Five Questions: Greg Perlot
I’ve known Greg for 15 years, since we bonded over the music film about Wilco that I’d just produced. His career in marketing has so many highlights that it can’t just be a “right place, right time” story. He’s strategically navigated a bunch of pivots, always landing on his feet at a new and groundbreaking business. I wanted to catch up and see what he’s doing now with the Wrensilva HiFi brand:
Tell me about your background and how you ended up partnering with Wrensilva.
My background would be defined by short attention span combined with being in the right place at the right time. It seems to swing between working on big global brands with big resources…and then bailing to start something on my own, with no resources. Not a genius career plan but it’s let me continually learn and work with some of the most brilliant people in the world. I was lucky enough to work on Apple at BBDO with Steve Hayden, run global advertising at Microsoft for Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, co-found 72andSunny with John Boiler and Glenn Cole, run marketing at Quiksilver for Bob McKnight, and bring the Sonos brand to life with John MacFarlane.
At Sonos we were really progressing home audio through new streaming, multi-room and acoustic technologies, but as that business got big it felt a bit ‘consumer electronics’ to me. As incredible as streaming is there’s a lot about listening to music that got lost in the digital revolution. Music isn’t defined by what Apple or Best Buy sells, it doesn’t come alive through value and convenience, especially in the home. Music is immersive and tactile and visual, and I found myself looking for more elegant statements in the home. It’s fine to put wireless speakers and a turntable on a nice credenza, but there was a time when a stereo was a beautiful piece of furniture that was the centerpiece of a living room. It was like a music campfire. I wanted to bring that idea back on modern terms and it felt like the Sonos platform and the resurgence of vinyl was a great foundation (right place at right time again).
There were a handful of boutique designers dabbling in a re-interpretation of the record console but one really stood out, a husband & wife team in San Diego named Scott & Debra Salyer. Their pieces were gorgeous and very well crafted, and they had abudding little business going, but the point of view was really caught between the old audio world and the new. So I basically stalked them and we eventually became partners, and we refined the product line with a full commitment to modern streaming audio as a compliment to vinyl. We relaunched the company as Wrensilva HiFi in Nov 2016.
What’s the product all about?
We call it ‘reawakening the spirit of hifi’. Meaning, we all have access to all the music we could ever want, and it’s always with us, and most of the time we’re on the move and music is flying at us from all directions. It’s great. But experience quality has taken a back seat to mobility, and so has design, especially in the home. When you get home you want to lean back and really listen to an artist you love. Or at least many people do. Maybe it’s on vinyl, maybe it’s from hi-def Tidal, doesn’t matter. Your living room was designed by you and it’s not powered by your mobile device, you want to hear an album the way it was mastered — out loud in full stereo sound. And play it on something that looks as good as it sounds. It’s a totally mid-century concept, but at a 21st century quality level. And we’re working directly with Sonos and other audio partners to thoughtfully merge old and new, not just bundle them together. For example, when you lovingly put on a record by hand you don’t want to pull out your phone to control things. We’re doing API level software integration that lets you use an analog volume knob on the console and have the volume automatically adjust in your Sonos app so that when you use that later to control room volumes it’s seamless. Just one example of thinking about analog + digital as one seamless design, as if they always existed together.
The products are all handmade in San Diego, so it’s also very much about irrational levels of quality control and keeping things local. That’s really the fun part of building a new company to me, it was the same with 72andSunny — turns out being a control freak creates local jobs.
In this digital/streaming world, is analog still relevant?
I do think it reaches beyond the retro movement and vinyl trend, and that might be a reflection of something deeper. Digital technology is really good at creating efficient access to content and communications. But when you think about it, the idea of efficiency or a “signal to noise ratio” in music (or any art) is kind of missing the point. Interesting is as interesting does, the process and offline journey are part of the experience. You can’t get more analog than buying a ticket and driving to a concert, but we do that more than ever. I spent a lot of time at Sonos talking with music lovers and artists and producers and studio people about where streaming music would take things and there was always a theme that music is much more than the recording. No matter how convenient recorded media gets there will always be the music relationship and the creative artifacts that deepen it, and that we relate over when we’re together. Whether it’s a record on the shelf, or where you bought it, or a piece of furniture you play it on. No one comes to your house and discusses your Spotify playlists.
Your products are beautifully designed, is that just a product feature, or is design of deeper importance?
We’re pretty much just making the things we’d want in our own living room, so I guess both. Debra is a wonderful designer to start, but you can’t get away from the physical dynamics of sound and all the things that can ruin it, so you’re getting into a certain scale and craftsmanship and set of materials required to perform well. What wood is the speaker cabinet made of (it really matters), have you isolated all the motor vibration so nothing hits the needle, stuff like that is now considered high-end design. But we also want there to be a particular ‘feel’ of the products, how the hinges respond when you close the lid, what’s the weight of the volume knob and how’s it feel when you turn it. What’s the finish and speaker fabric feel like to the touch. For all the technology in the products the design impact comes down to some very analog choices. And those things usually end up really beautiful to look at.
Can audio and design experiences bring positive change to the community?
Well, I mentioned jobs, that’s the most important thing in my opinion. That the experienced and resourced people in a town are paying it forward, not just speaking at conferences to land a bigger paycheck to buy another house. But that said, music and furniture seem to be unique, too. There’s something about meeting other people who really care about those things that’s a different kind of energy. Everyone can relate to the woodworker or the local music shop in a way they maybe can’t to a new nail salon or craft whisky bar. But it all works together, hopefully Wrensilva is bringing the music in the nail salon and whisky bar and it’s fueling new relationships and jobs and looking out for each other. That’s the impact we’re after. Pretty traditional stuff, it still works.