Drummaker Remo Belli's customers include some of the biggest names in music: Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, Lars Ulrich of Metallica, and Tré Cool of Green Day, to name a few. But it's the market for nonmusicians that he is really going after. Belli launched Remo Inc. in the 1950s, after he pioneered the use of polyester Mylar for drumheads, the membranes that stretch over the open ends of a drum. Later, he began manufacturing congas and tambourines. At 83 and with no plans to step aside, Belli is focusing on what he calls the life-enhancement business, or the drum market for amateurs, therapy, and education. Last year, such sales accounted for nearly 25 percent of the company's $50 million in revenue.
I'm an Indiana boy, near South Bend. I got interested in playing drums when I was 12 years old. My uncle played trumpet in a really good polka band, and on nights when he played at the Italian Club, I'd go with my parents and would sit next to the drummer. My dad would have preferred that I play the accordion, but I started playing snare drum. By the time I got to high school, World War II had started, and all the professional musicians had been drafted. So at 16, I began getting work. We'd get up at 6 in the morning and play victory-shift dances for people who had worked all night. We played predominantly jazz and swing.
I joined the Navy and played in a Navy band. After I was discharged, I read an ad in the South Bend Tribune: "Driving to Los Angeles, share expenses." I ended up driving on Route 66 all the way to L.A. I got there in August 1946 with $60 in my pocket. I played in everything from a strip joint to a saloon. Later, I went on tour with the singer Anita O'Day, Betty Hutton—lots of people.
By the 1950s, Los Angeles had five drum shops, but none of them had the feel that I thought a drum shop should have. It should be a hang—a place where you could play, kibitz, do whatever. I had never heard of the word invoice. But there happened to be a vacant store on Santa Monica Boulevard, and I borrowed $2,300 from my parents to open up Drum City with a partner. I continued to work as a drummer after the store opened, but I decided that I liked business. This was going to be OK.
Our shop was like a master class for me. I kept my mouth shut and my ears open. Drummers would come in and test instruments. We were in the middle of the theatrical district—all the supply houses, the costume houses—so we helped on a lot of movies. Tony Curtis was a good customer, Bill Holden, Peggy Lee, Marlon Brando, Jackie Cooper, Johnny Carson. It was a very fun time in Hollywood.
Drum City became a very important outlet for the drum companies. I would visit their plants—most of them were in Chicago—and that's where Budd Slingerland, who at the time headed Slingerland Drum Company, first showed me Mylar. There were several people who had been working on synthetic drumheads, because animal skins were a real problem. The rains, the humidity. Playing Atlantic City or Louisiana, you'd have a real challenge.
I came back to L.A., stapled the Mylar to a frame, and tried it. I had an accountant, Sid Gerwin, and I told him I thought this was interesting. So he introduced me to a surface bonding chemist named Samuel Muchnick, who figured out a way of punching holes around the periphery of the Mylar and then pouring in liquid resins. They flow through the hole and adhere to an aluminum channel. That helps create the vibration. None of us had ever worked in a factory, and none of us knew what the market was going to be like. We got the patent and in 1957 started Remo Inc.
We opened a facility right next to Drum City. We had 500 square feet, and then in a couple of months had to expand to 1,000, and shortly after that, 3,000. Then we moved out to the San Fernando Valley, and it was up to 6,000. Our current plant in Valencia is more than 200,000 square feet; we also have a facility in China.
The synthetic drumhead revolutionized things right around the time Elvis Presley and the Beatles introduced a rhythm that people responded to. That changed everything in the whole musical instruments category. It was no longer woodwinds and brass winds and strings. It became guitars and amplification and drums. And to this day, that's what it is.
Business is not complicated for me. I'm a golden-rule guy: If I made it and I sent it and it doesn't work, that's my responsibility. I enjoy people; I enjoy the one on one. In running the business, product development and marketing was my responsibility. The bean counting was done by Sid. Sam, the chemist, took care of the procedures for making the product. And I had to find people responsible for the manufacturing. I had been president and CEO up until the time we moved to Valencia 16 years ago. But I began to realize that my work had mostly to do with product development. So I brought in Brock Kaericher to be president and run the day-to-day operations. I remained CEO.
When I was in need financially, I rarely went to the bank. There were enough people out there who were very comfortable helping us out. When we needed to grow, DuPont, maker of Mylar, bought shares. Two of our best customers bought shares, and they were very undemanding with respect to what we did. Besides, we have nothing to excess here. We have no country clubs; we have no yachts; none of that. We all brown bag.
The selection of drumheads available today is infinitely larger than it was in the 1960s. Ethnic drums is a huge area, and it involves a mixing of cultures. Musicians in the United States are more interested in Japanese taiko, Brazilian samba, Cuban congas.
By the early '90s, there was a lot of interest building up in medicine and education about how deeply music is connected to the human condition. We as an industry were beginning to examine music and the brain. Drums are a rhythm instrument; they're accessible; they're instantaneous. Drums can be used by anyone for relaxation and enjoyment. They can be used for helping people with autism or Alzheimer's—or for someone just showing up at a recreation center on a Tuesday night having a ball.
I began to realize where we should go as a company. There are about 75 million people who will get involved in the playing of a musical instrument, and that's just in the United States. If you go to Japan, there are more people playing drums than you can imagine. Taiwan, Singapore. This is the life-enhancement business—and this is where the market is. It's the biggest growth potential the industry has ever had. It will far outdistance rock 'n' roll. We're not only looking for musicians. The market is everybody that's alive.