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Positive Feedback ISSUE 51
september/october 2010

audiodiscourse

 

What is the Future of High End Audio, Part Deux - The Lack of Mentorship and a Plan
by Michael Mercer

Sonic Satori

 

mercer

Lately I've been wondering if I've wasted the last nineteen years of my life—that sounds darker than it actually is. I know I love music, and I have literally grown up in the high-end audio industry. At thirty-five years of age, I've spent most of my life working in both the high end audio and music business—around seven years music and twelve Hi-Fi—so typing this out makes me feel suddenly old. That feeling of being old is a side effect from one of the core issues holding the high-end community back; who's teaching the younger generation about the joy of a killer stereo system? Aside of last year's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I'm tired of feeling like the youngest guy in the room. It maybe different in other countries: Tosh Goka of Divergent Technologies up in Canada for example (Reference 3A loudspeakers) has a cabinet maker younger than me by at least ten years or so, and that's encouraging, especially given his outstanding craftsmanship.

Unfortunately, my feelings about him being so young for a cabinet maker speaks volumes about the majority of the demographics involved in this business. There are exceptions of course; Steven Meijas of Stereophile for example, writes an excellent blog for their website—recently celebrated his fifth year there as a writer, bravo Steven—and there are other younger audio troops fighting the good fight, and I count myself among them. I'm not trying to knock anybody here; I'm merely stating an observation. The majority of the industry leaders today will simply start aging out, it seems, along with the spirit of mentorship, education, and spreading the word about the merits of sonic integrity, and how it enhances the magical affects of music. Many of my dear friends in this industry are twice my age—again, not a character assassination—and that in itself does not bother me—that is; having older friends, I always ended up running with the older crowd since high school for whatever reason anyway—but it leaves me with an occasional sense of hopelessness, and that sounds pathetic, and it may be, but I desperately enjoy the Hifi experience. Much of that feeling is derived through the community itself; the gear is just a bonus.

I've met some amazing people in the high end audio community, which in many ways actually mimics the global underground dance scene. The numbers within the community are small, but they span the globe with shared primary interests and passions. That forms a strong bond amongst your peers and especially your friends. This industry has managed to sustain itself for the last forty years. In all that time however; there was never such a sea change in telecommunication technology and the way in which we view and connect with the world. Without sounding too clichéd—well, I guess there's no escaping it—we're staring at the future and it looks more like an abyss to many of us. The only choice is to see the positive aspects of these sudden changes—even if they are, in your estimation, a step backward instead of forward. The iPod generation has birthed thousands of new avenues and delivery systems for music. I said it last year and I'll say it again: We have an unprecedented opportunity with the sheer number of iPod users alone. I don't want to hear about case studies and how teens prefer the sound of MP3's—and whatever you think of the vinyl resurgence, well, these kids are not all buying it because it sounds better, no it is also because it's fashionable… and that's fine. Even if the percentage of interest within the masses is small, it is still interest! I cannot tell you how many Hi-Fi converts I have turned after a short listen to my little desktop system. People do respond to good sound if you show them through their music, their generation's attempt at touching the infinite—I think Bob Crumb said that, who knows. We can make the products better for less money now—don't cringe; AUDIOENGINE makes a hell of a product for the money—and there are more people to expose to our audible disease.

What are we doing to attract this new blood into this community, and doesn't the industry as a whole see this as an issue? There's the rub, the point at which we acknowledge the need for an injection of fresh enthusiasm and wonderment—like many of us felt when we first heard a high end system. The present is all about networking, whether through online social-networking, or the real, physical act of reaching out and speaking to somebody new! You can harp about the present all you want, but it isn't going away. Sites like Twitter and Facebook may exist in a vacuum for many people in this industry, but all you need to do is look at the next Sears commercial, or Temporapedic (Match.com doesn't even refer to their own website in their advertisements anymore, just their Facebook page). These sites, like tons of others popping up every day (like Digg) are amazing marketing tools. If you need a refresher, read Seth Godin and about Permission Marketing for example. Start a Facebook page for your company, and connect with your friends on there first, let them act as your foundation for which to build an online community that you can communicate to directly.

MIT cables for example, have over 10,000 followers on Twitter. This may seem meaningless to you, but think about this… every time MIT wants to talk about their products; perhaps an important sonic upgrade or offer a special deal to their loyal customers, they can do so with the click of a mouse without spending a dollar. Audioevo.org is another fantastic example of a website that's founded on building an online community for like-minded audiophreaks and music lovers—as my editor Dave Clark has said; it's like a Facebook for audiophiles. Check out their website and others like it. Find out where you can reach the most people, and think outside the box when it comes to marketing.

Reference Recordings is another company that has harnessed the power of the tweet—yes that word makes my spine cringe as well, but it is what it is. They reach their hardcore audience everyday with their updates, and even help to promote sales and such on other websites that carry their music. We're living in an age where you can get great exposure for literally nothing, except a little sweat equity. The companies that choose to learn about these new online tools are the ones that have a chance at succeeding long-term. The others, well, they may have a loyal customer base now; but what's their average age? Manufacturers have to decide how big they want to be. I face this issue all the time in the high end audio community.

Even the majority of the writers at the respected Hi-Fi magazines are at least ten years older than me (yes, there are exceptions), and being a staff writer is something rare as well. The journals have managed to pick up their coverage of the new century, and it's been admittedly bitter-sweet watching them catch on, as they have the ability to go far deeper and be more engaging for the young audience. I hate to sound like I'm echoing Bob Lefsetz here—maybe I am Bob, so please accept my apologies in advance—but the business model has to change. The wall between the critic, artist, and fan has been shattered—yes, it has, who cares about the exceptions, yet again. Consumer culture, and certain trends, are enacted by the users themselves, because of their access. Look at Trent Reznor and Kevin Smith for example; Kevin had an online message board before most of us knew what they were and Reznor makes his fans feel like they're a part of the process. That is not to say there isn't a place for critics; their role is just a little different. Journalists (or, a word I actually despise but have to say is one of my occupations; bloggers) do not have the cloak of invisibility anymore. Whether you think social networking is ridiculous or not—believe me, I get sick of it sometimes, I think everybody does—you must be engaged in the new game in order to put food on the table in the years to come.

I've overheard people in this community say they don't care about the youth market, that they'll be long gone be the time they come around. I'll still be around, and so will Stephen Meijas, and many others! We need to figure out a way to reach all these people in order to survive. There needs to be more coordinated efforts as well. Wadia teaming up with Qsonix, and Sonos getting Spotify on-board for their products are great examples of the forward-thinking that is required to push this industry into the future. Do an analysis of your company's strengths, and your weaknesses. Maybe you specialize in digital-to-analog decoding, or analog-to-digital encoding, but your marketing awareness is not where it needs to be in order to reach your customers. Find a company that already has an established client-base, a product line that can reach the number of people you'd like to sell your product to. Reach out to them; see if you can form a technical partnership that will bear fruit for both parties. This is one of many ways to take advantage of old-school networking, while harnessing the power of 21st century technologies—maybe that company you just partnered with has their marketing plan in place, and your product fits nicely into their vision.

At some point we all need to realize there is no one product for everybody, and that even though your product might be superior, the end user may prefer Bob's components because they were cryogenically treated... who knows? Another person will prefer the non-freeze-dried audio componentry. There's enough money to go around believe it or not, and people are finding their music in a myriad of ways today. We should pull our focus away from the negative; the fact that compressed audio files (mp3s) sound like crap. Show people what they can do for the same price as their MacBook Pro—you can keep selling the ten thousand dollar systems as well, if they're worth it—but show them what's possible! There's so much music and different audio/video technologies out there it's even difficult for me to quantify at times, and I've been in this game for a while. We have to be the guides for the end users. They're not always interested in everything we have to offer, but if we can enhance even a portion of their listening experience at home they will return with a thirst for more.

The same guy that purchases a pair of Nola Boxers and a Music Hall integrated amp today could be the same guy that, when he's made his money and has the income, could be back for that pair of Magicos and Burmester mono-blocks (you never know). Hi-Fi has to be experienced in order to fully appreciate its power. We can type and talk until we're blue in the face, but it's the listening experience itself that grabs them (for the most part). They have to hear and feel the difference a good stereo system—big or small—can make in the level of enjoyment they get from their music. This is not something you can convince anybody of without a solid demonstration. That is yet another factor in the business that seems to be slowly disappearing: The knowledge and excitability of our sales teams. Manufacturers need to get out there more and train your dealers on your products. Give them incentives to move your product, and keep in touch with them. Nobody is truly driven to make money for a company they've had no contact with. Relationships are everything, and the guy that knows more about your product and is excited about it will put in more effort to be sure it is sounding its very best on the sales floor. The educational aspect of this business—knowledge of products, and, most importantly, how they integrate with other products—is at the very heart of whether or not we will sink or swim together. We need to take a lesson from the pro-audio industry in this way: many pro-audio lines send their reps to the dealers constantly, so they are always informed, and an informed salesman, one who is also enthusiastic about sharing his or her knowledge, is always the one the customer is going to trust. That trust must be nurtured. That trust, along with the relationship, is the future of our business. We need to spend more time developing that trust, and we will find it easier to reach more potential customers.

I know that I have been blessed with great teachers, and I acknowledge that every morning. Having started to learn about this stuff from Harry Pearson and moving onto working for Arif Mardin—the producer—granted me with a lot of enlightening experiences on both sides of the high fidelity game—audiophile and producer/composer. Going from sitting in the sweet spot at home to the front of a recording desk was the closest I ever came to a college education—and I miss Arif everyday). A friend of mine in the business once said to me—we weren't friends at the time, but we shortly became so afterwards—that with all my amazing experiences I was still "unhire-able". He also pointed to the fact that most of my life has been spent in a niche market and he was right. This however, is not going to stop me. There is a Brave New World out there, and I've been tapping into it for years now. More people than you can imagine are responding every day, and we all need to find a way to reach out and communicate both our passion for music and our knowledge of our systems. Enthusiasm breeds curiosity, and curiosity about something is the first step towards becoming a devotee—in our case, that means a music lover and Hi-Fi devotee. They are out there, why not take a step back, and figure out how to enroll them in our wonderful world of high fidelity.

Look at it this way: I'm sitting and writing this from my dining room table and there is wonderful sounding music; both dynamic and clear floating around the speakers wirelessly, and at one click I have instant access to days of uncompressed music sitting in my digital library—yes, there is always room for analog as well—I only DJ with vinyl for all you analog addicts out there. Aldus Huxley and Ray Bradbury may have been onto something, but why not try to enjoy ourselves before it all folds back into itself. There's something I used to always tell my business partner back in New York: "When are you gonna get out of the basement?" Well, needless to say he did and is kicking some serious ass.  I know high-end audio is not a mass-market industry (I'm not stupid), but some products not only could be, but they should be making great money while helping to infect the world with good sound! When are we going to try and pull a section of our industry out of the penthouse? The majority lives on all the other floors, why not include them in our global community? Our industry will be much better for it.

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