FERNDALE, MI—Twenty years ago, Mike Nehra traveled from Detroit to England with $8,000 available on assorted credit cards, returning with a suitcase of vintage audio gear. The exact date may be shrouded in the mists of time, but what happened next marks the official beginning of Vintage King Audio.
Mike and his brother Andrew built a recording studio in the basement of their parents’ house in Detroit during their mid-teens. As they began to play with local musicians with label deals and work with heavyweight producers and engineers, they began to understand the value of vintage equipment. “But we couldn’t afford it,” says Mike Nehra. “My brother and I were just recording with the very minimal gear we had, learning how to use that little bit of gear by watching the masters with the better gear.”
The basement studio went from 4- to 16-track and the brothers moved into a former dance studio in downtown Detroit, which they named White Room. But decent gear remained tantalizingly out of reach.
When a DJ friend invited Mike to accompany him to England, where he had a few shows lined up, he jumped at the chance, credit cards in hand. “I knew that you could buy European vintage gear for about half-price because of the exchange rate. I went over there, looked in the back of the trade magazines— there was no internet—and found Tony Larking Audio and Derek Stoddard from Shep [Associates]. I called them; they said that Lenny Kravitz had already come around and bought everything the week before. So we bought the rest with the $8,000, and I smuggled it back in a suitcase.”
Andrew met Mike at the airport: “I said, ‘Andy, look what I found—a bunch of Neve modules and AKG tube mics.’ We brought it back to the studio and he said, ‘Let’s sell it all.’ I said, ‘WHAT? What are you talking about?’ So we decided we’d sell half of it; that paid for the half we kept. And that was the beginning of Vintage King Audio.”
The Nehras had caught the buying and selling bug, and quickly developed a solid reputation with their suppliers. “They soon realized that we wanted the gear, and whatever we said we wanted, we paid for,” says Mike Nehra.
Any money they made, they reinvested into equipment, growing White Room Studio into a two-room facility that attracted the likes of Kid Rock, all the while also running Vintage King. When the brothers formed a band—Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise—to back-up a local musician they first heard on the street outside their studio, they took the business on tour.
“It was all done from pay phones in-between stops on the road. It pissed off the band and everybody else around us. And then when cell phones became somewhat affordable, in ’94, ’95, it was full-on from the car.”
Having been burned by unscrupulous brokers selling them used gear in disrepair, the brothers vowed never to treat their customers that way. “We said, ‘let’s do it differently.’ We would pack the gear, make sure it worked, and if anybody had a problem, they could just return it,” says Andrew Nehra.
“We backed up the gear and warrantied it, and gave really good service before it became a buzzword. We just did the right thing. I think people respected us because they knew we weren’t just doing it to make money; we were in the craft of making music. That’s how we built Vintage King.”
Vintage King now employs about 70 people, including a team of two dozen refurbishing and repairing vintage gear at its Detroit headquarters. Used and vintage sales make up 20 percent of total sales. International sales account for another 20 percent.
The company opened facilities in Los Angeles in mid-2011 and in Nashville in early 2013. There are also sales reps in New York and Chicago, and a Japanese-speaking rep in Detroit.
“Brick-and-mortar is not the essence of our being; it makes sense in the major markets where it supplements the core of what we do—and the core of what we do is located in Detroit,” says Andrew Nehra. “It’s just that we sell so much gear into those markets, you need those locations to expand the Vintage King experience, really bringing people into the community.”
“As well as treating people as we’d like to be treated, we’ve spent a lot of time educating ourselves and our sales team so that when someone calls, we can be friendly and not be intimidating. Because it was kind of intimidating initially when I used to call some places; they made you feel like you didn’t really know anything,” says Mike Nehra.
“That’s a real big thing to us: Be friendly and let people know that no question is stupid. Ask away, and we’ll do the best to help you out.”
Vintage King Audio