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Long Live the Local Audio Show

We just wrapped up Gary Gill’s Capital Audiofest this past weekend and next weekend there’s Dagogo’s California Audio Show. In fact, I think there’s been at least 6 shows this year: CES, two AXPONAs, SSI, CAF and another couple I can’t remember.

WTF?

I remember the days when there was T.H.E. Show at CES. And that was about it. RMAF came along, which brought the number of shows up to two. Yes, fine, I’m showing my age and relatively short-time commitment to things audiophilia by only referencing these shows and not something that was popular back in the 70’s, but hey, what can you do?

Anyway, the point is — a couple of years ago, there were only a couple of shows. Now, there seems to be one every month somewhere in the US and more abroad. Something is afoot!

In a wrap up of the CAF show, Stereophile‘s John Atkinson had the following to say:

Are regional shows like Gary’s the future of the audio market, as Classic Speakers’ John Wolff believes, or will we return to the days when there were just one or at most two large shows each year? That is going to depend on the resources of audio manufacturers and retailers and their willingness to spend more time on the road. But the 2011 Capital AudioFest certainly proved that if you hold it, audiophiles will come.

While no one can really answer this question, crystal balls being what they are these days, I have a couple of thoughts about this, bolstered particularly by comments I surreptitiously overheard while skulking about this past weekend.

In short, the answer to JA’s question appears to be “yes”.

The why of that is a bit harder to disentangle. Alan Sircom, the editor of British audio mag HiFi+, made a series of comments over at Computer Audiophile very recently (you’re going to have dig through the thread, it’s big) that underscored with some actual data what resellers have been lamenting for years — consumers of Big Audio appear to be undergoing a shift in purchasing patterns at best, and at worst, simply finding other things to spend their cash on. While there is some demand for established brands or mass-marketed products, the bulk of the growth in Big Audio is on the high end, or rather, the very high end. It’s the mid market brands that appear to be feeling a serious pinch.

But let me spin that a bit. That pinch isn’t just coming from our post 2008 economic woes, but may well reach at least as far back as Napster and Apple’s introduction of the iPod. I’ve argued about the impact Apple has made before, and I’ll stand by (some) of those ideas, but the upshot is that something appears to have bled out the mid-market, pushing some consumers up-market and many more down.

Where does that leave us?

Well, in a lot of places, actually. There’s some anecdotal evidence that trade rags like The Absolute Sound and Stereophile are suffering — like just about every print-media offering — from a drop in circulation and advertising. Why? Well, from guys like me. OK, not really. Instead, and more properly, this drop off is generally attributed to the advent and growing ubiquity of social media media and the change in patterns of consumption in the up-and-comers (aka, the so-called Gen-Y). Print media is, err, ahh … hurting (yeah, that’s a good word for it), and as readership falls off, so does the effectiveness of marketing in those venues … and we end up watching as everything slowly slips right off the cliff.

Anyway, this clearly calls for a different approach.

One of the things being proposed is a more nomadic lifestyle for vendors. You want to push product into the hands of consumers? You want to showcase new and exciting ideas? You want to make audio fun again? Start a rolling carnival — err — an audio show. Bring the audiophiles out — CAF easily brought out at least a thousand consumers over the course of the three days it was here — give them the dog-and-pony, press the flesh, and bring out the bling-bling. They’ll bring friends, and thus, the circle grows. Hell, everyone loves a show, and personally speaking, I have a great time at these things.

The risk, of course, is saturation. Too many shows, or holding them too often in any given market, and enthusiasm and attendance may well wane. Or, more likely, swell for a bit and then wane. The trick will be to find the correct number of venues for a region.

Money is finite, of course, and shows like CAF do cost the vendors money. Money a lot of them don’t have. Money a lot of them might well have been spending on ad-buys at Stereophile and The Absolute Sound. So tons of local shows means bad things for their ad-buys and for the ad-buys of any other traditional outlet. So the question is, to save the audiophile market, will we have to sacrifice our standard bearers?

I don’t think so. This weekend, Dagogo is hosting the California Audio Show. Stereophile sponsored the Georgia AXPONA. Other mags have done similar things — and more will likely do the same. And they will have to, I think, in order to survive.

So, getting back to JA’s question, yes, I think we’ll see more audio shows. Bigger ones, too, as they’re far more effective at drawing the crowds of needed consumers than little ones. There will be some dramatic successes. There will be some spectacular flame-outs. And in a couple of years, I think we’ll probably see the Traveling Carnival achieving a pretty stable road-show schedule, somewhere around 10-12 per year here in the US.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this will be enough to save Big Audio on it’s own. I think that Big Audio is going to need to mobilize and organize the masses of disconnected audiophile troops to round out the local calendar. Some kind of national chapter structure that allows very intimate demos and opportunities to interview vendors closely can do nothing but help build relationships between vendors and would-be consumers. They don’t have to be wine-and-cheese events, but this might not be a bad start. Something on the opposite end of the calendar from the most local show in order to keep up the interest in the hobby and whet the appetites of potential consumers with what’s hot and what’s next. It’s going to take a lot of work, but I think that if ad-buys are not “doing it”, and local interactions are, then we still have a long way to go.

I guess we’ll see what we see.

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