Yes, this company’s boogie is for real
Trevor Risk has played at nightclubs across North America, private dance parties at mansions, even an indie disco rave in the basement of a defunct bank. The crowds vary; the music changes. But no matter where the Vancouver-based DJ plies his craft, one thing remains conspicuously consistent. “I haven’t been in a nightclub in a long time that uses anything other than Pioneer,” Risk says of the audio-mixing hardware he finds in DJ booths. “And if I only get one thing out of a promoter when I play, I want Pioneer equipment to be it.”
Electronic music first enjoyed widespread popularity in the 1970s. The 1980s were practically defined by it. At the turn of the millennium, when vinyl, tape, and plastic finally gave way to bits and bytes as the preferred medium for music, the Japanese electronics company began making CD mixers (which manipulate audio from multiple sources) and, later, controllers (which serve as a hardware interface for computer software) for DJs. Its products quickly became the industry standard for professionals working at clubs, festivals, and other live events.
Around 2011 a funny thing happened: Electronic dance music, now called EDM, became widely popular again after more than a decade of dominance by rock, pop, and hip-hop acts. Rock royals capitulated to club kings. And so aspiring consumers, aiming to re-create bleeps and bloops the way their parents tried to re-create guitar licks, followed their lead.
Enter the amateur DJ. Equipped with a laptop or tablet computer, one-click access to enormously deep archives of digital music, and substantially simplified DJ software, the amateur was able to narrow the gap between him and his musical heroes. Pioneer, sensing opportunity, introduced increasingly inexpensive controllers to meet the new customer halfway. It paid off: North American controller sales doubled between 2010 and 2012 to $31 million, a small slice of a global EDM market worth as much as $20 billion.
“What makes this a real opportunity at the low end for Pioneer is that you’ve got a market that’s the same as for Gibson and Fender,” says Mark Mulligan, co-founder of the U.K.- based music consultancy MIDiA. “The idea is selling the dream. It’s the same as someone in the 1970s getting a Fender Stratocaster and thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve got the same guitar as Hendrix.’ Pioneer has the ability to get that stardust.”
Today Pioneer offers a line of controllers that starts at $300 and provides the same feel and interface offered by its professional gear, used by major EDM acts such as Skrillex and Deadmau5 (pronounced “dead mouse”). The company’s early decision to dive into the entry-level DJ market has paid dividends in the form of double-digit market-share growth for its DJ business in the past year, Pioneer spokesman Russ Johnston says, making it the leading brand in the growing DJ controller category.
“That bedroom DJ, or aspirational DJ, is where we’ve grown our business in the past few years,” Johnston says. “The strategy has been to adapt to that consumer and give them a transition point so they can graduate to our pro gear. Because that’s the whole point: to get them to our pro gear.”
The company has managed it all without spending a dime on sponsorships for professional DJs. As the naturally preferred provider for such equipment, it receives stage exposure for free. “They seem to answer the questions that DJs are asking,” Grammy-nominated DJ Steve Aoki says. “When I think about an alternative, I really don’t have one, and that’s a good thing for Pioneer.”
Even after the EDM bubble bursts — and it will, as fickle listeners move on to a new style of music — the genre has left enough of a mark on mainstream pop that its structural elements will continue to influence new genres of music. Which means the electronic tools to create them will probably be around for a very long time.
“The EDM bubble is going to pop, but that doesn’t mean Pioneer will,” Risk says. “I don’t think it’s an accident that it became the industry standard — DJs literally started demanding it. Pioneer will outlast any scene.”
This story is from the February 24, 2014 issue of Fortune.