An Interview with Mike Caimona of 1710 Percussion
Almost exactly four years ago, when we were about to launch Wordkrapht into the universe, we had a vision. Yes, most of that vision was to support indie musicians by spreading the word and introducing their music to a larger audience through reviews and features, but we also wanted to create a community for musicians. A place for musicians to unite and create contacts, to buy, sell, or trade gear, and build relationships. We like to think after four years, we have done that.
Back in January 2014, Wordkrapht introduced our audience to Lovebettie, an indie rock band from the Pittsburgh area. Lovebettie was competing for a contest, “Gig of a Lifetime” to perform as a part of Grammy Week. Wordkrapht covered this opportunity in order to support Lovebettie with the voting process. Since then, Lovebettie has appeared on our website a few times, and because of that support, drummer, Larry Shotter, contacted us for support on another project he’s involved with. 1710 Percussion is a Maryland-based company that creates custom drums for rock, folk, jazz, classical, funk, and gospel drummers. Mike Caimona is the brains behind this unique company and Wordkrapht was happy to interview Mike to introduce 1710 to our readers in hopes that we can help spread the word about this incredible small business that not only supports drummers all over the world, but also does an immense amount of charity work every year.
You’ve been playing the drums for over 30 years. Tell us about your background and experience in the music industry.
I’ve been obsessed with percussion since I was a young kid. When I was about eight years old, I remember listening to Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” and thinking, I don’t know what the hell I’m listening to, but I don’t want to stop listening. For some reason, I just connected to the drums and I was always surrounded by them. I have three older brothers who all had drum sets in our house so I naturally migrated to the instrument. I spent my first year sneaking into the basement and practicing because I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of my brothers or my sister. When I eventually got up the nerve and played in front of them, they were the most supportive teachers and mentors I could hope for.
So, I started by playing the drum set. By the time I was in middle school and junior high, I was taking private lessons while also playing in a rock band with my friends. We started playing live at local clubs and parties when I was about 13 years old. Throughout school, I played in every school band I could while always playing in private bands. In college, I continued playing in an indie rock band and played around Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio. I spent a lot of time during these years making modifications to my set. After college, I joined the Navy and disappeared for 10-15 years. Eventually, I found time to get back into playing but was more interested in refinishing and building drums. So, I’d say I’ve been playing the drums for as long as I can remember and have only recently been involved with the industry from the manufacturing side.
How old were you when you first decided to customize and refurbish your own kit? How did you go about learning how to do so?
My first set was a hand-me-down from my brothers when I was 9 years old. A year later, my folks bought me a new Ludwig set. Within a year, I was already stripping off the finishing and recovering the shells. I did that with every used set I bought throughout my life. I wanted to make each kit my own and wanted them customized to the way I played. I’m not really sure how I learned how to do it. It was more trial and error. To be honest, that is still the way I approach drum building. I’ve never had any formal training, it’s always been trial and error. Unfortunately, YouTube didn’t exist when I was a kid. (Fortunately, YouTube didn’t exist when I was in college!!)
What contributed to your decision to launch 1710 Percussion in 2012?
It really started as a hobby. I challenged myself to learn how to build a drum shell from scratch. I felt like that was a logical next step to refinishing old kits. I spent about a year or so figuring out an approach. Lots of trial and error and lots of bumps and bruises (quite literally). I had to build all of my own equipment, jigs and templates since I didn’t really have any industrial quality manufacturing gear. Eventually, I was able to complete a shell that was high quality, looked good, and sounded solid. I finished that project, posted the pictures online and a friend made me an offer and bought it. I repeated the process and built a second snare drum, and sold that, too. So based on those limited data points, I decided I would launch the company and see if I could generate some business. Within a year, we were signing drummers to endorsement deals and the project took off.
In general, my approach was to focus on customers who had struggled to find the perfect sounding or looking drums. I wanted to take the challenge to build the perfect drum and that formed the genesis of the company.
How did you assemble your team at 1710 Percussion?
We put the team together slowly over time. I always had the support from my son, Adam, and his close friend, Cameron, who have been the core team supporting me in the shop. My Sales Director, Steve Flory, has been with me from the beginning and was a key sounding board as I needed feedback on ideas and approaches. One of my sponsored drummers and close friends, Larry Shotter, was also a critical player in helping me expand the brand and we recently brought Larry onto the team as our Marketing Director. We added other key members like Tyler our drum tech, John the Intern, and Chaz Stanford our new Director of Artist Relations as we needed strength in various aspects of the company.
In addition to the team working behind the scenes, the drummers who serve as our brand ambassadors are equally as important to our success. We have assembled an amazing stable of drummers from around the globe who are always out there representing 1710 Percussion to thousands of potential customers. These drummers and their bands have become part of our family and we wouldn’t be who we are without them. We are as selective in choosing our sponsored drummers as we are with choosing our employees. Everyone on this team is here for a reason, because I want them to be part of this movement.
What is one of the most difficult aspects to customizing drums?
Without a doubt, the most challenging aspect is patience. Building custom drums is not a process that can be rushed. Every flaw, every misstep, every mistake can be traced back to being impatient. The other big challenge is to temper the desire to get too crazy with designs. Sometimes the simplest designs are the most impactful and regardless of the design, there is no substitute for quality. Sound is first, aesthetics is second.
As a business owner of a company that’s still pretty young, how did you tackle the PR and publicity side of the business? Did you use a PR firm or go about it independently?
From the beginning, I have in-sourced every aspect of the company. I think this is pretty common for any small business owner. When I say “in-source”, I really mean, I did everything myself. Only recently have I started divesting responsibility to our new team members. We do all of our own marketing, promotions, photography, web design, advertising design and accounting. We leverage the expertise that exists within our extended team. For example, I relied on one of our drummers to develop our magazine ads. I relied on another drummer to help establish the website and corporate email accounts. Our artists have designed all of our internal logos and t-shirt designs. And obviously, our drummers are our best sales reps.
I think to be a successful small business owner you have to be a control freak, and anyone on my team will tell you that I am the epitome of a control freak. I wanted every aspect of the company to be aligned with a common vision, and now that I am comfortable that I’ve established that image, I can loosen the reigns a little because I have surrounded myself with dedicated and talented people.
What are the steps you take when a new client contacts you to build their drums?
We spend a lot of time up front talking about the look and feel the customer is looking for. We talk a lot about the style of music they will play, and the type of music that influenced them. Once we have a good idea of the specific requirements, we stay in contact with the customer throughout the process so they can experience the evolution. That’s one of the benefits of ordering a custom kit. You get to see the drums being built from the raw wood all the way to the finished product. At some point along the way, we’ll stop providing updates because we want the customer to be surprised.
One last thing we do that is a little different is the way we try to influence the sound and feel of the end product. When we talk to the customer about the type of music they are influenced by or intend to play, we will only listen to that music while we build their drums. As cheesy as it sounds, we want to channel some of that influence into the fabric of the drums.
1710 Percussion is featured in the October issue of Drum! Magazine as one of the top custom drum companies voted on by fans in their annual readers poll, “Drummies.” How did that opportunity come into play?
This is the second year in a row that we were lucky enough to be featured in Drum! Magazine’s readers’ poll. It is an incredible honor and something we don’t take for granted. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a supportive fan base and network and they took the time to cast their vote. Our drummers and their bands were amazing about making sure their fans knew about the poll, so we owe a lot to them. It is pretty surreal, to tell you the truth. It’s crazy to think we have been voted as a top custom drum company twice in our short 4-year history as a company. We were also featured in Modern Drummer Magazine last year as a new notable product.
I think there is a great appetite for custom drum companies right now and I think more broadly, there is a lot of support for the small company that starts in the garage but can kick and scratch until they make an impact. So I think our friends and supporters want to be part of that phenomenon. By voting for us, they get to be part of the story. I want that. I want everyone who interacts with us to feel like they are ultimately contributing to our success. Because they are. Being in Drum! Magazine validates that model for me.
Tell us about the charity work you do at 1710.
Without a doubt, the most rewarding aspect of running this company has been the opportunity we’ve been given to make a positive impact in people’s lives. I continue to learn that lesson. So we’ve made philanthropy part of our corporate culture. I like to categorize our charitable work into three large categories: (1) support to active duty military, veterans and their families; (2) support to high school and college music programs; and (3) support to individuals in need.
As a veteran, I know how important it is to have a solid support network. So we regularly build drums and auction them to raise money for various military and veteran programs. More specifically, we really want to raise awareness to the impacts of PTSD with service members returning from deployment. Not just the impact on the service member, but also their families. This is an area where we plan to invest even more of our time in the future. Stay tuned for more information about the topic.
Regarding support to high school and college music programs, we enjoy this outreach because we think it’s important to invest in young, growing musicians. We have sponsored several events in Maryland that raise money for local music programs and we’ve partnered with private lesson studios in Maryland and Pittsburgh to help improve music studies in young musicians. Last year, I had the opportunity to outfit my old high school with new snare drums and I will be building them a new drum set this fall. Similarly, I am working on a new set for my college. I love the connection I’ve maintained with both music programs and hope they know they will always have my support. More recently, I’ve partnered with a musician named Kevin McCove in Delaware on an effort to bring some positive messaging to schools in the area. Kevin has invited me to join him at speaking engagements where we meet with high school students and discuss ways they can follow their dreams whether it is in music, sports, academics, or art. Kevin then performs a concert for the students and donates proceeds back to the music programs. 1710 has offered to help sponsor those concerts as a way to help the effort.
Lastly, we have been blessed to help raise funds and awareness for ALS and cancer research. Whether it’s by sponsoring festivals, donating equipment or auctioning drums, every dollar we can help raise is time and money well spent. We’ve also teamed up with the Make-A-Wish foundation to support the wish program. Through this program, I’ve met some amazingly inspirational people. It has been an incredibly fulfilling experience.
What are your plans for the future of 1710 Percussion? Any big projects coming up?
Right now we are focused on improving the quality of our production process. At the same time, we are experimenting with some new shell designs. So, it’s all about quality and shoring up some of our new business processes. Formalizing our sponsorship programs, our marketing campaigns and our sales program is an important thing for 1710 at this time. We are also gearing up for our largest music events, the Frozen Harbor Music Festival, which is the premier music festival in Baltimore hosted by our partners at One Koast Entertainment. We will backline most of the stages in this event which we love. Other than that, we’re going to focus on making sure we don’t catch the shop on fire or cause any serious bodily harm to the owner.