Don't Play It Again, Sam!

What do Prince, David Bowie, Merle Haggard, Gato Barbieri, Phife Dawg, Frank Sinatra Jr., Keith Emerson (Emerson Lake & Palmer), Dan Hicks (Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks), Maurice White (Earth, Wind & Fire), Paul Kantner and Signe Toly Anderson (Jefferson Airplane), Glenn Frey (Eagles), Dale Griffin (Mott the Hoople), pianist Paul Bley, bassist Rob Wasserman, sopranos Susan Chilcott, Phyllis Curtin, and Denise Duval, countertenor Brian Asawa, composers Steven Edward Stucky and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, and conductors Pierre Boulez, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gilbert Kaplan, Gregg Smith, and Royston Nash have in common? Besides the fact that all were musicians who made multiple recordings and who died in 2016, their recorded legacies rarely, if ever, get airplay at dealerships or audio shows.

Take, for example, Prince. While many in our industry mourned online his passing last April, virtually no one played his music at T.H.E. Show Newport Beach in June. These artists don't fall within the small subset of "audiophile-approved musicians" whose work receives regular play in our circles. Either their music is too complex, their recordings are not top quality, or their genres are too outside the audiophile norm of the past few decades. Sometimes an audio-show attendee will bring along one of their recordings, or one of the few out-of-the-box renegades of the US audio industry will play their music—eg, Jeffrey Catalano of High Water Sound, Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio, Sean Casey of Zu Audio, Philip O'Hanlon of On a Higher Note, John DeVore of DeVore Fidelity, David Carr of the Sound Organisation, John Quick of dCS, and Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings. Otherwise, for all intents and purposes, in our encapsulated audiophile world these artists are MIA.

The whys are many. Most commonly voiced is this rationale: "Audiophiles want to hear music they know so they have some standard of comparison." While there is certainly truth in this statement—we who review equipment all have favorite tracks that we use over and over to evaluate sound quality—it presupposes that people who shop for equipment are far more interested in sound quality than in musical discovery and revelation.

The sad fact is, a helluva lot of people in the audio business are so busy trying to make a living that they don't have time to explore new music. Rather than read reviews, attend live concerts, or surf websites, they confine their explorations of music to checking out what's playing in other rooms at audio shows. If they hear something they like, they buy the recording or grab a copy of the file.

Thus do tracks and collections make the rounds. How else to explain a truly bizarre experience at the 2016 High End show in Munich, where, after Xuanqian Wang, of Auralic, had played Hugh Masekela's "Stimela (The Dowry Song)," audio journalists heard the same recording coming from the room next door? Yes, the song is musically involving, and contains some delicious vocal sound effects (and whistling). It may also make some people feel good because it addresses racism and colonialism in a musically palatable manner. But why has it become the default Masekela track of choice among people who, I venture to guess, have never listened to an entire Hugh Masekela album in their lives?

Another reality is that, at many shows, representatives of some vinyl-reissue labels go from room to room, dispensing promos to exhibitors. Because LPs are bulky to transport and can get beaten up at shows, exhibitors glom on to these albums like dogs on bones. Hence T.H.E. Show Newport Beach 2015 became the Dean Martin show; before that it was the Ray Charles and Betty Carter show; and, in perpetuity, the Ella and Louis show.

I've grown weary of discovering that, in response to my requests for recordings of full-range orchestral works that will test a system for all its worth, the only classical albums and files in the room are: Diabolus in Musica, violinist Salvatore Accardo's collection of music by Paganini; Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony's RCA Living Stereo recordings of Richard Strauss and Mussorgsky; Reference Recordings' Exotic Dances from the Opera, Bolero!, and Mephisto & Co. (all with Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra); Anne-Sophie Mutter's Carmen-Fantasie (with James Levine and the Vienna Philharmonic); and that perfect summertime track, "O Helga Natt" (O Holy Night), from Proprius Records' Cantate Domino.

Nor am I alone in my ennui. Peachtree Audio's David Solomon recently posted this on Facebook: "To my audiophile friends . . . What are the perfectly fine songs you can no longer listen to because they have been played to death at audio shows? I'll start you off. Keith don't go [Nils Lofgren]. 'Please, Keith, don't go away mad, just go away!' . . ."

You should have seen the flood of responses, filled with names of overplayed artists: for starters, Diana Krall, the Eagles, Rebecca Pidgeon, Harry Belafonte (at Carnegie Hall), and Chris Jones ("No Sanctuary Here"). Such unanimity makes clear that younger people flock to headphone exhibits rather than to rooms with speakers as much for musical considerations as for those of economics and space. They're drawn to exhibitors whose passion for musical revelation promises new discoveries rather than the same old same old.

Industry folks, it's time to freshen up. You don't have to abandon Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven, the jazz greats of the 1950s and '60s, or classic rock. Nor must you embrace hip-hop or pop schlock. Take a look at Stereophile's monthly record reviews, including "Recording of the Month," and our annual "Records to Die For" feature. At Stereophile.com, check out Fred Kaplan's jazz reviews and my classical reviews. With so many great recordings available, it's high time to find your passion anew, and to explore more of the great music that's just waiting to be discovered and shared.—Jason Victor Serinus

COMMENTS
Anton's picture

On the one hand, you opine that "Glenn Frey...rarely, if ever, get(s) airplay at dealerships or audio shows."

But, then you mention "overplayed artists: for starters, Diana Krall, the Eagles..."

So not enough of Glenn's legacy, but too much of his Eagles legacy?

Exactly what are we missing from the extensive legacy of Glenn Frey as a solo artist that it should merit more use at shows?

"The Heat is On?"

"Smugglers Blues?"

Wait, I know, "You Belong to the City!"

I don't feel underserved at a show if I don't get a fix of Glenn Frey's solo oeuvre.

:-D

In general, I agree with you. I've heard "Hell Freezes Over" 100+ times, and have never even played it at home!"

Cheers, man.

untangle's picture

Excellent points, Jason.

An associated aspect of the typical audiophile "reference track" selection process is that many of the music selections played by vendors and enthusiasts make it difficult to assess the very thing that is their presumed aim - the quality of reproduction of the underlying system.

I believe that "Keith Don't Go" and "Hotel California" and RebeccaP and ... will sound great on almost any system. That is their charm. They are superbly engineering in the midrange and the level of performance sends endorphins flying. Hence, they are moving and impressive without undue stress on the reproduction system.

Contrast this with a good rendition of Mahler, Rachmaninov, or even of Janis Joplin live. These will sound muddled, closed, and small on anything but a great system.

Having said all of this, whatever brings whoever closer to the music is totally fine by me.

Bob Walters

tonykaz's picture

I was Importing, Retailing and Manufacturing Audio Gear from 1980-1985. ( It's a lovely business thats not very profitable compared with other businesses ).

Back in those years, Sheffield Labs had a Record featuring a lady named Lincoln Mayorga that everyone had to play. That one record plus a few others made up the Lion's share of the Demonstrations. Geez, I'd gotten to hate that Album along with many of the Sheffield Albums, they were play'd to death.

Can anyone still listen to & enjoy M.Jackson's Thriller, Little Deuce Coupe, Elvis?, probably not Audiophiles.

Exhibitors spending $20,000 to much more $$,$$$ for a 3 Day Show won't take chances, they'll play what the traffic allows and/or expects, no matter how trite it is for Eclectic Reviewers. ( JA seems to be allowed to play his AK 240 music but he's the exception and I'll bet he's doing it "after hours" )

Show music's 'limited' selection is a Standard. Complaining about it is a Rant we all make. It's one of the many things that make Shows so horrible ( playing to the common denominator ).

I happen'd to be at RMAF in 2011, I only attended a couple of Seminars. I'll be happy to avoid Audio Shows, with the exception of a few headphone meets ( two years ago ).

I'm burned out!

Everyone I know is burned out!

Meeting people is the good part. I'd keep a Suite in a local Hotel and invite folks, keep a well stocked Bar, loaner Swimming Trunks, plenty of fresh Pizza and Nuts, no music, making friends for life.

Well Jason, nice try on this one, try writing this again in, hmm, say 3 years time ( presuming you're hearing is still intact ).

Tony in Michigan

Ecl876's picture

You say the Sheffield record was "played to death", yet it's somewhat surprising you're not aware that Lincoln Mayorga is a man!

tonykaz's picture

It was Amanda.

Geez, I'd forgotten. I had to go to Sheffield's Catalog to find out. Low and behold, there are a few Albums I'll have to purchase. I'm missing Sweet Georga Brown among a few others I'd love to have. Funny how I look at those Cover Images and remember. ( after 30 years or so ).

Sheffield was the Breakthru Vinyl for my turntable sales. It was the best, period!

I won't be buying the Drum Album. Maybe this music will be Fresh again, as it once was.

I still play "Discovered Again" & "Jazz at the Pawnshop" occasionally but I cringe at the thought of Michael Jackson.

Thanks for writing,

Tony in Michigan

fetuso's picture

I've been reading similar complaints from other audio writers lately. John Darko comes to mind. I think the problem is one of clashing agendas. Audio writers attend lots of shows and understandably have grown weary of hearing the same songs repeatedly. Audio manufacturers just wanna sell their stuff and turn to music that they feel is tried and true. It's a rational decision. Whenever I buy a new piece of gear I turn to recordings I'm familiar with and I think sound good to evaluate any changes. From the manufacturers' point of view they are putting on an "audio" show, not a "music" show. So, what's the solution? Alcohol?

low2midhifi's picture

Here are some other over-played songs, from a recent major show:

The "North Dakota cowboys drink whiskey.....Texas cowboys polish their pistols......," or something to that effect. I heard enough of "whiskey" and "polished pistols" to last me for a while, a long while. I wonder what the cowboys between North Dakota and Texas do to express themselves. Do they polish their spurs while drinking their beer, polish their pick up trucks while drinking wine coolers?

Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra songs. I am hardly a spring chicken, but in my high school days, these artists' songs were already "old people music." Years to decades later--I'll try not to date myself--we need something else to take the surviving cohort to a state of elation.

I am glad that you called out "Stimela"/"Coal Train." If I hear this one more time, perhaps I'll sign up for the "gold mines of the townships of Johannesburg and their metropoli.....16 hours a day for almost no pay...to get my mish-mash food in that iron plate......" as a lesser form of punishment.

We can also, as mentioned here, take a break from LPs of Fritz Reiner/CSO, played at a volume--by some exhibitors--that stands somewhere in the decibel realm of the Guinness Book's record-setting The Who concert of the early 1970s. There's nothing like Scheherazade played at a volume, not of Orchestra Hall, but of the volume of a 747 at full throttle, with someone's head in the engine, a few miles northwest at O'Hare Field.

Yes, the music selected for shows leaves a lot, and I mean a lot, to be desired. One European site has posted some commentary to this effect. If Stereophile will indulge some content from "the competition," here's some light-hearted content for those of us who have had enough of what we are forced to hear at shows:

http://www.6moons.com/audioreviews2/moonbeams1/1.html

More to come, at a show near you. Through it all, there is the lesser offense of playing only those tracks that "optimize" an exhibitor's system.

JUdeWilber's picture

I can't call myself an audiophile. I have the best system I can afford, and I think it sounds pretty good, but it's entry level to true audiophiles. But I can call myself a music lover. I'm 54 years old and I never need to hear another song by The Beatles or The Stones. They were great, but after hearing a tune 1,000 times, I really don't need to hear it again.
So your calling for "new" music created by artists who have died this year struck me as being ironic. A lot of great music has been created by living artists THIS YEAR. Imagine that! Real living artists creating great music. Check out Mutual Benefit's "Skip a Sinking Stone" Sunday morning while sipping your coffee. It might not become a go-to album for audiophiles, but to my ears it sounds pretty great and it might be the best 45 minutes of music you've heard in a while.
Or give Sturgill Simpson's latest a spin. Country crooner backed by The Dap Kings? It doesn't get better.
And Radiohead's new one is probably the most listenable album they've created. Or spin Sigur Ros' "Takk" which was finally re-issued last year.
When your system limits what you're willing to listen to, you've lost the point.

Odin 412's picture

Jason, I fully share your frustrations, but I think the explanation for the music selection is rather simple: Much of the high-end equipment today doesn't sound good with anything but a select few near-perfect recordings. If you play non-audiophile tracks much (most?) of today's equipment will IMHO sound just awful and will focus on highlighting the flaws of the recording rather than communicating the musical experience. Bright, super-detailed and incisive sound (which seems the be the current audiophile ideal) doesn't lend itself to reproducing interesting but less-than-perfect sounding recordings. As usual, I found solace at the Zu Audio room at THE Show Newport - great music from great speakers!

longhorn69's picture

Good point, regular music does NOT sound good on high end equipment. That makes for bad demos at shows.

avanti1960's picture

shared by many audio show patrons. Not only is the same stuff recycled ad nauseam, much of it is missing the mark sonically as well.
How I wished some of the exhibits would have played a little Decembrists (for example) at last AXPONA.

Chet Roe's picture

Never heard Dan Hicks played at an audio show (favorite Dan Hicks recordings?? Please chime in) but heard him at a small club in Denver a couple of years ago (I think his last year of touring)...fantastic night with excellent musicians...don't know the name of the other guitar player, but one of the most talented guitarist I have ever heard/seen live...anyway perhaps in the top ten concerts of my lifetime....of course Dan is an acquired taste; my wife (who was not invited) would not have raved in the same way! Chet

Jon Iverson's picture
The album pictured above and a more recent one called Beatin' the Heat are favs. Of course his first four albums are also great. Sorry that doesn't nail it down more, but I like 'em all!
rt66indierock's picture

Striking it Rich and Last Train to Hicksville are my favorites.

woodford's picture

i recently went shopping for new gear, and in lieu of CDs or LPs, or a thumb drive, i made a tidal playlist.

it's all familiar, accessible music, but not overplayed, and features Cassandra Wilson covering Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris covering Daniel Lanois, the great Jamey Johnson, John Hiatt at his most boisterous and sentimental, The Peddlers, Fritz Wunderlich singing lehar, Murray Perahia playing Bach, Maria Joao Pires playing Chopin, Ashkenazy playing Bach, the young Jose Carreras in glorious voice, and an early verdi ensemble that will test any system (two versions).

feel free to check it out here:

tidal.com/playlist/88512e8d-d5c0-462c-a4dc-5d38b4936ca3

ShanghaiDan's picture

With the advent of Tidal and other uncompressed/high res streaming sites, the solution is simple. Stream. Get a good wireless streaming source with a digital output (I like the SONOS Connect - dead-simple to use, and digital out is perfectly fine), run it to your favorite DAC/pre and be done with it.

Someone comes into the room, they want to hear a specific track? Let them choose whatever they want. It's all there - millions and millions of tracks available for demo.

Yes, yes - some will say the fidelity of streamed audio (even if CD quality) is compromised, but how about the fact you're in a hotel room in the first place, with who-knows-what for acoustics or power, etc? It's not like it's a world-class listening venue in the first place. Uncompressed streamed audio is plenty good for a show situation.

Allen Fant's picture

Agreed JVS.

IMO, Prince's recordings really took off w/ "Controversy". His albums prior to this release were spotty at best. Maybe it was a sign of those times (no pun) or digital technology came into its own in 1982. Totally set the stage for 1999 forward.