Dog Legs and Feet: the Marginalization of High-End Audio

"What?"

The sound in Madison Square Garden was not as loud as I have experienced in the past—the 2004 Prince concert was literally deafening; thank goodness I always take earplugs to concerts—but it was still loud enough to make talking difficult.

"I said, 'I have always marveled at how seamlessly that English folksong "Green Bushes" fits into this song as the coda's bassline.'"

"Whatever," said my wife, "but what on earth does this song mean? I mean, what is 'Pressed Rat's collection of dog legs and feet'?"

"It rhymes with 'amplified heat,'" I said, stalling for time.

My 12-year-old daughter tugged at my sleeve: "How come everyone here is old, like you, Daddy?"

I gave up and turned my attention back to the stage, where seminal 1960s band Cream was once more showing everyone how complete rock music could be without samplers'n'synthesizers, without studio trickery, without overdubs, without anything other than three guys with talent and taste.

The day Cream began their stint at the Garden, the mid-October issue of Stereophile's free eNewsletter had been blasted out to subscribers. In that newsletter, in response to a call for action by a new organization, the American Association for the Advancement of the Audio Arts, I wrote about the crisis faced by an industry that depends on a diminishing, aging customer base: "When I became Stereophile's editor in 1986," I wrote, "the median age of the magazine's readership was the same age I was then, 38; ie, half the readers were younger than 38, half older. According to our most recent reader survey, the median reader age is now 48, meaning that in the intervening 19 years, that median reader has aged at half the rate of the rest of us....But older that reader certainly has become, which has led to cries of doom from some quarters of the audio industry.

"The fear is that as members of the baby-boom generation increasingly look backward at their 50th birthdays, they will equally increasingly remove themselves from the market for two-channel audio components. Couple that fear with the observation that younger generations neither appear to value quality nor appear to be willing to devote extended periods of time to listening to music without multitasking, and it would seem that the customer base for the high-end audio industry will soon, literally, die out."

If that's true—and times are not good for manufacturers of audio components, the Consumer Electronics Association reporting in November that sales of home audio components and systems dropped a dramatic 30% between 2003 and 2005, contrasted with a 90% increase in the sales of portables—then something needs to be done.

This issue's "Letters" column includes a selection of the large number of responses I received on this subject that also offered ideas. But it seems to this scribe that the slump in sales is actually due to two phenomena that on the face of it are unconnected: 1) the purchasing habits of the industry's long-term customers, aging baby boomers all, are slowing down; and 2) younger people are not finding their way to what the high-end audio industry has to offer in anything like enough numbers to replace those who leave.

The second phenomenon has been the subject of much discussion in the punditsphere: If music plays such an important role in young peoples' lives, why don't they seem to desire to hear that music with higher quality? The first is established demographic wisdom: People in general stop buying stuff once they reach the age of 50. But Paul Messenger, writing in this magazine a year ago (January 2005, p.16), pointed out that older consumers will still buy what they want when they are convinced they need it. He mentioned what in England is called the "50-quid bloke": the 50-year-old man who, once he gets into a media store and has the plastic out, buys a lot of stuff—an average of £50 ($100) worth, in fact.

This is what crossed my mind at the Cream concert. I doubt there's been a concert audience with as narrow an age range, especially an age range that traditionally has been regarded as past its consuming prime. Yet Cream's three concerts sold out, which means that more than 55,000 baby boomers paid between $250 and $4500 each for tickets with a face value of $60–$350 to see a band that before this year had not performed live since 1968.

"How come everyone here is old?" asked my daughter. Because when my generation is convinced we need something, we have the disposable income to buy it. Without a second thought. Perhaps the high-end audio industry's woes stem from its no longer being able to persuade baby boomers that they need what it has to offer. Which then sets up a feedback cycle that exacerbates the problem: Falling sales lead to fewer specialty stores, and those that remain can no longer stock every product a possible customer wants to hear demonstrated, which in turn leads to further drops in sales. And so on, to extinction. Pressed Rat and Warthog will indeed have closed down their shop.

The younger generation doesn't have anything like the same disposable income, of course, which is perhaps one reason high-end stores do not appear to be interested in them. But the high-end audio industry has also failed its future customers by locking itself into a price spiral that places its offerings out of reach of anyone but baby boomers. The best will always be expensive, of course, not only because of intrinsic engineering value but also because there are no economies of scale are available to a manufacturer like Continuum Audio, who make the $90k LP player reviewed in this issue's "Equipment Reports" (p.78) and featured on its cover. But with the exception of loudspeakers, where astonishingly good designs are available for as little as $300/pair, the industry's offerings mainly demonstrate what, as Steve Gray points out in this issue's "Letters" (p.12), has been called "overshoot": products are improved and refined to serve high-margin customers, thus "migrating upward in the marketplace until they become vulnerable to low-end disruptions." Or marginalized to the point of irrelevance.

But more important, the high-end industry has failed to make younger music lovers aware that they need what it has to offer. We began running Stephen Mejias' blog on our website to reach out to younger music lovers by showing them how someone their age can develop an appetite for higher quality. To judge by the feedback Stephen gets from 20-somethings, as well as by the expressions of disgust we receive from some 50-somethings, perhaps we are making progress down that road.

Not every iPod-wearing kid will find her way to us. But maybe enough will. As Jon Iverson wrote last November, the boom in sales of iPods will undoubtedly have "a positive ripple effect as today's youth look for ways to improve the sound of their collections—in whatever form they exist—for years to come. Just as the current batch of audiophiles migrated from transistor radios to great-sounding systems, today's kids will eventually outgrow their iPods. The question is, will existing audio manufacturers find a way to adapt, or will a new generation of companies emerge to service the coming boom?"

We shall see.

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