TFWM: Can you talk about the progression of Sweetwater from a recording studio in 1979 to where it is now?
Jeff Barnett: Chuck Surack opened up a mobile recording business out of the back of his VW Microbus here in Fort Wayne, IN. He soon expanded (like all good start-ups) to his garage. Chuck then bought a Kurzweil K250 keyboard and started developing his own sounds for it, soon selling those sounds to other K250 owners. An undisputed expert on all things Kurzweil, Chuck eventually signed a dealer agreement to sell Kurzweil keyboards, and they became Sweetwater’s first product line.
Frustrated by the lack of service-oriented retailers who could supply gear for his studio, Chuck took on more product lines and became determined to treat his new customers the way he wanted to be treated. Over the next 30 years, Sweetwater expanded from one keyboard line to over 500 manufacturers of everything from drums and guitars to recording gear and installed live sound systems. Our retail division has grown – a lot – since the early days, moving from Chuck’s garage to a dedicated facility that was expanded numerous times, and finally, to our new corporate headquarters in 2007. We now employ close to 400 people and continue to grow.
TFWM: Can you tell us about Sweetwater’s commitment to education in the worship community?
JB: Education is huge for us, and it’s been something we have focused on from the very beginning. We have a stringent education program for all Sweetwater Sales Engineers, starting with three months of classroom training and continuing with around four hours of dedicated weekly training time for the length of their tenure. Many of them are involved in the worship and technical ministries of their own churches, and they all have significant experience in the music and audio industries. Our Sales Engineers are our primary educators when it comes to the worship community. When worship leaders or church-sound volunteers call into Sweetwater, they speak one-on-one with specialists who can answer their questions. Actually, most of the phone calls I receive from churches are a lot more about education than about transacting business.
TFWM: What differentiates you from your competitors?
JB: Sweetwater is different in many ways, from our commitment to informing and educating our customers, to free technical support with every purchase, to a free 2-year warranty on nearly everything we sell, to our legendary reputation for over-the-top customer service. We have a unique ability to combine comprehensive design and pre-sale services with post-sale support and a mail-order business model that works equally well in big cities and in the most remote rural areas.
TFWM: Do you provide educational materials for end-users to find out more about workflow scenarios and product troubleshooting?
JB: As I mentioned, our Sales Engineers are our primary educators for the worship community, but Sweetwater’s commitment to education doesn’t end there. Our website is loaded with literally thousands of articles, tech tips, video tutorials, tech support topics, user forums, and much more. We have a printed publication, Worship Sound Pro, that, like our website, is more about education and information than about listing pictures and prices. It features articles on topics of interest to the worship community, profiles on churches, and even occasional interviews with prominent figures in the Christian music industry. We also host many educational workshops at our headquarters in Fort Wayne.
TFWM: How important is the worship market to Sweetwater?
JB: It’s extremely important. To put it bluntly, I see it as our biggest growth market in the next decade. The worship technology market is exploding before our eyes. Today, the quality of the technology available to churches is mind blowing, and the cost continues to fall. All of the niche markets we serve – guitarists, recording studios, live sound venues, songwriters, keyboardists, etc. – are being increasingly incorporated into worship environments. It used to be that Sunday morning worship was a fairly low-tech endeavor, with a choir, a piano or an organ, and maybe a couple of microphones. But today, electronic keyboards, guitars, and full worship bands are far more common. As the world we used to call “church music” becomes more diverse, worship leaders will call on Sweetwater more and more, and we’re going to continue to seek out ways to reach out to the worship community.