Tuesday, February 14, 2017

St. Louis' Magic Room Aims to Make Music More Sustainable — with Biodegradable Gear

Posted By on Tue, Feb 14, 2017 at 6:03 AM

click to enlarge PHOTO VIA MAGIC ROOM BRAND
  • Photo via Magic Room Brand

Throwaway culture permeates every industry in the United States. Restaurants have plastic straws, forks and Styrofoam. Retail has plastic bags and endless amounts of shrink-wrap. Crappy electronic goods are deemed impossible to live without, yet doomed to die after just a few months. These items last for hundreds of years after enjoying just a few short moments of usefulness, then either wind up in a landfill or polluting our streets and waterways, eventually ending up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or some other floating monument to consumerism.

The music industry is not exempt from this use-it-and-lose-it mentality. Cheap-but-necessary equipment is often made out of plastic, a durative of fossil fuels that takes energy and resources to extract, manufacture and deliver. This equipment is used for a few weeks before it wears out and is tossed in the garbage, where it takes eons to decompose.

Magic Room Brand, a St. Louis-based company, is working to reduce the throwaway plastic trash that musicians create by selling guitar picks and drumsticks made from bamboo. Owner and operator Vijoy Rao quit his corporate job (Rao still tosses around terms like “paradigm shift” and “disruption” like an executive in a Dilbert cartoon) to address what he calls “the elephant in the room” of the musical supply manufacturing industry – the lack of environmental sustainability.

“Innovation in the industry is so gimmicky,” Rao explains. “They add a fraction of an ounce to the front or back of drumsticks instead of making real changes.” That’s why he’s designed “biodegradable” drumsticks and guitar picks that can be safely stuck into the ground after they’ve have worn out.

It is important to understand that nothing in a landfill really “biodegrades” normally. Landfills are covered and sealed, depriving materials inside of the water and light needed to decompose properly. Instead, organic matter decays anaerobically, releasing methane, while plastic trash is preserved for future civilizations or alien anthropologists to study. This is why Magic Room Brand encourages customers to stick their drumsticks and picks in their backyards instead of in the trash.

Most guitar picks are made from plastic, and most drumsticks are made from maple, oak or hickory trees. The trees might be sustainably harvested from responsibly managed forests, but their removal still takes away a valuable carbon sink — trees “fix” carbon into the ground, removing it from the atmosphere. Once cut and shaped, drumsticks are dipped into a hardening lacquer that prevents them from decomposing properly. They are then used for a few weeks until they chip, dent or snap, and then tossed into the trash.

Magic Room’s picks and drumsticks are made from Anji bamboo — a tough, versatile crop that works to provide the durability and sound that Rao sought. The drumsticks are not coated in a hardening lacquer, but Rao insists that they are just as durable as traditional sticks. Rao explains that he had “no interest in compromising strength or sound just to provide a sustainable option.” His standards required that the products must last at least as long, be at least as strong, and sound as good as the competition. Rao is confident that Magic Room picks and drumsticks sound better and last longer than the major players in the industry.

His picks are on the thick side: 2 millimeters at the top, tapered to .73 millimeters at the bottom for a decent grip. He found his pick manufacturer by accident — Rao’s wife bought his son some durable, washable, Star Wars-branded bamboo cups that impressed him. Rao tracked down the manufacturer and they were willing to create his product. Magic Room Brand picks are made from the viscous innards of bamboo, compressed, pressed into molds and dried.

Rao couldn’t find a bamboo grower or manufacturer in the U.S. to meet his needs, so he uses Chinese-grown bamboo, crafted in a Chinese factory. He says he's tried to ensure that everyone along the supply chain is treated well through late-night Skype inspections of the factory and maintaining a good line of communication with his Chinese project manager. Rao’s friends from his previous life in the corporate world work in the global supply chain — they also check in on Magic Room Brand’s supply chain to help make sure that sustainability is considered throughout the lifespan of the product, or, in industry terms, from “cradle to grave.”

Even Magic Room Brand’s packaging has been chosen with sustainability in mind. The picks and drumsticks are shipped inside bamboo-fiber bags nestled inside thick, post-consumer boxes (made from recycled content) that Rao encourages customers to use again. There is a blank spot along the side of the box so customers can label the container with whatever they re-use them for, like “1/2 nails,” “Legos,” “drugs,” “earrings,” “loose teeth” or other small items jangling around in junk drawers that deserve a permanent home.

Even though Rao admits that quitting a safe job to pursue his passion is scary, he feels fulfilled. He explained that being his own boss on a project he cares about is the “difference between working on something and working towards something.”

Rao has played in bands since he was fifteen years old, when he cobbled together microphone and keyboard stands from random crap from his parent’s storage room — a place they dubbed “the magic room” for its ability to provide whatever object they could re-use to get the job done. The storage room became the inspiration for and namesake of Magic Room Brand.

While Rao’s guitar picks are pricier than the plastic alternatives, ($8 for a five-pack of bamboo picks versus 50 cents each for plastic picks), his drumsticks are comparable to his competitors’ prices, retailing at $12 a pair.

Magic Room Brand also provides a subscription service, with an option for pick and stick combos for bands or solo subscriptions for lonely musicians. Rao is flexible with the subscription service — if a customer has to miss a month, they won’t be penalized financially.

Musicians can only purchase Magic Room Brand sticks and picks online, for now. Boxes are sent with the following instructions:
1. Put some songs into them
2. Bury them when it’s their time
3. Keep and re-use the box
If Rao has his way, compost piles enclosed by tiny drumstick fences will start popping up in backyards behind practice spaces all over St. Louis and across the world, helping to reduce the environmental impact that comes from making music.

More by Jenn DeRose

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