Fred Tongue visits Sound Leisure, a jukebox manufacturer bringing vinyl back to the masses.
I recently made the trip up to Leeds to visit a company that is so retro, it’s now back in fashion. Sound Leisure makes jukeboxes from scratch, and has done since 1978.
By his own admission, Alan Black, creator of the Yorkshire-based manufacturer, told me things are going “back to the future”.
He said, “The first time we did vinyl it was very different. It was an industry ruled by the Americans and a real challenge because they were so well established. Everybody laughed and said we were crazy; we knew vinyl was on its way out, but we weren’t quite so sure about what was coming in.”
Looking to the future has kept Sound Leisure afloat during difficult periods in the music industry. The firm has manufactured jukeboxes through the most transitional period in music history, weathering the death of vinyl, the transition to CDs and the emergence of digital music.
“We produced the CD and it was a natural move, but I knew that CDs weren’t going to last. We were already working on digital technology. To me, back then, it seemed so stupid to go through all the trouble to take a recording, digitise it, and then put it on to a disc, when clearly they must have it on a hard drive before hand to store it,” he rationalised.
So Black endeavored to digitise music himself, travelling between universities all over Europe, and eventually finding a university in Michigan that was researching the compression and digital storing of audio.
Once he found a way of digitising music, Black faced another problem, the record industry. Sound Leisure demonstrated the first digital jukebox to a room of industry professionals in 1988. “The problem was the licensing, the music producers hated it. They wanted to shut us down.
“During the demonstration in 1988, when I finished playing the music, these three guys jumped up and said, ‘We’ll stop you there, what you have just done carries a ten-year jail sentence. What you’ve just done is break copyright law!’”
So the firm had to speak to the record companies and finally got a licence for a fully digital jukebox in 2000. During that time, the company has taken on more production processes.
Many of the firm’s producers found themselves falling on tough times. As local producers experienced difficulties, Sound Leisure took on a lot of the production processes, so now every part of its machines are manufactured and designed in-house.
The firm’s demand for such a diverse set of skills brings its own challenges. With such high quality products, all operators need to be highly skilled, so like many manufacturers in the UK, the business is struggling to find the workers to carry the business forward.
Chris Black, Black’s son and managing director of Sound Leisure, explains the difficulties it has faced after its success, “I won’t give order numbers, but two years ago we had an aim to output an extra 50%, and in that time we have added at least 75%. We’ve also seen our lead time go from two weeks, two years ago, to six months now.”
Sound Leisure has managed to find massive growth by focusing its attention on the consumer market, “We have such a problem finding people with the right skills. Because of this, we do a lot of work with schools. We’re trying to get people involved with manufacturing again.
Sound Leisure regularly invites students from local schools to tour the factory to experience what modern manufacturing really looks like, and inspire the next generation of engineers and skilled workers.
Thanks to the success of the consumer market and with help of distributing partners, the firm is now exporting to the US, the homeland of the jukebox. This is a massive coup for Sound Leisure, after joining the market during a transition period and a time where more established brands ruled the roost.