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Positive Feedback ISSUE 69
september/october 2013


More Powerful Than a Pair of Sneakers: Finding the Right Carrot, Part 2
by Roger Skoff

In the first part of this article, I talked about how we've all tried to introduce others to our hobby, and how it usually hasn't worked. A major reason for that, I said, is that most of the non-audiophile public seems not to know what music really sounds like, and not to care. They just seem to want whatever they listen to to be "LOUD with BIG BASS".

Other than bass and volume, they not only don't seem to care about the quality of the sound, I wrote, but they also don't seem to care how it's delivered: Just as you no longer need a watch or a clock to check the time, but can find it on the radio, on your telephone, from your computer, or from any number of other sources, music, too, has become a commodity available practically everywhere—no special equipment or dedicated system required.

So does that mean that Hi-Fi and enthusiast audio are dead or have no future? If it does, then why are more and more people paying thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for a watch, when they don't need one to tell the time? Or paying hundreds of dollars for a pair of Nike™ sneakers that they may never actually wear for running? Or buying a Montblanc™ pen, when, for 39 cents, a BIC writes just as well?

The answer is that the watch, the shoes, and the pen aren't really what those people are buying. What they're really after, and what an ever-growing number of people are willing to pay truly outrageous money for is, in one form or another, a membership card.

We like to think that high-priced goods—a pair of shoes; a pen; a fifty thousand dollar watch; or even a Lamborghini or Rolls-Royce car, do what they do better or last longer than more ordinary things of the same kind. But even if that's true, is it true enough to justify the price difference? Do the Nike's really make you run that much faster" Or do they feel that much better on your feet? Does the IWC or Patek-Philippe watch keep time that much better than a Timex? Does a $400 Montblanc pen really write ONE THOUSAND TIMES better, or longer, or anything, than a 39 cent BIC? I don't think so.

In the early 1960s, I bought a Siata sports car that had been built as a factory team car for the 1953 Targa Florio road race. It was gorgeous and it was ferocious and, despite being noisy and uncomfortable and wildly impractical, I loved it. My father, though, (much to my chagrin, and however much I might try to deny it), was absolutely right when he said that his 1961 Pontiac would do 55MPH—the then-current speed limit—at exactly the same speed as my Siata.

The fact, though, was that that didn't really matter. When I bought the Siata—despite anything else that I might have said at the time—it wasn't to go fast, but because I hoped that owning it, driving it, and being seen in it might make me popular, get me lucky, and cause people to think that I was rich or famous or sophisticated, or something more than just one more eighteen-year-old in California's San Fernando Valley.

When I bought the car at age eighteen, it was because I really didn't have much to brag about, but hoped that having it might make people think that I did. If I were to buy it today, it would be just the opposite; I do have some real-live bragging rights, and owning the Siata might give me a way to show them off. In either case the car was (or would be) a membership card—something to tell others something about who I am, what I have accomplished, and what my place in society is.

And that's the reason for Rolls-Royce and Lamborghini and Montblanc and Patek-Philippe and Nike and all the other "prestige" stuff, too. Beyond its simple utility or aesthetic value, it's all about being a "member" and either telling people your place in society or getting them to believe you've already achieved a place you can yet only aspire to.

Nobody would ever dream of trying to sell a Patek-Philippe or a Montblanc, or a Bugatti Veyron, the first of the million-dollar cars, on how useful it is, so why have we—as enthusiasts and as an entire industry—been trying to get people who don't care about its use to come play Hi-Fi with us based on its usefulness?

What we ought to be trying to do, instead, is to show them how "hip", how "cool", how "sophisticated" (or whatever other word you might want use to indicate social acceptance), it is to have a High End audio system. And, using the "stick" that always goes with any good "carrot", how "lame", how "outgroup", how "uncool", or how socially UNacceptable it is not to. How can we establish High End audio as a "lifestyle" product if we don't first establish it as a necessary part of people's lifestyle?

McIntosh Laboratory, a luxury audio brand for more than 60 years, made a strong first step toward establishing audio as an essential part of an affluent (read socially advantaged) lifestyle when it hired a Sales and Marketing Vice President with no prior consumer electronics experience but with a strong career history with such European luxury brands as DeBeers, Montblanc, Longines, and Baume & Mercier. Bowers &Wilkins, the British speaker manufacturer is doing the same by partnering with Maserati.

Even though only the most affluent people can afford the most luxurious good, the fact that those people have them makes other people want them too. Don't movie stars start popular trends of every kind—especially among young people—by establishing whatever it is as "the thing to do"? It's the same with luxury goods, as well, and the important thing is that those young people don't even have to buy the real thing (that's why the whole "copies" or "looks like" industry) they just have to WANT it and want people to think that they can afford it.

Speaking of movie stars, why aren't we getting more High End audio gear shown in the movies? There are businesses out there whose sole purpose is "product placement"—getting stuff seen or used or commented on in movies. Why aren't we using them? [Roger makes an excellent point here, the same one that I made with Harvey "Gizmo" Rosenberg back in the middle 1990s. My thought: Get Schwarzenegger to feature tubes and a really cool turntable in his next sci-fi flick. It would have been great! – Robinson]

If it's because no one company can afford to do it; in the first place, that's simply not true. (When I still owned XLO, we were approached with a product placement opportunity in a major film and it wasn't all that expensive.) But even if it were, why does it have to be just a single company? Why isn't CEA (the Consumer Electronics Association) doing it for us? They've certainly got both the budget and the influence! Or why aren't we forming our own association; something, perhaps on the order of AAHEA, the old Academy for the Advancement of High End Audio? Couldn't that get us some free publicity and couldn't publicity help to establish performance audio as a lifestyle essential? [Another "amen!" to Roger's comments here. Gizmo and I tried to get AAHEA to do this back in the ‘90s, but they didn't seem to be interested. Nowadays, folks like Bob Levi and Richard Beers of THE Show definitely do get the fact that high-end audio is a facet of la dolce vita, and has to be marketed within this larger framework if it is to be effective. Cigars, single malts, bourbons, tequila, other fine spirits, Port, cars, guitars, jazz, great wines, micro-brewed beers and ales, coffee, tubes, DSD Downloads, LPs and superior LP reissues, headphones, portable high-resolution audio, cables, SACD, computer-based audio, great home theater with Blu Ray and 2K/4K sources...all of this belongs together in one category, and not in dozens.]

It's not just movies; magazines like Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, and Town and Country—any of the home lifestyle publications already show interesting Home Theaters. Why not home High End listening rooms?

And going on from there, why aren't we forming alliances with AIA (the American Institute of Architecture) and ASID (the American Society of Interior Decorators) or even with furniture manufacturers and paint and wallpaper companies for promotion for our mutual benefit?

It can all be done, and it will not only be good for our hobby and our industry, but probably even for our health: Craig Allison, of Lavish Custom Technology Solutions believes that music is essential for healthy living, and is working to establish an organization called "Pure Audio to Health" as a national and even international association of manufacturers and music lovers to promote music and good recorded sound as a normal part of people's lifestyle.

If that and some of the other courses of action available to us can be done, and if people can actually be brought to understand that—for whatever reason—they need a "cool" sound system as much as they need expensive sneakers our hobby will continue and grow; everybody will be better off; and the right carrot will have done its job.