Is it possible to disrupt a sector that has seen little innovation in 200 years? Entrepreneur Steven Greenall, founder of West-midlands based Warwick Music Group (WM), would reply “Yes, definitely!” His company developed the world’s first plastic trombone and today produces affordable brass and wind instruments in plastic - and was a regional winner in The Spectator’s Economic Disruptor of the Year Awards.
Steven Greenall was nine when his music teacher brought a shiny tubular object into the classroom and said, “Does anyone want to play this?” Steven immediately raised his hand. “The trombone chooses you,” he tells me: it chose him that day and has played a huge part in his life ever since.
Steven grew up to play in and conduct big bands and student orchestras — and marry a clarinettist — but never saw himself becoming a full-time musician. Instead, having studied electrical engineering at Warwick University followed by a masters in cultural policy and business administration, his entrepreneurial urge led him to establish Warwick Music in 1994 as a supplier of brass and woodwind sheet music. While that relatively modest business ticked along, he spent seven years as executive director of the US-based International Trombone Association, a role that included running festivals as far afield as Beijing and Brazil.
Making the joy of music accessible
Then, in 2007, he was headhunted by a small venture capital fund in the creative sector — and turned his mind to the “pretty dire” condition of music education in the UK. In the state-school sector in particular, music teaching was diminishing, and learners were discouraged by lack of access to brass, woodwind and string instruments that typically cost hundred of pounds even at the starter level.
Our team gets a huge kick from seeing the next generation of musicians pick up our instruments.
Steven’s response was to help create a trombone in recyclable ABS plastic, that had all the features of a traditional trombone – and none of the down-sides. Brass instruments are easily damaged, costly to buy and can be expensive to maintain. His goal was to create an instrument that played like a traditional trombone, with no compromise on sound quality, but was also affordable and fun.
The solution to the challenge of doing so, was to use plastic technologies adapted from the automotive industry that is clustered around the West Midlands — durable, largely recycled plastic being no worse for the environment, and possibly better, than brass. But there was “no manual” for the design process, only patient trial and error. With two fellow musicians, Hugh Rashleigh (still a shareholder) and Chris Fower (now WM’s director of creativity), they persevered for three years — on the principle attributed to Winston Churchill that “success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm” — until they perfected the robust, lightweight, maintenance-free and brightly coloured ‘pBone’, which currently sells for £109 with a ‘mini’ version at £79. When pBone was launched on Warwick Music’s website in late 2010, the team watched in happy astonishment as their first stock of 500 instruments sold out in just 19 minutes.
Manufactured to high specifications in Guangzhou, China, WM’s range has been extended to plastic trumpets and cornets (some made to look exactly like polished brass) and the simplified six-note pBuzz starter instrument, suitable for kids as young as three and priced at just £16.99. Hundreds of thousands of children, in schools across the US, Asia, Euroasia, as well as in the UK, have discovered music through WMG’s instruments.
Disrupting the classical music sector
WM notched up sales growth of 43 per cent last year, bringing accolades for the company as an export champion. A tireless traveller, Steven Greenall clearly relishes the success of his business as a true disruptor of a sector that had otherwise seen little change over the past two centuries. But above all, he says, “our team gets a huge kick from seeing the next generation of musicians pick up our instruments!”.
Spectator Economic Disruptor of the Year Awards
Julius Baer sponsors the Spectator’s Economic Disruptor of the Year Awards. The prize recognises innovators who are disrupting their marketplace in terms of price, choice and accessibility and have the potential to scale up, nationally and internationally.