Yorkville Sound Turns 50
MMR speaks to Yorkville Sound co-founder Jack Long about the influential Canadian distributor and manufacturer’s roots in the back room of his first Long & McQuade storefront, and checks in with his son, Jeff, about the careful relationship between those two businesses.
As with many long-lasting endeavors, Jack Long remembers the early days of Yorkville Sound more for their enthusiasm than their expertise. “Take a few people who don’t know anything and put them together and you still don’t know anything,” says Long. “That was us in the old days.”
Jack was a jazz trumpet player by trade, helping keep finances in order at home with his family with almost nightly live gigs as he worked by day to get the his fledgling MI retail business off the ground in Toronto. His friend Pete Traynor worked in the back room on repairs, slowly experimenting with available parts and ideas for new products. As Traynor began developing his own equipment, a sketched out business model began to take place to sell his line of “Traynor” amplifiers. Today, 50 years later, that business is the internationally recognized Yorkville Sound.
Yorkville Sound has grown up into one of the pillars of consistency in the music instruments industry. Along with sister company Long & McQuade, the towering Canadian retail force of nearly 60 locations, it represents a unique relationship in the North American MI world. On the occasion of Yorkville’s 50th anniversary, we decided to take a look at the gradual development of this family business into one of the dominant forces in the market.
Yorkville Sound sprang to life in 1963 at the original Yonge Street location of Long & McQuade. A young Pete Traynor was developing a bass amplifier he called the “Dynabass.” After some positive feedback from customers about the amp, Traynor approached Jack Long about going into business together to start a company to sell the Dynabass amps and more. They called the company “Yorkville Sound” after the Toronto neighborhood they called their home.
Jack, who is now 82 years old and still on board as Chairman of both Yorkville and Long & McQuade, had opened Long & McQuade in 1956 as a dealer for King Band Instruments. He partnered early on with Jack McQuade, who left the company in 1966. Long & McQuade ran as a single-storefront operation for many years before expanding – it was 12 years before their second location even opened up. Since then, things have changed.
Long & McQuade is now by the far the largest MI retailer in Canada, with around 60 retail locations and over 1,000 employees. Its share of the Canadian market hovers around 45%, making them more dominant north of the border than Guitar Center is in the United States.
Yorkville, meanwhile, has grown into a globally influential importer and exporter of audio electronic products of all types. Beyond its own Traynor and Yorkville brands, the company distributes for brands like Hughes & Kettner, Epiphone, Gibson, Garrison, Ritter, beyerdynamic, Gallien-Krueger, Mapex, Line6, and more.
Yorkville is run by Jack’s son Steve, who is president of the overall company, while Long & McQuade is run by Jack’s son Jeff, Vice President of Sales and Marketing. The goal has been to keep the relationship fair and even to all parties, including all of Yorkville’s distribution customers. As both have grown, they’ve maintained policies to remain in good standing with all sides of the industry, despite having such close contact with each other. For example, Jeff says that Yorkville is careful to offer consistent pricing across the board to all retailers for its products.
“From Yorkville’s perspective, the relationship is great because they know all the stuff that bugs retailers,” says Jeff. “Say you’re running a store and at the end of the month you can squeeze the supplier for an extra 10 percent, which happens a lot. Yorkville doesn’t do any discounting – it’s the same price for everybody. Consistency makes it really good for the stores because then they know with confidence that they can sell it and not hear that someone else has just sold it cheaper because they bought it cheaper a week or month later.” Long & McQuade held off any sort of e-commerce business for itself for years due to concerns about competing directly online with Yorkville’s other retailer customers.
Of course, the two companies didn’t always hold so much sway in the industry.
“I didn’t know anything about that part of the business,” says Jack about the amplifier manufacturing that Traynor was proposing early on. “I have a brother-in-law who is an electrical engineer. Pete did some schematics and I took those to my brother-in-law and said, ‘Does this guy know what he’s doing?’ He looked them over and said, ‘Well, yeah. I think he does.’ So I went back with a little more enthusiasm and we built it up over time.”
Jack had come from a strictly musician background and enjoyed the social end of the business. He greeted musicians from all genres and backgrounds into the store and continues to do so, operating with the motto of “Musicians helping musicians.” As Traynor began to expand the scope of things with Yorkville, Jack began to notice a knack for business vision in his partner.
“Pete was quite creative,” says Jack. “He wasn’t the world’s best electronic engineer, but he had an uncanny knack for seeing what was needed and what was about to come. Better than anybody I’d ever seen before or since. And that was pretty valuable. In the early stages especially.”
Early examples of Traynor’s vision included unveiling the first 24-channel mixer, 1969’s MX-24. “Nobody had even thought of mixers that big,” says Jack. “But we made it and sold quite a few, even though no one could operate them.” In turn, Yorkville made it compulsory that with the purchase of an MX-24, a technician would go along to train the customer in its use. “This young man, Bob Snelgrove, would go out with the mixer,” says Jack. “Not in the same package, of course.”
Traynor also invented a portable PA for bands or show promoters to use when setting up concerts in threadbare venues. “That kind of thing just didn’t happen back then,” says Jack. “At the time, a ‘portable PA’ meant you had a Fender Bassman turned on its side and someone plugged into the second channel. Or you’d have to use the house PA, but by the time anyone learned how to use it, the job was over. So we capitalized on that.”
Traynor eventually left the company in 1976 and, by then, they had expanded to outside locations and were up and running as a distribution company. Big factors in the company’s success since then included a long line of new product designers an engineers. Jack points to the Traynor 6400 Mixer Amp as a product that particularly helped out in the company’s second phase. “I think that 6400 supported the whole company for about twenty years,” he says. “There was just nothing like it and we shipped them out as fast as we could make them, practically. Eventually, other things came up and surpassed them and so on.”
The Traynor brand itself was eventually phased out through the ‘80s and ‘90s, but as its reputation amongst used equipment buyers and gear aficionados grew, the company reintroduced the brand in 2000 with the YCV40. Traynor now continues to offer a wide variety of products.
Today, in Yorkville’s 50th year and Long & McQuade’s 57th year, both companies find themselves well-suited for the industry. Both Jack and Jeff count years of preparation, prudent company policies, and a willingness to invest in skilled and knowledgeable staff as keys to their success.
Jack learned early on that the most important thing to him in the business was the people involved.
“I’m a jazz guy,” he says. “When the rock scene came on, it just wasn’t my kind of music at all and still isn’t. But I found that the young rock guys way back when it started weren’t that different. I got along great with them and I really liked those kids. I still see some of the ones from the early days around.”
“I like musicians and I like hanging out with musicians of any kind, Whether they play in the symphony orchestra or in heavy metal bands. To me, they’re all the same.”
Jeff, who began working at Long & McQuade as a teenager, eventually working the sales floor in nearly every department for years, brings up longstanding musician-friendly policies at Long & McQuade, such as the company’s in-house financing. “We’ll take payment plans for people who maybe can’t get a credit card,” he says. “The approach of the old standard issuers of credit to musicians is that musicians aren’t reliable, but we’ve found the opposite.” A similar tact was taken in the early days when the shop instituted its affordable equipment rental policy.
“Our concept is super low rates and lots of turns,” he says. “For example, you could rent a guitar amp from us for $15 for a weekend. In the U.S., it seems like people want to pay off the product in three or four turns. But what that does is make it so expensive that people don’t want to do it. We have the stuff turning so high that it works for us.”
Jack says a big part of these efforts comes from trusting in musician networks. “Musicians hang around with musicians,” he says. “They go to a party and there are usually other musicians at the party. All of their friends are probably musicians. It’s hard for them to disappear.”
The same concept applies to the store’s reputation. “When the musicians go to those parties with other musicians, what are they going to talk about? They’re going to talk about the music store. They better be saying good things about the music store! – otherwise, we’re in trouble!”
To that effect, the chain does everything it can to maintain not just a loyal customer base, but also a loyal base of employees. Jeff Long says that Long & McQuade’s employee turnover rate is only 17 percent. A big part of it has to do with an extensive and ongoing training program that every member of the company goes through.
“I’ve told other big chains about our training and they said, ‘We could never afford to do that,’” he says. “Our thinking is that we could never afford not to do that. It’s a different approach.”
In a way, the success ultimately comes down to a staff that’s dedicated to the job. “You have to love it,” says Jeff. “It’s not a get rich quick scheme. Our family and staff are all musicians and have a passion for music, and that’s one of our strengths.”
Add Jack to the top of that list – he’s yet to successfully leave the company, even though he’s tried. His official retirement came at 65 years old. It lasted a week before he decided to come back in.
The company undertook a major overhaul beginning around ten years ago, partly in response to the rapid rise of Guitar Center. This resulted in a five-year advance in everything from the stores’ appearance to policy manuals and computer inventory systems. Numbers increased as well, 19 stores in 2000 grew to the current number around 60, through acquisitions, repurposing, and brand new builds like their new Calgary location (and they’re just beginning to work their way into Quebec now). In the end, they never had anything like a one-on-one showdown with the American chain, but the company was happy to reap the benefits of the overall improvements.
Canada’s economy hasn’t been hit nearly as badly as the U.S. in recent years, though it hasn’t gone unnoticed. “What’s the saying? ‘When the U.S. sneezes, Canada catches a cold,’” says Jeff. Still, Yorkville itself has managed an impressive run through today’s economy as a global player in the market while managing to keep all of its manufacturing base in North America.
“We employ 230 people at our factory outside of Toronto,” says Jeff. “We feel a responsibility to those people. We probably could have taken our manufacturing offshore and gotten it a lot cheaper, but we never felt that was an option.”
Yorkville’s access to so much of Canada’s retail market – simply by their relationship to Long & McQuade alone – helps them attract a steady stream of distribution customers. “Being strong in Canada means that these brands need to be strong in our stores,” says Jeff. “If it’s a fit and it’s viable, then it makes sense for us.”
Looking back over the companies’ gradual rise to power in the North, even Jack Long has a hard time pinpointing any specific turning points for either company. He and his children have watched the business grow from a single storefront (and a workbench in the back of that store) into a chain that spreads nearly coast to coast just as they’ve watched ambitious young musicians without a dime to spare move on to become world-famous entertainers.
“Anybody who’s anybody in the Canadian music scene has probably been through our stores,” says Jeff. “To me, they’re just musicians. Regular guys.” Names like Randy Bachman and Kim Mitchell are familiar ones around the stores, while Jeff says staff used to have to kick Bryan Adams out of its Toronto location for playing guitars all day long on the sales floor (he didn’t have his own rehearsal studio at the time). Jeff also remembers the day Rush came to the store to spend all of their first signing bonus on equipment.
Meanwhile, Jack remembers his early days not only serving Gordon Lightfoot as a customer, but playing in a band with him. “I played with him back when he was a drummer,” he says. “Prince of a guy. After doing jazz, he got into the folky thing, which he always had in the back of his mind.” Lightfoot bought a guitar and went on to have one of the most influential careers ever in folk and country.
But as for changes in the business, Jack says they’re hard to ever notice happening.
“People sometimes say there are huge differences since I started,” he says. “But today is not much different than yesterday. Things change, but gradually. For example we do a fair amount of business in recording equipment. Well, in 1965, there was no such thing as that in the music business. So that’s a major change.
“But I wasn’t really aware of things like that until I look back on them 25 years later.”