James Young, Managing Director, Sonic Distribution; Director of International Sales & Marketing, sE Electronics
James Young, managing director of Sonic Distribution and director of international sales & marketing for sE Electronics (plus co-owner of both companies), initially trained in biological sciences, with a degree in Zoology and a Masters in Gerontology. However, years ago, when he needed more money, he got a job in a London music store. “It made sense at the time,” he recalls, “since I didn’t fancy studying the effects of aging anymore. Most of my spare time was spent being a poor musician, and I certainly didn’t fancy waitressing!”
He later went on to do a stint at Sound Technology, one the U.K.’s leading independent pro audio distributors at the time (now Harman’s U.K. distributor). From there, Young was “head-hunted” to work at highend, direct-sales company, Stirling Audio, where he set up and ran Pure Distribution, distributing Lexicon, Aphex, Waves and Apogee, among other brands.
Once he realized that his path was not that of an employee, Young left and set up Sonic Distribution with his (still current) business partner and best friend, Phil Smith. Young remembers, “Ten years ago, we started with a couple of credit cards, a remortgage on my house, a converted garage for an office and exclusive distribution of Waves software plugs. Sonic is now the largest independent pro audio distributor in the U.K., and carries some of the best brands in the world—Apogee, Waves, Rupert Neve Designs, sE Electronics and sE Munro.”
Within the first year of Sonic, Young, Smith and another business partner and friend, Mitch Carey (who sadly passed away young in August 2011) had set up manufacturing with Siwei Zou for the newly formed brand, sE Electronics. After only three years, Young claims that sE was the U.K.’s number-one condenser microphone brand. In addition to Sonic Distribution and sE, Young has recently set up a Shanghai-based pro audio distribution company (QAD) with Josh Thomas of Rupert Neve Designs, and Siwei Zou.
According to Young, being a musician and being genuinely interested in what his companies build and sell has an effect on the ethos and style of the companies. “Phil and I have an ‘anticorporation,’ ‘hippie with a gun’ mentality— i.e., a little laid back, and a little dangerous! We’ve always pushed boundaries, and come up with very fresh and innovative ideas for both products and marketing, Reflexion Filter being a prime example. We still adhere to these principles, and continue to be cutting-edge in the products and services we offer and the way we interact with our customers and end-users alike.”
For the purpose of this interview, Young focused on sE when asked about the company’s makeup. He reports there are 120 employees in Shanghai, whom sE employs directly— no OEM, all in-house. “We own our own manufacturing facility,” he relates, “which gives us total control over the entire manufacturing process. This has been incredibly important for the brand, as it’s given us a huge degree of flexibility to innovate and grow quickly.”
All sales, marketing and support is centralized in the U.K. for Europe, and through the distribution arm of the Rupert Neve Designs team, Fingerprint Audio, in the U.S. There are 14 employees in the U.K. and five in the U.S. distribution. In addition, sE uses 38 independent distributors, two international sales managers, plus, of course, Smith and Young. “We don’t use rep firms,” Young explains. “It’s our belief that this only works for well-established brands. When you are breaking a brand to market, nobody can do it better than you, because, generally speaking, no one cares the way you do.”
When asked about the company’s culture and philosophy, Young observes, “We’re a big family. We hate red tape, jargon, corporate blah…you name it. That doesn’t mean we’re not sharp—quite the opposite, as is becoming clear to people. We’re the fastest- growing condenser mic brand in the world right now, with R&D and manufacturing collaborations with two of the biggest names in pro audio— Rupert Neve and Andy Munro—and an endorsee panel that would make most brands green with envy. The emphasis is not on the quick buck, but on longevity of the brand. I guess you could say we want to be the Neumann of the 21st century, not just another faceless, mass-automated producer or a gimmick brand.”
Young reports that sE’s biggest market right now is Europe, but that could change in the next year or so. “The U.S. is growing exponentially for us. We’ve been known for the Reflexion Filter perhaps more than the mics in the U.S. for a few years, but suddenly, a lot of people are sitting up and taking notice of what’s going on in Europe, where, in several key territories, we are already number one.” The company recently launched the sE Munro monitor brand [see page 42 for a review of the Egg 150 system].
“Our biggest initiative in getting our brand to the top in the U.S. is simply to get end-users to compare our products with the competition and then tell everyone they can what they find,” Young says. “You can’t argue with that! We welcome A/B tests from all-comers. In fact, we’re constantly actively seeking that kind of exposure.”
He concludes, “If you want a flavor of things to come, check out the sE site and the Sphere Studios tests. It’s a bit of an eye-opener if you don’t know yet what sE stands for. When you’re beating three brand-leaders hands down in blind tests in front of Europe’s finest, with the least-expensive mic in your range, then you know you’re doing something very right.”
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