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Why aren't we…?

01-01-2017 | By Roger Skoff | Issue 89

Roger Skoff writes about the state of our hobby and the industry that supports it.

One of the politicians in the recent U.S. Presidential election asked, with apparently real surprise, "Why am I not fifty points ahead?" Frankly, I'm no expert on politics, so it doesn't surprise me at all that I could not think of a good answer to her question. I do fancy myself at least somewhat knowledgeable about HiFi, though, over a good many years, and yet something happened to me just a short while ago that has me asking—and being unable to answer—that same sort of "Why aren't we…?" kind of question:

On Saturday, October 29, 2016, I arrived in Canada to attend the TAVES Show (Toronto Audio-Video Entertainment Show) in Richmond Hill, Ontario, one of Toronto's suburbs. In addition to all of the other steps to enter the country, the last thing barring my way into Canada was an arrival "interview" by a very pleasant and attractive young woman Customs Officer in the last cubicle before "the finish line."

When I got up to her, she examined my passport and the customs receipt that I had been issued by one of  the automatic kiosks along the way, and asked me just a few questions, the last few of which (and their responses) went something like this:

Her: "Why are you visiting Canada today?"

Me: "Business"

Her: "What sort of business?"

Me: "There's a HiFi Show in town."

Her: "What's that?"

Me: "HiFi, you know; like sound" (in disbelief that she could really not know)

Her: (With a quizzical look) "Sound?"

Me: (Dumbfounded, and maybe a little in shock) "Sound… Like music? You know; stereo? CDs?"

Her: (Suddenly seeming to comprehend) "Oh, you mean like concerts and stuff, with musicians!

Me: "Well, yes, but more like displays of the equipment to play back recordings of them"

Her: (Finally starting to really get the idea) "Ah, like a Trade Show, is that it?"

Me: "Yup, a Trade Show. That's what it is, and that's why I'm here."

After a couple more questions about where I would be staying, and for how long, I finally got through customs and off to my hotel and the Show, As I walked away, though, to leave the terminal and catch a cab, I found that I really wanted to apologize to that Customs lady for not, at first, taking her questions seriously. I had been truly amazed, though, and, truly, to my core, I couldn't believe that it was possible for anyone—especially in a country as modern and fully up-to-date as Canada, to not know what HiFi was. To me, who had been a certified, card-carrying HiFi Crazy since I was twelve years old, that was roughly equivalent to someone not knowing what a car was, or a telephone, and I found myself asking how such a thing could be possible.

That politician who didn't understand how it was possible for her not to be "…fifty points ahead" in the polls had nothing on me. True, she had, by that point, spent more than a year and something in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars trying to make herself known to, and liked by her public, but we, the HiFi industry and the vast number of HiFi Crazies, audiophiles, and music lovers around the world, should have been able to reasonably expect strong positive marks from even more. Even if you completely ignore the formative years of HiFi in the 1930s and 1940s, and through the 1950s, up to 1957, when the first stereo LP record was introduced, the HiFi industry had still had more than half a century (58 years, to be exact) of time in which to become known to and loved by that young (guessing 22 to 25 years old) Customs Officer and her contemporaries.

Even if you just count only the CD era, which began in 1982, Hi-Fi had been around for her entire lifetime and at least a dozen years more. How could she not have heard of it? Or how, in a society where girls and young women had once actually swooned over—depending on the specific era—the recorded music of Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Justin Bieber, or whoever the latest pop "heartthrob" may have been, could she ever have been able to reach her present pinnacle of development without even the slightest clue about HiFi sound?

Clearly that politician had wasted her money. For as much as she spent, given modern communications technology and the sophistication of the media and the publicity people who employ it, she really should have been a good fifty points ahead of her opponent, who actually bragged about how little he was spending, and who had strong negative factors, to boot. What did we do, though? With us, it was never a matter of money or of negatives and, for a good long time, things were very much different: In the 1960s and 70s, the Hi-Fi industry and our hobby were booming and practically everybody either had or wanted a HiFi system. By the 1980s (at least a full decade before the time that young Customs Officer was born), HiFi sound had become so much a part of the American lifestyle  that the auto industry—never one to miss an opportunity to pick up an extra buck—eventually started featuring better-sounding (or even stereo) radios in their cars. The first Bose car radios, billed as "…the industry’s first custom-engineered, factory-installed sound systems…" were introduced is 1982 as options for the 1983 Cadillac Seville, Cadillac Eldorado, Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile Toronado HERE. Since then, other companies famous for outstanding sound—some of them even genuine High-End HiFi manufacturers (Mark Levinson, JBL, Krell, and more)—have joined the ranks of those catering to car purchasers who will accept only the best in stereo sound.

That being the case, though, and HiFi being sought after for even car stereos, what have we done wrong? Why is it that our hobby and the industry that makes it possible have fallen on what looks like long-term hard times; with—if one can believe "the cockroach theory" (for every one that you see, there are a thousand in the walls)—many young people never even having heard of us, our industry, and the music and the thrillingly life-like sound that gives us so much pleasure?

In Europe, in Asia, and even in South America, I have been to HiFi shows and seen crowds of young people gathered to see, enjoy, and lust after HiFi gear and the wonders and glories it can provide. Here, though, and in Canada, show attendees are much older and seemingly less excited. Can that simply be because our societies have been affluent for longer and our one-time "newbies" are now all grizzled veterans? Have all our young people been lured away by other things? Can it be that high prices for conventional HiFi gear or the greater portability of the modern lifestyle have caused them to turn to headphones—the one part of our hobby that still shows signs of a younger market? Given the multi-thousand dollar prices I've seen recently for the best headphones and related electronics, though, at least the price part of that doesn't seem likely.

And if not that, why aren't we and our toys and goodies doing a better job of attracting fresh new people to join our hobby? I can't imagine it's because they don't enjoy the music.

So what could it be…?