CAREERS + ED ISSUE: How one guitarist's passion became a means of San Francisco survival
He's an admitted perfectionist as well as a workaholic, he says, but it runs in the family: the name "Milkman" is a nod to his longstanding family business in Connecticut, starting with a small dairy farm his great-grandfather bought and built out. "The spirit of my great-grandfather was like 'I'm going to sell something that I make,' and my family's always continued that," says Marcus. "That definitely plays a role in my work ethic."
Since he built that first amp four years ago, he's been crafting custom amps for guitar and steel players all over the country. He does every part of production himself — friends have asked to help so they can learn, but he's "crazy OCD about doing everything" with his own hands — and he builds each amp to a customer's specifications, one at a time. He's branched out into amplifiers for regular guitarists, and for bass players. Each amp takes him a couple of days to build, and then he tests it meticulously by (someone's gotta do it) playing guitar through it lots of different ways.
Marcus still buys parts from small US-based companies where possible, including many in California, which he says is expensive but worth it for the quality. They don't manufacture the glass tubes that go into amplifiers in the US at all, anymore, he explains, which is a shame, because the ones produced here in the '50s and '60s were great — they played an unsung role in creating what we think of as the early American rock 'n' roll sound. (Marcus can and will explain the history of amplifiers to you, as well as the differences between every iteration of each part that goes into them, at the drop of a hat.) The majority of his cabinets come from a revered one-man shop in Nashville, though Marcus has just begun working with a family business in Oakland to try to make the operation even more local.
The price for all this care and OCD-level handiwork? Milkman amps run from $900 for a five-watt "half pint" amp to $3000 for the more powerful models. But for the musicians Marcus is catering to, that's well worth it — last year, he sold 40 amplifiers; this year, by the end of March, he'd already shipped 20. Milkman amps have been out on tour in Eric Clapton's band, thanks to acclaimed steel player and producer Greg Leisz taking a liking to Marcus' simple, vintage rock 'n' roll aesthetic and careful technical work; they can also be heard on the most recent Daft Punk and Norah Jones records.
Maybe most impressively: Marcus seems to have cracked a code. He's surviving in San Francisco by doing something he loves — and something that allows him to stay here as a working musician. He stopped working for his old audio-visual company about a year ago.
"I know I'm extraordinarily lucky that I've figured out a way to have music be something I can make a living off of," he says. "I mean, I don't get rich playing pedal steel. I wouldn't be able to pay my rent playing pedal steel. If I lived in Nashville, or even LA, maybe; not here.
"But there's also pride in that," he says. "That's why it says 'Made in San Francisco, USA' on the front. It's not easy to do things in San Francisco, so when you do I think it's just that much more awesome. I kind of got into the pirate ship mentality, and working for myself is great. I get up early — but I haven't set an alarm clock in a long time."