Founder & CEO, Orange Music Electronic Company
By Dan Ferrisi
In our monthly Five Minutes With interview series, many factors are taken into account to decide who the best candidates to bring to our readers are. Of course, we want to spotlight people who have had estimable careers in the music products space. We also want people who have stories to tell, whether it’s starting up a garage shop in their youth or working the touring circuit, either as a performer or as a roadie. Finally, we want an engaging personality…the kind with whom you’d happily share five minutes, and maybe even a couple hours. In Cliff Cooper, Founder and CEO, Orange Music Electronic Company, we have all of these things. This writer’s discussion with Cliff was fascinating, informative and funny, and I’m happy to share it with all of you.
The Music & Sound Retailer: To start, let’s touch on your background. Share the highlights of your own story as it pertains to the music products industry. Recount the path that you’ve traveled, bringing us right up to the present and where you are today.
Cliff Cooper: As a boy, I had a recording studio in my bedroom. In those days, of course, it was run on analog machines and it was very basic. But, between recording and playing the violin, I was led down a path toward a career in music. I really started in the music business by building a small battery amplifier with an earpiece. By plugging a guitar into the unit, you could practice without annoying the neighbors. I only sold about 30 of them, even though I placed a small advert in Melody Maker magazine.
At that time, I was also in a band called The Millionaires and recorded a song that reached number 12 on the UK charts. It was recorded by Joe Meek, who was a famous producer at the time.
I left the band in 1968 and rented a small, derelict shop in the West End of London that was due to be demolished. I only had enough money to open a small recording studio with the equipment that I owned. It didn’t do particularly well, mainly because the equipment wasn’t really good enough. The studio was located in the basement of the shop, so I turned the upstairs into retail and began selling my band gear.
We sold everything the first day I opened the shop. So, I decided to start selling secondhand equipment as a means of paying the rent. The shop became successful very quickly. I called the shop “Orange” because it was my favorite color. In those days, we painted the shop in a psychedelic color orange, which caused all sorts of problems with the local councils and the local residents. They wanted me to paint it brown like the other shops, but it was too late: The shop was orange and staying that way.
The first major problem we encountered was with distributors. They refused to supply us with equipment, so we could only sell secondhand amps and guitars.
I had a background in electrical engineering and electronics. I had built my own amplifiers prior to starting Orange, so we designed our own amp. We then sent it to a manufacturer in Huddersfield to build the prototype production model. That’s how Orange started. We made our own cabinets, put speakers in them and we were away. Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac was the first band to use Orange Amplifiers.
Jumping a bit, we closed the shop around 1980—we were forced to—because the council knocked the road down where the shop was located and we were forced to move. That’s when I dropped out of the retail business.
The ’80s was a difficult time for Orange amps. We made tube amps, but inexpensive transistor amps were flooding the market. We scaled down our production and produced a very small quantity until around 2000, when we started full production again. During the last 12 years, Orange has really grown very quickly.
The Retailer: Rewinding just a bit in Orange’s history, you mention the difficulty in the early years, where manufacturers and distributors didn’t want to help you stock your shop. What was the reason for that?
Cooper: We were in London’s West End, and I always suspected that there was a cartel of some sort operating. There were about four or five main shops close to us, and I believe one reason they wouldn’t supply us is that we all wore jeans and T-shirts instead of suits and ties. After all, I suppose, they were the old school. But they actually made life very difficult for us. We were selling only secondhand guitars and amplifiers, but we were doing more business than they were with their new equipment. It rubbed them up the wrong way and they did some very unpleasant things to us, but we managed to survive.
The Retailer: In terms of what you accomplish day-to-day within Orange Music Electronic Company, what would you say are your key duties and contributions? What do you enjoy doing the most?
Cooper: Well, I’m a little older now and I can’t travel as much as I would like, but my main job is coordinating our companies globally. We have a company in the U.S. (which we started in the year 2000), a company in Europe and a company in China. In the early morning, I get e-mails from China, followed later by e-mails from the U.S. So, I do keep fairly busy. We also have regular video Skype meetings. I really enjoy doing those. It’s fantastic just sitting in a room and talking to another group of people that work for the company on the other side of the world.
What do I enjoy most? It is, without doubt, Orange’s research and development program. We’ve developed some really great new products over the last 44 years. In fact, we built the world’s first digital amplifier back in 1970. In those days, we just couldn’t afford to have a “tailor-made chip.” So, it was built with about 100 transistors on the board. [Laughs.] It was the first of its kind and it was about four years later before anybody else brought out a digital amplifier. We called it the OMEC Digital.
We have quite a large R&D team and we have some great new products that are going to be released over the coming months.
The Retailer: Let’s talk about Orange Music Electronic Company in broad strokes. Give us a 10,000-foot view of the company, discussing some of the key characteristics and qualities that it embodies. Tell us about the company’s growth and development over its history.
Cooper: Orange has really grown in the last 12 years. We make guitar amplifiers mainly, but we’ve also moved into the bass market, which has been very, very successful for us. We have also developed the OPC, all-in-one Guitar Amplifier Recording Studio Workstation. That’s beginning to sell very well now. And it’s the first of its kind.
We also developed Isobaric guitar bass cabinets, which are powerful and tiny, in comparison to conventional cabs; and, of course, the Tiny Terror range has been enormously successful for us.
Among other developments we have introduced is the Divo OV4 (digital intelligent valve optimization). It matches and biases tubes automatically and has really caught on well in the U.S., as well as other countries around the world. One thing I can say about Orange is that we will keep moving forward, always.
The Retailer: When you look at Orange as it currently exists, what would you say you’re the proudest of? What makes it stand apart not only from competitors in the market, but also from all companies in the music products industry?
Cooper: I’d point back to what I said about R&D and new products. We have a lot of firsts. And that’s really important. We don’t stand still. There’s only so much you can do with a tube amplifier, but we keep trying to improve it. We spent a lot of time designing our output transformers and finding the best metal laminations to use in them. At the end of the day, that’s the last link in the chain apart from the speaker. You shouldn’t cut corners with output transformers. They are expensive to make properly, but the results from a good and balanced transformer make all the difference.
The Retailer: Often in the music products segment, a great number of creative individuals work for the manufacturers. Would you say that the Orange team is a very creative one, where the products that you are involved with on a daily basis are actually a big part of the team’s lives outside work?
Cooper: If you look at our creative team—the R&D department and the promotions side of the company—I would say that over 80 percent have played, or still do play, in a band. I think that’s very important. The music business is very specialized. To have a feel for the business, you have to have worked and moved in music before. When we’re interviewing new staff, we always look for people with a musical background, who have either some knowledge of playing an instrument or experience working for a company that supports music. This enables them to see and hear the product as a musician would. It also ensures they’ll know how to receive advice and criticism about our products and services in a manner they can translate to the rest of the team, thus ensuring we continue to improve.
A case in point is the OPC (Orange Personal Computer). With the OPC, we decided to build a home recording studio with an inbuilt amplifier, using JBL speakers, all in one small unit with all the programs downloaded, including Windows 7, so it is ready to use out of the box. Software can sometimes be complicated to understand and install. The OPC works out a lot cheaper than buying everything individually, and everything in the OPC is designed to match.
The Retailer: What is your philosophy when it comes to working with dealers and the dealer channel?
Cooper: Dealers are of paramount importance; their feedback is essential. It’s critical that they have the right information about the equipment we make. We do everything we can to support the dealer in every possible way. We advertise as much as possible to assist dealers in selling our products out of the store. If the dealer has any problems with any of our equipment, we will usually just exchange it without question. Yes, dealers are absolutely a crucial part of our family.
The Retailer: So, would you say it’s core to the Orange philosophy to be working closely with the dealers, and making sure both parties mutually benefit from your products?
Cooper: Yes, absolutely. Definitely.
The Retailer: Economic times during the past few years have been difficult, both in the U.S. and globally. How well has Orange weathered the continuing economic storm? What proactive steps has the company taken to minimize any economy-related pain?
Cooper: I think we’re fortunate because we are a global company. As a result, we’re dealing in different currencies: the dollar, the yen, the euro, the yuan and the pound. We have currencies from all around the world in our bank accounts. For some reason, they seem to cancel out the fluctuations in exchange rates. Fortunately, some of our accounts folks are experts with trading and currencies, and this maximizes our exchange rate negotiations. That’s very important, because we work on relatively small margins, and a small fluctuation can cause quite a big change in the profitability in that country.
Over the last few years, our business has been up year on year. So, it’s been difficult for us to notice the downturn. We’ve also always been very careful about price balancing, and always give good value for money. For instance, the new Micro Terror we have just released sells for $149. It’s a tiny 20-watt amplifier with a tube pre-amp that sounds way bigger than it looks. It also happens to sound good, too!
The Retailer: What does Orange’s future hold? Do you foresee any major changes or shifts in terms of the product pipeline, market segments, business relationships or company strategy? What can we expect to see?
Cooper: We are trying to diversify our product range a bit more within the music industry. The computer/home recording market is quite a big market, hence the OPC. For me, the business doesn’t really change that much, other than the high-tech side. At the end of the day, it will always be about music. So, from that point of view, we’ll always be there.
The Retailer: How would you describe your overall sense of the music products market right now? Do you feel like we’re strong compared to peer industries? Do you feel as though we’re struggling? Do you feel like we’re wrapped up with the entire economy overall?
Cooper: I’m cautious. Technology’s changing so quickly. For young people, there are lots of new options now. Computers compete with music. People spend time on laptops, computer games, gadgets, etc. So, yes, the music business has lost people to different interests. The Internet opens up a whole new world of things to do.
But, interestingly, a lot of these computer-related products, and companies, are beginning to cross-associate with music on a bigger scale than ever. The music business, from artists to instruments to associated equipment, is recapturing a lot of that market, as well as creating more ways than ever for music and computer technology to learn and grow together.