A Sound Business Venture
For Spencer Tweedy exceptional audio starts with the little things
BY PAT MORAN
Sure, high end studio gear like compressors with fancy faceplates and microphones with precision-milled grates are cool, but Spencer Tweedy wants to talk about the lowly, overlooked audio cable. The 23-year old musician released the well-received Sleep is My God EP last March, and he continues to drum for friends and family like his father, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, but he's increasingly turned his attention to developing and marketing a new line of audio cables that are study, inexpensive and aesthetically pleasing.
To achieve these ends, Tweedy launched a Kickstarter campaign for his gear company Fjord Audio in the fall of 2017. His inaugural line of audio cables, wrapped in custom designed cotton fabric, and sporting six colorful patterns with retro-cool monikers like “Muscle Shoals Gold” and “Record Plant Red,” went on sale to the general public in March 2018, and have garnered positive feedback. But why did Tweedy bring innovative design sensibility to an essential yet utilitarian item, one that is ubiquitous to the point of invisibility?
"Cables are just like any accessory," Tweedy says. "We want to get them cheaply, and not ever think about them again." While audio cables are not the kind of big ticket item requiring research on the buyer’s part, Tweedy feels it’s been fun to bring a level of care, attention and design acumen to items typically considered throw away commodities. “It's another nice touch in your studio,” he maintains. “They can bring joy in the same way that a bigger ticket item can.”
What prompted your desire to launch this line of audio cables?
The biggest thing that prompted me was that our partner company Conway Electric makes these extension cords that are really beautiful. Their extension cords have these colorful boxes you can set on a table or hang from a ceiling. Coming out from the boxes are these cotton wrapped cords with nice patterns on them. I looked at Conway Electric's extension cords and thought studios ought to have products like this. They ought to have audio cables with that same attention to detail. Then Conway Electric ended up being willing to partner with me to achieve that.
You wanted the cables to be sturdy and pretty. Why is pretty important?
I think of the design and aesthetic of an object as having a function that is not superficial. We often think about an object's visual appearance as being secondary or completely unimportant to the way it works. But I think that looking at the object is part of the way it works. However small, there is an emotional response to it. [It can] make somebody stop and say, "That's really thoughtful that this studio cares about having microphone cables that match their upholstery.” I know it's a micro reaction, but I think it's a valid one.
I've always been interested in how we make objects intentionally. I see design as a fun process of problem-solving. That can apply to making a website, a book, or any sort of creative project.
Many of the components you’re using for the cables are off-the-shelf parts. For instance, the XLR connectors you're using are the Switchcraft AAA series. Why those?
I just liked their quality. One of the things I noticed when I was doing research for the product was that the connector manufacturer called Nortrek is really dominant. Pretty much all the cables you see on the market have Nortrek connectors. They're high quality connectors, but I was surprised that boutique level microphone cables were using the same old Nortrek connectors that all the other ones did. They have become the default connector.
Then I discovered the Switchcraft AAA series, and I liked that they would set our cables apart from all the others. The Switchcraft AAA connectors are also really high quality, [but] they look different and more pleasing to me. I also think they have a heftier feel than some of the other connectors that you see. I like that they’re high quality but they're not used as often. They're off-the-shelf but they present as a custom part.
What has been the response to the product from customers?
The response has been really positive. I get feedback that people think that they are well made, and they like the way they look. People seem satisfied with the design and they feel like it adds something to their studio. The majority of our customers are waiting for instrument cables down the line. So far it's been exciting.
People seem to like them, but it's also been a learning experience for me as a business person because after the initial Kickstarter campaign, I had to make them more expensive to cover production costs, and I've been seeing how people are responding to that. It's still getting worked out.
How do you manage production costs?
The biggest way to manage production cost is to order at volume. I was able to order to volume with the Kickstarter campaign because all those orders came in at once. I did a big run of production.
The biggest thing that changed between the Kickstarter and the general release was that I had to figure out how to accommodate retail partners. Retail partners want to double the wholesale price that you give them, if not more. I had to figure out how to factor it so that retailers could profit off of the cables, while keeping my wholesale price sustainable for the company. Nowadays the big learning process had been reevaluating whether I really need to make the cables available through retail. Next year we might be going back to a direct model. Then we can make everything a lot cheaper and have a direct relationship with the customers. It will get back to what made the original Kickstarter exciting for people.
Why is it important to you that the cables are made with equitable U.S. labor?
I wouldn't want to make the project if I were relying on an assembly partner that was not paying people a fair wage. So I looked at a number of assembly partners in the United States, [and found one] very close to where I live in Chicago. I reviewed them and they are a family owned company that pays their employees fairly. I think it’s unacceptable to take advantage of a system that doesn’t pay people fairly. It's as simple as that.