The Fifth Element #3

Nobody Wants a *" Drill Bit!

One of the most thought-provoking insights I've ever heard from anyone came from a marketing teacher. He claimed that, in the entire history of the human race, nearly all of the *" drill bits that have been bought were bought by people who did not want *" drill bits. What happens is, *" drill bits are bought by people who want *" holes in something. Thwack! Ah, enlightenment.

The makers of Stanley tools are more rewardingly thought of as being in the "hole-enabling" business than the "drill-bit" business. The value of this kind of head-thwack for business people is that it allows them to look beyond their products' externalities to see what their customers actually want. If you understand that you are not in the drill-bit business but in the hole-enabling business, you'll keep on the lookout for new technologies or products that can satisfy your customers' real needs, even if what you end up selling is not necessarily drill bits. The lesson: Once we understand what it is we're trying to accomplish, that usually stays the same; it's our means of accomplishing that goal that evolve.

When I was a kid, carpenters used spirit levels—elegant brass-bound hardwood affairs enclosing calibrated glass tubes filled with tinted alcohol or oil. Today, homebuilders routinely use self-calibrating, visible-laser level-line projectors to get the entire framing job or set of kitchen cabinets put in place, all with respect to one consistent horizon. There's still a place for the old spirit level, but it is now in small jobs and enclosed spaces.

Relevance: I want to begin a constructive dialog about the nature of the business or hobby we are in. High-end audio may be purely a stereo-equipment-collecting hobby for a few people, but, I think, not all that many. Just as there are some, but not that many, people who collect antique radios or phonographs, working or not.

In much the same way as the drill bit is a means to an end, for most of us, stereo equipment and recordings are also means to ends. But the stereo equipment situation is certainly not as clear-cut as the drill-bit example—other dimensions and nuances are involved. The mahogany spirit level was a beautiful object in its own right, as well as a symbol of a master carpenter's dedication to craftsmanship. Today, the contractor who shows up with a laser rig to help build your addition is making a statement that he is not a ham-and-egger. In much the same way, the ownership and use of stereo equipment embodies values ranging from the utilitarianism of an electric pencil sharpener to the technological and design élan (and pride of ownership) of a fine watch or camera, which are valued far above their functional utility.

But I don't want to get wrapped around the axle of pitting great-looking components that assertedly sound "eh" against industrial-looking components that assertedly sound great. I want to delve much deeper.

By "deeper" I don't mean analyzing anyone else's psyche reductionistically, so I can then triumphantly declare "Aha! His mother didn't breastfeed him, so of course he thinks he needs a power amp with big glowing tubes!" Instead, I want us to develop some penetrating collective insights into what makes us tick as audiophiles, so we can work together to correct what is not so good in the hobby, and maximize and share what is good without question.

I don't think of myself (in my John Marks Records mode) as being in the compact disc business, or even in the recorded-music business. I think of myself as being in the business of trying to enrich peoples' lives with beauty and truth. The recordings are a vehicle, but so is the music. Some of John Marks Records' most successful CDs—not as measured in sales, but in terms of achieving their purpose—have been bought and enjoyed (often more so than by anyone else) by people from all walks of life who know nothing academic about classical music. They just want some beauty in their lives, and they recognize it when they hear it.

So exactly what is it we are trying accomplish? I have given this a lot of thought over the past 39 years, ever since I learned that certain pieces of violin music made me weak in the knees while others left me cold. The nature of the human approach to music finds fascinating parallels in the history and psychology of buildings and architecture. In a ritual the origins of which are almost lost in the mists of time, when the structural framework of a major building is completed, there is a topping-off ceremony in which an evergreen tree is hoisted to the roof peak. This tradition dates back to pre-literate times in Northern Europe. The tree is intended to disguise from the hostile and jealous gods above the audacity of a human building's rising higher than the surrounding natural landscape, and to symbolically integrate the building into the larger world.

In his seminal book A Pattern Language, architectural critic Christopher Alexander makes the point that people feel most comfortable in buildings with roofs that can be reached and touched while standing on the ground. We want to live in something built on a human, not titanic, scale. There is in that some of the same apprehension about rising too high as is reflected in the topping-off ritual. (There are disaster movies about high-rise skyscrapers, but not about vacation cottages.) And, of course, there's the Greek myth about the chap who could be killed only when he was suspended above the ground, out of touch with Mother Earth.

From all this and much more, I have concluded that people want to feel that they are in touch with things that are larger than themselves, but in such a way that they feel connected rather than overwhelmed—perhaps even connected and with some degree of control. This is why art, music, dance, theater, and wine have shared fans since ancient times—they seem to connect us with other realms—yet have also served as pitfalls for those of precarious inner equilibrium, who risk the danger of being overwhelmed or losing control.