The QT

Sunday 19 May 2024

North East base instrumental to firm’s success

When legendary New York musical instrument accessory maker D’Addario decided to open up a European headquarters, the family-run firm chose Newcastle. Simon Rushworth reports
  • Stars including Mark Knopfler and Sam Fender tune in to expertise of family-run company
  • Former graduate of Northumbria University plays a leading role
  • How it works with chart-topping bands
Sam Fender has always used D’Addario strings and is now endorsed by a US company with its European headquarters on Tyneside. Credit: Adam Kennedy

Tucked away on a modest plot at Newburn Riverside, D’Addario’s unassuming European base remains one of the North East business community’s best kept secrets. 

It’s from the US firm’s busy Tyneside hub that everyone from Sam Fender to Mark Knopfler sources tried and tested equipment that’s been trusted for half a century.

D’Addario supplies and endorses many of the biggest names in popular and classical music — manufacturing world class strings, drumheads, sticks and more out of their US bases in Brooklyn and Houston.

But the company also focuses on emerging talent, with Geordie folk hero Fender just one of the future chart toppers supported by the company long before he graduated to stadium shows and found Brit Award-winning fame.

For more than 40 years, the goal of the D’Addario Foundation has been to provide as many children as possible with a unique musical education through grants, scholarships, and high quality, high-impact community programmes.

In the UK, the firm’s North East-based team is active nationally, working with schools, colleges, universities and youth groups to ensure young people benefit from the universally recognised power of music.

Adam Keys, D’Addario’s director of international marketing, checking out endorsed artist Sam Fender

“As the representative of the company over here I work directly with artists, managers, instrument techs and so on,” explains D’Addario’s director of international marketing and Northumbria University graduate, Adam Keys.

“But I’m also heavily involved with schools and universities and we have a strong focus on education and staging informative live events.

“Some of those events will be in guitar stores but others will be in schools and we’ve hosted several sessions with Newcastle College.

“We work with some of the biggest music institutions across the UK — including Brighton Institute of Modern Music (BIMM), The Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM) and the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance (ICMP).

“And we’re very proud to do it all from our Newcastle base.”

So why did one of the world’s foremost musical instrument accessory makers choose to helm its UK and European operation on the banks of the Tyne?

“Our managing director, Simon Turnbull, had worked with D’Addario prior to accepting a role with the company,” explains Adam. “He was already based in the North East.

“When D’Addario decided to move into direct distribution, towards the end of the noughties, it made sense for Simon to run things from here.

“There’s so much space — and competitively priced space — in this part of the world. 

“US firms like D’Addario might look at London as a first choice location when setting up a base in the UK.

“But useful spaces are very expensive and very hard to come by in the capital. And the cost of employment is so much higher as well. 

“So Newcastle works really well for D’Addario.  There are well established business networks, accessible ports and an international airport on our doorstep.

“We’ve got an office in Frankfurt and one in Lyon but Newcastle is where we oversee our European operation.”

D’Addario drives content around its endorsed artists with a series of interviews and explainer videos

Earlier this month Adam hosted his colleagues from Germany and France for the first of 2024’s quarterly marketing summits.

Newcastle is where budgets are agreed, strategies put in place and plans finalised to ensure D’Addario remains one of the most influential brands in music.

“The European teams love coming over here and after Covid we’re very keen to do these things face to face,” adds Adam.

“We meet quarterly to discuss budgets, tactics and initiatives and ensure that our strategies for the year are on track, whilst remaining nimble to the ever changing market landscapes.

“Outside of looking after the European team I spend time in New York working with our global marketing team and I’ll be back there in a few weeks.

“It’s a big year for D’Addario. We’ve just launched our new brand campaign ‘When you know, you know’. 

“It relates to the fact that we’re one of the highest quality manufacturers within the market and when people use our equipment they tend to stick with it.

“Reliability and reputation are what we’re all about. People who use D’Addario know what they want.”

Mark Knopfler uses D’Addario strings. Credit: Terry Blackburn

Adam may work in the music business but he’s also a huge music fan. Initially drawn towards journalism — a third year semester on Music Writing at Northumbria University reignited a passion for prose — he was appointed acting editor of North East-based rock and metal website Rushonrock. Simultaneously, he began managing a band.

“It was when I started writing for Rushonrock that I remembered what I loved about writing and how I lived for live music,” he adds. “I contributed to the website for six years and I made so many invaluable contacts in the music business.

“It helped to get my name out there and at the same time I started managing a band called Good Friend. 

“I became a jack of all trades — working on the tour stuff, PR, social media and contacting booking agents, venues and labels.

“I was even putting money into the band but it was one of those situations where every penny we made went back into the music.

“I started putting on my own shows and I just tried to get as much as I could out of the music business at grassroots level. 

“And that’s just one of the things I love about my role with D’Addario. I’m responsible for identifying new talent and artists with potential so I’m still immersed in the grassroots music scene.

“I still buy tickets for gigs and I support artists who have never been endorsed by D’Addario. It can be difficult in that respect — in this job you have to put your personal feelings towards certain bands and artists to one side.”

Given that D’Addario’s relationship with live music has always been central to the firm’s worldwide success, there’s an assumption that the global pandemic hit their business hard.

Adam admits there were challenges but explains that social distancing and months of isolation led to a boom in instrument sales — with manufacturers of musical accessories experiencing a positive knock-on effect.

D’Addario’s YouTube channel is closing in on 110,000 subscribers. Its Work/Shop series shines a light on legendary music shops across the US

“A lot of people picked up guitars during Covid and at some point they needed to restring those guitars,” he added. “So we did ok.

“I think the challenging thing for me was seeing artists — many of whom are friends — who relied on live music, really struggle for months on end.

“They couldn’t work and while some of them pivoted to capitalise on the opportunity social media offered them, those who were touring musicians and recording artists had it really tough.

“Drummers, especially, had a very hard time. A lot of them kept their kits in studios: they couldn’t visit the studio but they couldn’t move their kits into a tiny flat in London.”

Adam loves drummers. Minutes before his interview with The QT, he was called by Arya Goggin from Welsh rockers Skindred. “He had an issue with some equipment that he needed and it was important that I sorted him out,” he explains. “People connect with D’Addario because we pride ourselves on that personal service.

“As a musician in the studio — or on the road — you need to know that you can rely on your equipment.

“D’Addario is a company that’s renowned for innovation as much as it is for quality and that makes my job so much easier.

“Everything’s of such a high standard that I’m at an immediate advantage when it comes to negotiating an endorsement deal.

“I tell artists that I’ll send them some samples and if they like what they see then we can have a chat.

“But it’s not a hard sell. We trust the products to sell themselves.

“When you’re on the road — doing 60 or 70 shows as part of a huge world tour — you want to know that when you need to change your strings they can be relied on.”

Adam Keys chats to The QT about North East success story D’Addario

Over to Sam Fender.

“I’ve always used D’Addario, since day one, and I’ve always been a fan,” he explains. “When I was a kid, I always got D’Addario strings because my dad loved both their electric and acoustic ones.

“When the NYXL range came out, it was a real game-changer. I always used to break strings, but NYXL 11-49s would always withstand when I used to play my first shows in a rock band as a kid. 

“I put the strings through their paces playing lead guitar but they have always survived.”

It’s testimony like that, from one of the UK’s most popular singer songwriters, that’s music to Adam’s ears.

And the Ulsterman is confident that D’Addario’s focus on quality — coupled with an active roster of loyal artists — will help the firm withstand robust competition in the future.

“It’s a challenge keeping brand awareness at the forefront of everyone’s minds,” he adds. “Competition has always been strong.

“There are new competitors coming into the market all of the time.

“From my point of view it’s about making sure that I continue to snap up the best artists and try to get them early.

“If you’re too late, someone else may step in.”

D’Addario endorses rock band Royal Blood, with both members using the firm’s equipment

Case study: Royal Blood

Here Adam Keys, director of international artist marketing at D’Addario, outlines how the Newcastle-based company works with the D’Addario-endorsed, chart-topping rockers Royal Blood.

“Both members of Royal Blood use our strings. Mike Kerr, the band’s bass player and singer, plays our bass strings, uses our cables and so on. Ben Thatcher, the drummer, uses our sticks. 

So with Ben we’ll create custom sticks with his name and the Royal Blood logo on them — for him to play and then throw it into the crowd!

That’s the public-facing aspect of what we do with an artist. Then there’s the rest.

My role with Mike and Ben is to offer advice on products and, if they’re working, ensure they get the equipment they need.

Secondly, I’ll liaise with them as far as unique content is concerned and that’s a key part of my role.

We’ve just done a shoot with them in New York. I wasn’t there in person but I coordinated everything from back here in the UK. It was a time consuming but ultimately fulfilling project.

A lot of what I do centres around creating original content and building offers and exposure around that content

Adam Keys

I was the middle man between all of the involved parties and, due to the time difference, we got the bulk of the work done from around 10pm UK time.

Our team in New York went to the venue and shot an interview with the guys and got both of them to play. We added in that video, shared it out on our social media channels and then that was then backed up with a giveaway for the new album, Back To The Water Below.

We got signed copies of the album from Royal Blood and packaged them up with D’Addario products as a unique, money-can’t-buy giveaway linked to our loyalty programme.

A lot of what I do centres around creating original content and building offers and exposure around that content.

That’s the biggest thing for D’Addario in 2024: everyone lives online and so we work hard to engage our artists and send out our teams to shoot new content.

You can be one of the biggest names in the world but you might be based in a very remote area — in that case we rely on our artists to create content which we’ll then edit and share.

That can be part of the endorsement deal or we might, on occasion, agree a separate fee.

I coordinate all that on a UK and European level and work with our internal teams to sign off the type of content we want.”


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