When we checked in with EarthQuaker Devices in May 2011, the boutique guitar pedal company was 6 years old, operating out of the cramped, overstuffed basement of owner/designer Jamie Stillman’s West Akron home with one full-time employee and an intern.
A little more than a year later, EarthQuaker has moved into shiny newish 1,700-square-foot offices on Bishop and Exchange streets. The unassuming beige building that last housed a glass factory is now the international headquarters, and EarthQuaker counts seven full-time employees. It has grown from a boutique effects pedal maker, hailed and patronized mainly by guitar-forum nerds, into a company with a growing catalog of 19 pedals with cool names and unique functions. It ships 750 to 1,000 pedals a month to retailers around the world and to stars like Paul Simon and Coldplay.
Effects pedals are little metal boxes that guitarists use to dramatically shape, boost and mutate their sound. Concertgoers may notice guitarists stomping on them near the front of the stage or microphone stand. Some guitarists, like U2’s the Edge, have massive boards with dozens of pedals to create their signature sound.
Stillman has been involved in music for his entire adult life and most of his teenage years, as guitarist and/or drummer for popular area bands including Harriet the Spy, Party of Helicopters, Drummer, Houseguest and his current band, Relaxer. He also spent several years as the tour manager for the Black Keys. He taught himself how to design pedals, building his first in 2006, and the business has grown from there.
Moving out of the basement
The move to Bishop Street was made not out of ambition but necessity. By June of this year, the company had already exceeded its sales numbers for all of 2011. Additionally, when the company introduced the Organizer pedal in March it anticipated needing to build about 200 but was inundated with about 500 pre-orders before it had even shipped its first.
“By the middle of last year, we had six or seven people working in one spot that was about 300 square feet, and we had moved most of the stuff out into the living area of the basement and utilized every free wall and ceiling space, and people were at our house at all hours,” Stillman said in the office he shares with a drum set (Relaxer rehearses there) and one of the company’s recent “hires,” Julie Robbins, the company vice president and Stillman’s wife.
“Our toilet paper bill was through the roof,” Robbins said.
The couple has two daughters, Vivian, 6, and Sylvia, 7, and Robbins’ 15-year-old son, Gavin, spent the summer working at the family business.
In November, after a few months of searching, Stillman hooked up with old school chum Neil Yanke, whose father, Mark, used to work with Robbins. He offered them the building on Bishop and Exchange.
“Basically, they offered and asked ‘what do you want to do with it?’ We told them and then a week later we had blueprints and I was like, huh, well, I guess we’re actually moving,” Stillman said.
EarthQuaker moved into the new place in April, and with a larger workspace, work force and list of orders, Robbins quit her job as a financial planner at FirstMerit Bank to join the family business.
“I had a weird week of, ‘what am I doing?’ because it was such a huge change,” Robbins said. “I was there [at FirstMerit] for almost 10 years and I went from something that I was an expert at, into something way outside. I’m not a musician. I don’t know what a humbucker is. I don’t know what tap tempo means or why it’s funny, or true bypass or many, many things,” she said laughing.
But as with many successful personal and professional relationships, together Stillman and Robbins form a healthy yin and yang that has helped the company grow. While both are obsessively detail-oriented, Stillman is the tight-lipped mad designer whose stoic visage often makes him appear to be thinking about stuff, and he approaches everything from a musician’s point of view.
By contrast, Robbins has a more outgoing personality, talkative and business-minded, with an eye always focused on growing the EarthQuaker brand and a hearty laugh that she acknowledges has gotten her through more than a few jargon-filled conversations with potential buyers on the phone and at trade shows.
“After being here a few months, I’m amazed at everything he did on his own, because I was really busy with my other job,” Robbins said. “He is a complete genius. He did so many things and he had everything filed away in his mind.”
“Julie is my new brain,” her husband deadpanned.
Robbins pushed to use the company’s success to get full health insurance for their employees, and hopes to start a retirement plan.
“I feel very strongly that these guys are awesome and they are giving us all of their time, and I want to make sure that we are good employers. So as we’re going I want to incorporate all of those things, because I think people deserve it for working so hard. They’ve actually set a higher standard for themselves than we have for them,” she said.
“That’s what Julie has done, is turn it into a real business. We’re a much more organized and structured business especially in the last four months than we’ve ever been,” Stillman said.
EarthQuaker Devices has been getting quite a bit of positive press in major music industry publications such as Premier Guitar and Guitar World, and there are pages of demonstration videos on YouTube made by retailers and admirers. Among its most popular pedals, which can be seen at www.earthquakerdevices.com, are the Rainbow Machine, the Organizer (a polyphonic organ emulator) and the Dispatch Master (a digital delay and reverb). They range in price from $105 to more than $200. These days, a big order is sending 30 to 40 pedals to a retailer.
But one place the company no longer sees its name is in online forums for pedal geeks, which is just fine with Stillman. It means it’s reaching a wider audience.
“I think we’ve branched out. More normal people are buying our stuff. The more shops we get in, the more normal guitar players, who are just looking for any overdrive or fuzz pedal and who went into the store with the intention to buy a [well-known brand] Boss, and then accidentally bought ours instead, I think there’s a lot more people like that,” he said.
Making a name
EarthQuaker Devices are also being snapped up by famous musicians. Stillman cited a recent sale of a Dispatch Master to rock and roll hall of famer Paul Simon, who then quickly purchased one for everyone in his band to use on stage. Other notable customers include former the Band singer/songwriter/guitarist Robbie Robertson and former Police guitarist Andy Summers.
“Then we’ll get emails from death-metal bands and crust punk bands, and the guy from Mars Volta [Omar Rodríguez-López] and My Morning Jacket and Coldplay, and other big bands whose name I like to drop,” Stillman said. “It’s a lot of actual career musicians using our stuff and normal dudes in bands; they’re not just being collected for being cool, they’re actually getting used.”
EarthQuaker has two more pedals coming in 2012 and another 10 ideas in the works. The first, Talons, is a “dynamic overdrive” that will be released on Black Friday, while another will be released on or shortly after Christmas Day. Another will be ready to preview in time for the next National Association of Music Merchants trade show in January.
Stillman and Robbins say they are proud that even with their growth, EarthQuaker Devices are still handmade in Akron. Both point out that many similar-sized pedal businesses outsource the work to an assembly house in China.
“It’s not really what you’re selling to people who think they’re buying something that was made by you,” Stillman said.
“As much as I hate it, people can still get in touch with me, the person who owns the company, and ask me all kinds of questions … which I think is good.”?
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at email@example.com or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, or follow him on Twitter @malcolmxabram.