Transcription: 0368 - Eric Fox

Released: November 7, 2021

Darwin: Okay. I am in downtown Minneapolis today, visiting a local electronic arts and music celebrity. His name's Eric Fox. He's the head of Foxtone, Black Market Music...

Eric: Black Market Modular.

Darwin: Black Market Modular. And Buchla USA, what is the actual name of the company?

Eric: Well, it's great to be here, by the way. So, hi.

Darwin: Right. Sorry.

Eric: Yeah. Buchla USA is the technical legal name. But I mean, we use Buchla and Associates, but we do still sometimes use that. It's on a lot of our products. But then Buchla is just the shorthand.

Darwin: Yeah. Man, you got your fingers in a lot of stuff that people are interested in, so congratulations on that. Let's start off talking about a couple of things that just have been in the news lately. So first of all, you teamed up with Tiptop to be bringing some Buchla to, this is at Superbooth, right?

Eric: You're the first official media-type person to bring it up, actually, to me directly. Because Tiptop is the lead on it. So I wasn't part of, necessarily, those interviews and everything. But yeah, I think dabbled a couple years ago. So I took over Buchla in 2018. And we knew we wanted to introduce some products to maybe an audience that didn't have ... A lot of people have never seen a real Buchla system before, because of cost or they're rare, and it's kind of a unique club to belong to. I knew I wanted to introduce people to it. And we had already had partnerships within the software side with Softtube and Arturia.

And then more recently, Sensel, although, that's not really software for this. But there was always people interested in the Eurorack format because it just has a different audience. And we would witness some people kind of let's see, "heavily borrowing" some of classic Buchla designs and we thought it just kind of made sense for us to help take that to the next level. And I dabbled in it a little bit. And we did one run of a Eurorack version - but that was in the 100 series, and then I quickly learned it's not what we do in-house. It's just not our thing. We're Buchla, we do this high-end stuff and it's just a different level of production, and it's just a different audience for us. But I had known from my background through retail with Tiptop and lots of Eurorack manufacturers, it really made sense to partner with somebody that could do it better than we could.

And Gur, that's the head of Tiptop, the founder and main person behind Tiptop Audio, he was talking to me about it, and I was like, "Boy, I think this is a good idea." They're good at manufacturing in those quantities and making a good bang for the buck. It's hard value-wise to argue with what Tiptop offers. And it just really made sense to me. And I don't look at it as taking away anything from what we do under Buchla and Associates-level products. This is a different audience, but it's going to introduce a lot of people to the 200 series concept, which really is the heart and soul of our approach. Really what made Buchla "Buchla" was when it hit the 200 series in the '70s. And I do think this was a great way to really let people get a good sense of, "Okay, this is the Buchla approach."

I'm not going to call it apples to apples, it's not the exact same experience. That's using all 3.5-millimeter cables, where certainly we're switched between a 3.58 millimeter, a Tiny [Jax] cable, and banana jacks, and ours is much larger knobs, and the scaling's bigger. And our focus, our flagship is 200e, which is the next level of stuff with preset management. So I don't really look at them as competing. It's just a different market, but it's a market that's been screaming for something official. We have a say in it, we do consult, and we do work with Tiptop, so there is a good partnership there. But as far as the production and getting it out into the wild, Tiptop is in charge of that.

Darwin: That's great, but that also makes a lot of sense because, man, if there's anybody that is doing super-clean manufacturing and distribution, it's them. They seem to really have their ducks in a row, so I think that's a great choice of a partnership. Now, I'm curious, Buchla makes the classic 4U 200e series stuff. What does Black Market Modular do?

Eric: So to quick show how I separate the two, so Foxtone was my retail and we started back in '05. Expedite the timeline here, but it started out guitar lessons, band rental - I did all that. And then by 2010, I started carrying synthesizers, adding that to my lineup, and then mainstream stuff. So at the time, I called Dave Smith, now Sequential, Moog. I would do Bleep Labs, which did these weird circuit-bent stuff out of Austin, Texas. And then I started discovering Eurorack, and it really had reminded me of where guitar pedals were a decade earlier, like around the boutique guitar world. And I was like, "There's something here...". And I was like, "I get it, this is like putting together a pedalboard, and these are people making stuff in their houses." And I just was smitten by this Eurorack stuff. And so I started, I was one of the first shops to come on board and start carrying this stuff and offering it.

And as I would see synthesizer sales increase, I would see guitar sales just stay stagnant. And I was always hustling, there's a million guitar shops, but no one's doing what I'm doing, definitely not in Minneapolis, and barely in the US, if not the world. So I'm like, well screw it, when I'm out of Stratocasters, let me buy more synths. So I started investing in these brands, but I love the community so much, all these makers were so small, and then I started getting into 'you need help'. I'm dealing with Eurorack guys that are brilliant, but they don't know how to send their stuff to other stores or market it or anything. And so that's when I kind of started doing behind-the-scenes distribution, wholesale distribution.

And at first, I did it under the name Foxtone. But then as new stores start to pop up, that felt kind of weird, so I wanted to start a new brand and just called it Black Market, which is Black Market Modular or just Black Market Distribution, and then that was my behind-the-scenes side. So that's where that came about. And then I started making some cables, and then partnering with William Mathewson from WMD, who really helped me, he would do production for me and then help adapt. I partner with Zvex to head that up, the Fuzz Factory, and the Lo-Fi Junky. And with William Mathewson's help doing production and engineering work with me, I was able to start some my own products. Then I would start distributing other brands and we really have grown quite a bit, so I really had Foxtone and then Black Market. And then Foxtone, I started once my son was born in 2015. My boy, Barrett... I wanted to just limit my life. I didn't want to round the clock retail. It was just taking its toll on me.

Darwin: It's brutal. Yeah.

Eric: I had been in retail since 2000. I started out in California at Music Around and Guitar Center out there. And then I started my company in '05, out here. And just 15 years of that, I just want to go home at the end of the day, and be a dad and a husband and have my weekends, and behind-the-scenes wholesale and distribution really allowed me to do that. And I did start to see the market, definitely 2016, 2017, there's now a lot of competition for the retail world that I had already been doing for six or seven years. And I was like, you know what, let's make them my customer and let me make sure I can help other brands. Then I started reaching international, so I'm partners with Dreadbox. I'm in charge in North America for that. And then I brought in Polyend, who I'm not in charge of anymore.

Darwin: But you helped them get their...

Eric: Absolutely, get their foot in the door. And I'm certainly great friends with them still, and we still use the same sales reps. I passed them off for distribution to my sales reps. But I'm really proud to be part of these behind-the-scenes things and then now my wife kind of handles that. That's her day-to-day. I consult and I do strategies for Dreadbox and stuff for the American market. But when I decided to phase out a lot of Foxtone - other than the brands - the only things we were going to keep are the brands I was in charge of and Buchla, because Foxtone was a big Buchla dealer.

Darwin: Yeah. One of the few.

Eric: Yeah, in the world. And I was really proud of that. So we were just keeping my brands for Black Market Distribution and Buchla and that's all I was going to keep. That was before I had the opportunity to be a part of, officially, Buchla. So I had already known that I was in deep with Buchla. And we were doing so well with them that I was like, okay, we'll keep Polyend, and Dreadbox, and Black Market, and Zvex, and I don't remember what other brands I might have had at the time, and Buchla - and now that's just going to be the Foxtone thing. And then start phasing out Foxtone even more once Buchla came on board.

Darwin: So at this point, are you still retailing it all through Foxtone?

Eric: Right now? So it's actually coming back. So my guy, Wes, I had a guy who's worked for me for five years, he just left last year to go work out at a big shop out west. He moved out to Burbank. And that was really when we stopped doing the Foxtone thing for last year in mid-pandemic. But now actually, we're bringing that back now that my wife is taking over that side. And we'll have a handful of brands, but we're not really big on the Eurorack, more focused on standard synthesizers, a little bit of Eurorack stuff that I deal with, but she'll be handling that day-to-day. She quit her corporate job after two decades in the corporate world. She left this last spring to take over the Black Market side of things and then now she'll ... Foxtone's not going to be the force that it was trying to be. Still, our day-to-day really is enjoying behind-the-scenes stuff and let the other retailers really be our customers.

Darwin: Right. So, you're sort of this enabler because you've gotten involved in a lot of things and in a lot of cases, just helping people get started and letting them run. You're an entrepreneur in starting businesses and strategically maneuvering amongst that. Frankly, you have no choice as now the owner of Buchla, you are in the middle of history-making as well - because of the status that Buchla holds in the electronic music industry world.

Eric: No pressure.

Darwin: No pressure. Right. But where do you come from? What is the background that puts you in a position to have all of this stuff in your basket? I mean, growing up what...

Eric: I grew up in southern Minnesota in a very small town of about 450 people, a very small town, lots of lakes.

Darwin: Lots of fishermen.

Eric: Lots of fishing. Lots of hunting. I absolutely grew up hunting, and fishing, and skiing, and jet skiing, and kneeboarding, and swimming. That's what we did. I grew up on a small hobby farm. Parents split up when I was eight, so I ended up having a single mom with food stamps, and really grew up poor, and was familiar with the struggle, and then really got into playing drums and guitar. Drums when I was nine for school band, so I was always in school band. And then guitar I picked up when I was 13. And I was always the guy - there weren't a lot of people to pick from so who could maybe play an instrument. Well, I owned a drum set. I owned the PA. I own the guitar. And my mom, she was amazing, and really sacrificed a lot to get me to guitar lessons. She would make sure I had access to music because it's just the only thing that drove me once I hit my early teens.

Hunting and fishing didn't connect with me as much as it did with my older brother because my father, who was certainly in our life but didn't... Sorry, dad, but he didn't sacrifice like my mom did. By my senior year, I dropped out of high school, but I always had some kind of an entrepreneurial spirit. I was always buying guitars and selling them off and "Maybe I like this, maybe I don't." And I really just didn't have much of a sense of self-worth. I wasn't book smart. I never studied. I always knew I was like, I thought I was clever. I don't think anyone, my teachers or anyone doubted that I was okay like I'm smart. But I could never commit enough to finish homework and study properly for tests, and everything.

And then by the time I was 14, 15 years, I started my own band. So I was in hardcore and punk rock. I loved heavy metal in the early '90s, but I was not as talented as the guys in Metallica, and Megadeth, and Slayer, and Anthrax.

Darwin: You were a real shred type.

Eric: Oh my gosh, I mean, I worshipped them, but I wasn't that. But then you kind of get into this thing called punk rock, and you're like, "Oh, I don't have to be great." Part of it is the feeling. Like, "Can I express myself to some extent and can we put together three or four chord progressions?" And I think I became a pretty solid guitarist, not a lead shredder, but I felt I was a good guitarist. That's what I really gravitated towards. And then in 2000, I moved out to California to do band stuff and actually joined a semi-successful regional band out of Sacramento.

Darwin: Let me stop you there. Did you go up there with a plan, or did you just go up there and knowing that that was where you probably had to be?

Eric: The latter. I met some friends because, being the entrepreneur and stuff, and I certainly brushed right past this, I had booked some shows and stuff in Minnesota for touring bands. So I would end up being this teenager, so I'm playing in hardcore bands out here and getting more successful, but I was always a guy who was just networking and meeting everybody and hanging out with engineers and being fascinated by production and stuff.

I interned at Pachyderm. Pachyderm Studios is where Nirvana, In Utero was recorded and all the greatest '90s music, and I had no idea why I was there. But I just always wanted to be a fly on the wall around people like that. And then people like Zack Vex before he was popular and pedals, was a producer and an engineer up here in the [Twin] Cities, so he would record our bands, and I would just ask questions. I'm sure I was annoying. But somehow I was able to connect with these people enough where they're like, yeah, he's kind of annoying, but he also gets it at the same time. He's this annoying kid, but annoying in the right way. So that I would just, hey, can I come just help out? Can I wrap up cables? Can I do anything, working for free?

And then moving out to California and meeting some bands that I would book shows for in the hardcore scene. I was like, well, let me just go out there. And my girlfriend and I, at the time, had broken up, and I was just like - you know what, time for a change of scenery. Ended up out there and working at Guitar Center and stuff because that's what you do. But they let me get away with a lot of stuff. Because my band was doing okay, we'd go away for long weekends. It was pretty unheard of for Guitar Center to let their employees ... I'd just get away with a lot of things somehow.

Darwin: Well, that's a good skill, man.

Eric: And then, yeah, coming back to Minnesota in 2004 after the band breaks up but we had regional success and some publishing and everything, and I did lots of recording engineering and playing. It was great. And then coming back here to start Foxtone, again, which resembles nothing like it became by 2012. I started treating my shop like a band, it is a punk rock band, it is a hardcore band. And I just continue that nonstop this whole time where it's okay, I don't come from a corporate background. Everything I've done is pretty much gut instinct.

Darwin: Right. But to start Foxtone, I mean, just to play the ... I had the experience of working with Nova Musik when it was first starting out back in the day. They were a synthesizer retailer at the time.

Eric: Tony's.

Darwin: Yeah, Tony's shop. But anyway, I just remember the number of things that had to happen in order to pull all that together, right? I mean, it's not only making the relationships, but it's also dealing with the finance, you have all of the monetary flow, you have all the credit handling, all that kind of stuff in order to deal with that. There's all of the complexities in having a retail space. There's like 100,000 things that you have to know in order to pull it off. Where did you come up with that shit?

Eric: Well, let me bring it back to a band analogy. Nova Musik, certainly, for what he did is incredible at that time. And his drive -and I know Tony personally, very well - what he put together... He was a major label band. I'm this indie rock band that's not on a big label and we're still selling 300,000 records. Yeah, he's selling one and a half million. He's going platinum. But I'm doing amazing just selling a couple 100,000. I'm on Sub Pop Records. I'm this Little Engine That Could. When I switched, I mean, the company was never more than three to five people, maximum. That's when twice I had two stores at one time, a big mistake both times. I don't know why I did it to myself.

But by 2012, it was just me. I did it. I was just doing this Eurorack thing. And overhead to pay for those buildings, to pay for those people, you had to move a lot of gear to do that. And if you're in a major label band, the tour's supporting everything. You have to sell a lot of records to pay for tour buses and stuff. I said, screw this, we're doing a van and a trailer, like this is what we're doing. And it was me. And I think yeah, the most we ever had was, I think I don't believe I've ever had more than three or four people since 2012 at any given time. And definitely for that first year and a half when I completely got out of guitars and went just synths, it was just me. That was it.

Darwin: Well, that had to be a pretty brutal switch though, because in addition to changing your own inventory, you're actually changing your customer base pretty much.

Eric: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I wouldn't say I didn't have help because I would hire people to help with the website thing and that marketing, and I still do. I pack orders. I'm still involved from the beginning to the end of sales. And yeah, there'd be people who would help, but I didn't get a manager or someone who did anywhere near what I did until my son was born in 2015. Because I knew, okay, now I need to take one step back because I need to now dedicate my life to being a dad.

Darwin: Which makes sense right up until all the sudden in 2018, you end up becoming an investor - or owner - of Buchla, which strikes me as something that's if anything is a bigger piece of pie than retailing and distribution combined.

Eric: Yeah. I mean, by 2016, 2017, or 2015, so between 2012 and 2015, it was mainly myself, a couple people in and out helping for ... They'd be around for a few months or not. We'd call them interns at the time. But I mean, we didn't make a lot of money. I never paid myself really anything until my son was born. So 2015 is really when, okay, let's have three or four people, someone who's really the first line of interacting with customers and users. And then he's now gone off and started his own shop because I think that's the right move, because Foxtone was 2017, 2018...

Darwin: It wasn't what it was. Yeah.

Eric: So the Buchla thing, I don't know if you want to jump into that now.

Darwin: Yeah, let's do it.

Eric: So, yeah, I was transitioning to that. So I've been a Buchla dealer since 2013, right, that's when Foxtone came on board with that, and I was honored and lucky enough to invest into that.

Darwin: Why did they ... I mean, at the time, they had seven retailers in the whole world, how did they select you?

Eric: Because it's me.

Darwin: Right. I get it. I mean, you're like a lucky guy. I'm trying to figure out...

Eric: Because I'm this annoying guy. Who's still, you know, he's annoying

Darwin: He still gets it a little bit.

Eric: He's annoying, but it still makes sense. That's my secret. I bug them just enough, just to the edge of hating me, and then they're like, "Oh, but we kind of like it at the same time."

Darwin: Kind of energy.

Eric: My wit or whatever - he just makes me laugh so I'll keep him around. And I just was able to tap in sales. You still want to be genuine, right? So in bigger retail sometimes you don't have the luxury of vetting everybody. And I guess I always succeeded. When I worked at Guitar Center or whatever, I would advance because I was able to tap into the excitement of the person I was talking to, and it is genuine. I get excited about ... I really do get excited for that customer that they're excited about this new endeavor. Especially with synthesis now, and the more expensive product, it's a big commitment. So while what they get or do is not exactly what I personally would do for myself, I'm able to figure out how to relate to that person and really I feed off of their energy. And I'm like, okay, I get what you're trying to do with this and this is how it's really cool. And I think that also worked when I wanted to be a dealer, and I'm like, "Wow, I get what you're doing!", and they're like ... I figured out how to connect with whoever.

Darwin: You could attach yourself to their enthusiasm, in a genuine way.

Eric: Absolutely. I live vicariously. Well, I get to live vicariously through them. This is going to sound odd, but I've said it before publicly, I am not a synth guy, I'm a production, I love engineering, I love guitars, I enjoy drumming. I enjoy synthesis, but I wouldn't say that I'm a synth guy by any means. I get to live vicariously through others. I can talk much more technical as far as designing an instrument in a modular sense. I'm better at talking tech about guitar amps and guitars, than I am about talking technically on how to put together the optimal modular instrument.

But I do that also on purpose because I don't know what I'm supposed to do. I have eliminated the rules for myself because if I am too married to the product, like Buchla... If I'm too into it, if I'm like I'm a Buchla guy and I Buchla this, and Buchla that. If it's not Buchla, it's crap. If I do that, then I'm aware that there are these rules and I have to do it this way. So I actually purposefully try and be disconnected a little bit so I can look at it from more of a long view standpoint.

Darwin: So one of the dangers of that, though, is that you can find yourself making decisions based on business rather than maybe the long-term best interest of the instrument or the customer base. What do you use as an anchor to just say, "Oh, but this is a Buchla and these are the things I have to remain aware of...", and this is sort of like the Buchla whispering that you listen to, to make it not ... I mean, because you're not selling garage doors.

Eric: Here's where I'll push back a little bit on you, a business decision can be focused on customers. So I'm here, everything I've done and everything I've instilled in anyone who's worked in sales and stuff with me, we're here to make customers, not sales. Screws sales. Sales are dumb. That's the quick in and out, like give me your money, move on.

Darwin: That is short-term thinking.

Eric: Absolutely. This is very much long-term thinking where we do need to ... Yeah, it's not as simple as I make it sound where I just don't know anything. I mean, not true. I mean, I know, gear like I know what an envelope is, I know an oscillator, it's signal flow. That's where the recording engineer in me comes in, where I'm like this signal flow.

Darwin: It speaks to you.

Eric: Duh, I mean, it's not ... I get it. I get it. But where I really tap into the spirit of where we came from, our heritage as a company is me being connected with those that were closest to Don Buchla and are still around, so Todd Barton, Morton Subotnik, Suzanne Ciani. Our lead designer is Don's right-hand man, Joel Davel, has been there ... Don hired him in 1993 to do the hardware layouts. So we've got the closest thing there is to Don Buchla as our lead designer. The company decisions I make. I don't do anything creative without consulting people who were there and people that were part of it. I'm not Buchla. I don't have a specific agenda, but my job is to make sure the company can exist. I feel that I am a curator for our work that was started by Don Buchla.

It certainly needs to continue, and how do you keep one foot in the past and one foot in the future is a difficult thing, and ultimately I have to make that decision. But the business standpoint is, are we going to be screwed here? But also, if you get into the purists - and I don't have Facebook, I don't have Instagram, I have none of that. I don't have social media. You'll never find me there. I'm not there. If something really is actually important that someone says randomly online, it will be brought to my attention by other people that I pay to do that, to bring it to me. So when dealing with purists or whatever, those who are like, "Well, it can only be done this way, and Don Buchla never would have..." A person who did work for Don and gives amazing constructive criticism to me, he and I were talking about revisiting reissues and stuff. And he told me he understood, but he was like, don't stop doing the weird stuff. And I my reaction was, "Of course not!"

Sometimes we make this Tiptop decision or whatever, and so it enables us to get weird. I can't only do weird, it's too risky. There are employees' lives, their livelihoods are at risk. And one of the proudest things I did, and have nothing to do with the product directly that we released, it's for the first time in Buchla history, everyone's on salary and has healthcare benefits. That was brand new in 2021. That had never happened before. So it's taken me this long to get to this point. I'm very proud of that, to be able to offer benefits to people. I mean, we're not Google, we're not Apple, we're not making crazy money. We're a very tiny company. But just to be able to treat the employees fairly and give them a living wage, what they deserve - which is a safety net with health care benefits that we help provide - is one of the proudest achievements I've had to date.

Darwin: Sure. That makes a lot of sense. Now, what was originally the 200e series was very much kind of a bespoke system, right? If you wanted a 200e system, you bought a bunch of 200e stuff from Buchla, but now it's become more of an environment or ecosystem, right? You have some third parties that build for the format. You have people who are still doing kind of clones of the old 200 systems. But you kind of now are sort of the manager of an ecosystem.

Eric: I don't want to be. And Buchla, and this will be on the record, totally: Buchla is a brand, not a format. If you say Buchla is a format, not that you did, you didn't use those terms...

Darwin: Well, no, but I appreciate you clarifying for me.

Eric: But I mean, we want to get more into controllers and stuff? I mean, what about Lightning, what about Thunder, or what about all these other amazing Marimba Lumina? Buchla's not a 4U format with this power thing. Buchla makes instruments.

Darwin: It's a design language almost.

Eric: Absolutely. And while people are welcome to do their own thing, kind of, we're not catering to them. We make Buchla instruments. That's not to say there aren't brilliant people out there who do very clever things that help even improve potentially a Buchla instrument. But the "e", there's very few who have gotten it. There's only a couple that have been able to do that because of our bus system. It wreaks havoc. And the issue I have with it is when those people don't talk with us and make sure their specs are right, there are some products out there that have come out that they're out of spec, so then it makes us look bad. And so I push back on anyone planning on doing any stuff that uses our bus, that attempts to use it, to least ask us to make sure you know your voltages are correct. So really trying to change that. But I wouldn't say there's a lot of 200e because people...

Darwin: No, it's more just like it's ... I guess, really if I talk about format, it's like the Buchla 4U format.

Eric: Right. But we will never guarantee our stuff to work on someone else's power. We will never guarantee our stuff to work with any other device. So, I will be the wrong person and I will directly refuse to be. We're not Eurorack. We make Buchla stuff. Someone else that wants to make something that attempts to plug in with it, the burden is on them to do that. They're welcome if they want to talk to us and ask us, and we might - if they're respectful - we might point them in the right direction. But that's okay. Like I said, I do believe actually there are some clever designs that I really appreciate, but there are some designs that I think are actually kind of... They're not good, so I'm not going to name either. Buchla is only guaranteed to work with Buchla products or our official partners if we say, "Hey, this is a thing that we sign off on."

Darwin: Well, I just made the horrible mistake of looking at the clock and I realize that our time is already up. Damn, I swear, I have 45 more questions.

Eric: You can cut a few things and jump in if you want to.

Darwin: Let me ask one wrap-up here. I'm sure that there's nifty stuff on the bench. Is there anything that you can tell us about that might be near future enough that you'd be able to talk about it?

Eric: Well, we have yet to officially announce the Easel, even though we showed it. That was just a sneak peek, so I'm still not officially announcing it.

Darwin: Very cool what you've done there too.

Eric: Yeah. We're really proud of that. Nothing that can be shared right now. We're still not abandoning a 200 reissue. We still think that's still something that's important. That's separate from the Tiptop thing. That's how I'll leave that. That's its own thing. But with that being said though, 200e is still our flagship and the most important. We do want to get back more into other interactive devices. But just trying to deal with production woes and wrap our head around if we get all the parts we need and stuff to continue with the products we do have, it's been tough. Now this year, has just been tough with parts and everything.

So that's consumed way more of our resources than we thought it should, so that's hindered us from being as creative as we would like to be. But definitely excited for the full Easel to come out, and then making sure we've got some complementary accessories to that. And that is something that I think I'm open to third-party accessories existing for that and having an official thing. Because we don't have time to do everything, so if people can make things that complement what we do, it's good for us as well.

Darwin: Fantastic. Well, I want to thank you so much for having this chat. It was really great catching up with you. We will have to get together again soon for the other 150 questions that I have remaining. But in the meantime, thanks so much.

Eric: Thank you.

Copyright 2021 by Darwin Grosse. All right reserved.