A while ago I wrote an article for this esteemed publication which began with the observation that “I must be at a hi-fi show because the first piece of music I heard as I walked down the corridor was David Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’.”
It’s fair to say that we hi-fi folks do like to play the same music over and over again at shows. Sure, it’s for good reasons, in that the music chosen has been well recorded, is usually simply orchestrated and often acoustic and is highly suited to showing off the capabilities of the equipment on which it is being played. However, it does often tend to be from a certain era, which is generally not that recent: Dire Straits, Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, Marvin Gaye, Fleetwood Mac, etc. – sure you can name many others that you’ve heard countless times.
Does this fascination with music from a bygone era help or hinder the hi-fi industry? Maybe it’s absolutely the perfect choice for the die-hard audiophile visiting a hi-fi show, for whom this music is “my era”, but that’s one of the problems the hi-fi industry faces. The audience is generally not getting any younger, which means it’s inevitably going to continue to get smaller. On the occasion that younger people do venture into a show and there is a realisation that perhaps the music needs to change, we invariably hear the demo switch to London Grammar – a great band, but apparently the industry’s only gesture towards modernity.
OK I’m exaggerating on all fronts, but there is a serious point. We really need to target our demonstrations at the people who are in front of us – playing Steely Dan to a room full of 23 year olds isn’t going to cut it (and yes I have actually seen that happen). That said, Steely Dan are great and wholly suitable for the right crowd.
The point here is about knowing your audience, which brings me neatly on to the recent High End Show in Munich. This is a show that clearly does know its audience, otherwise 20,000 visitors wouldn’t make the trip to see the latest, greatest and most expensive hi-fi around. But, how many of them are there for the eye-candy and not really in the market for new equipment? I don’t know the answer, and suspect no one really does, but from observing the visitors, I’m guessing it’s somewhat like the motor show in terms of being a magnet of shiny things that attract the attention and drools of the hoards.
If that’s why the audience has come, then the exhibitors certainly know how to pander to their desires. Why stop at one tonearm on your turntable when you can have four? Why settle for a pair of bookshelf, or even modest floor-standing speakers, when you can design a set with three 15” bass units, eight midranges and six tweeters and some kind of pulsating plasma orb in an 8ft high pyramid!
Am I being a little cynical? Well maybe, but one could argue that Munich represents both the very best and the very worst that the industry has to offer. Will ‘real’ people ever take us seriously as an industry when we peddle products of such ridiculousness that no consumer would ever give houseroom to? On the other hand, the research and technology that goes into these devices proves that there is a lot of clever engineering skill in hi-fi that will eventually trickle down into real world products that people may would consider buying. But I have to say there are some things at the show that really do underline why people look at audiophiles with a degree of puzzlement.
And then there’s the music. If I heard Brubeck once, I heard it 50 times as I walked the halls. Maybe I have got it all wrong though and all the visitors to the show are ardent jazz fans, but I suspect not. In appointing this year’s brand ambassador, the show organisers have realised that they need to appeal to a wider audience than the jazz fan and appointed none other than the prog-rock god that is Steve Wilson to be their poster boy. Certainly, a conversation piece among those who know their prog, and Steve Wilson is awesome, but it’s still very niche - prog is about as hi-fi as jazz is.
All this makes me wonder whether much of hi-fi has just become too self-obsessed and inward focused, and has almost given up on the attempt to educate the average person that there is something better out there? Sure, we need the hobbyists who make up the mainstay of our consumer base, for without them we have no industry, and these people keep us inventing, perfecting and manufacturing. So it is great to see some of our well-known brands, many of them Clarity members, launching products that cater for the next generation of music lovers, for whom streaming is the norm – the so called “Generation Rent” who never own their music. There is a new world of customers out there with whom the hi-fi industry needs to connect if it is going to prosper in the coming years, but how do we get them in front of the products?
That’s one to ponder on.