Some time in the last 5 years or so, the whole audio-show scene exploded. Grossly oversimplifying for a particular point, if you didn’t live in Vegas or Denver, there was no such thing as a “regional audio show”.
Way back in the day (whenever that was), there was … well, less. The big daddy was CES, which targeted the audio press. At CES, all the big names show their newest and coolest offerings, which were to be duly captured, photographed and explained for the reading pleasure of their myriad readership. This is, in short, advertising — and pretty traditional for such — think “car show” and you have a good feel for how audio worked at CES.
There has always been an unfortunate and somewhat desperate subtext to CES. The “little guys” would also be there, also showing off their latest achievements. Sadly, these second and third tier manufacturers would pop onto the scene one year, show again the following year with whatever improvements or second-gen tech they feel would finally and fully differentiate their offerings, making them even more worthy than the year before … and they’d usually be gone by year three or four. Assuming, that is, they didn’t manage a lucky grab for the brass ring — and either be bought up or out, or create such a buzz that they’d graduate to that rare first-tier status.
By way of contrast, RMAF is the show for consumers. More of a for-the-people/by-the-people show, RMAF has historically been chock-a-block full of second and third tier vendors happy to eke it out on the periphery of the audio scene. For folks looking to hear, to buy, or just to dream, most would recommend the more egalitarian RMAF as more their cup of tea.
Fast forward some indeterminate number of years, to now-ish. Here in North America, we have quite a few truly regional shows. Yes, there’s still CES and RMAF, but there’s also the Dagogo Show, Newport, TAVES, SSI, Lone Star, AKFest, Capital Audiofest, AXPONA, and more. And there seems to be more of them every year, much to the chagrin of manufacturers, resellers and the audio press — and the utter delight of the consuming public. And me.
The market constrictions of the last decade, paired with the collapse of the brick-and-mortar audio dealership as a viable business model, have left something of a vacuum in audio’s high-end. There are still consumers out there, even if they have less money since the Internet Bust, but there are ever fewer dealers to serve them.
Add the rise of the Internets to this mess. With the Internets (all of them), there are more ways to consume, more ways to learn, more ways to interact — consumer to consumer, consumer to reseller, consumer to manufacturer.
I think that all this is a problem for the mainstream audio media.
For decades, the only way for a manufacturer to “get the message out” was through the media, usually taking the form of ad-buys. Stereophile and The Absolute Sound are fantastic magazines, full of valuable and interesting content — and just stuffed to bursting with advertisements. This makes sense as both magazines are for-profit ventures, and advertising either through product placement (aka “reviews”) and full/half-page color glossy eye-catching pics with helpful info on where the interested can go to buy all the pretties, is pretty much how they make their dime.
But when consumers spend less and less time reading through the entirety of a 100+ page advertisement, the value of those ads individually is … ah … declining? Well, yeah. I think that’s fair.
Did I take too many steps there? Okay, lemme back up a second. Arguably, the most used application on the Internet is a search engine. Search engines scour the ‘Web for matches and based on a variety of metrics, results are returned to the searcher. Search engines work “just in time”. Got a question? Google will find you 1,000,000+ answers. This is the way the “average person” (where average tends to be the median age, in, say the US, which is 35) primarily discovers new info and does his pre-purchase research, but such searches are all very targeted. The “close to” or “similar to” results are rather hard for a search engine to pull off as a matter of course as it requires a rather thorough understanding of pesky semantic relationships. For those high-value searches (read, paid-for), those relationships can be built into the tool. But lets just leave it as read that a search for ‘Burmester’ probably won’t return much on ‘Vitus’ or ‘Tidal’, even though parties curious of one may well be curious of the other two. Audio’s high-end doesn’t really rate up there with ‘cardiovascular disease’ or ‘insurance claim’ — and never will. Internet searches are limited in use … but magazines can be pretty varied. It’s their strength.
Okay, lets take another step. Search engines don’t “do magazines” — instead, they return page results. If you are a content provider and your content isn’t paginated for search engine results, that is, if your content is bound up in a turn-the-page format that ties your reader’s eyeballs to a string of paid-for advertisements — like a physical print magazine does (or one that emulates a print magazine, but only exists in an electronic format) — then your content won’t turn up in search engines. Said another way, such content will be invisible to the average Internet user.
And another step. The median age of Stereophile’s subscriber list is greater than the median age of the US. Ditto TAS. Let’s be kind and just say that the younger crowd is a bit more tech savvy than the older crowd, on average.
And another step. If you, a randomly selected Internet content consumer, had a question about a new piece of audio gear you’re perhaps interested in someday purchasing, what do you do? Do you: a) wait for a Stereophile review, or b) run a Google search? I’m gonna spoil the suspense — it’s “b”. Shocker, I know. Of course, if your Google search turns up Stereophile articles, you’re likely to read them … but you’re not going to page through an entire issue of Stereophile (and eyeball and be influenced by all those expensive adverts) to get your questions answered.
And another step. The value play for a magazine, therefore, is in the discovery and the intelligent, thoughtful introduction of the new. Semantic trickery and AI technology are simply not as effective as decades of editorial experience and expertise in this regard. Maybe someday, but for now intelligence and wisdom are, still, the domain of intelligent people — and can be built into intelligently constructed products. Like magazines. That’s their plus. The negative is that they’re out monthly (or bi-monthly, or quarterly, or whatever). Another negative is that we’re all somewhat ADD. And as we’ve already covered, not all that content is readily and easily available to the ADD afflicted, Internet-addicted, tech-savvy younger crowd. Which means that, over time, the value of the well crafted magazine, even one released only in a PDF format, will decline simply from the sheer fact that more and more people familiar with and okay with the delayed gratification of the superior product are … err … ah … dying off.
Something has to give. Stereophile, for example, is one of the only old-school magazines that are actively converting content to Google-friendly formats. The others are in serious trouble. Not from lack of quality — but rather, from a lack of value … to their advertisers. The eyeballs are going elsewhere … and as the advertisers realize this, they’ll go to where the eyeballs are. Like here, on Part-Time Audiophile, for example. Ahem.
But lets take another step, and tie the conversation back into the topic at hand — the audio show. You want to know why audio shows are important, proliferating and generally not going away?
In short, because print is dying.
Advertisers are always looking for new ways to get the word out. Ads in print magazines are horrifically expensive, and that’s a fact. Many second and third-tier manufacturers, and resellers making a living representing those products, tend to find their incomes simply not able to support regular advertising in those more traditional venues. Without arguing the merits or values of advertising generally, let’s assume that everyone involved still finds value in putting relevant messaging in front of their prospective consumers. The question, then (as always), is — how to best (and most cost effectively) get the message out?
Let’s hit that thought broadside with a question: which would be better? A catchy phrase, a sexy model and some glossy pictures? Or actually putting that gear in front of more interested parties? Right. Hands-on is always better.
Now, traditionally, this means dealers. But — they’re going … going … gone. And with fewer local dealers, it follows that there are fewer ways for prospective buyers to satisfy the urge to “kick the tires”.
One possible replacement? A regional audio show.
A regional audio show does two things — in many ways, it can supplement a sagging dealer network. It can also be a terrifically effective marketing approach, one with a very direct mapping of dollars spent to curious and potential buyers. And going forward, it might be one that is more effective than some of the more traditional advertising venues.
That’s why audio shows are important. That’s why they’re here to stay. That’s why they’re exciting.
That’s why the Part-Time Audiophile is all over them.