Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire jazz instructor Ron Keezer, left, was a tremendous influence and inspiration to a young Allen Perkins in the mid-1970s. After meeting Keezer at his high school band camp, Perkins enrolled in jazz at UWEC. The two remained close friends until Keezer’s death in 2020.
The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire proudly celebrates the highly successful music careers of many renowned alumni, from indie artists Sean Carey and Justin Vernon to jazz greats like John Raymond and Aaron Hedenstrom.
Another Blugold leader in the music industry recently left Berkeley, California, his home of 35 years, to return to Eau Claire. Allen Perkins, a 1985 graduate, spent many of those California years as a prolific jazz drum performer, a passion he honed as a Blugold studying jazz music with the late Ron Keezer, associate professor emeritus of music at UW-Eau Claire.
It was not for his drumming, however, that Perkins has earned global acclaim in the music industry.
Perkins has built a career and award-winning international business designing, manufacturing and distributing high-end, state-of-the-art turntables through two California-based companies he founded and co-founded, Spiral Groove turntables and Immedia Distribution.
Perkins does not create the turntables for the average vinyl enthusiast. His designs are aimed at a niche market of “audiophiles” who have the means to spend $15,000 to $35,000 on these premium products.
“I’ve worked with people like Carl Bernstein of Woodward and Bernstein, jazz artist Keith Jarrett, members of the bands Black Keys and the Jackson 5. A wonderful upside of this work has been meeting so many really interesting people,” Perkins says.
“In general, the bulk of my customers have been people who dream of being musicians but often made a whole lot of money doing something else, or they inherited wealth. They have a hobby, and I’m an expert in their hobby — they appreciate my expertise.”
While Perkins is familiar with life in the Chippewa Valley, moving was no small decision for a family with their entire family history spent in California.
”Julia and I made the decision to move from the Bay Area and Eau Claire came up as a potential destination. I had great memories and friends from living here before, but for Julia, a ‘California girl,’ it would be a big change on every level, from climate to leaving friends and family,” Perkins says. “We had visited our sons Cole and Austin while they were both students at UW-Eau Claire and Julia fell in love with the city. The great experiences with the town and the people we met while visiting made the move easier. We are very happy to be here.”
“We are blessed to have a person of Allen Perkins' magnitude choose to live in Eau Claire once again,” says Robert Baca, professor and director of jazz studies.
“Allen is an industry leader whose passion for playing jazz drum set led him to discover new ways listeners can have a deeper musical experience through his technology. Many of the most well-known performers and music makers in the world rely on Allen’s technology to listen and create music on the highest levels. His relocating here is a reminder of all our town has to offer to attract luminaries like Allen.”
Perkins’ journey from music student to hi-fi expert
The road Perkins took on his journey from Blugold music student in the late 1970s to the height of music sound technology in the 2000s was an interesting path, one paved with a period of what Perkins calls “soul-searching,” a lengthy sojourn in Japan, some fortuitous introductions to the right people at the right time, and, most importantly, an aptitude for engineering and technology that played perfectly into his passion for music.
“Back in high school I took a test that would help define my strengths and career prospects. It showed that I had a high mechanical aptitude, and the guidance counselor suggested that I work at a gas station as a car mechanic,” Perkins says.
Opting not to follow that advice, Perkins chose instead to pursue his main interest at that time, playing the drums. As a high school sophomore he enrolled in Keezer’s annual Shell Lake summer band camp.
“I just thought it was the coolest bunch of people, so many really good musicians and I wanted to be a part of it all,” he says. “Coming from a small town north of Green Bay when I graduated high school, I just wanted to get away from there as fast as I could. I moved to Eau Claire at 18 and got a job at the Eau Claire Cycle shop on Water Street.”
After saving money for three years, Perkins applied to UW-Eau Claire as a music major. Along with his music classes and a lot of gigs performing in Eau Claire venues, Perkins also enjoyed courses in philosophy and chemistry.
“A few years into my music degree I began to do some serious thinking about where that was headed,” Perkins says. “I had come to believe that in order to be really happy, it’s essential to really have passion for what you do, and I came to realize that I did not have a passion for teaching music.
“Changing majors at that point felt very daunting. I needed to clear my head and get some distance for a while, so I applied to an international exchange program in Japan.”
Perkins says that his three-month exchange program became a two-year hiatus in Japan, a period that he says was the beginning of the fascination with high-end audio.
“Jazz coffee shops were the place to be in Japan at that time, and I spent a lot of time in them,” he says. “In addition to world-class sound systems and extensive record collections, they had all these great magazines for music lovers. One in particular was called Stereo Sound — world class photography featuring high-end equipment and fantastic industrial designs. I became really curious about it all.”
Perkins says the stereo brands in these magazines were the buzzwords of the day for Japanese audiophiles, and he was surprised to eventually discover that many of them were made in the U.S.
“As my language skills improved, I could start to actually read the ads and learn where they were made. These brands were nothing I would have ever seen or heard of in northern Wisconsin, but when I returned from Japan, I started looking into where to find them,” he says.
Perkins returned to Eau Claire in 1982 and changed his major to psychology. He also found a high-end audio shop in the Twin Cities where he landed a part-time job.
“I worked on Saturdays and just put my earnings on a tab to trade for equipment,” he says. “That was the start of it all.”
While he continued his gigs as a drummer in the Eau Claire live music scene, Perkins says he decided not to re-enroll in the jazz studies program.
“I felt that I was old enough and had had enough experience by that time that I didn’t need to take a seat in a jazz band again, seats that were highly competitive. Incoming students deserved to have that experience,” Perkins says.
“But I was still playing, I still play every day.”
As a psychology major, Perkins says he gained a vital understanding of human hearing and sensory processing that proved to be valuable knowledge in the sound technology industry.
“I have a good understanding of how humans perceive sound, how we perceive stereo sound especially, which was useful in later work I did in speaker design and evaluation of imported products,” he says.
Even more important to Perkins than this foundation in human sensory perception, he says, was the ways in which his time at UW-Eau Claire taught him so much about himself and “how to learn.”
“By the time I completed my bachelor’s degree in psychology, I had earned about 180 credits,” Perkins says about his admittedly winding and prolonged academic path.
“I had so many classes that helped me really define what it is that I’m good at, and what things I would just never be good at doing — quantitative analysis for example. I failed at that in chemistry, but the process really showed me how my brain works best and how to find the right types of opportunities.”
Learning the industry and building a name in the business
While still a student and working for the Minnesota audio store, Perkins was sent by that employer to attend the
Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. At that event, he happened to meet the makers of one of the turntables he had purchased with his job earnings, a turntable that he had disassembled and fixed himself when he discovered a problem with it.
“This table had a vacuum system to hold the records in place, and there was a problem with it,” he explains. “At the time, returning it would have meant waiting a few months for a new one or a repair, so I decided I’d see if I could fix it myself.”
When face-to-face with the makers of this table, Perkins felt obligated to let them know he’d run into the problem with their product and had fixed it himself.
“I was talking to the designer, the CEO and a physicist on the team that day, and I got a call from them four months later with a job offer,” Perkins recalls.
Those events took place in 1985, and after his May graduation from UW-Eau Claire, Perkins left for Oakland, California.
After four and a half years with that business, Perkins left and formed a distribution company to sell phono cartridges manufactured in Japan. The distribution company was named Immedia Distribution.
“The name is derived from the words media and immediate,” Perkins said in an interview with stereophile.com. “I wanted people to know that I would remain present and attentive throughout transactions and strive to deliver my own goods immediately.”
Soon after launching Immedia, Perkins also started manufacturing turntables under the brand name RPM. In 2005, Perkins co-founded Spiral Groove with a partner, and roughly 10 years later began working as a consultant for Mobile Fidelity, "MoFi" Electronics, a subsidiary of Music Direct.
“This role allowed me to apply my expertise to a line of consumer-level products, and I found that work rewarding — my designs were landing in many more people’s homes,” he says.
Full-circle moment of international acclaim
Back in 2007, one of Spiral Groove’s turntables received industry acclaim known as the Grand Prix Award, recognition from none other than the publication Perkins says inspired his path to high-end audio, the Japanese magazine Stereo Sound.
“It’s not an annual award. It’s something they give only occasionally when they feel that someone has really furthered the state of the art in a significant way,” he says. “So here I was, interviewed by that same glossy magazine I hung out reading in jazz coffee shops over 25 years earlier because they had selected my turntable as the best one they’d ever reviewed. It was quite a moment.”
Still working as a consultant for MoFi Electronics today, Perkins is enjoying life back in Eau Claire. He says that since the post-COVID music scene has come back to life, he hopes to resume a more frequent and fulfilling performance calendar.
“Eau Claire is a great place for music, and I look forward to making more connections and playing much more often,” he says.
The UW-Eau Claire connections have remained strong for Perkins, whose two sons Cole and Austin joined the family of Blugold alumni in 2019 and 2021, respectively, and his wife, Julia, is currently employed on campus.