Too Many Audio Shows?
While this is no more shows than took place in 2011 or 2012, many exhibitors, manufacturers and distributors alike, to whom I talked at the spring events felt that the high-end audio industry is suffering from an overload of audio shows.
I'm certainly feeling the overloadin addition to the spring shows, I represented Stereophile at the "Music Matters" retailer evenings promoted by Seattle's Definitive Audio at the end of February, by Denver's Listen-Up in mid-April, and by Atlanta's Audio Alternative at the end of April. In between the shows and dealer events, I gave presentations to California's Central Coast Audiophile Society, the Connecticut Audiophile Society, and New York's The Audiophile Society.
Don't get me wrong. I am not complaining about the amount of traveling I'm doing. Shows, dealer evenings, audiophile-society meetingsall pump enthusiasm into the audiophile world, and I leave these events charged with renewed energy. But Stereophile, like most high-end companies, is a relatively small operation, and taking part in such events is an extracurricular activity that must take second place to our putting out a magazine every month and posting content on our website.
Manufacturers, of course, get a more immediate benefit than does a magazine for participating in shows. If they do their job right, sales of their products should increase. (See Jason Victor Serinus's April "As We See It" for ways in which many do not do it right.) But as Robert Deutsch pointed out, if you add to the cost of the exhibit space the costs of shipping, transportation, hotel rooms, meals, and staff, participating in shows is an expensive endeavor. "The benefits," he wrote, "in terms of additional business, while real, are difficult to measure."
So why are there so many audio shows?
Before 1986, when I joined Stereophile, I had been involved in starting a show at London's Heathrow Airport, promoted by the UK magazine I used to edit, Hi-Fi News. It seemed a natural expansion of Stereophile's business, therefore, to get into shows, which we did first in Santa Monica, in spring 1987. Shows followed in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago, and by the time of our 1996 New York Show, at the Waldorf=Astoria, what was generally referred to as "the Stereophile show" featured 144 rooms with 468 exhibiting retailers, distributors, and brands (footnote 1). (There were 70 brands whose names began with the letter A alone.) In less than 10 years, therefore, the Stereophile show had grown to become a national event, and remained so for another 11 years, culminating in 2007 with our final show, at Manhattan's Grand Hyatt.
By contrast, the modern shows are smaller, regional events. Looking at the spring shows, the Chicago AXPONA was the largest, with 86 rooms and 264 exhibiting brands (footnote 2), followed by SSI with 70 rooms and 370 brands. The New York Audio Show had 47 rooms and 253 brands. And there's nothing wrong with regional shows. While attending this many shows has become burdensome for exhibitors and magazines alike, as far as attendees are concerned, a show in Chicago is not in competition with a show in New York. A show in Southern California is not in competition with a show in northern California, or Denver, or Toronto, or Montreal, or Washington, DC. And as I noted in a video interview at AXPONA, the attendees at these shows were enthusiastic, and even included women and young people!
Every one of these shows can justify its existence on the grounds that it is giving audiophiles in its catchment area the opportunity to audition not only the best, cost-no-object audio equipment but also the bread-and-butter products that are bought by ordinary people. Because, as was argued by one of the readers who commented on Bob Deutsch's SSI wrap-up, "For consumers there is no better way to sample a variety of audio products." Another reader added that "these shows are partly the result of failed brick-and-mortar stores. They serve a similar function, where the public [can] go and see, smell, and hear (hopefully). So it's a shift in financial expenditure back to the manufacturer. And to the customer, who must pay just to window shop." This sentiment was echoed by an e-mail from an industry figure who wished to remain anonymous: "These regional shows are popping up everywhere because brick-and-mortar stores are going out of business. . . . At this rate, the only place you will be able to see hi-fi is going to be at a regional show, and customers will be buying directly from the manufacturer. In the end, this marginalizes our industry even more and leaves customers with a raw deal."
Ironically, our experience in the 20 years that Stereophile put on shows was that for a show to be successful, it needed: 1) a sufficiently large number of attendees within driving distance, and 2) a host city with a critical number of retailers. As well as exhibiting, those retailers give logistical support to exhibiting manufacturers. We found that the cities where success was probable comprised a list of the usual suspects: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Montreal, Denver, and Toronto, each of which has a good number of still-healthy retailers.
I have always felt that the continued success of the high-end industry depends on the existence of well-run specialty retailers. This is why I applaud the retailers mentioned above, as well as all the others who do something similar, for promoting such events as the "Music Matters" evenings. Even more than audio shows, these events are where our community's grass-roots enthusiasm for listening to music coincides with the industry's need to expose its products to potential customers. To survive, audio retailers need to be farmers preparing for the next crop, not fishermen.
Footnote 1: The statistics for all audio shows mentioned were taken from the published show guides.
Footnote 2: T.H.E. Show Newport Beach, which took place after this essay had gone to press, surpassed the Chicago Axpona: there were 312 brands exhibiting in 137 rooms, which made it the largest North American show so far in 2013.