The Celestion Interview: Lee Anderton, Andertons Music Company

Founded in 1964, Andertons Music Company has risen from a family-owned guitar shop on the southwestern outskirts of London to an online retail powerhouse whose name is recognized the world over. Their videos are legendary, approaching products with honesty and no small amount of humour, which has grown their YouTube channel to over 805,000 subscribers and millions of views. Third-generation CEO Lee Anderton knows this is a major reason they sell guitars, amps, keyboards, drums, recording gear, and pro audio equipment far beyond the borders of the U.K. He spoke to us about music, the family business, and the passion for products and retail.

What is your favourite album of all time and why?

I will go with Delicate Sound of Thunder by Pink Floyd. It’s a live album and I watched the video before I bought the CD. It was a double album at the time, and one was all the classics, but done with a spectacular sense of sonic and visual production. This was post Roger Waters, with Gilmour pretty much helming everything. I remember watching that and saying, “I need to learn to play the guitar.”

What is the thing that made you want to be part of the audio/music industry? In retail and with this company in particular?

My father and grandfather started Andertons in 1964. So, I had been hanging around the store. I hadn’t found my instrument yet, but I caught this bug off the store because the people in there were so interesting. So, even at 13 or 14 years old, I was trying to help on Saturdays and so forth, but I didn’t really play anything, which obviously limited how useful I was! When I started to play guitar, it gave me more purpose. But the short answer is, I was born into a family of music retailers.

How did Andertons get its start and how did you join the family business?

My grandad was in the London police force and was a jazz drummer part-time. My dad was also drumming but in an early 1960s British pop outfit. He left school at 16 and got a job in a music store in London. Dad worked there for a couple of years, at which point my grandad had worked long enough to claim a lump sum pension from the police. They used that to open Andertons.

Interestingly, at first my dad was against my joining the business. He wanted me to have a proper career like a lawyer. So, I went to college between 16 and 18 years old, but basically lied to my dad about turning up to classes. When it all came out, he was not happy! He said, He said, “If all you want is to work in the shop, here’s a mop and a broom and the minimum salary I can pay you and stay out of my sight.” But I didn’t really want other staff to see me as the owner’s son. I just wanted to be me. I worked super hard and eventually got good at sales. It was destiny, I suppose.

How did your background affect what you brought to the business? The company overall?

I think I was equipped to deal with the change of retail consumer that began in the ’90s. In the 1960s through the ’80s, the customer was most likely a pro or semi-pro. They were happy with this kind of Aladdin’s cave, gate-kept environment.

Then in the ’90s, a lot more people decided to play an instrument for a hobby, and there was this shift in expectations to more the experience you might get shopping for clothes or a home appliance. I think I was able to bring that to the business because I didn’t grow up in the ’60s and ’70s and wasn’t used to doing things in a set way.

The next big breakthrough was at the end of the ’90s when the Internet really came on. I was the right age to go, “Oh, this is really exciting.” Whereas many music store owners saw the Internet as a fad or a nuisance they didn’t want to invest in.

You and your company are legendary in the industry. In your view, what is the main reason for that?

Andertons was one of the early adopters of selling online. That put us in good stead for growth throughout the 2000s, and then later we got into the YouTube thing. That’s really the tipping point where we went from being a well-known local music store to a global brand because so many people watch our YouTube channel.

What product or service do you think is your company’s most innovative? Why?

Certainly, our YouTube videos. At the start, the people I’d seen doing video sales from the U.S. were just going, “Here’s a pedal, I’m going to demo it, and you’re going to want to buy it.” So, I think that we had this sense that we would become the QVC of the music industry. It just didn’t pan out like that. The conversion rates off the videos were miniscule and if I wasn’t having so much fun doing them, I’d probably have given up.

Over time, we learned that video wasn’t simply about touting the features and benefits of a particular product and thereby hoping for more sales of that product. It was about content that built relationships and community. It was about people seeing our personality and going, “Oh, I like Andertons videos. I think I’ll start shopping with them now.” It was about building trust. That has since become the central pillar of our approach to videos and sales in general.

What do you think is the most important technological development of our time in the music industry?

In commercial terms, I’d point to the longevity of the electric guitar — the Fender Strat, the Gibson Les Paul. Fender is the master of spinning out another Strat or Tele year after year and making us all excited about it! Name me another industry that fundamentally hasn’t changed a product in 70 years, but everyone still gets excited about every six months when a new version comes out. It’s freakish.

The most challenging development for us as a retailer was the digital revolution in home recording that occurred throughout the 1990s. The price of having a recording setup went from hundreds of thousands of pounds to ten or 15 thousand and doable if you were really into it. Now it’s hundreds of pounds and accessible to everyone.

This has a downside. Look at how the market for drums has been affected by the fact that someone learned to make very convincing digital drum sounds. As exciting as it is to be a retailer on the early stages of that curve — here’s a new product I can sell! — the ultimate destination for when a thing goes digital is that it’s free or nearly so in an app and there’s no product to sell. Except for the keyboard market, which is interesting. From the ’80s through the mid-2000s, it was about everything going digital and getting cheaper. Then manufacturers started making expensive analog synths again and customers can’t get enough of them!

What accomplishment are you personally most proud of?

At work, people always used to say to me, “Oh you’re Pete Anderton’s son, aren’t you?” I always wanted to flip that and hear them say to him, “Oh, you’re Lee Anderton’s dad!” I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity he gave me, and I do feel like the team have indeed taken the business to a new level. You can go from Outer Mongolia to Los Angeles, and if someone plays the guitar, they’ll go, “Oh yeah, I know Andertons.” That’s completely nuts for a little retailer from Guildford in England.

What is your company culture like and how do you apply that to managing the team?

There are four partners: me and my dad, who are the shareholders, then Stuart and Beverly, who are heavily involved in sales and operations, respectively. That management structure has been the same for 20 years. Somebody told us that we still operate like a “big small” company and we need to start thinking like a “small big” company. That was brilliant. I do believe we need to get better at delegating. But that can be a strength. If there’s a problem, all the most senior people are all over it immediately. We don’t have those big-company silos where two people might not speak to each other for a year.

What do you think the next big developments in the industry will be and how is your company poised to pivot to the future?

The route to market for brands has changed. There are fewer retailers than ever, each commanding a bigger piece of the pie. As those stores become even more dominant, the relationship with the supply chain changes. You have manufacturers increasingly wanting to sell directly to the consumer. You have stores wanting to find their own brands they don’t have to go through the traditional channels to sell. These days, you have private equity companies offering huge sums for retailers. But passion for the products should not be replaced by a passion for spreadsheets. I have this romantic notion that we should all get up in the morning loving that we sell guitars and keyboards and that we can help people along their musical journeys.

Speaking of passion for products, do you have anything to say about Celestion speakers from the standpoint of the most respected guitar retailer in the U.K.?

Celestion are consistently great. We did a video where we replaced the stock driver in a BOSS Katana amp with various Celestion speakers. There’s a huge education piece to do about just how much difference the speaker makes. So many guitar players we encounter focus on the amp head, and we try to point them to a speaker cabinet that sounds great with it, and they go, “Oh no, I’ve already got a cabinet.” That cabinet is responsible for at least 50 percent of the sound. So, there’s a big opportunity for brands like Celestion to educate musicians.

Finally, what music are you listening to right now?

There’s a young, inquisitive music fan inside me reminding me I’ve got to keep looking for the next thing that’s going to get me excited. There’s also an old fart in me that just wants to put on a Led Zeppelin record, and the old fart usually wins. I’d say John Mayer, but he’s mainly putting a new spin on the type of music I’ve always loved. Similarly, I could listen to Greta Van Fleet all day. You’ve given me a mission for today: Go and find a record written this year that I really like so I have something to say when someone asks me this!