Positive verdict from jukebox jury for Sound Leisure group

Chris Black is at the helm of a company that continues to produce some musical nostalgia but has also adpated it to the demand of modern day technology. He spoke to reporter Ismail Mulla.

Chris Black, managing director of Sound Leisure, at the pop-up store in Victoria Gate, Leeds. Picture: Simon Hulme
Chris Black, managing director of Sound Leisure, at the pop-up store in Victoria Gate, Leeds. Picture: Simon Hulme

There’s just something about jukeboxes that make them so evocative of happier times. The shiny chrome, flashing lights and of course spinning records should be a relic of the past in a world festooned with iPhones and tablet computers.

Yet in this increasingly plastic world, jukeboxes continue to endure. Leeds-based Sound Leisure is a testament to that fact.

Sound Leisure manufacturers jukeboxes right here in Yorkshire. This year the firm celebrates its 40th anniversary.

“There’s a warmth about jukeboxes. It puts a smile on people’s faces. It puts people in a good mood straight away,” says Chris Black, managing director of Sound Leisure.

The company was set up by his father Alan Black and business partner Eddie Moss in 1978. Mr Moss was working for a jukebox manufacturer but needed someone with technical expertise to help repair them.

“My father was an electronics whizz,” says Chris Black. “He started repairing those machines but had always wanted to build his own jukeboxes.”

Today, the business houses several divisions. The SL Kids division of the business specialises in distraction areas for children.

“If you go into a bank and see those little bead tree tables or the little modules on the wall where the kids move blocks around, we’ve probably distributed that,” Mr Black said.

It also has a vacuum forming business and a pattern making arm. In short, manufacturing is at the heart of everything this family-led business does.

Eddie Moss passed away three years ago and the Black family bought out his shares making them the sole owners.

Chris Black is at the helm now and his approach to the business is different compared to his father, who is still involved in the firm.

He said: “My father is more of a technical person. I’m more on the sales side. That’s the side I grew up on.”

Despite the differing approaches the end goal is the same and that is to produce the best product and look after the team.

The business has been turned on its head over the past four decades.

Mr Black said: “Our main business was supplying jukeboxes to pubs. The pub game has changed tremendously.

“More and more pubs, when the smoking ban came in 2007, started looking at different ways of making money and staying in business.

“A lot of those went from being wet led, drink only pubs to serving food and that’s where we came in with the SL Kids division because we thought they’d have to look at enticing families in to them.”

Technology has changed and even timeless pieces such as vintage looking jukeboxes need a modern twist.

Mr Black said: “Even though the cabinets are styled on the 40s and 50s machines, the technology within them now, allows you to use infrared remote controls. You can run Sonos through it. You can put bluetooth on it. You can connect to the outside world still.”

Changes have never thrown the business and as the whole country enters uncertain waters with Brexit it is already gearing up for what the future may hold.

“When the business was formed back in 1978 it was formed on the back of a vinyl playing jukebox,” says Mr Black. “Vinyl had been the staple product for 100 years in the industry. Within four years of us launching the vinyl, CDs came out.”

The business model has also changed. Having started off selling business to business, the firm has tapped into a growing market of jukebox loving consumers.

There’s no way of summing up their customers. Mr Black says they sell jukeboxes to everyone from 18 year-olds to 80 year-olds and deliver everywhere from one bedroom flats to castles.

Mr Black said: “There’s people that walk in and literally just ask us to send the machine to their house somewhere in Bermuda or France and ask the price as they’re leaving.

“We have people that come in that have been saving up for ten years to purchase one of the machines.”

The one thing that does define their customers is that they demand quality. Sound Leisure is selling its jukeboxes all over the world. The craftsmanship of their machines has seen even America, the home of the jukebox, now its largest market.

“The next largest export market is Europe as a whole with France, Holland and Belgium being the biggest,” says Mr Black.

As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, Sound Leisure has already started taking steps to diversify its export portfolio. The firm has turned its attention to India.

Sound Leisure has been involved with a trade delegation to the subcontinent, which the Yorkshire Asian Business Association helped organise, and is already securing sales in India.

Mr Black said: “In India they understand the jukebox and they’ve got a big music culture with Bollywood. We believe, hopefully, it could be one of the next markets that we get traction in.”

Despite the uncertainty, Mr Black remains positive, with the business having sailed choppy waters in the past.

He said: “If I started to really think about all the negatives of what will happen when Brexit takes place, I might as well shut down tomorrow.

“In 18 months’ time we’re either going to be really busy because Europe is still buzzing and we’ve got an Indian market that is taking machines and America is still going well. Or we’ll be saying thank goodness we did that because Europe is falling away.”

To mark its 40th anniversary, the business has been running a pop-up shop over the past few weeks at the Victoria Gate shopping centre in Leeds.

The idea being to get the word out to people that there are jukeboxes being manufactured right on their doorstep.

It has been such a success, sales have even surprised Mr Black, that Sound Leisure has extended its stay for another four weeks.

The enduring popularity of jukeboxes is unlikely to wane, Mr Black says. In an era where there is a demand for immediacy, there will be people who demand quality and something tangible.

“It puts some value back to music as well,” Mr Black adds.

Chris Black factfile

Title: Managing director

Date of birth: 27/5/70

Lives: Leeds

Favourite holiday destination: Mountain biking in the mountains of Bulgaria

Last book read: I don’t read very often – I’d rather be outside on my bike, however around six years ago I was given a book by James Caan, The Real Deal. I couldn’t put it down and read it page to page in a day.

Favourite film: Where Eagles Dare

Favourite song: Lots of them, however, Willie Nelson – Me and Bobby McGee – probably wins.

Car driven: Jaguar/Aston Martin

Most proud of: Family foremost and then the business.

Education: None worth talking about. Hard work seems to have been my forte.