Matthews man turns drum-making hobby into business success

08/19/2014 12:00 AM

08/20/2014 6:30 AM

By day, Kevin Brown is a hands-on engineer who converts old shipping containers into hospitality units outfitted for parties, trade shows and concerts. At night, he’s a family man, spending time with his wife and 3-year-old daughter.

When time allows, he’s a self-made drum maker who crafts customized West African – and now, some Latin – drums that he advertises and sells online.

Using tools he stores in a 300-square-foot shed at his home in Matthews, Brown, 33, has been building and shipping hand drums from his side gig, Rhythm House Drums, for the past six years. All of his designs, he said, are made to order.

He crafts some of his drum creations from maple wood, carving elaborate designs and patterns. Some he inlays with crushed stone. He makes about $35,000 in sales annually, though Brown said revenue ebbs and flows depending on the season.

“I pretty much do it all,” Brown said. “I can make it any size, any color, add custom artwork, carvings.”

He added: “I started this as a hobby, as something to do. ... I enjoyed making things and wanted to make my own.”

Drums in demand

Brown is part of a handcrafting industry that is shrinking in popularity in recent years.

The U.S. music instrument industry reported $1.9 billion in revenue last year, according to a report from Supplier Relations U.S. LLC, which studies the manufacturing sector. Global consulting firm MainStream Management wrote in a 2010 report that domestic production of musical instruments had been dwindling for the past five years, with most of the production moving overseas. Drum sales in particular had declined rapidly and the wholesale value of hand drums slumped by 7 percent.

Brown said his business has been steady. He customizes at least four drums a month. His waiting list is six months long, and he’s trying to eliminate a backlog. Many of his drums are priced at $450 or more. Customers pay 50 percent upfront and then the rest when the drum is done. Most customers have seen his work and are confident in the product’s delivery, he said. Brown said the backlog hasn’t scared away business because he’s honest about the time it takes to complete an order.

He runs Rhythm House Drums without any overhead, he said. Most of his expenses come from tool repairs.

Brown had no capital when he started Rhythm House Drums. He paid out-of-pocket for materials, using the cheapest tools he could find to get the job done. As more orders came in, he decided to build a work shed. He began buying quality tools on credit – a big mistake, he said.

“I’m still feeling the effects of putting all this on credit,” he said, adding that he’s on a “tight” three-year plan to become debt free. He’s hoping originality will help him recover.

“There’s not a lot of companies that do what I do. ... There are not as many who do it on the scale I do,” he said.

Falling for the djembe

Brown’s interest in drums grew in college when he started playing hand drums. A friend in a band would “break out his bag of percussion toys” and Brown gravitated to the djembe (say GEM-bay), an hourglass-shaped West African drum with a goatskin head. At first, he played with djembes he bought from music stores.

Seeking a richer sound, he decided to make one of his own. Once it was finished, he created a website and posted a picture.

He was surprised when someone saw it and asked him to make a drum of carved walnut wood with Yellowheart accents.

The djembe is now the most popular type of drum he sells. He gets wood from a local sawyer and imports the animal skins blanketing the top of the instrument from West Africa, which gives the drum an “ authentic, traditional ... sound.”

Brown’s built a steady customer base comprising drummers and music teachers. He estimates that 90 percent of his orders come out of state, and some from overseas. He said he’s shipped his merchandise as far as Switzerland and Japan.

To help keep up with demand, Brown hired Jeremy Maher, a musician and construction worker. Maher has helped Brown construct drums every Saturday for the past four months after responding to an advertisement on Craigslist.

Hiring help was “one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make,” Brown said. Not only does it cost him between $300 to $400 per month, but he’s had to share secrets of the trade with someone else. Yet, it’s not a decision he regrets.

“It got to the point where I couldn’t do it by myself,” he said.

A ‘powerful, powerful drum’

It’s not surprising that consumers are attracted to djembe drums in particular, said Freddie “Ayinde Nakata” Rivera, a master djembe drummer and music director at Charlotte’s Oneaka Dance Co. The djembe became popular when Ladji Camara, a renowned djembe drummer and lead soloist for Guinea’s national ballet, traveled to the U.S. in the 1960s and began teaching drum techniques.

“The range of the djembe affected people so much ... that everybody wanted to learn how to play it,” said Rivera, who studied under Camara when he was 9. “It’s a powerful, powerful drum. People feel the djembe physically in their bodies.”

Djembes aren’t the only drums Brown offers. Visitors to his website can find customized conga and pow wow drums, along with drum accessories, blogs about drum building and galleries of his past work.

Working at Boxman Studios, a Charlotte company that retrofits unused shipping containers into hospitality units, fuels his creativity, he said.

“There’s so much more to learn from working in that environment,” he said, “so many creative people building stuff that’s never been built before. Working there, I’ve upped my game on my drums.”

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