Brothers turn love for vintage studio gear into a global success [Detroit Free Press :: ]
(Detroit Free Press (MI) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) May 03--You never know who might be on the line when you pick up a ringing phone at Vintage King Audio.
With a client list that reads like a stack of Rolling Stone magazines -- from Coldplay to Kanye West -- the Ferndale firm has become one of the biggest global players in its field, supplying new, refurbished and hard-to-find studio gear, from mixing consoles to microphones.
Vintage King is the tale of two retired rockers who turned a personal passion into a nearly $40-million business. Two decades ago, Mike and Andrew Nehra's company barely merited that label: For the Grosse Pointe-bred brothers, hunting and selling old-school studio gear was just a sideline to their work with White Room Studio and the band Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise.
"We kept collecting more and more of it," said Mike Nehra, 53. "It got to a point where we realized there's commerce in this kind of thing."
Metro Detroiters may be unaware it's in their backyard, but today Vintage King is a music industry force, its wares filling studios around the world.
"Everything you hear on the radio has a tentacle that reaches back to that shop in Detroit," said Chris Lord-Alge, a Grammy-winning Los Angeles mixer whose credits include Bruce Springsteen, Tim McGraw and Green Day.
Vintage King is a modern Michigan success story: The firm employs more than 40 people at its main office and technical center, tucked in a nondescript industrial stretch of Ferndale. An additional 30 are employed across the country, and the Nehras expect total staffing to double within a few years.
Before stepping away in 2001 from their careers as professional musicians, the brothers negotiated sales from tour buses and truck stops. This year, they say, Vintage King is on pace for $38 million in revenue. Sleek new walk-in stores in Los Angeles and Nashville supplement a bustling online business, where home-recording enthusiasts are the meat and potatoes of Vintage King's base.
But the company's impact reaches beyond ledger sheets. The Nehras also have helped drive a digital-age revival for classic analog gear, sought by producers for its distinct musical richness.
The items restored and resold by Vintage King often come with towering pedigrees, and some of our culture's most familiar sounds have passed through them. Mixing consoles used on classic work by Pink Floyd, Bob Marley and Led Zeppelin. A microphone from Motown's golden days. An audio compressor from the Beatles' Abbey Road studio.
"The entire recording community knows Mike Nehra and Andrew Nehra, and they know they're getting the Rolls-Royce," said Lord-Alge. "Vintage King has cornered the market on finding these priceless pieces of equipment."
These days, about a quarter of Vintage King's business is that refurbished vintage equipment, the company's founding niche. The rest is new gear, much of it from manufacturers spurred to revive their classic lines amid the resurgence of the original stuff.
Many of the A-list customers are certified gearheads -- artists such as Lenny Kravitz and Billy Corgan, or producers like Kevin Augunas (the Lumineers) and Will.I.Am (the Black Eyed Peas).
"It's an art to understand that process of recording, from Motown, the Beatles, moving to these newer bands," said Andrew Nehra, 45. "The ones who get it, get it. That's what we understood: It wasn't only about the songwriting and performance, but also these tools that could capture that moment and make it timeless."
Scouring the globe
The Nehras got the right bug at the right time.
As aspiring musicians and basement producers in the early '90s, they were captivated by the mystique of classic recording equipment. And they were ho-hum about the digital revolution that had shoved much of it aside, often literally into studio closets.
The brothers knew digital technology had promise. But like many other audio purists, they found early digital gear to be limited, the sound thin and harsh. They craved the analog consoles, components and tape machines used on their favorite records from the '60s and '70s, which had "a bandwidth and a fatness and a warmth" often missing from contemporary music, as Andrew Nehra put it.
The Nehras scoured the globe for vintage gear as they launched White Room Studio in downtown Detroit. Their prized centerpiece: a handsome API mixing console once owned by the Doobie Brothers, soon to be used on White Room albums by Kid Rock ("Devil Without a Cause") and their own Blackwater Surprise, formed with street singer Robert Bradley in 1994.
"I didn't care what I lived in, what I drove, what I ate," said Mike Nehra. "All I wanted was to buy that next piece of recording equipment to get that sound."
That hunt could be exhilarating and exhausting. The vintage-gear trade of the time was a wild west of scattered brokers, who often shipped broken equipment and refused returns.
The brothers spotted an opportunity. Posting classified ads in audio magazines to sell some of their collection -- while funding their own gear addiction -- they tacked on a service guarantee.
"We always vowed to do the right thing," Nehra said. "If someone had a problem, we'd fix it or give your money back. That became the whole basis of what we are today."
When Blackwater Surprise landed an RCA Records deal in 1996 -- Mike the guitarist, Andrew the bass player -- they handled business from the road, hitting gas station payphones and hotel fax machines.
"We'd be sending contracts to buy these $150,000 consoles while everybody was partying," said Mike Nehra. "We were drinking beer and making deals."
Artists and producers were taking notice. Many had already been intrigued by the '70s-style sound of the critically acclaimed Blackwater Surprise albums. Now they turned to the Nehras for advice and equipment.
A vintage-gear resurgence was blossoming in the recording industry.
"It's kind of like old cars. Muscle cars were really popular in the late '60s and early '70, then the gas crunch hit and people discarded them," said Mike Nehra. "Eventually, everybody rediscovered that they were actually pretty awesome. And now they're super valuable."
'A whole new level'
A job for the Dave Matthews Band in 1997 was a turning point. Matthews enlisted the Nehras to build his new $500,000 mobile studio with a mix of vintage and modern components.
"That's when we realized we needed to start selling new gear," said Mike Nehra.
Momentum grew, the Internet took off, and by 2001, the brothers were notching $2 million in annual sales. They'd built a rapport with manufacturers and a deep network of music-biz connections. Burned out on touring, frustrated with their record label, they knew a crossroads was at hand.
"It's really hard to leave being a professional musician," said Mike Nehra. "It would be like a great pitcher saying, 'My career is over.' But this business was growing, and I think we were OK inside."
As Blackwater Surprise carried on with new members, the Nehras set up shop in Ferndale with a staff of 10.
By now, the movement they'd once reacted against was an ally: Accessible digital technology had led to a boom in home recording, where a computer and a microphone could send a hobbyist hurtling into the world of gear collecting.
"It was a whole new level for a company like us to flourish," said Mike Nehra. "We were in the industry at the right time to explode."
But it's the top tier of the music industry where the big transactions happen. At the Ferndale tech center, specialists often spend weeks meticulously cleaning and restoring old equipment, including 40-year-old consoles that can fetch more than $200,000.
Recent deals include a pair of restored Neve consoles, perhaps the most revered brand in the studio world: one soon headed to Lynyrd Skynyrd's studio in New Orleans and another in New York's famed Electric Lady studio, used for the latest albums by Arcade Fire and Daft Punk.
Customers have included artists ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Jay Z, Hollywood studios, even Steve Jobs. Advances in modern gear have led most artists and studios to create hybrid setups that combine the flexibility of digital gear with the soul of the analog stuff.
Detroit band the Infatuations turned to Vintage King as it invested about $10,000 outfitting the studio used to record its new album, "Detroit Block Party," due Tuesday.
"We spent a lot of time researching, and these guys are mentioned all over the place," said guitarist Christian Draheim. "We couldn't be happier. It's nonthreatening, and that's really important. These are big decisions when you're buying the interface to make your record."
Success has expansion on the minds of the Nehras, with Mike based here and Andrew now handling duties in Paris. There's talk of a New York store and a new metro Detroit headquarters as they grow out of the current Ferndale site. On Facebook, the company's 25,000-plus fans make up what the Nehras call an organic recording community and a grassroots marketing machine.
And though the Nehras may have left behind the freewheeling band life, the rock 'n' roll spirit seems to be intact.
"If a venture capitalist came in, they wouldn't like us, because we're too nice to our employees, too lenient," said Mike Nehra. "That's the culture we prefer. At the end of the day, do we sacrifice profit for that to some degree? Yeah. It's intentional -- I don't think my brother and I could be too corporate."
Contact Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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