Audio Revolution Not Far Away, Atkinson Says

Stereophile editor John Atkinson---arguably the high-end audio publishing industry's single most important figure, and certainly its intellectual nexus---has seen it all in his 23 years in the high-end audio industry. At HI-FI '99 in Chicago,'s Andrew Keen was able to pull JA away from his busy schedule for an in-depth interview about his views on the industry's current state of affairs---and on what's just over the horizon.

The American economy is in great shape, and yet the high-end audio industry is in a prolonged slump. Part of this slump is a repercussion from the Asian economic crisis (prior to the crisis, some American manufacturers were shipping up to 80% of their output to Asia), and part of it is the failure of the industry to attract younger music lovers. In his discussion with Keen, JA notes that audiophiles today are primarily "graying-haired men" and that "the industry has basically been selling into this same audience now for 20 years." In chasing the upper end of the market---"someone who will always pay that price," as JA puts it---the industry has ignored the new generation, and thus its own future.

With the exception of some relatively unknown and narrowly distributed brands, the entry fee for high-performance audio is higher now than it was in the 1960s when he caught the hi-fi bug, JA admits. Popular music of the time drove his desire for better equipment, as it did for his friends. That same drive isn't prompted by the current crop of pop music, he observes. Almost everything being produced for mass consumption is formulaic pap contrived for a specific demographic group---a situation he likens to the state of the music industry in the late 1950s and early '60s, before the advent of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and other fresh high-energy acts.

Music propelled hardware in those days, according to JA, but now hardware drives the music for veteran audiophiles. Not a completely bad situation, he says, but a self-limiting one that affects only the top of the market. He notes with enthusiasm the potential for surround sound---based on both the Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio---to draw more people into the musical experience.

But technological improvements won't be sufficient to cause an upswell of interest in music as a "destination activity." JA tells Keen that more young people than ever before are playing and recording music, almost all of it outside the traditional umbrella of the major record companies. He predicts that this fact, plus the growing importance of the Internet, will combine with incendiary impact on the music industry by the year 2005. "Symbiosis between hardware and software" is a concept lost on traditional industries, both record labels and audio manufacturers, most of whom are "still clinging to the old paradigm." The way JA sees it, they might be left behind in the coming "software-driven" revolution.

The revolution "won't be controlled by the traditional record companies," according to Atkinson. That's not a bad prospect, in his view. "This is an exciting time," he says. Read the full interview here.