The Hub: Here's some GOOD NEWS from the audio biz

The darkest hour is just before the dawn. Just around the corner, there's a rainbow in the sky. Such aphorisms were used during the Great Depression to either encourage the public or delude it, depending on your degree of cynicism.

Well, here's an aphorism for the new-millenial recession: So what if times are tough? We're gonna find a way to make it anyway!

The audio marketplace has changed dramatically in the past few decades. When times are tough, there is a tendency to focus on those changes we view as negative: stores closed, familiar names gone, a lack of interest from the younger generation.

But there have been at least as many changes in the audio marketplace that are not just positive, but nearly beyond belief to audiophiles and music-lovers of a certain age. Back in the early '70's, believe it or not, the most-reliable conduit of information on new and exciting audio gear was tiny black-and-white classified ads in the back of Audio magazine. Stereophile, The Absolute Sound? They were published sporadically, if at all.

If you wanted product info, it usually meant writing a letter. Getting an answer might take weeks, if the company were polite enough to respond; many were not. Curious about the experience of others with a product, a manufacturer's history or product resale value? Good luck: there were no Forums or Bluebook. Want a record they don't have at the local store? Get out the Schwann catalog, and wait weeks after the store orders it, if they're obliging; write a letter and wait even longer, if they're not.

Let's face it: we're spoiled. Today, in a matter of seconds, we can find out about a piece of gear, see it, learn where it's available, read reviews of it, maybe buy it. Music? Nearly every band or orchestra has a website with enough information to satisfy the most obsessive fan, videos of live performances, sources for discs or downloads. Reviews or criticism? How many music sites and blogs are there? A million, literally?

Really: spoiled. Music-lovers and audiophiles today have an embarrassment of riches. Be grateful for what we have available to us.

While we've had some rough times, the audio marketplace is adapting, correcting itself. News from most dealers and manufacturers indicates increasing levels of sales, at a more consistent level than the up-and-down spikes and troughs of the last few years. Many markets avoided the drastic upheavals of the US market, and whole new areas of the world are opening up as strong markets for quality audio gear.

If those aren't enough causes for celebration, there are probably more genuinely good-sounding moderately-priced audio products than at any time in history. Feel free to cheer. Really.

Audio writer/blogger Steve Guttenberg writes, "The most promising trend is the number of great sounding affordable products on the scene. My blog today covers under $1,000 speakers, for example. I think vinyl's continuing comeback is a good sign, and the remarkable growth in high-end headphones is impressive."

Retailers, distributors and manufacturers today must focus on differentiation, creating reasons for a customer to come to them, specifically, rather than another store or brand. Those who are doing that, are succeeding.

"We're up this year, and store traffic is steady," says Larry Marcus of Ann Arbor, Michigan's Paragon Sight and Sound. "People have learned that they can't decide on a product in 10 or 15 minutes. We have to make products available in the home without the customer getting killed if it doesn't work out."

Distributor Charlie Harrison of USA Tube Audio/Ayon Audio says, "We're on the upswing, we're adding new lines, we have absolutely no complaints."

US manufacturers are actively working to enter the new markets opening up around the world. When Grant Samuelson of Shunyata Research talks about being in the west and east, he's not talking about Colorado and Connecticut. He was stuck in Moscow--Russia, not Idaho-- for a week following the Icelandic eruption.

"Few have any idea what is really going on out there," says Grant. "I do, having been West, East and back again this summer. No one I talk to is throwing in the towel, and all remain positive in their outlook. It is tough out there, but good people and businesses remain proactive and look at improving the positives and letting go of what you cannot control."

Similarly, David Schultz of Transparent Cable is traveling to newly-opened markets, and finds them to be booming.

"I’m at a show in Vietnam right now," writes David. "A large distributor has sixty dealers attending the show. Next stop is Vientiane, Laos, for dealer training.

"The two channel and home theater business is flourishing in the following countries: Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos, Hong Kong, Taiwan , South, Korea, South America (mainly Brazil).
India is slowly growing and will be a powerhouse in about three years.
Japan is still struggling, but doing well."

We have new markets, new resolve, and as Anssi Hyvonen of Finnish loudspeaker company Amphion emphatically points out, new opportunities:

"The highend industry has bitched and moaned about iPod and mp3s, but iPods could be the great Trojan horse, the way we get people excited about quality again," writes Anssi. "The hard-disc space is cheap, and transmission speeds such that we do not need compression anymore. What is there to complain about? Now we just need to create systems that people can relate to, play some real music and get them excited about quality. It took me one weekend to lure my 10, 12 and 14 years olds into better sound, once I found a correct approach."

In a future entry of The Hub, we'll explore what that "correct approach" might entail.

Yes, the audio industry is different from what it used to be. In many ways, it's better. While old-timers (present company included) obsess over the differences, newbies are discovering the joys of walking around with a thousand songs in their pockets, openly exploring streaming music and servers, even discovering vinyl.

Let's look at the incredible opportunities in the audio world --and it is truly a world, not merely a national, industry -- and learn, adapt, and grow. We went over the top with the doom and gloom; we admit it. Our bad.

So, we go forward with new rules, and a strong, new aphorism.

Here are the rules: no more whining, backbiting, dissing or dismissing. You've got something to say? Great: focus on the good stuff, the possibilities, the POTENTIAL. No mourning, no moaning. Seriously.

And here's the new aphorism:
SCREW the economy, we're gonna have fun!
Bark: Never really understood the basis for the arrogance. If exclusivity creates power, wouldn't inclusion--and taking folks' money--create more? And way to go, dealer,for bad-mouthing what you sell while simultaneously dissing the prospect. Had you pulled out a gun, you would've had a trifecta of "Things You Should Never Do in Retail"!

Cindy: Nice to hear from you! The Portland area is beautiful, and great for audio: Positive Feedback, Tone, lots of great manufacturers and dealers. I thought I knew all the dealers in the area; sorry to say I don't know you, but I'm pleased to meet you.

I appreciate your upbeat take on the industry, and your role in it. With that kind of attitude you're sure to prosper for years to come.

I nearly moved to Portland once, but didn't as all my family was light-years away. Now that they've died off, perhaps I should reconsider!

Thanks to you both for your contributions.
Even in the 1990s, tracking down high end gear was somewhat of a wild goose chase. I'd drive an hour (or three) to get to an audio store that was supposed to be a dealer for brand X to find out they only have the entry level model on display and anything else would need to be ordered sight unseen.

Now, almost 20 year later, unless you live in maybe the top 4 or 5 metro areas in the USA, then trying to see and buy any worthwhile gear is almost out of the question. imho
Every time I read Audio Bill I think of the book/movie Ship of Fools. The prices are ridiculous... the 'science' is voodoo .... Young people are a lot of things, but stupid ain't one of them. they know they don't need or want insanely priced gear to hear the vulgar noise that passes for pop music today. if this hobby is saved it will be polk and marantz etc... that will save it.

6550: I wonder sometimes if the difficulty of actually seeing gear isn't part of what attracts some to the cult. Doesn't make much sense, but still....

Rok: I think there will always be tweakers, and I think people will always want music available to them both on the run and in their homes. The form the gear takes? That I'm not so sure about.

Thanks to you both for your comments.
Fun is where you find it and America's blind obsessive pursuit of same will careen lurchingly onward in unexplainable, unjustifiable and unpredictable ways, aided by marketing magic and gullible overspending minions. High end audio is a small float near the back of the parade.

Making sense of this scenario is a fool's errand. Thanks for all your help.
On November 2, 2010, we will be holding auditions for the cast of "Idiocracy" all day. Don't be late.