When I started in this business way back in the 1970s, people purchased a stereo for a self-evident reason – to listen to music. We were into listening to music. We cranked it up. We partied to it. We sat in the dark and drifted away to it. While there were always attempts to disguise stereo equipment (my parents had an all-in-one “console” in a wooden cabinet that looked like a sideboard buffet with grilles) today’s elegant sound systems are artful in their elegance.
Sure, in the early days, customers visited a stereo store and were treated to rooms lined with speakers and separate components. But, soon, stereo specialists created engaging and inviting rooms in which the buyer could listen to great music in a specialized audio room. At the same time, unfortunately, because the mass merchants turned their eyes away from hi-fidelity, the stereo salesman became a bit of a caricature (Dominator MX10s anyone?). But the true believers? We were genuinely passionate about the sound and the music.
Over the years, the custom integration segment took hold and these new CI dealers were less concerned about sound quality and more concerned about whole house sound and – later – home automation. The goal was to make everything disappear and be usable to people that didn’t want to be bothered with very much technology.
These CI dealers were, it must be said, courting a different echelon of consumer, not so much the 1% as the 0.1%. The two worlds were largely on separate tracks. But gradually those tracks merged. CEDIA became the primary industry organization with an avowed goal to broaden the market as much as possible (to include electrical contractors, central vacuum installers, security dealers).
The control brands became the movers and shakers, and the biggest share of most dealers’ business. CI speakers were in too many cases reduced to a margin grab with very generous, if not completely specious, performance claims … and real performance stereo increasingly seemed like an odd, fringe business.
To be fair, the performance audio business reveled in its oddness with, for instance, ridiculously fat speaker cables set on train trestles attached to speakers the size of refrigerators, enormous amplifiers that required as much electricity as a small city and made enough heat to barbeque over, little ebony pucks spread about a room to “absorb bad resonances”, clocks to “align electrons”…. prices went through the roof. It all got very spooky and then it began to collapse under the weight of its own absurdities.
With all the effort and expenditure to become expert “systems contractors”, even many die-hard audio businesses lost the scent. Sound rooms went to seed, beautiful theaters became non-functional. “Our guys are too busy doing jobs to fix it,” was a common refrain. Then showrooms were abandoned and businesses were relocated to industrial parks with limited or no walk-in hours. “Our customers never come to see us anyway.” The last thing a sales person needed in any case was the distraction of a retail customer that wanted to listen to something! Proposals needed writing!
As a general rule, we ceased welcoming new customers unless they were potential projects, ceased taking the time to validate the joys of owning a performance audio/video system. We sent a great many people back into the street annoyed that they had taken the time to drive to a stereo store that wasn’t a stereo store anymore. I know; I heard the unhappy stories.
Then came the internet and the notion that you don’t even need a dealer; you might even save big money by buying direct from a manufacturer. That was the enticing claim, at the least. Sure, you can’t compare different products but if dealers aren’t willing to do that anyway, or only do it on a very limited basis, there’s no disadvantage to buying on-line, and maybe some advantages (sales tax savings, in-home trials, to name two). And the fact is many customers were treated rudely because they didn’t seem like a fit with the new CI model or they merely wanted to think about what could be a multi-thousand dollar purchase. I witnessed this first hand far too often. Think from a consumer’s perspective and it’s not hard to spot the problems.
Anyone that knows me even a little bit knows I’m an audio guy because I crave deep music and cinematic experiences. I guess you could say I’m generally into elevated sensory experiences (naturally elevated, I might add … without passing judgment), but none mean more to me than music.
When I arrived at B&W a decade ago after a long career as an independent rep principal, I found an office where no meaningful demonstrations were possible. That really annoyed me. Even in my relatively small rep business, I had a training/demo room and the ambition to use it as much as possible. B&W was supposed to be a temple of sound! I was told dealers would never take the time to attend distant trainings. I bet that they would – if we made it productive.
By the time I left, we had a multi-room experience center and had hosted several hundred dealer employees and press people. I’m confident that no one departed unimpressed. In fact, I was a bit chagrined to discover that a sizeable percentage of our dealers behaved as if they’d never heard our products before! I suppose in our new world order, many hadn’t, at least properly. But it was a delight to see their fist-pumping excitement after a demo. An important side benefit is that we made a lot of friends in the process. Our own people improved in many ways because we had the ability to get them directly involved with using our products; they no longer had to pretend they’d heard our latest and greatest. Their enthusiasm became genuine.
Next week I discuss the possibilities for the future; they are brighter than you think!