Ok, so when was the last time you walked past somebody and heard them talking about an audio system? I'm not talking about in a stereo store, I'm talking about in the general public.
If you have, I'd bet you can count the times you actually heard a conversation like that on one hand.
Why is that?
Why is our hobby so damned important to us and no one else?
Is it because there is only so much disposable income to go around?
Take a look around. Our hobby is competing with tons of other hobbies that suck up our disposable income.
Just to give you a few examples. Here in the Midwest (as it is elsewhere) there are loads of lakes and rivers. With water, comes all kinds of water sports (OK all you perverts, get your mind out of the gutter). Fishing, skiing, diving, swimming, really scantily clad women with hard bodies.
Jeez, now that I think about it, maybe I picked the wrong hobby (honey, I didn't mean that, honest).
At my real job. my boss is into fine wines and gourmet dining. A bunch of guys I work with are deep into golf. Ever price a membership in an elite country club? After the initial buy-in and the monthly fees you barely have enough money to buy a drink at the 19th hole. Other guys I know, live to hunt. Hell, it's nothing for them to drop 2k on a new shotgun, forget about the 5k they drop going on that elk hunt in the Rockies. My cousin is into sport fishing. He fishes tournaments all across the country. He didn't think twice about spending 40k on his bass boat not to mention 35k he spent on the decked out conversion van to tow is fishing rig.
Now, of the hobbies I just mentioned, all of them get loads of publicity. Golf is all over the place. It's a widely accepted (and played) hobby. I doubt that any of us haven't turned on the boob tube and had a golf tournament pop up. A lot of us even play on a regular basis (disregarding Einstein's theory that golf is a ball on one end of a stick and idiot on the other or something to that effect).
Of other three hobbies, there are television channels dedicated to the loyal. If you live here in the states and have cable TV, there is the Food Channel and the Outdoor Network. Both of these channels are devoted to promoting these hobbies. See where I'm headed here?
So why aren't there more Audiophiles? Isn't our hobby just as worthy as all of these others? Doesn't it bring just as much pleasure as all these other hobbies? Sure it does... well, with the notable exception of the hard bodied women (oh shit, I really didn't mean that either honey).
So why doesn't anybody know that we exist? Better question, why doesn't the General Public know that there is far better sound than what is offered at the Big Box Superstores?
Easy... PUBLICITY. Nobody knows about us because NOBODY ADVERTISES IN MAJOR PUBLICATIONS OR ON THE TELE (with the notable exception of Dr. Omar Bose). In turn, everybody (outside of our little click) seems to think that Bose is one of the best. Why? Advertising and the simple fact that the General Public doesn't realize that there is a high end alternative.
I normally don't jump on someone else's band wagon, but here I'm going to make an exception. This is a position that needs to be repeated. Repeated so often that the manufacturers and brick and mortar shops (hopefully) sit up and take notice. They need to. Otherwise, our marvelous hobby will definitely go by the way of the model train industry as written within an article by editor Steven R. Rochlin.
OK, so we are talking about advertising in audio. Sure, the argument is going to come back "Just look in any of the Audio Mags and there is tons of advertising." Well, sure there is but just who is reading these things? Audiophiles and no one else. "But we are selling to audiophiles, that is our target market." Yep, you're right. But you need to be targeting the general population if you want sales to grow.
Klaus Bunge of Odyssey Audio may have said it best back at MAF. "Why do I want to keep selling $100,000 to the same 1000 people. I'd rather sell $1000 amps to a 100,000 people." Use that philosophy on the General Public (henceforth a.k.a. GP). Lets face some simple facts, the GP isn't going to spend $5000 on a system no matter how good it sounds. They just aren't going to do that. So, how do we entice them into spending say $2500 on a system? Simple, education and advertising.
First, the GP needs to know there are better alternatives to Pioneer, Kenwood, Onkyo, Bose and Cerwin Vega. A simple ad that explains that you don't need tone controls to correct the deficiencies of crappy speakers if you have properly designed speakers (assuming we are dealing with a decent recoding of course). Next, the GP needs to realize that a virtual soundstage exists when your stereo is properly setup. Give them some examples using music that everyone has. If your ad space isn't big enough, point them to a website where you can explain further. That or give them a toll free number to call and send them a booklet on the basics of hi-end and set up. Don't cop out and say, "Come in and give us a listen" that won't work. People won't do it. It's too much effort for someone who already thinks he has a decent sounding system. Give them something they can try immediately in their own home.
Between commercials on the boob tube, some guy that's had one too many brewskis might just position himself in the "sweet spot" and find out that his system doesn't image for shit. Then he'll look at the bass and treble that's boosted all the way up, he'll crank them back to the neutral position and discover that his speakers sound like crap.
Guess what, that same guy that thought his system was the greatest in the world now has doubts. Now you've created somebody that might just take a trip to a high end brick and mortar store. Now, if John Q. Average buys a decent pair of speakers (or some other piece of gear) he's going to invite his buds over for a listen. Thus begins the chain of events.
One of the key pieces to this equation is hi-end has to appeal to the average guy (or girl). Lets face a few simple facts. As it stands, we as a group are (mostly) of above average intelligence (poor grammar and spelling errors aside in my case). Hi end manufacturers and retailers are selling science. We (smart guys) get it, but the average Joe doesn't. Why does he need anything other than his Onkyo receiver and Bose speakers, they're the best right?
Well, we know different don't we.
So what needs to happen? I guess high-end audio needs to go the route of everything else (that sells). You need famous people and pop icons to sell the product. I'd bet a bunch of you weren't aware that Mike Piazza (catcher for the New York Mets baseball team) is (or was) a spokesman for Krell. Why don't you know this? The ad campaign went nowhere. I didn't see it in any major magazines, on the tele, or hear anything on the radio. Dan D'Augustino had the right idea though. Get a sports icon to promote his product.
Lets face it, famous people sell products to us all the time. Listen to the television ads sometime. Famous voices and faces litter the airwaves selling everything from automobiles to makeup. So why not sell audio the same way? Simple... money. Little do most people realize, the vast majority of these audio manufacturers that we worship are actually fairly small shops. They don't have thousands of employees. They aren't wealthy. Hell, most of them are just barely eking out a decent living.
So, what do we do now? Well, some of the big guys that regularly advertise in the big print mags could begin some sort of High-End Audio Promotion (HEAP) campaign. Pool there advertising resources. Develop a strategy that infiltrates the mass market and makes people aware that there are alternatives to some of the crap that is bought on the street now. Promote the industry on TV, radio, print ads, billboards, where ever it takes to get the word out. You could even involve the record companies. If HEAP had existed, maybe we wouldn't all be reading about the possible demise of SACD.
Heck, the print mags could jump on the band wagon too. Rather than taking all of those advertising dollars and lining their own coffers, dump some back into the industry. Remember, the magazines livelihood depends on two channel staying healthy. Rather than being a money sucking leach to an industry, try giving some back. Heck, you guys might be able to help corral the manufacturers and help them survive, thus insuring your own symbiotic existence.
(ummm, Steve, did I just get fired?)
Getting back to using personalities selling high-end gear. Simple fact is, there's no way we (as a whole) could sell to the average consumer. We are too technical. The average person is intimidated by technology. They love it once they get used to it, but generally they are scared to death of it. In our little circle (as it exists today) we have a classic case of dweebs selling to geeks. That's cool. We get it (usually). We can talk techie to each other all day long and we relish it. Talk techie to the average Joe on the street and his eyes glaze over and he starts fidgeting and looking at his watch. But wait, as a group, we geeks can't figure out why the rest of the world doesn't hear what we hear, why everybody doesn't run out and buy what is so blatantly obvious to us.
OK before you start looking for my email address let me state this up front. I'm a geek and I'm damned proud of it. If it weren't for us (Geeks), the rest of the world would still be trying to figure out why square wheels don't roll (easily).
OK so you don't think you're a geek. Well, if you've ever done one of the following, welcome to the club;
Own a soldering iron and know how to use it. (Especially if you have a favorite sounding solder)
You are a geek. OK so get over it. Somebody had to break the news to you, may as well have been me. So this takes us back to our original questions. How do we integrate the love of our lives into the mass market (audio, not my wife).
So lets say my earlier marketing suggestion of education is a bad idea. Lets try this one on for size.
So lets bring sex and audio into the mainstream (just keep it away from my two daughters, thank you very much) Why can't we have Cristina Aguilera worshiping a big bottle 300B or 845? Why can't Britney Spears get lay on her stomach with her legs dangling above her while drooling over some gorgeous tube amp? Oh now, come on, you want to see that, I know you do. OK here's the best one in my repertoire, How about Linda Lovelace swallowing a Shure microphone. Of course after finishing the shoot, she'll claim she was drugged or brainwashed or some such nonsense. But you get the idea. Sex sells.
Just take a look at MTV. How in Gods name did all those no talent groups get so popular. Easy, get up there and sheik-yer-bootie (that was a Frank Zappa reference just in case you weren't paying attention). Have some famous, gorgeous girl or some buffed guy selling audio gear. Automatically it becomes cool to own.
Lets take a look at what advertising has done for a couple of companies. When I was growing up we had two, maybe three different tennis shoe companies to pick from. The two biggies were Converse and Keds. Obviously, Converse was the choice back then. They were what everybody wanted. Oh, and if you owned a pair of high tops, you were shittin' in tall cotton.
Enter the era of the Pop Icon. One of the absolute best examples of advertising making a product larger than life was Michael Jordan and Nike. This is the epitome of advertising success. The Air Jordan line was one of the most successful ad campaigns ever. This took a relatively unknown brand of tennis shoes and made it a household word among very impressionable teenagers and young adults (gee that sort of sounds like the target audience the audio manufacturers should be going after, doesn't it?). All of a sudden, we are buying a $100 pair tennis shoes. Why? Advertising of course. Our collective need for what we see on television or read in print ads (sponsored by some media superstar) now becomes a necessity. We no longer can live without this ultra cool item, what ever it is or however much it costs. Hell, we will drive ourselves to the brink of bankruptcy to get that ultra cool item that everybody now clamors for. It's a simple fact of consumerism. We (the general public) are mindless drones created by the media.
Enter MTV and of it's faults. You want to make something or somebody a superstar? This is the place. How exactly do you think that Rap and Hip Hop got so popular? MTV. MTV appeals to the Young Urban Males. The wannabes of the next generation. Anything they see on MTV (or TV for that matter) is a must have now for this new breed of excessive, compulsive, follower generation that exists today.
Do I need to mention what P. Diddy did for the sales of Cognac? What Hip Hop artists did for the sales of SUV's. I could go on and on.
Look at it this way, if the audio market wants to survive, we are going to have to change our image. We aren't the 45 year old guy's who still live with our mothers, have pocket protectors and tape holding together our glasses that people think we are. We are (relatively) normal people that happen to have a pretty cool hobby, stellar sounding audio systems. We just happen to know a lot about music. Everybody likes music, right?
We all (should) have other hobbies besides audio. Me, I golf, write (well duh), coach little league baseball (or used to), build street rods (or used to), ride Harleys (UltraGlide) and absolutely love building things out of wood. I'd have thrown my lovely wife into that mix but if she thought I was calling her a hobby, I'd be dead meat on the hoof, big time.
Back to a previous point (I know, I'm all over the place with this article).
If General Public is ever going to get into hi-end two channel gear, we NEED the brick and mortar stores to stay in business. The GP needs somewhere they can go to do a live audition of hi-end gear. The brick and mortar shops can't be allowed to vaporize in favor of the big box superstores and Internet shops. If they do, we (as a group) will die a slow, painful, yet extremely quiet death. In the mean time, you and I need to help support these guys whenever we can. So they charge a little more for their gear. They have to. Get over it. You guys out there that go and listen, decide on a certain piece of gear that your retailer has, then go online an see how cheap you can get it need to stop doing that. Quit being a fucking cheapskate. This is one of the (many) reasons your local retailer in on the ropes right now. I'm not saying that the online guys are bad by any stretch, just when you have a choice for the same piece of gear either online or local, go local. It's the right thing to do.
So how do we fix this? I'm afraid most of this is up to the manufacturers. They need to take some serious cash and start a coalition, ad campaigns on radio and TV or something, hell anything. They need famous spokespeople to hawk their wears. I'm not just talking about one or two manufacturers, I mean 12 or 20 of them. Shit, for the money Halcro or Mobile Fidelity spent with Stereophile in advertising, they could have bought some serious television time in say 10 or so big cities.
So who would these famous people be? Try these on for size;
Chrispher Walkin selling Vampire Wire
In my house, if Kevin Kostner were selling cyanide, I'd be a dead man right now. Don't believe me, just ask my wife.
So after all this, is it going to work? Only your hairdresser knows for sure. If all of us sit back and assumes this industry is going to grown on it's own, I'm afraid everybody is sorely mistaken. Something drastic has to happen to really kick start the high-end two channel market. Lord knows word of mouth and discussion boards arguing the minutia of audio isn't the answer. Try a publicity campaign. Let regular people know that what we enjoy is actually pretty cool. If they catch on, who knows, maybe there will be enough of a backlash that MP3's and compression (in all forms) will become a thing of the past.
I realize this is an overly simplistic view to a really complicated issue but it gives everybody out there something to think about. Hopefully the manufacturers sit up and take notice. Those are the guys who are suffering the most. Their feeble attempts to "develop" new markets like five channel amps for the HT crowd will only last so long. When it's all said and done, I'd lay good money that the majority of the people buying high-end HT gear are audiophiles, that and yuppie pukes trying to outdo their buddies. The walk-in's to the hi-end retailers that sell HT usually run-out after seeing the prices. Quality sights and sounds be damned. After experiencing the sticker shock of hi-end, the general public is speeding their way to the big-box superstores.
And as a Kicker, one last thing to think
While you are at it, sit down at your computer and type up an ABC's of audio. Give it as a hand out to each new face that walks in your door. The ABC's should explain the differences between a mass market big box system and a good sounding moderately priced system. Tell them what to listen for, what to look for, things like that. Give specific real world examples using common albums and artists. The music that average guys listens to. Whatever you do, don't scare them away with high priced systems. Lead them to a moderately priced system first. Don't go for the jugular right away. Remember, you have to learn to walk before you can run. Recognize that your potential customer is on a limited budget.
Bottom line. All of you in the manufacturing world damned well better do something in one hell of a hurry if you expect to survive. Death is at your doorstep and all you are doing is hiding in the closet hoping he will go away. Last time I checked, hope isn't a strategy. Never has been and never will be. You've got to do something if you expect to survive. And don't think that the Home Theatre market is going to be your savior. It won't be. The average consumer isn't going to spend the kind of dollars you are charging. Remember, you haven't done a proper job of educating the consumers about why high end gear sounds better and thusly, worth more money. That, my friends, is where you need to start.
For those of us who love this industry and our hobby, all we can do is through rocks and stones at deaths doorstep. Ultimately, we (the average audiophile) will have little effect on this situation. This fight is really up to the manufactures. All we can do is offer up suggestions and constructive criticism hoping they will pay attention.
I can be a preachy sod sometimes... sorry.
'til next time...