When did you first think of the idea of the Stageprompter?
In my early forties and after a 20-year break, I decided to revisit the idea of being in a rock band. It was a wonderful time and I realized how much I had missed everything about being on stage. I was, however devastated when I had to admit that I could no longer reliably remember the lyrics or guitar chords when performing. I would practice the same songs over and over but no matter what I did I had lost the ability for my memory to hold onto the reams of words, the structures and the notes. Rehearsals with my new band mates were fine, no one seemed to mind seeing a music stand at rehearsals. When it came to the first gig, I had to admit to everyone I needed the music stand on stage. "Maybe just for the first one or two gigs until I get my confidence”, I told myself. Four or five gigs in and the music stand was still there, I was not reading every word, it was more of a confidence thing. "The first line of the third verse", "when is the lead guitar solo", "how many bars before I come back in”, just little prompts but so important to how I felt and a great comfort to know it was there when I needed it. But I was not happy. The music stand was not cool, it was showing the crowd, who I was so desperate to impress, that I was lacking, that I needed an aid, that I had hit that age in life where the memory starts to go. I tried to hide the music stand, I put it low on the floor, but I could no longer see the font and I had to bend down at the end of each song to turn the page. I made a mini music stand with mini lyric sheets that was clipped to the mic stand, but it was still obvious to the audience that I had a music stand and was turning pages. I tried an iPad, but again because the screen is so small you must have it up high on a stand and the crowd can see you have a prompt. I turned to the internet but all I could find was a product in the US called the Wolfgang Telemonitor. It looked quite good as a black wedge floor monitor with a screen, but when I looked further, I realized it had a PC inside and needed a keyboard, a mouse, a battery backup and a fan to keep it all cool. Being from an engineering background I quickly worked out that this was a potential nightmare up on stage, what I wanted was easy, simple, uncomplicated and ultra-reliable.
The first working prototype of the now "legendary" Stageprompter
What was the first one like and how has it changed over the years?
The first Stageprompter was made without even dreaming it would become a future business. I just wanted something better than a music stand for myself. I shut myself away in my workshop at home and made a wooden wedge enclosure out of bits of plywood I had lying around. It was hand painted with a brush and made to fit an old computer screen I wasn’t using. My laptop was placed inside the wedge and connected to the screen to mimic the display. I created some PowerPoint slides of my words and used an infrared remote control to move from slide to slide. It worked and looked slick, however on its maiden voyage at our next gig, I was mid song and the antivirus reminder window popped up over the lyrics! At the end of the song I am on my knees on stage with the screen ripped out and me frantically trying to get rid of this reminder window. Next song all seemed fine and the next, but then up it comes again. After several gigs with many PC related issues I vowed to never have a PC up on stage again. The Stageprompters we produce today are all based on our unique, computer-less design. There is no keyboard, no mouse, no fans, no software to set up and maintain, you turn it on, and it works. We have developed a very simple and very reliable circuit board that drives every Stageprompter. If you open the back up on one of our products all you see is this circuit board and a couple of small cables. This is the beauty of our products, simple and made to do one job, very well.
I see that Robert Plant is one of your featured artists. What has been your interaction with him?
Robert was a customer back in the early days of Stageprompter. Returning to the stage as a solo artist with an amazing touring band, he had a lot to live up to from his early days with Led Zeppelin. I was called by his Stage Tech early one morning back in 2012 and asked if I could bring one of my Stageprompters so Robert could evaluate it. He was rehearsing at a studio in London, so I got in my car and by mid-day I was with Robert looking at the future of his stage performances. Within seconds he had decided. “Looks great, let’s get it into the studio and try it”. Within a couple of songs, he had made his mind up. I was dispatched to bring three to his gig the next day. During the sound check the next morning Robert put the Stageprompters through their paces. I was side of stage in case questions needed answering. Sound check over I was standing in the dark, leaning on a crowd barrier looking down on the sound desk pit at the back of the venue. The support act was on stage going through her sound check. I felt a presence beside me and after a minute the person said, “she is very good”. I turned to look at the source of this comment and it was Robert. We stood together and chatted about my own band, the pressures of touring, and the highs and lows of band life. I remember how friendly and down to earth he was, and we laughed about how the same issues existed from a super group the size of Led Zeppelin to my small local group of band mates. I have not seen Robert since that day, but he is still using our products and has several of the latest models.
Your international HQ is Cambridge England, which is where Pink Floyd originated from. Did you cross paths with them when they were starting out?
Cambridge in the UK is so steeped in history that it is almost impossible to list the countless legends that have lived, studied and died within its walls. Renowned for its University’s, research and groundbreaking discoveries, a rock band could easily get forgotten, but Pink Floyd is no ordinary rock band. Yes, Cambridge in the UK is well known as the origin of Pink Floyd and every Cambridge resident wants to say they have something in their past that links them to the world-famous rock gods. The reality is, it was a very long time ago and stories get exaggerated and twisted. My own story about Pink Floyd is no different. I was bought up as a classical trumpet player and every holiday, as a young teen, I played in the Cambridge Holliday Orchestra. This was a group of about 50 Cambridge school children that rehearsed for a week or so then performed a very prestigious concert in the Cambridge Guild Hall. A little, white haired, elderly lady ran the Cambridge Holliday Orchestra for many years. She was a wonderful lady, full of enthusiasm and drive and an inspiration to us all. Her name was Molly Gilmour. Well no one ever dared ask her about her son “David” as we were only young teenagers, but our respect for her was huge. I have told this story for many years now and was looking forward to telling it again when I was asked to write this. However, recently I thought I should verify my answer before telling the story again. A quick Google search revealed that David Gilmore’s mother was not “Molly Gilmour”. Oh well, another good story ruined by the truth.
I see that you've begun to make and sell Stageprompters in the United States. How is that going, and do you have plans to expand to other parts of the world?
When starting a company, a product, a manufacturing plant and a support structure from scratch you never know what the future holds. 13 years ago, when I created the first Stageprompter I never imagined it would be received all over the world with such praise and enthusiasm. For many years now we have provided worldwide support from our HQ in Cambridge UK. We had to finally admit that the products deserved to be represented in other countries. However, the world is changing, and the way people find, research and buy products is also changing. The traditional music stores are closing, and many customers are now using the internet to make their buying choices. One thing however has not changed and that is that people still feel “uneasy” buying a product that has a significant cost from another country. They are concerned “will it actually arrive”, “what condition will it be in”, “will I have to pay additional taxes”, and “how will I get support”. All these concerns have been addressed in the USA because we now manufacture, ship directly to the customer and provide all ongoing support all within the US. Since early 2018, customers in the USA are receiving identical products, identical quality assurance and identical support levels to customers buying direct from our HQ in the UK. As the founder and CEO of the UK HQ, I personally monitor and help develop the quality standards and support structure within the US and I am committed to continue to do this for the long-term future of the products. The US has certainly become the template for the future of Stageprompter outside of the UK, and we have plans to replicate this in Canada, Australia and Europe over the next few years.
Are there any funny stories from customers that you can share?
The story that always springs to mind is not necessarily that funny, but it highlights the product and its invaluable place up on stage. For obvious reasons that will come to light I will not say the name of the band in question but suffice to say they are a world-renowned band that were at their height in the late 80’s. They were embarking on a massive revival tour and the singer was obviously a bit unsure he could remember all those lyrics from many years ago. They decided to hire three of our Stageprompters and I met the band at their rehearsal studios prior to the start of the hire. All went well for the first leg of the tour and after a short break, the second leg commenced. Mid way through the list of dates and venues across the UK I had a call from the Stage Tech’ to say that the lead singer felt he no longer needed the Stageprompters as he was confident with the lyrics. They were due to perform in Cambridge where our HQ is based so it would be an ideal opportunity to hand the hire Stageprompters back and for myself + guests to enjoy the concert. I collected the Stageprompters in the afternoon and joined the crowd in the packed venue later that evening. The first performance without the Stageprompters on stage went very well until they got to one of their best-known songs. The song started with a massive keyboard and guitar intro’ and right on cue the singer raised the mic to pump out the first line of the first verse. He stopped. His mind had gone blank in front of over 1000 fans. The band kept playing, looking at each other with worried expressions. The lead singer had frozen, he held up his hand, turned to the band and stopped the song. The crowd were obviously amazed, and a bit put out but a quick prompt of the words from the bass player put the singer back on track and the song was restarted.
What's the most satisfying part for you about creating the Stageprompter brand of products?
Without question, it is the fantastic emails, phone calls and messages I get from people all over the world that have found our products. I will share the latest message I received with you now "My name is _____ and I am singer/performer in Australia. I have just been contracted to do a major show, to perform in all the major theatres of Australia. Learning 24 songs was daunting to me to say the least until today! Finding your website was a gift of relief. I use an iPad but would not use it for such a wonderful show as this one. When I get to the US, I will give you the biggest hug of appreciation for creating such a wonderful first-class idea!! I am so happy and can now finally sleep without the horror’s performers experience. Kindest regards from the most grateful Singer/Performer on earth!!”
I see that you just came out with a Pro Series. What led you to develop this product line and what has the customer feedback been like?
Our products for many years have been user operated, controlled with a discrete foot switch. As the products have gained popularity all over the world, some major artists that perform on huge stages have wanted to use our products. Because of the nature of their performances they are not tied to one position on stage and should not be having to focus on pressing foot switches during their show. We were increasingly being asked for multiple, bigger screens, linked together and controlled from the side of the stage. We launched the Pro Series at the NAMM trade music show in LA in January 2019 and it was well received by artists, Pro Audio, Management and Production companies. Six months on, we now have systems being used on big stages, world tours, in university’s and other major installations. Feedback has been great and while we are continually developing the product range the systems have proven to be reliable, easy to operate and affordable.