An Interview with Dennis Drumm of JHS
With the uncertainty of the live music scene and industry in the wake of Covid-19, Victoria Holdsworth shines the spotlight on a Yorkshire-based company who are fiercely trying to keep that vital heart beat pumping through musicians and the scene alike…
Over the past decade, we have seen a rapid decline in physical music shops, venues and musical groups, whether it’s bands, orchestras, choirs, DJs; everyone has been affected, but somehow the art of music prevails and adapts to the ever changing environments surrounding it.
Dennis Drumm is the Managing Director of JHS (John Hornby Skewes & Co. Ltd), who have celebrated more than over 50 years in the music industry, helping musicians and performers worldwide to achieve their musical ambitions. JHS offers thousands of lines and is active in a multitude of categories – a true full line distributor stocking just about anything and everything a musician or reseller of musical products could possibly need.
People love music. We want to listen to music, to play music and for music to be part of our lives. The companies who successfully sell musical instruments and audio equipment of all sorts understand their customers’ passion and the need to engage at every part of the buying journey. Dennis explains that they don’t simply embrace change, they lead it.
Their brands have won numerous awards and accolades, and with live music events falling victim to quarantine, the demand for ear-blasting amplifier stacks may have dried up, however, the production of music appears to be fighting back, stronger than ever.
For readers who have not heard the name JHS before, could you please give us a little bit of background into how your business started and developed?
Established in 1965 by its eponymous founder, John Hornby Skewes and his wife Madge, from their modest home in Garforth near Leeds, the couple built JHS up from a standing start, beginning with just a few small accessories and using the kind of Yorkshire grit, tenacity and determination and sheer hard work which is famous for overcoming adversity, produced tremendous success. Fifty years later from those humble beginnings, and now operating from a purpose built warehouse and office complex close to junction 47 of the M1 motorway, JHS has become a truly international company, representing over seventy industry leading distributed brands in some 150 markets including the UK/ROI, the countries of the European Union, USA and beyond.
How important has it been over the years to retain your business in Yorkshire?
Well, with the company being started in Yorkshire by a Yorkshire man and his wife, our Chairman Linda Drumm being a Yorkshire lass, Yorkshire is ‘home’ to the Company and we wouldn’t consider locating it anywhere else for countless good reasons.
What interested yourself about getting into the musical instrument business? Are you a musician yourself?
Long story short, at school, I was an Arts/Music/Drama student, played in bands at school, haunted the local music shop, got a job as a Saturday boy, went on the staff, eventually got a job as a rep, and 44 years later, here I am, having done quite a few other things along the way including FMCG, Licenced trade, construction industry and a serious semi pro music career as a bass player. Courtesy of John Skewes and other scions of our industry as mentors, I’ve learnt from them and through the well-known “school of hard knocks” all the varied aspects of managing and operating a vibrant and dynamic SME.
Which would be your signature instruments as a business? Do you have any famous endorsers you can share with our readers?
JHS distributes a blend of proprietary brands and distributed third party brands. Our “Signature” fretted instrument brands are Fret-King®, Vintage®, Pilgrim®. Laka®, Santos Martinez® and Encore®. In fact, we’ve been in the guitar business from the very beginning of JHS in ‘65, we launched our proprietary Encore® line way back in 1986, and it’s astonishing how many millions of players have taken their first steps to greatness with Encore and it’s a blast when a really well known player says to me, “yep, my first guitar; Encore!”.
We’ve had the pleasure to work with so many players over the years, and the list is endless, however, we have worked with the likes of the legendary Bobby Tench, Big Country’s Bruce Watson, the truly legendary Elliot Randall from Steely Dan, the man responsible for one of the most instantly recognisable solos on the planet in ‘Reelin’ in the Years’, many Nashville Country Music Master artists and producers including, Fred Mollin, Michael Spriggs, Jimmy Capps, Dee Allen and Hoot Hester and so many more along with Nashville rock guitarists like Philip Shouse from the Gene Simmons Band. Joe Jackson and Aztec Camera’s Gary Sanford, Michael Jackson’s Gregg Wright, the incomparable Joe Brown, Blodwyn Pig’s Mick Abrahams, Matt Smith, Mick Radford from The Ventures, Natalie McCool, Neil Taylor, Paul Guerin, Foreigner and Small Faces bassist Rick Wills, Teddy Kumpel, Tom McGuiness, Will Ray, as they say, to name but a few. 2020 is the 25th Anniversary of the Vintage® line and will be the focus of some interesting activity between now and Christmas 2020
Are you part of any schemes, such as the ‘Assisted purchase scheme for musical instruments’ provided by North Yorkshire council?
Not directly, but yes, via our customers who engage with the education authorities and schools.
As a business you have successfully exported instruments in the UK and worldwide over many years, but how do you maintain the quality in your products, especially in this day and age, when everything seems to be produced to a cheaper extent, like Fender switching to Japan for the production of its guitars, for instance?
Our export business is a fundamental part of what we do. The geography of where an instrument is made is, in my opinion, no longer important. What matters is a good design, stringent quality control, and doing things right in the first place. It really is irrelevant these days as to where the instruments are made, because manufacturing technology and knowledge has greatly improved worldwide, and pretty much all production can be undertaken in a huge range of countries now.
We know now that the death of the electric guitar has been greatly exaggerated, how, and where do you see the trends between electrics and acoustics?
It comes and goes, depending on who’s got a profile and whether they’re strong in electric or acoustic. I see guitars a little like the violin, traditional, conservative, a known quantity which makes a sound we are all attuned to. Will it always be that way, who knows. Will it be that way for a long, long time? Yes. Every time someone tries something radical, it’s a bit of a flash in the pan, gets some attention and everyone goes back to what they know.
Are there any other services you can offer as a business, such as a working studio or music production?
Our business model is domestic and international trade distribution, brand ownership, and development, logistics and sales, supplying the resellers of musical instruments, so we don’t really have that much of a chance to engage with the consumer directly, so don’t really offer those aspects of service. But you never say never I suppose.
Clearly, the recent issues with Covid-19 have had a massive impact on the live music scene, however how has that affected things behind the scenes, with businesses like yourselves?
The live music scene has for sure suffered horribly, with venues, clubs, festival, disco, clubs, bars and cafes shut down, the live sound, touring and commercial sound installation sectors were forced to their knees, where at this point in time, they largely remain. This has also affected professional musicians in all sectors. Even someone like yourself is affected with not having any gigs to go to and cover.
However, if we look at the hobbyist/semi-pro/home music maker end of the spectrum, without a doubt, COVID definitely prompted a massive upsurge in music making and the demand that generated compressed five or six years of digital transformation into three or four months. The growth curve in the on-line sales of musical instruments, accessories and peripherals has been almost vertical. The outcome of that is that far more independent storefront businesses now have first class webstores and more are getting on that bandwagon, which is bringing choice and diversity to consumers. An unexpected side effect of this has been, as return to normality has progressed, that the music stores which stepped up to the plate during lockdown are seeing a strong return to business, buoyed up by their webstores and seeing good demand. Best of all, anecdotally, we’re aware of many, many new players having tried their hand at playing all sorts of instruments during the COVID lockdown period.
How optimistic are you for the future of the music industry?
Exceptionally optimistic. Music is a seminal part of our lives, intrinsic and visceral. Whether we’re overcome by grief or ecstatically happy, or anywhere in between, there is music for the mood. Music lifts our souls and calms our minds. From the moment we’re conceived and start to grow, we are surrounded by rhythm and sounds. For those who go on to consume music, in any form, the experience is intensely emotional, anchoring events in time. For those who play, perform, record, write, compose, the pleasure is immense, the affirmation uniquely satisfying, the companionship of friends playing together reassuring and fulfilling. Music has so many societal benefits, in personality development, encouraging tolerance and understanding amongst disparate people, teaching the value of teamwork, and illustrating the joy of shared achievement.
What are your future plans as a business to diversify to keep up with music and economic trends?
Ostensibly a “Musical Instrument Distributor”, JHS has always been very multi-channel and multi- category in its approach to business. Diversification for us means being engaged with all the principal categories of musical instruments, accessories and peripherals. It also means engaging with the widest variety of channels and routes to the consumer possible so you’ll find us selling Brass and woodwind, Guitars, Sound reinforcement equipment, educational products, DJ gear and a veritable cornucopia of products through music shop storefronts, webstores, home shopping channels, 3rd party platforms like Amazon and eBay, plus supporting sectors such as instrument repairers and builders, the rehearsal studio sector and a multitude of other channels. On the product side, in addition to musical instruments we are active in consumer electronics with categories such as Karaoke/Singing Machines, headphones, and for example, work with the studio sector with hardware products and furniture.
Is there anyone in the industry that you would love to work with or develop an instrument for?
We’ve been lucky enough to create signature instruments with the likes of Jerry Donahue, master string bending Hellecaster and John Jorgenson, fellow Hellecaster and sometime Elton John’s MD and guitar player, Ultravox’s Midge Ure, Bad Company’s Dave “Bucket” Colwell , Gordon Giltrap, Procul Harem’s Geoff Whitehorn, Soft Machine’s John Etheridge, Argent’s John Verity. I will work with anyone from a local music hero to the biggest name you can think of, so if you’re reading Eric, give me a call, I’d love to do a guitar for you that your legions of young fans could afford and which you could walk on stage at The Boudokan with [laughs]. We do look for the artist to be signed though. I would love to work with Seasick Steve, he’s such a great artist and musician, with such a fantastic sound.
I never got the whole Eric Clapton thing personally, but I do love Cream. [Dennis places a personalised signed photograph of the amazing Jack Bruce in front of me]
Back in the day, we were developing some basses and some bass amps and stuff, and I took some down for him to look at, and we worked with him on a few things, I didn’t know him very well, but we did keep in touch for a while. He was a great guy; we even wore the same watch! Unfortunately the framed photograph was so large I could not slide it under my T-Shirt to sneak out, and add to my musical heroes shrine.
For more info on JHS visit jhs.co.uk