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The Absolute Sound

Guest Editorial
February 2006
By Bob Gendron

Blanked Generations


  Two months ago, TAS Acquisitions Manager Neil Gader contacted me about a panel he's moderating at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show. Among his topics: How can the high end reach out to younger generations? A good question and one that comes with tough answers likely to raise the ire of industry professionals and audio journalists.

As we move forward into an era where, for many, the stereo system has become an iPod, any maker of quality music-reproduction equipment has reason to sweat. Expectedly, the move from hi-fi to porta-fi has led to a myriad of knee-jerk predictions of artistic and intellectual collapse. Many blame short attention spans and the current state of national affairs. Another reason I've heard is that music isn't what it once was, and still another is that younger people don't buy music.

Yet these changes, and the erroneous belief that the quality of music has plummeted, have more to do with perceptions than facts. Never before in history has a wider array of music been available. Sounds from around the world and free previews of hundreds of thousands of albums are a mouse-click away. People are listening. And buying. What's often misunderstood is that Recording Industry Association of America figures often pertain to units physically shipped. With fewer traditional outlets, these numbers are down, while digital acquisitions surge. Given these music-friendly developments, why does most of the high end still act like it's living in the 70s?

Fundamentally, what's happening in music is a continuation of a culture shift brought on by punk, intensified by hip-hop, and exploded by indie-rock. Over the past few decades, music has splintered off in manifold directions. A priceless creative transformation has occurred, but many listeners (and critics) have chosen not to follow or attempt to understand what's transpired, hunkering down instead under a safety blanket of the music they already know (and believe to be unsurpassable) and ignoring the rest dismissing contemporary sounds without having heard a note of it.

Such people are not only laughably pathetic and maddeningly ignorant; they are also clinging to a lazy closed-minded worldview that is detrimental to art and audio. The point isn't that everyone has to bob his head to hip-hop or move his feet to glitchpop, but that deep-rooted generational biases are widening a rift for which subgenres are frequently blamed.

What the high end is really facing is a generation gap that the industry hasn't yet bridged with a common language. Or, to put it bluntly, it's encountering listeners who can't relate to and/or currently don't care about audiophile-speak. What needed to be done to fix this problem begins at the root level that is the industry must forge a connection to the music that people are listening to today. We were reminded of this in the last issue when a reader wrote in deriding audiophile publication for constantly reviewing golden moldies.

That hasn't been true for years in this magazine, where we strive to inform readers in a timely way about noteworthy contemporary releases and select reissues. For examples of the former and out music writers' passion for the best of what's current, just look at this issue's Golden Far Music Awards. However, the accusation is true when applied to equipment reviews, where sonic examples primarily consist of albums recorded before 1980. In most cases, no contemporary rock, pop, blues, or R&B is cited. Hip-hop, metal, world, postmodern classical, and avant-jazz might as well not exist.

Yes, I'm aware of this magazine's "unamplified music in real space" credo. But I'm also aware that listeners (especially those under 40) enjoy an assortment of musical styles and are often left clueless about how a component sounds, unless they audition somnambulistic easy-listening vocalists, carbon-dated rock, or warhorse classical. To limit the appeal of the high end to this minority ensures the slow death of the high end.

When asked why he continued to search out new music well into his 60s, the legendary British deejay John Peel replied, "I don't read the same books I did when I was 20, I don't watch the same films I did when I was I was 20, why would I listen to the same music?" I couldn't agree more, and neither would any true music lover, which is why, without abandoning the past, the high end must speak to the present. Otherwise the industry's face will be that of an antiquated group reminiscing ad nauseam about the same batch of 50-year-old albums a circular and cyclical debate that does a disservice to music fans and the manufacturers hoping to attract them.

Most audiophile labels have failed to realize this, which may explain why few still exist. But there are those like Water Lily's Kavi Alexander, who in Issue 156 bashed reverse-minded thinking that values sonics over music. He recognizes that only so much repetition can be tolerated before former greats such as Led Zeppelin and Leonard Bernstein become irredeemably dull and dated.

Music isn't dead it's more alive than ever and listeners are continually finding new places and ways to hear it. Millions are waiting to discover how a great CD player or turntable can improve their lives, but they'll never experience either unless the industry catches up and begins to speak their language. 



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