly out to screw them… especially young musicians or up-and-coming musicians. We wanted to use our label to develop talent and to give them a good place to start. We’ve had a couple of releases on the label already. Surprisingly, one of the things we did last year was put out on our label the first solo album from Nathan East, who is perhaps the most recorded bassist in history. That was our first major success as a label, and it’s become the top-selling jazz record…24 or 25 weeks at number one on the smooth jazz charts. It’s a tremendous record.

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

Sumner: We are looking for ways to try to grow our business overall, and to grow the music market. The thought is that, with our overall penetration in the music market, growing Yamaha’s business will grow everyone’s business. As you can see, apart from the last year, I don’t think we’d made any acquisitions for quite a while. Nearly 10 years ago, we acquired Steinberg, but we hadn’t acquired anything after that until last year, when we acquired Line 6 and then a conferencing company called Revolabs. So, we acquired two companies. Our Global President, Tak Nakata, is very strongly committed to growth, which can come from expanded products, acquisitions or any number of places. But, we’re definitely looking to grow the music market overall. If you look at 2008, 2009 and 2010, I think everybody was at least a little bit cautious with what was going on in the global economy. Now, though, it’s definitely turned to where we’re looking to be able to grow the entire market. That’s exciting not only for Yamaha, but also for the entire music world.

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