Emiko: Not Your Typical Audiophile
Today is July 4th, 2020 – the day America celebrates her independence. While the cultural traditions of parades, barbeques, and fireworks may be paused at present, two things that are very much in regular rotation right now are music and human connection (albeit connections in specific numbers as deemed healthy by experts).
This got me thinking. As a regular participant on audiophile boards and groups (being a long time audiophile myself), more and more posts have been popping up about how music is creating peace, sanity, and even a change of pace within the home. People from all over the world have posted this sentiment in one language or another and it's been nothing short of delightful to see such a common connection – until the proverbial war of the systems (or worse the war of how to space out your room) starts.
Normally, I'd peruse through the comments, give a chuckle, an eye roll and keep scrolling, but recently as the COVID-19 clock ticks ever more languidly and incessantly, the comments have been getting more verbose and it got me wondering: How is music and being an audiophile received in different parts of the world? How does music education, if at all, play into one's journey to becoming an audiophile?
I find it worth mentioning now that I am not necessarily what some would call your typical audiophile. For one, I'm female. I've made my career in pro audio as a songwriter and recording artist and I've branched out into high-end audio consultancy. I am also half Japanese. Having spent a large part of my childhood and young adulthood in Japan, going to school, as I prepared to pose my question to the audiophile world, I thought about my own experiences growing up.
Music In School
Specifically, my school music education here in the States was in bleak contrast to that. The music room was in a trailer outside, barely anyone could sing or play an instrument, and only those who truly wanted to pursue it did - but were forced to take extra-curricular lessons because the school music budget kept being cut year after year until finally, the department was funded on an amount that could feed a parking meter.
Nowhere in my school music education here in the USA did I ever hear a conversation about how valuable music is in life. It was just the contrary; being considered a nuisance, the volumes to be turned down so one could "focus on actual school work" and such. My music teachers at my conservatory prep and college were nothing short of a Godsend to contradict the void of music in general education, creating a cacophonous harmony of reasons why music was so vital to a well-rounded life.
Digression aside, I ventured down the rabbit hole of the internet, delving into the backgrounds and lives of various audiophiles and music enthusiasts all over the world.
I poured over articles, blogs, even vlogs I could find about this, then turning to the reliably entertaining audiophile groups to which I belong, I began asking questions, scrolling to find comments that begged for deeper dialogue. And in my deeper dialogues, I found some wonderful surprises, the first of which was a plethora of folks who wanted to share their stories. Having to narrow down portions I would share was difficult. Everyone's story was special, all the systems they have are impressive for different reasons – some being the cream of the crop, expensive to the hilt, others being vintage and rare. And then some have components from the most unlikely places - hospice charity shops, their grandparents' attic, even tremendous finds left on the side of the road. But the two things they all had in common? They all love music and they all value their listening experience because they understand the important role music has in life.
One common thread from all over the globe was that music was taught from a very early age whether in or out of schools and there was a very evident value of music culturally in their respective communities. David from Hong Kong, who enjoys building vintage systems said his first musical experience in school was learning the recorder. At school, they sang hymns every morning and he felt this was a subtle but great way to have exposure to music on a consistent basis that showed the importance of it. He added "There is a lot of focus to start children locally to learn Piano, to learn other musical instruments so they become part of an orchestra whether its western or Chinese orchestra.
Global Music Through The Generations
Alan, in Scotland (coincidentally a hi-fi journalist in his own right), told me while music wasn't taught as a major subject at his school; he received an education in it nonetheless from a friend's father who had a "proper hi-fi system" in their home where he would frequently visit. This proper system gave him a proper education and entree into hi-fi.
When asked about music as a cultural identity, Alan was enthusiastic. "Music is a very large part of the Scottish / Celtic culture, as it is across the UK and Europe. Creativity diversity and quality are all applauded and Glasgow has some incredible music venues (from King Tuts where Oasis were discovered) to Jazz clubs like the Blue Arrow to the Royal concert hall where Opera and the classic play. Glasgow is a post-industrial city, with a very vibrant and rich musical culture whether it's the amazing underground techno clubs) or small venue concerts across every part of the city or its rich tradition of street buskers who line our shopping streets such as Buchanan and Sauchiehall Street. Traditional, and more modern song, is a big part still of social occasions."
Gregor of Germany echoed this, speaking from the Continent, "Music was a regular class once a week in school, with education in music history, including rock music. I learned to play guitar in school. [It's] an important part of German history and culture. There are a lot of concert halls and smaller venues in and around the Dusseldorf/Cologne area, which I visit for concerts on a regular basis."
Jim G, a retired ex-pat who now lives in the Cayman Islands explained in his time around the globe, he found music being linked deeply to cultural roots and pride. And that gave the local communities an understanding that music was vital to their respective identities. "In Cayman, music is an important part of the cultural life of the people, a large percentage of our small population turns out for music events. Children's bands and choruses are a big part of growing up here and almost all the children participate. Competition amongst Steel Drum Bands is quite intense and many young people are involved. Local venues, while small by the standards of Europe and North America host a variety of musical genres although Caribbean/Jamaican music is by far the most popular. Since we are a popular tourist destination as well as a financial center we attract a lot of international acts and the events can draw an amazing percentage of the total population.
Whether in a Jazz club in Tokyo (which has an amazing Jazz scene) or Asunción (where the people are still recovering from the Stroessner era and also has a small but growing Jazz scene) the enthusiasm of the attendees is the same, people of disparate cultures are brought together by music like nothing else. I have also not found a place that doesn't have and is not fiercely proud of its' own historic or cultural music. Another thing that has amazed me is how welcome I as an outsider was always made to feel in a music venue in the foreign places I have visited."
Lee C, an audiophile raised in England, now residing in Oregon got his music education through traveling and living in Europe, namely Germany and Denmark. He opined in contrast that "music in today's America is highly valued almost to the point of snobbery among concert-goers. Most are highly ignorant of the gap between audio excellence and mainstream music reproduction. They've simply never heard a great system and how music should sound. Even most concerts sound terrible." But went on to say that "traveling by motorcycle through the Americas, I found Latin America to be far more connected with live authentic, often acoustic music. Town square dances in the evening with young and old attending."
Meanwhile, Stateside, Jim T. (Chief Designer for a speaker company) shared with me his education came from live music; while his high school and the university did have music programs, the way he participated was to go to as many school concerts as possible, also learning from his father who was a musician.
Growing up and residing in Memphis but spending significant amounts of time in Asia he had this to say, "Music is a major part of the identity of the city of Memphis. In recent years, the Stax Academy of Soul Music has been a huge force in training our young people to carry the musical torch for the city. In China, being an audiophile is very serious stuff. It may be still a hobby, but it is viewed similarly to the way golf is seen here in the US. We host in-store events throughout Mainland and I am always surprised how many couples attend – almost 75%. It is usually the passion of just one of them, but they both get to enjoy it. Can't say that about golf."
Shahril from Kuala Lumpur, found, in his worldly travels some countries limit music to be "a personal thing rather than for public consumption. [In some countries] music education is usually limited to home education." Having had an extensive music education growing up and an even more extensive system at home, Shahril also shared with me a third common thread: being an audiophile means something different to people based on their geography. Of this, he says, "In Europe, I find that audiophiles focus a lot on technical aspects and also the physical appearance of the hi-fi equipment. Good specs = good sound. In the USA, Canada, there are a lot of vintage enthusiasts and it's more about the music. In Asia, it's more about who can afford a more expensive, bigger equipment. Sound quality seems to be more subjective to individual preference."
This commonality presented itself in interviews I had with others as well. Many said being an audiophile was somewhat defined by what components were available in their regions as well as what music was available.
It Boils Down To....
It's a beautiful thing to know such humanity is present amid the groups, bulletin boards, and tech specs and that despite the social, cultural, economic differences we may all have (including our beloved systems!), our love of music is a commonality that outweighs everything else.