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Positive Feedback ISSUE 66
march/april 2013


Sonic Satori - What is the Future of the High End, Part IV ...Outside the Box
by Michael Mercer

If I see or hear about another seminar at a Hi-fi convention that's supposedly addressing "how to attract the youth" into Hi-fi culture without involving the youth in the discussion, I'm going to puke. The answer is very simple, and one we have been addressing here at PF for quite some time. If you can't figure out how to bring the younger demographic into the fold, then step outside this little fuckin' niche and take a big look around! See where that demographic lives, where it congregates, shops, eats, meets their friends, goes dancing, buys records, anything that can be attributed to high fidelity. We're living in a world where, despite how you feel about it, we're surrounded by more music than ever before. Even our phones play music! Think about how many ring tones you hear daily, outside in the real world, where phones don't even sound like phones anymore! Sure, there are exceptions, but most people have customized their ringer because it expresses their personality. Shit, practically every gadget in the pocket of today's youth plays music, stores music, and creates music!

Aside from that, many people are missing the big picture here: there are generations that were brought up with music as an integral part of their interactive experience with the world! They never had to go out and buy a tape or a CD, or thumb around a record store! There are again a ton of exceptions here, and vinyl sales are on the rise, but if you focus all the energy on vinyl and how the youth are waking up to the superior sonic experience of analog, then you're still cutting down your potential target market! Be inclusive, not exclusive. The youth today were brought up listening to music in a completely different way than most of us in this niche industry. Their music has been with them wherever they went, and it's very personal, thus the explosion of "personal audio"! Think about it. I grew up in the age of the Sony Discman, and we loved our Walkmans too, but they weren't an integral part of our lives like an iPhone, iPod, Android tablet, iPad, or any PC are today for the average user. The older portable technology was merely a bonus. You knew when you got home you could ultimately listen to your music on your stereo. So you didn't listen to your Walkman at home (unless you were avoiding parents or siblings). Those devices birthed a relatively small industry of accessories and such to enhance their performance, but nothing like we have today. The higher end portable audio stuff was mostly delegated to the pro audio field for recording and the like.

Kids and teens today, and especially twenty-to-thirty-somethings, listen to their personal devices everywhere! They also have far more control over their listening experience than they ever had before. The personal "playlist" is nothing new. We all remember making great mix-tapes for our girlfriends and boyfriends, but the new era of customization put the user in the driverís seat like never before. People get attached to these devices, and whatever you think of their sonic integrity (you can great sound from most of these gadgets by the way) there are millions of people interacting with those products every second of every day! The result, look at the innovation in personal audio. From the Audeze LCD3 magnetic planar headphones (my favorite), to V-MODA's just-released VAMP VERZA, these manufactures are doing something the old guard in the Hi-Fi industry is not (or at least not on a grand scale), interacting consistently with not only their existing customer-base, but their potential customer-base. The high end audio industry is so wrapped up in itself. Between the ego-battling in the Hi-Fi press and the politics that keep this wonderful hobby behind the doors of the privileged, I don't even know where to begin! We're all so very wrapped up in our own bubble world that we can't be bothered to peek outside the walls we've built for ourselves and practice good ol' fashion outreach. Now there are many avenues for would-be audiophiles today, but a good place to start is with the music we play at shows and such, and get over the fact that personal audio is here to stay. Take a hard look at both of these things, and you might actually reach new people.

Now I don't mean to offend anybody here. I'm just calling it as I see it. The elephant in the middle of the room that nobody wants to address is the music we play to show off our systems at shows and regional events. You want to attract the youth? Stop playing the fucking Firebird already. Put "Keith Don't Go" and Steve Ray Vaughn's "Tin Pan Alley" (and I love Stevie Ray) in the garbage can. The people listening to that music? They've already bought your gear, and if not, they're not likely to start now! I'm not saying abandon classical music or jazz. Kids need a dose of those things too. But broaden your musical horizons a bit. Take a lesson from personal audio, what goes hand-in-hand with headphones? DJs! What goes hand-in-hand with DJs? All kinds of incredible music and sounds that you're not willing to risk playing at the next high end audio show because you don't want to offend anybody. You know what? Offend them! Do whatever you have to do to get them talking, and not just the same guys you see year after year. Talk to your local record stores, since vinyl is on the rise, and see what bands are hot in your area, what sells, and check it out. You know where the greatest source of new demo music might very well lie? In your kidsí iPods, your nephew, or friends of your nephew. Forget the fact that they're listening to MP3's. That will change in time. Just pay attention to the music. Check out the artists on the web, see if it's something you like. If it is, then see if the artist knows how to make a record that isn't Pro-Tooled to shit (they do exist you know). If you make some new discoveries, have a listening party at your house or your dealership. Dave and Carol Clark have wonderful events where everybody brings their own music and plays DJ for awhile. We get to turn each other onto new music and spend time together. I know the guys from Stereophile do the same thing, and I'm sure TAS does as well. But reach beyond your comfort zone. I was flattered when, after reviewing James Blake's LP here for PF (and taking his single, "Limit to Your Love" on 45 to every show and listening session I attended) Stephen Meijas wrote an article for his blog on about how surprising it was that the high-end audio community welcomed in the music of James Blake!

Ask your kids or the owner of the record store where the youth go to see shows in your area. Check out a show there. Get a feel for the scene, and you'll know how to put an event together to invite them in. Ask some of your younger customers these questions. Figure out how to get a local band to come to your store and host a record release party. What band wouldn't want to hear their record on a killer sound system? I hate to use the homogenized term, but EDM culture (electronic dance music) is another market the audiophile industry should be eyeballing. Do you have any idea how big that scene is? It's huge, and global! Plus, the whole culture evolved from people jamming on turntables and rockin' parties! Hi-Fi and EDM, even Hi-Fi and hip hop, are interconnected whether you like it or not. There are also some incredible sounding hip hop records you should check out. Open your mind to some of the things this community has bashed over the years, and ironically you will find an endless pool of would-be devotees. I was at an underground house music party in downtown Los Angeles this weekend, and there were hundreds of people my age there, and when I walked out to leave at 7AM, I took a look at the cars of our fellow old school ravers! I'm always thinking about this stuff. I'll tell you what. By the look of their rides they can afford a little high fidelity in their life. And that's the last thing I'm going to touch on for now (and I've said it over and over in various publications), Hi-Fi needs to be marketed as a lifestyle. When I wrote Dear Audiophile Industry, Please Advertise in Playboy for The Daily Swarm I didn't mean it literally, though some people thought I did.

I meant, as stated in the article, that I remember the days when you could open a Playboy magazine or Rolling Stone and see Hi-Fi ads and reviews. We have the potential for more of that now, with personal audio shattering the price of entry! Sure, it wouldn't have made much sense for Rolling Stone to review or report on a hundred-thousand dollar turntable during some of the worst economic times on record. However, it has occurred to them to report on how to turn your laptop into a Hi-Fi system (via reports on USB DACs and such) because their readership already owns computers! All of these new ways and means to get our message out are there to explore, you just have to be willing to change and that's not easy. I can't believe, to be brutally honest, that some people think we should be marketing only to the 1%. I'm sorry guys! Good luck with that. You've been trying to do that for over twenty years now. Wonder why wealthy people buy Bose headphones? They see them on television and in the magazines they read on their private jets (not to mention their pilots are probably wearing Bose headphones). If you're trying to and figure out how to market specifically to the 1% I say you're aiming at a pretty small target market with a lot of manufacturers whose businesses you're proposing will be sustained by this tiny market. I just don't see it.

In the end, after all the talk, it all boils down to this, do you want to be an evangelist for Hi-Fi? If so then start with baby-steps. Me, I always have something on me that I can show to somebody. A great example is the little Firestone Fire-Eye mini headphone amp. I have Steve Guttenberg to thank for turning me onto this little sonic wonder. It's just a simple little rechargeable headphone amp that's the size of a piece of Bazooka bubble gum with a 1/8" in and output. Just install it between your iPhone, Android, or iPod (anything with a 1/8" headphone output) and your headphones, and you can hear the difference instantly! It's only thirty-five bucks, and I've given out at least nine or ten away by now to complete strangers! Once I was in a doctorís waiting room, and the guy next to me asked me what it was. He thought it was a battery pack or something. I asked him if he had a stereo at home. He said yes. I told him that just like his amplifier for his home speakers; this was an amplifier for his headphones! He asked to try it and loved it. He bought one on Amazon right there in the waiting room. Those are the kinds of small steps you can take to help turn people on to the wonderment of high fidelity. The bigger picture? The youth isn't coming to you. You need to go to them. Shit, rent a van and hit outdoor music festivals like the Sennheiser truck! Do whatever you have do to, but stop talking about it and do it already. Anything will be more than we're doing right now.