When an OEM manufacturer decides an innovation is “too good to give away”
Some innovations seem to come from out of nowhere. The greater their break from long-observed convention, the greater our surprise. To fully appreciate the design elegance and engineering brilliance of Access Products Group’s Triad-Orbit stands and accessories line, try one. Work its articulated adjustments, fit it where other stands falter, and all will be obvious. But to grasp the real cost of originality and staking a claim in a teeming marketplace, peel back the purposely preserved obscurity of the line’s OEM origins. Reveal the vision, talent, and tireless diligence that coalesced over decades to make its invention possible. Such products’ long journey from “nowhere” may reflect the best of what our industry has to offer.
The creative ground for the Triad-Orbit system was laid when Herschel Blankenship, now Access Products Group’s managing director, co-founded Schecter Guitars back in the early 1970s. Starting in a garage in Van Nuys, California, Dave Schecter, Tom Anderson, and Blankenship set out to correct issues associated with then-CBS-owned Fender guitar company and to hot-rod and otherwise “customise” the instruments’ components. Within five years, Schecter’s catalog included more than 900 products that retrofit original instruments or were modified to help new instruments play and sound better. Eventually, the scope of that operation gave birth to a full-blown guitar company. With vertical integration exceeding that of many of today’s leading manufacturers, Schecter produced all the parts and, excluding only plating, did all the work in-house: metal, wood, electronics, painting and finishes, and assembly. As Blankenship learned to work with all the different materials, he also began to explore “how the industry works”—the various business processes of raw material sourcing, manufacturing, marketing, advertising, distribution, global sales, product training, packaging, etc.
After leaving Schecter, Blankenship opened L.A.B. Sound, a three-store SoCal boutique guitar/amp chain that offered rental and cartage services to LA studio pros. One of his stores, located on Sunset Boulevard, across the street from Guitar Centre’s showcase store, helped open his eyes to the fundamental challenges of music retail. How do you buy right, he wondered, when you’re competing with a company with sales of $50 million a year?
In an effort to answer that question, he contacted friends who were also his top-ten Schecter dealers. Before long the group had formed The Collective, a music industry buyer’s co-op that would later evolve into AIMM, the Alliance of Independent Music Merchants. The industry’s biggest buyers’ group of the day, The Collective focused on accessories, which presented no conflict of interest between the constituent dealers.
As the group’s buyer, Blankenship negotiated with many companies. This put him in many factories all over the world, particularly in Asia, where the industry’s production had already begun to move. “Negotiating on a global level for the U.S.’s ten largest independent retailers really challenged me to dig further into manufacturing,” said Blankenship.
In 1986 Blankenship teamed with fellow m.i. veteran Marty Harrison. Among their many projects, they developed Ultrasonic guitar pickups and the Access Personal FX1, a musician’s carry-all bag, and introduced them to the market the following year. The FX1 quickly became a standard of the industry, and it remains a strong performer in the Access Bags and Cases lineup today.
Tracking the migration of skilled, inexpensive labor, Blankenship worked in Korea for years, spent most of the ’80s and early ’90s in Taiwan, and then in 1993 began using China to supply The Collective’s substantial need for accessories.
Blankenship’s long, arduous education became the blueprint for Music Express, an OEM platform he founded in 1994. His OEM work led to a contract with one of the largest companies in the industry, and others soon followed. Before long, he and his team were managing 4,000 separate SKUs offshore. Meanwhile, through The Collective he was supplying the ten largest retailers with hardware and accessories. The m.i. accessory counter was the target zone— sticks, picks, strings, straps, bags, cases, and every type of stand. Coming out of the ’90s, Music Express was advancing as a design group and OEM centre. Among countless other items, it was overseeing production of hundreds of thousands of stands a year.
In 2001 Blankenship reunited with Harrison to found Access Products Group, the branded product division of Music Express. The company’s long, hard-won OEM economies of scale were leveraged for the launch of Access Bags and Cases at Winter NAMM 2004. Later that year a Japanese company hired Music Express to produce in China a patented IV stand for the medical industry. That stand, with its sophisticated clutch design, was the original inspiration for the Triad-Orbit line of stands now being promoted to the m.i., pro audio, A/V, and general consumer industries. Blankenship was so impressed with the device’s design, he licensed the patent for its manufacture and distribution outside Japan. Blankenship originally envisioned producing the stand and then passing it along to one of his OEM customers. But R&D took almost three years to produce one that Blankenship was satisfied with. It was during this process that he decided that the concept was “too good to give away.”
Pivoting from the bag business to a new class of stands took Access ten years, including eight years spent on R&D. “We knew that if we were going to create a new brand for the stand market—it couldn’t be a ‘me-too’— we’d have to revolutionise, or deliver enough novelty to create a niche and market share,” Blankenship recalls. “We also knew we couldn’t create just one product; it had to be a group of products, each with its own value proposition.”
Nearly six concurrent years were spent filing patents and trademarks on the original designs. (The IV stand was great as an inspiration, but there isn’t any part of its function or features that remains in the current Triad-Orbit.) The line’s intellectual property has been meticulously structured and interlaced to avoid being knocked off. Three years ago, just as Access was about to unveil the line, another in-house invention came to fruition: IO quick-change couplers. Blankeship explains, “IO was game changer. Incorporating IO couplers into all of our products transformed Triad-Orbit into a totally modular stand system,” Again, they jumped through the requisite legal hoops to integrate IO into Triad-Orbit’s IP group.
Testimonials from top musicians, producers, engineers—“people who know how important microphone positioning is to achieving state-of-the art sound”—are contributing to a powerful buzz around Triad-Orbit products. Greg Mackie commented, “…just amazing work. If Neumann made stands they would look [quality-wise] like these. …I think the last time I saw a product this clever and inventive was the introduction of the Neutrik ‘combo’ 1/4″/XLR jack.”
Blankenship is confident that the strong value perception of the line will “trickle down” to the masses, saying, “Making people perceive value of your product before they buy, and then exceeding their expectations, is the way you build a definitive brand.”
Along with a lot of exposure. Triad- Orbit was exhibited at nine tradeshows in 2014. The company’s presence at InfoComm, NAB, and, AES reflects the breadth of Blankenship’s target market. “When you compare the size, demographics, and price point acceptance of the photo, video, lighting, and tablet markets,” he observes, “Triad-Orbit’s prospects are very promising.” (It’s telling that B&H Photo Video was one of the first businesses to take on the line.)
Triad-Orbit products are now distributed in 30 countries. Access opted for a global launch, rare for a new company these days, in particular wanting the three biggest markets—the U.S., Japan, and Germany—introduced to the line at the same time. However, as the company grows, Triad-Orbit is being very selective with its distribution partners, combining a “steep barrier of entry” with a strictly structured global MAP policy. Ensuring price parity worldwide protects dealers from “guys going online and using their credit card and FedEx to shop the world.”
After 50 years, how do you redesign the microphone stand? Triad-Orbit’s decidedly non-overnight success is emblematic of both the painful reality and the hope of m.i.: Grinding out endless details, mundane yet essential. Accepting an enormous sweat-to-reward ratio. But here and there, transcendent innovations peek out from the clutter, through inspiration, yes, but more from unflagging perseverance, intensity, resolve, and conviction. (Original article found in Music Trades Magazine, Feb 2015.)