“You don’t simply ‘hit’ a drum, you play it like any other instrument: you can be as delicate and as subtle as you want, or as powerful as you want.” – Buddy Rich.
As a drummer, a huge part of your sound comes from your choice of drum heads. Over the years, the humble drum head has evolved from unsustainable calfskin through to its modern synthetic incarnation, manufactured in the most part by just a small number of well-known companies. However, there’s a new name that’s making a big noise in this area of the drumming market. Drummer’s Review caught up with Mike Heaton, drummer for Embrace and one of the directors of UK-based Code Drum Heads to find out more…
Drummer’s Review: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Mike, could you start by giving us a brief history of Code Drum Heads?
Mike Heaton: Well it’s quite an interesting story: James Potts, who started the company around five years ago, was a part-time drummer playing in a covers band having come into drumming slightly later on in life (in his late thirties I think) and was basically just enjoying playing drums. One day he’d just bought a new (big-name) branded head for his snare drum and he had a problem with the coating coming off, which can be an eternal problem for drummers. He contacted the manufacturer to see if this could be sorted out, and was basically told “No, sorry it’s just one of those things!” One night while sat watching TV and having a couple of drinks, he thought “I’m going to find my own drum heads” as he’d heard of other people bringing in their own products from China and the Far East, so he literally sought out some companies and he got some samples sent over. He then sold a few on eBay and such and found there was a demand because price-wise he could sell them competitively. He came up with the name Code, started to have the suppliers put some branding on them and started selling more: different lines – coated and clear etc. – and then started thinking about getting some named drummers to use the heads. As one of his favourite bands was Embrace, he contacted me and asked whether I might be interested in trying out some samples; at that time, I’d been an endorsee of one of the major head brands for about ten years or so, but I thought ‘Why not, let’s give it a go?’ He sent some over, I tried them, and they sounded good!
DR: Is that how you came into the company?
MH: Yes. At that time I’d just come out of a small chain of pubs I was involved with around the Yorkshire area, and I said to James that as I’d always wanted to be involved, in some way, with manufacturing when it came to drums why don’t we team-up? I’ll buy into the company and maybe together with my knowledge of playing, the drum market and the various drummers I knew, maybe we could make this work? That was about four years ago, and one thing I wanted to bring in was that we didn’t want to just be re-selling standard heads, so it was at that point that we really started developing the brand: looking at the design and quality along with the range of heads we offered. At that time, we were importing Chinese-made heads, but after a trip to Music China, where we met lots of different manufacturers, we moved everything over to our Taiwanese manufacturers because the quality is much better and they’re also willing to develop new product with us as well. For the last two years we’ve been developing a strong relationship with them, and although we do all of the standard heads that everyone does – single-ply, clear, coated, twin-ply etc. – we’ve introduced things like our TRS, which is our own product, and brought back the donut design. Basically, for me as a drummer growing up in the 80’s who used to sit staring at Premier catalogues in which all of the high-end kits had heads with black donut rings, I always thought they just looked really cool. They haven’t been made for thirty-plus years, so I spoke to Premier to check there was no copyright, and we brought that in as our kind of signature look so that people will distinguish the brand.
DR: Looking at your website, it seems that you’ve gathered a large amount of endorsees over a relatively short space of time. Is that something that you’ve aimed for and is important to you as a company?
MH: Yes, massively. For me personally, when I was growing up you’d often visit drum shops and see different drum heads and try them out. Nowadays, with the way that retail’s going, there isn’t the same proliferation of shops everywhere – unfortunately a lot have disappeared – so trying to get the message over to people always works better if they know and trust the players that are using them. We endorse quite a few players who may be seen as just starting out but are working really hard – perhaps having their first single out or working towards that – and I think that it’s really important to offer support at this level. I have had a few comments such as “Oh, you’ll just endorse anyone!”, but we don’t. I deal with all of our artist liaison, and every person who applies to us, I listen to everything they’ve done and look at their social media etc. and make a decision based on whether we think that they’re going to be good ambassadors for the brand. You do tend to find that some of the higher-end professional players, and I’ve been guilty of this myself, will take endorsements and do nothing to help the brand. However, it’s often the players who are starting out (the ‘foot-soldiers’ as we call them), who are actually the guys who perhaps can’t afford the prices charged for heads and need support. In fact, that’s always been a problem in the industry as when you’re starting out you can’t afford the products and then when you get well known, people give you the products: it’s all back to front. That’s why we offer really good deals for these guys so that we build good, lasting relationships that encourage them to shout about us. That said (and no disrespect meant here), we are also picking up older players like Russ Gilbrook, who is an amazing player that will hopefully appeal to more middle aged (and beyond) drummers, as well as younger players like Joe Lazerus who are up-and-coming who the kids will know.
DR: Would you say social media plays a big part in your business??
MH: Without shadow of a doubt. You can’t get away with not utilising it. If you look at how things have changed – magazines like Rhythm and Drummer have all disappeared now – those avenues that I grew up with aren’t there anymore so the majority of spreading the word is online now. It’s so sad actually, I used to love thumbing through magazines every month and it’s just a real shame how things have changed. In fact, just the other day I was in my attic and I found some copies of Rhythm from the 80’s and it’s great just to have them there to look through – it just doesn’t feel the same online! But you’ve got to move with the times, and I think the reason the music industry in general has suffered over the years is that they haven’t moved with the times. The labels didn’t move to digital quickly enough when it was blatantly obvious it was going to happen. I had people saying to me ten years ago “We just need to get people buying CD’s again!” Good luck with that, as that just isn’t going to happen! You’ve got to move with the times, and for us with regards social media, the two real key sites are Facebook and Instagram. Instagram is a great resource for drummers: there’s so much stuff on there – 60 second videos etc. – there’s great little bits and pieces on there, so we’re really trying build that side of the business.
DR: Given that you’re such a relatively young company, what would you say have been the difficulties in launching a new business especially given the economic climate in the UK in the last few years?
MH: Interestingly enough, it’s something that James and I discuss on a weekly basis. When we first started out, we’d say to each other “Wow, this is going to be great, this is going to be relatively easy, especially as we know a lot about drums and we can work together.” However, that’s changed to “I now know why other people aren’t doing this!” It’s tough! It’s tough because we need to try and create something that’s different. From my point of view, I don’t think drummers need 70 different types of heads, which at least one of the major brands has. I’m not putting anyone down here; I think that all of the major brands make some amazing products, it’s just that their range is so huge I haven’t got a clue as to what each product is. For us, the challenges are creating the right products and something that people will trust, because if you look at the drum head industry it’s unlike most other industries – there’s only really three major players in the whole world, and that’s unusual for any industry. We’re trying to break into an industry where the biggest manufacturers have been operating for 50+ years, with the smaller brands having a 25+ year history, and we’re trying to build up trust in an area where every kid who walks into a shop looking for heads has the names of the big brands etched into their minds. Trying to get people to trust in a new brand is really difficult, and that’s why the social media and endorsement side of things are really crucial.
DR: You seem to have a fairly strong presence in the UK – any plans to take the brand further afield?
MH: Well, at the moment we’re into about 80 stores in the UK through Active Distribution who we work with, and the next step for us is to develop our worldwide market. We’ve already got distribution set up in France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Finland and a couple of other places in Europe. We’re also looking at South America and South Africa. We need to be able to go worldwide to make a proper success of this, and we want to be a global brand: our aspirations are to take this as far as we can.
DR: How do you see yourselves creating longevity for Code, especially in such a quickly evolving market?
MH: Since we started this, I’ve always said I want us to be seen as the ALDI or LIDL of the drum head market – companies that came in and basically kicked the a*** of bigger companies that had been there for many years by bringing in more concise product ranges with the same quality at a slightly lower price. It’s pretty much exactly how I see Code. A lot of retailers struggle to stock all of the lines of the major brands because there are so many different products in different sizes that it’s pretty much impossible. What we want to do is keep to a core of products that makes it easier for retailers to stock the whole range. We are planning to introduce two new ranges next year, but after that we’ll just be concentrating on maintaining and hopefully improving quality within those core ranges. Another area we’re developing is our packaging; in my eyes, it lets us down a little. It’s functional – our products are bagged with headed cards – but we’ve got some great boxes that are coming out later this year that bring us in line with other brands. We’re moving to that as it’s basically all about perception: how things look in-store and what consumers are used to. Because we’ve got what we feel is really strong branding, the boxes look amazing, and when they come into play at the end of this year I think it will take us up to another level in terms of how people see us. You know, we’re the new kids on the block, and people are still levelling the fact that we sell ‘cheap Taiwanese heads’, but they’re not: our hashtag is ‘Trust Your Ears’ – try them, if you don’t like them fine – don’t use them, but if you don’t try them you’ll never know…
Massive thanks to Mike Heaton for sharing his very valuable time with us, for more information regarding Code Drum Heads, check out their website: www.codedrumheads.co.uk