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Positive Feedback ISSUE 49
may/june 2010


The Mass Marketer - Part One
by Dan Dzuban


It's been about 4 years since I wrote my last review. In that time, I've had quite a few big changes in my life—some good, and some… not so much. Specifically, I decided to go back to business school, to focus on starting a new business, and my wife and I had a baby. I now find myself ready to write again, but my motivations are quite different.

Like many audiophiles, I chased the highest-performance systems money could buy. But the Great Recession brought me and my new start-up back to earth with a thud. I found myself staring at the edge of a deep financial chasm—and was even pulled a bit over the edge before regaining my footing.  In light of the hole I found myself in, even if I could financially afford to chase the high ticket gear again one day, could I morally afford it?

I have kids to put through college as well as the usual day-to-day expenses that are generated by a family of four living in suburbia. My entire family enjoys listening to music (or micus, as my toddler now calls it), and loves the home theater experience. But there are many other things they enjoy as well. And lots of other things I enjoy, too. As a dad, I want to extract as much happiness out of our life and as create as many wonderful memories as possible for both me and my family. Unless my salary expands three fold, I simply cannot justify spending $10,000 on a pair of amps, regardless of how passionate I am about the hobby.

I've now experienced nearly all facets of the audio business—as a reviewer, a retailer, an e-tailer, a custom installer, a manufacturer's representative, a distributor's representative, a marketing consultant, and from the high-end, mid-fi, portable audio, video, traditional music, and digital music scenes. Now, I'm a simple civilian once again.

I was a passionate entrepreneur, but am now enjoying the benefits of corporate life. I find myself bored with the idea of "finding the next great brand" or of "climbing the social ladder" of equipment. I am just not that interested in seeking the best of the best in performance anymore. The audio reviewing press is already loaded with enough folks who are doing that. But the audio reviewing press also has quite a few (though not as many) folks searching for over-achieving bargain basement gear. So where does that leave me?

For starters, I enjoy observing the audio business almost as much as the gear itself. I am a lawyer/MBA type, so I strangely tend to view products within the context of their brand strength, their marketing channels, their proprietary technology, strategic advantage, market segment, etc. Most of this is probably of little if any interest to most audiophiles. But it might be, especially if such concepts pique my interest and drive me to find audio gear that might otherwise go unnoticed.  

What now guides my purchasing decisions in life in general is maximizing the point of diminishing returns for such products—that implies finding bargains, but it ultimately means finding value at a price I can be comfortable with. And just as I left niche market start-ups for the more mass-market corporate world, I intend to look for value not in cutting-edge audio start-ups, but rather in more mass-market-oriented companies. The term "Mass-market" has usually held negative connotations for audio companies—but it shouldn't. Mass-market is kind of a catch all moniker for larger market segments (i.e., larger target customer base), with greater market reach via different distribution models, and large-scale manufacturing processes. Inside and outside the audio industry, a good deal of innovation comes from your stereotypical nimble start-up; but it also comes from within larger companies. Such companies may have the distribution or manufacturing infrastructure to get these innovations into products and make them available at price points that cannot otherwise be matched by companies focusing on niche markets or custom building their products.

I worked for years as a consultant for Monster Cable. My non-official analogy for Monster and similar manufacturers is via beer. Monster is Michelob, and for the vast majority of consumers, Michelob is a huge leap up in quality from the usual swill they are drinking. And most rational brewers (manufacturers) would give anything to be in Michelob's shoes. However, a smaller number of consumers prefer quality greater than Michelob, and are willing to pay for that quality in the form of microbrews. Microbrews (high-end manufacturers) have sprung up to serve such higher-end tastes.

However, such micro brewers are typically less savvy in marketing (and have lower marketing budgets), and do not have the manufacturing or distribution infrastructure to scale up and serve the mass market, even if they wanted to. In that sense, you have market equilibrium—the mass market gets what they want, and those who are willing to pay for their more expensive tastes get what they want too. An anomaly is a company like Samuel Adams. They have managed to straddle the line by producing microbrew quality with mass-market distribution and brewing (manufacturing) infrastructures. As The Mass Marketer, I want to write about the Samuel Adams' of the audio industry, as well as how the Michelob's of the business innovate to deal with the Samuel Adams'.

There are two more important matters to discuss: 1) What do I listen to; and 2) What do I listen for. Speaking to topic number one, I am first and foremost a child of the Eighties. This means I grew up on making mix tapes, and then moved onto buying compact discs. I only ever owned a few records, and otherwise have no remaining sentimental attachment to vinyl—or interest in it, for that matter. I have a soft spot for the Seventies soft rock that I was exposed to as a youngster, vis-à-vis my parents. But it's the electronic Eighties that I like most. I really haven't met much with a synthesizer that I don't like—especially within the Brit Pop or Modern Rock genres. As I moved through college in the early Nineties, I went through my Grunge Rock and Alternative Rock phases. By the late Nineties, I moved back toward synthesizer with techno, trip hop, and chill. There is of course some obligatory Sade and a lot of movie soundtracks/scores mixed in. I now listen equally to all the above—whether it be Ambrosia, New Order, The Screaming Trees, The Verve, Art of Trance, Moby, or Air. Stuck in a rut? Perhaps. But I'd more aptly term it "stuck in a happy place".

As for Part Two, you will have to wait until next time, because I have a lot to say about my priorities in equipment—and it all ties back to my feelings about where equipment falls within life's priorities. Stay tuned to find out just what True Factoring means….