Rhythm and Bliss

An Interview with Joel Korte, Founder of Chase Bliss

For many, music is a spiritual experience. For Chase Bliss founder Joel Korte, it’s his connection to love, grief, and loss; a human connection between art and artist, creator and creation. 

At a time when the music industry is brimming with copycat sounds and predictable tones, one brand is giving musicians a new tool. Chase Bliss promises its creators a digital brain and an analog heart. Their cult-like following backed Chase Bliss in their move to DTC, cementing the future for the brand to elevate the artists and creator communities they serve.

Joel shared with us about the company’s cultural moment, the need to create serendipity in music, and how the loss of his brother inspired him to chase his own bliss through a community that centers the spotlight on the people who make it all possible.


Phillip Jackson: What's the inspiration behind the name?

Joel Korte: I never thought I would own a company or lead a group of people in a business sense. But in 2007, my brother was killed by a drunk driver, and he was the epitome of someone who was following his dreams in life. He was out in LA pursuing an acting career, and I was always more comfortable in the role of “doing the normal thing and the safe thing,” while my brother was being a movie star and going to do all these amazing things. I was always in awe of him and in his shadow — but in a way that I liked. After he died, I was just absolutely devastated, but it fundamentally changed everything about how I saw my life. Also, I stutter. I've struggled with it my whole life, but it was especially bad then. So I went to a place where I was thinking about communication in a new way. Where I wasn't so concerned about stuttering and instead focused on communicating in a way that I enjoyed and I was effectively getting my point across. In parallel, after my brother died, I started really examining my own life and something I would hear a lot from my brother is a quote from philosopher Joseph Campbell: "Follow your bliss."

It is exactly what it sounds like. The idea that if you follow your passions and you work hard, doors will just open up for you in ways that they wouldn't for someone else. Because you're really pursuing your passions. 

I just realized — when I was grieving the loss of my brother, thinking about his life, and talking to friends of his — that I was really the antithesis of that. And I started to really think about what it would look like if I actually did what I wanted to do with my life. That's when I started to think about getting into guitar effects and just getting back to the name. So it was this phrase of "Follow your bliss." And then my brother's name is Chase. That was it. That was the only name. 

Phillip: Joseph Campbell was a modern philosopher who discussed the human need for storytelling and mythmaking. Do you feel that is a missional component of what you're doing? That you have to mythologize your own brand in some way? Or do you think that customers are doing that for you? 

Joel: Honesty and authenticity are always the answer for us.

When we run into problems, I just ask: What's the truth? What's honest here? That has steered us in a way that's never let me down. Whether it's telling the story of how the company came to be, or elevating all of the people who work at Chase Bliss now. That's the truth.

They're amazing and they're the ones that have really allowed for Chase Bliss to reach new heights the last three years.

If I were to sit here and say, "Oh, this is just me, my vision, my ideas, and my concepts," it would be a lie. It goes back to that whole honesty thing. That's what people have been drawn to since the beginning.

Phillip: And what inspires you in your work today at Chase Bliss? 

Joel: I used to be inspired by those moments when I would get this feeling of excitement inside my body about any idea, whether it was a concept for a guitar pedal design, the name of a pedal, or some artwork that I saw.

But since the company has grown beyond me and there are a lot of other people whose visions are part of this, I get inspired by what they get inspired by, and what I think is going to be positive for the company and the brand. And then if things get me really excited, I try to redirect that energy right back towards the team. It’s like everyone’s excitement feeds into each other.

Phillip: I've heard that a healthy corporate culture is always growing, changing, and evolving. You can either try to maintain control over that [culture], or you can let it go and let other people put their own fingerprint on the business. Is that something you work on and have to strive for, or is that something that happens very naturally at Chase Bliss?

Joel: I think it happened pretty naturally, but it wasn't intentional at the time.

When we started to need more people within the company to do various things, I've been able to hire people who are more skilled or better suited at the work than I was. I really respect and trust their opinions and their instincts more than my own, in most cases.

In fact, there's almost nothing that I think I'm the best at. Maybe it's running the thing, you know?

Phillip: In that evolution from a small business to a bigger version of a small business, your job is to be the “Cheerleader Executive,” which means you have to build the team and keep them unblocked. But you also have another unique role, which is to teach people, your consumers, about your product, which is so innovative and also so hard to describe — it’s like you have to see it in action and experience it to fully understand it. How do you solve that?

Joel: That's changed pretty dramatically since I started the company. When I started, I thought, "If you make a good and interesting product that's useful to people, that inspires people, things will just work out and people will buy it, and you’ll be successful."

I think that's still true to an extent, but in the last few years especially, I've realized that you have to tell the story. Why should people care? Why do you think this is cool? And if you've built a rapport and trust with your customer base, they're going to take some chances with you. I also think people in my industry respond to effort, especially when it comes to marketing.

If you make really captivating content related to a product launch, it’s not so much how convincing the video is; it’s about how much effort you put into creating the video. If there’s slick production, they’ll think, "Well, that is a really cool video that they made about this product, and I bet the product's really good too if they put that much effort into trying to tell the story about what this thing is."

If you just do that over and over again, over time, people will like and trust the things that you find interesting and that you care about.

Phillip: How much of the creative process, and the decisions the brand makes, is driven by the stellar team you’ve built? How much of it is you nipping, tucking, and adding along the way?

Joel: Again, I think it has changed a lot because in the last two years, it's more so the team pulling me. If anything, I’m the one telling them we’re putting too much energy into a project and that it’s good enough. I’m directing where the focus should be, which is a really nice problem to have. Because usually, I think it's the other way around.

Phillip: How much of the business roadmap is planned and how much of it is following a Muse? For instance, I think everything makes sense in the current lineup and you've built a world, but you also deliver the unpredictable and are incredibly agile, which I’m sure is hard to do from a fabrication and supply chain perspective. How do you build the business around being relevant and culturally relevant?

Joel: I think we have a pretty ideal mix because we have some projects that have a development arc of maybe four, maybe five years.

And for those, you have to be patient and stay the course, while also understanding that not everything is going to work out exactly as planned. 

Within those longer arc projects, there are little bubbles where you can allow things to happen in a more agile way. That’s a microcosm of a shorter development arc project where we’re allowing the people working within their space to make a lot of the decisions because I trust them. I think that’s what our company and culture really excels at.

Phillip: It seems like you want to move that spotlight off of you and push others to the front. Is that fair to say?

Joel: To do anything else feels wrong. I feel like I get way too much credit as it is because this company is 10 years old and there was a chunk of it where it was just me. Or it was me and like one or two other people. But now it's not like that. 

Phillip: You mentioned your focus on honesty and authenticity; on the truth. How much of that mission impacted your decision to go DTC? There’s something to be said about owning your brand, your story, and your relationship with the customer. 

Joel: What we noticed pretty early on, especially as the network of stores and distributors that we worked with started to grow, was that basically nobody really knew how our products worked in the stores. They're very complicated and weird. Luckily, with the way the internet works and how social media allows humans to connect, I could cobble up enough customers worldwide that were interested in my weird stuff that I could make a business out of it. So they were starting to sell. And then of course, the stores see that consumer response and decide they want to carry your products. 

In the beginning, this seems like the only way the business can work and grow. But if a store is going to carry your product, it has to make money. And then if you go to the next level of distribution, of course, then the distributor has to make money. So they buy a lot of your stuff and then you make less and less. 

Plus, another frustrating thing was once the store network got so big, new releases would inevitably get leaked by accident. We put all this care and all this effort into rolling out our product and telling the story in a specific way. And then every single time, there would just be a bad picture of someone promoting a product that was still a week out when we had all the content prepped. We care so much and we're planning this out to do it in the way that we wanted to. 

Phillip: Was there a specific moment of realization? 

Joel: We had this delay pedal come out right around the same time we were rebranding in early 2022 called Habit. It was one of the weirdest things we had ever done — and I was worried about it. But I was also excited about it and the release went as well as it could have gone. After we got through that cycle, I got with our accountant, and he said, "You know, Joel, you're losing a little bit of money." 

We hit a home run with this product, luckily, because if we didn’t, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation. It’s sort of existential. Because as great as it went, the business model wasn't working. We could raise our prices and continue on the same path, but I didn’t want to.

We have our people who support us and who will seek us out. And while we had been joking about this direct-to-consumer thing, if we did it, we could recapture all of the margin. All of a sudden, it wasn't a joke anymore. Once the decision was made, it just felt so right for us.

Phillip: But now, it looks like you're taking a very slow, deliberate relationship-based approach to selling at physical retail again. Where can people experience the product in real life? 

Joel: Yeah, we’re calling it Bliss and Mortar, which obviously is a little play on brick-and-mortar. The whole idea behind this is that we’ve made a lot of relationships in the last 10 years. This first store is a good example: it’s a really cool spot in Nashville and I've gotten to be good friends with the owners. I'm not going to not work with those guys — and there are a few other people like that. If we keep it small, we can control it.

Those guys aren't going to leak our product. They also know the product extremely well, so that’s not an issue. Plus, we’re not allowing them to sell things online. And it's worth it for them because it's so exclusive for them to have Chase Bliss products; almost nobody else is going to have it. It's worth it for them not to sell online because of the advantages of the exclusivity. 

We’re also going to do events, which will be very selective. Now obviously, most people in the world don't live near Nashville to try things out. But we do have a really generous return policy, so people can try things at home, which is what I want to do anyway with gear.

This is just me, but I don't like the experience unless I really know the guys at the store and know I have somebody looking out for me. I would rather just try something out at home. And if I don't like it, I can just send it back and get my money back. 

We started a business in Amsterdam, which was a huge risk. We thought there wasn’t much rationale for someone in Spain to pay for shipping to try it out, so we have a 30-day, no hassle return policy. We're trying to make it very customer-friendly. It's nice for consumers to be able to have access to your products easier.

Phillip: The people you’re selling to are already primed to believe that what they're buying is the next step in their journey to being creative, which isn’t a rational pursuit. That's a creative pursuit. Most people are willing to spend more money on a person they want to be. What do your customers say to you that makes you feel like you are providing some source of inspiration to them? 

Joel: Well, obviously, our pedals aren't something that anybody needs, but I just know, without a shadow of a doubt, that our pedals are friends and collaborators to our customers. For example, I’d you wanted a chorus effect on your pedal, then you should just reach for a chorus pedal if that’s all you’re looking for. 

But if you're looking to bounce an idea off of something, that's where I think our pedals really shine. They are able to cultivate a relationship in a way that other effects pedals don't because you could give it something and it's going to take your idea and then something is going to happen that might really surprise you. It’s going to have its own kind of voice. I think that's why people are drawn to our products and our brand. Because you have these little collaborators and friends that can help you go somewhere that you want to go —- or you just want to go on a little journey.

Phillip: And it's like magic, right? It’s unexpected and almost unreproducible.

Joel: This producer who's a friend of mine named Ricky Reed, one of the things he said about our devices is, "I like it when things aren't reproducible." That was cool to hear. 

Phillip: It's so fundamentally personal and almost bound to the time and context in which the person did the thing that produced that unexpected, serendipitous tone. It's a really profound thing you've created that is perfect for this moment in music when everything is very clone stamp; like a Snapchat filter for a guitar tone.

That sounds like it's actually the hardest thing to try to create in the world. And they're way too customizable; I don't know if anyone's ever critiqued you for that.

Joel: Actually, we're exploring ways to still keep the magic and the most intuitive, fun things about what we do and just be able to plop the pedal in front of anybody, so they could have fun with it in a few minutes. 

We'd like to move a bit more in that direction — maybe have a line of simpler things to make it a bit less esoteric, but we’re still in the early stages. 

Phillip: The journey that you've taken allows you to do that, but you probably couldn't have started that way. You’ve created your own category of effects, which is kind of this incredible. It's a moat; nobody could do what you're doing and you're going to own that whole space, which is really neat.

Joel: I think it was probably a space that people, even myself, didn't really know was there. It’s not like it's a huge space, but it's big enough for us.

Phillip: Are there things that are outside of the guitar space that are inspiring the creation of the brand?

Joel: This is another evolution of the brand — and I guess myself too. I had to have an external person come to me, it was like a friend of a friend, and they said, "Joel, I think your products are really great. But I think you need to rebrand." This was about five years ago and I was very resistant because I was attached to the logo and we were like a ragtag bunch of dreamers or something. It was part of the charm.

But he convinced me that I could still have all that but get my act together and build a team. I would have never done that otherwise; I would have just kept my head in circuit boards. 

I didn't have an appreciation for what a brand could be. It's like a canvas there for self-expression and all really interesting art-related things can be part of the brand.

Phillip: I keep coming back to this idea of the Muse. What sources of inspiration do you use to help you grow your brand — and even yourself personally? 

Joel: I feel like this was a question that was a little easier for me to answer earlier in my life because it was all about the art I was consuming. Shows. Music. I started to pay a lot more attention to content. So many different brands are creating so much content —  some of it really resonates with me and inspires me, and some of it doesn't. It always goes back to that authenticity thing. If it seems fake, then I don't like it. That’s why, when I look at anything we do, whether it's the products themselves or the way that we're telling the story or marketing it, it's got to feel like it's rooted in a place of honesty and truth because that goes back to everything that I've been trying to do. And today, my Muse is so related to what other people are bringing to the table within the company.

I feel like I'm very rarely discovering things on my own. Like our art director will say, "Have you heard of this pedal company?" "Did you watch this film?" And I feel like we've been able to create a community that is like a star that just keeps building energy within itself.

Phillip: How do creators or influencers serve as inspiration for you as part of that? What does that strategy look like?

Joel: One thing that's been really exciting to me is that I feel like historically, the guitar pedal industry is so just male-dominated and also white male-dominated. What really excites everyone at Chase Bliss is that you're seeing that start to change, especially among producers. Some of our top collaborators are Emily Hopkins, Bad Snacks, Sarah Belle Reid, and Wylie. 

It's a change that is very exciting and welcome. And I want to be part of that. And I want our brand to reflect that, not only because I think it's the right thing to do, but also I think it's such an opportunity to be friendly in these spaces where maybe guitar pedal companies haven't been previously.