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Steve Johnson: ‘Community cannot rest on its laurels’

Following the unveiling of Community Professional Loudspeakers’ new brand identity at InfoComm in June, Phil Ward assesses its European and global implications.

Following the unveiling of Community Professional Loudspeakers’ new brand identity at InfoComm in June, Phil Ward assesses its European and global implications.

It’s a classic trajectory. Late ’60s America. The counterculture. Flashing lights and long hair. Touring with Jefferson Airplane. Making better speakers than were available. Building up a touring brand to rival JBL, Electro-Voice and Altec. This was Community Professional Loudspeakers founder Bruce Howze’s entrance to the world manufacturing stage.

Over time, the long hair turns grey and Howze becomes one of the small army of pro audio eminence grises who seem able to turn their experience to every decade, no matter what. Now the wheel turns again and, whether this wheel’s on fire or not, it’s still bang on course.

Howze is now president. For him, the whole nature of the business has changed since he began it.

“In 1968, pro audio was a few manufacturers, numerous small tour sound companies and related garage operations,” he says. “In the intervening 46 years, it’s evolved into a real industry. Fortunately, during that evolution it has still retained its charm – it’s just as much fun now as it was then.”

Steve Johnson took over as CEO a year ago; previous CEO Timothy Dorwart had passed away in July, just at the beginning of several innovations – and, as in all successful dynasties, a ready and appropriate successor was soon found. It’s now Johnson’s mission to roll out the new agenda.

Internally the business is conceived as embracing three application groups: outdoor; distributed; and engineered. “We have been pigeonholed as an outdoor specialist, which is fine, but we do so much more,” points out Johnson. Reinventing itself in response to “changing customer needs, global market forces and technical advances in the industry,” according to corporate statements, a new era beckons for Community with the arrival of Steve Johnson complemented by the appointment of British veteran Max Lindsay-Johnson as international sales manager. Taking these criteria one by one, Johnson explains the company’s responses in more detail.

“We have speakers out there that were installed 20 years ago and still work fine, but our customers’ tastes and expectations have changed in that time. We’ve revisited classic designs like the R Series and added higher performance offshoots, if you will. They still offer the same pattern control, long-distance throw and such, but they do it more musically – and that comes down to people’s expectations. They’re no longer satisfied just to sit in a stadium following what the announcer is saying – our products have always excelled at that. They also now want to hear high-quality music between plays, and that’s what our new products additionally deliver.”

This is exactly how the installation business has been such fertile ground for brands with credible audio heritage, presenting countless environments in which those who know how can deliver a higher level of performance. As for global market forces, Johnson singles out competition first and foremost. “It never sleeps,” he says. “It used to be indigenous to your own country, but nowadays it’s global. Not only are the existing brands manufactured everywhere, but new brands crop up in places you’ve never heard of, ready to take their slice of market share. Like anyone, Community cannot rest on its laurels. It’s important not only to maintain the awareness of your heritage but also to increase its relevance.

“Sure, we used to be big in both touring and MI but, quite naturally, we haven’t made a carpeted speaker in years! We made a conscious effort to evolve away from that. Other manufacturers are now better-suited to making the lowest-cost options, but that’s not us. We have installers with very specific needs, and they will reward us with a purchase if we meet those needs.”

It’s also relevant that a brand once associated with touring is now applying that experience to installation, a market once associated with more primitive solutions. It’s happened to plenty of other big names, and the world of station platforms, funfairs and malls has only benefited. Technical advances in this direction can be freely assumed, of course, and Johnson begins with the impact of DSP.

“Even at a basic level, DSP will be involved today,” he says, “to respond to the needs of the room, for example, or to get the most out of the transducers. For many years, we perfected the transducer-level, out-of-the-box performance with no enhancements, but now we need to make sure that performance is guaranteed whether it’s our processor or someone else’s. I believe we are brand-agnostic when it comes to processing: anything that an installer or consultant wishes to use, we’ll provide the necessary presets. It is a total system solution, and if we provide only certain components of that system we need to be a part of it and satisfy the demands of the whole situation.”

The proprietary offer is dSPEC, optimised for Community landscapes (if not every large-scale possibility). More powerful generations are on the way, currently under the R&D tarpaulin, while the ageless art of electro-acoustic voicing remains a house speciality. “Most of my career has been with transducer companies,” Johnson continues, reflecting on time with Shure, Bosch and Harman. “With Shure we were taking sound and turning it into electricity; here we’re taking electricity and turning it into sound. I really think that’s where the magic happens.”

The new brand identity also wishes to express “fresh and contemporary industrial design,” as reflected in the industrially chic I Series unveiled at InfoComm – another indicator, Johnson believes, of changing customer expectations. “The look of technology can be what first intrigues people, especially since the iPod,” he says. “The first thing you encounter is the physical, and that can win or lose interest. The brand has to really communicate what it stands for, and to appeal to an ever-broader audience – perhaps audio has to escape its esoteric trappings and step into the limelight a little more. To survive today, you have to draw people’s attention.”