Just weeks before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Focusrite announced its acquisition of Martin Audio as part of a major expansion into the world of rental and installed sound. Together, the two brands have navigated the most challenging period in the industry’s history with not only a great deal of success, but with an assortment of new products, a new brand and all manner of market opportunities to capitalise on. Headliner hears from Focusrite CEO Tim Carroll and Martin Audio MD Dom Harter about the unique circumstances that framed the acquisition everything that has transpired since…
What was the thinking behind Focusrite’s decision to push into live and installed sound? And why Martin Audio?
Tim Carroll: There are a number of factors. The first is that Focusrite, although our general business had been on the content creation side, with our professional products we were already dabbling in live sound and broadcast, so we had a familiarity with that market. We were looking at how we could keep growing our content creation side while also diversifying. Very close to the apple tree on the content side is live sound reproduction. Live and installed sound have been among the most consistent growth areas in the business, so there was a lot that was really appealing about it. Then there is the proximity. The companies are literally a mile apart, and there was a long-standing friendship with our non-executive chair Phil Dudderidge and the founder of Martin. So, Martin was just a natural fit. It’s a great brand, great portfolio, well-run company, and where Dom was taking the company was very intriguing.
Once the severity of Covid became clear, what measures were taken to deal with the situation?
TC: We all took a deep breath as nobody had any idea what was going to happen. As the fog lifted, we realised we were dealing with two completely difference scenarios. Live events just halted, but conversely, we saw an even larger demand for a lot of our home recording products. Musicians needed a way to make money, so they started investing in gear to create social media streams, podcasts. All of that skyrocketed. We were experiencing both sides of the equation. Dom was looking at the business under a different lens.
Dom Harter: On the live and install side, manufacturers had a tough time, but quite quickly we were able to see that different parts of the world were in very different stages. We took some long hard looks at our various development plans and decided to re-gear that to markets that were going to come back. We launched a lot of installation products and made sure we had good availability of weatherised stuff, which sounds like common sense but a lot of people weren’t doing this. On the people side, we did what we could to support the live sound community because we knew many of our customers were facing around 98% loss of revenue. We tried to focus our efforts on people, we geared our business very carefully to protect our staff and our channel partners and it worked very well.
TC: A good example of the relationship between the Focusrite Group and Martin Audio is that as Focusrite saw a boom in home recording, quite a lot of Martin Audio staff donned Focusrite hats and helped support where they could. It was fantastic for the team to be able to do that and address those markets together. Since then, the business has just been going from strength to strength.
We’ve heard from Martin Audio staff and established live sound engineers about the role Martin Audio has played in supporting them during Covid. How much of a focus is there on protecting the wellbeing of staff and industry partners?
DH: While there are some big businesses in our industry, it is ultimately a people-based industry. We have very long relationships. We’re always building new ones and that’s fantastic, but seeing the number of customers who came to our 50th anniversary party last year – who have been customers for 50 years – tells you everything you need to know. We focus a lot on maintaining our relationships, particularly on the rental side. You have small to medium-sized companies spending a huge amount of money on a sound system, and we feel strongly that when we start on that journey with a company, we are on it for 10 years.
TC: One of the things about Martin that really appealed for us was how much they had vested in the installed sound part of the market. And one of the interesting things that happened when the pandemic hit was that, while the live events business paused, the installation part came back quickly. And there was a lot already in the works, looking at the portfolio, but the culmination of that was when we launched Optimal Audio in the second year of the pandemic. That was an amazing feat and really showed the investment we made in people. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that things would eventually come back, so a lot of the engineering teams stayed very heads down on developing the products. Around the time that things were starting to open up, Martin had an entire portfolio of new products for a new market to help regenerate things.
DH: With Optimal there were places we didn’t think that the Martin brand could go. So to have this project, where we tried to take the system approach that we take to big, professional live sound, and then apply that to a much smaller ecosystem with optimal has been a lot of fun. We made the decision early on that the grounds for which we were building this business and the plan we had in 2019 was absolutely a valid plan. One of the things I’m extremely grateful to Tim for is that early on we took the decision to keep the factory open and keep building stuff with a lot of speculation, but that was great for our suppliers, and we knew at some point there would be a lot of demand. So being able to build new brands and products has proved to be very successful.
What have been some of the biggest success stories for Martin Audio during this time?
DH: The launch of TORUS has been particularly significant. It’s a 15-30m throw solution product and fills a gap we had on the install and rental side. We knew five or six years ago we needed to fill this gap, but we wanted to do it in a manner that had some innovation in it. We brought that out in the middle of last year and we’ve seen unprecedented demand.
Where are the biggest for Focusrite and Martin Audio?
TC: The amount of people producing content continues to grow, from a hobbyist level all the way to professional. That’s great for the creation side of the business, but for pro audio there is a growing desire for immersive audio in everything from theatre to houses of worship and gyms. Some require technical expertise to run because they have complex shows, but there are a lot of places where they want that kind of audio quality, but it needs to be simple to run. Optimal solves that.
Then, if you look at the experiences people want with immersive audio, a lot of that has to do not only with the great speaker solutions Martin is making, but also the DSP and the amplifier technology, so that’s one of the main reasons we acquired Linea. Having all of that in-house and for us to own that roadmap is a really big part of the equation.
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