As much as one might like to think that all blogs are merely the verbal diarrhoea of hyperactive, self-opinionated journalists and wannabes who think that the world just can’t wait to share their thoughts, some of us do work to assignment. There’s a reason I don’t have a website: unlike certain of my colleagues, I don’t think the world awaits my every utterance.
This column, in fact, is as much a product of the mind of Paul McGowan as it is mine, because 1) it’s Paul’s site, 2) he’s been around long enough to know what works, 3) he finds me amusing, and 4) he serves as the editor. If I send in something he doesn’t think is suitable, then it doesn’t go on-line, period. His role is the electronic equivalent of what print magazine editors have been doing since time immemorial. Oh, if only all websites had such controls!
Anyway, this is the second attempt at writing this column, because the first proved to be untenable. Paul wanted me to write a story about US vs UK high-end retailers, which I duly researched by taking the opportunities presented at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and other shows to talk with dealers, as well as at a London event, where a few key retailers were present. What emerged were not differences, but far too many similarities. Visits to a show in Paris and another in Milan suggested the same for the French and Italian markets. The misery is global, the selling techniques are global, the consumer attitudes are global. And the messed-up economy is global.
It was with this in mind that I sent the following e-mail to Paul: “Am a bit puzzled by your request for the next column, US vs UK retailers. The only genuine differences I’ve been able to turn up are all region-specific matters that have nothing to do with universal audio-related concerns. They’re local economic conditions which affect the entire UK populace in all aspects of daily life, so they have no relevance in the column. The US has its unique issues that don’t apply to the UK, like the sheer size of the land mass, how it affects reps, distribution and the like.
“For an exclusive brand, five retailers can cover the whole of the UK, which isn’t much larger than Pennsylvania. Five retailers can barely cover Greater LA.
“The following British ‘realities’ do not affect the day-to-day behaviour of US dealers, nor are they hi-fi-centric, e.g. the UK has 20% VAT [sales tax], much higher rents than the USA, gas costs $7.50-$8.00 a gallon, and the 50% income tax threshold is MUCH lower than in the USA (50% taxation starts at £35,001, or $56,000 at today’s exchange rate). Other than that, it’s the exact same gripes and attitudes. If you were to ask about other countries in Europe, it would be the same.
Paul wanted me to investigate a broader question – what could manufacturers be doing to put high-end audio ‘on the map’? Paul’s glass is half-full. Mine is 2/3rds empty, cracked, and leaking.
It was recently pointed out by the CEA, I believe, that the high-end market in the USA has halved since 1995. It is, however, still worth something like $275m, which – while not enough to impress Bose, Sony or B&O – means that a number of companies with sub-$10m p.a. total turnover could survive in the whole of the USA.
Consider that a substantial sum is invested by manufacturing companies just in getting access to those customers willing to pay for the goods – that cost being the difference between what the manufacturer gets and the customers pay. That’s a lot of cost to get the goods to the market. Manufacturers design, build, pay for parts, shipping, marketing, advertising, and play the role of the bank when they finance the dealers. In return, dealers provide the customers.
What this exposes is the usual Catch-22 dilemma, the high-end caught between two stools. What remains of the high-end industry are products too complex and sophisticated to be sold in the manner of a former hippie down the road selling jars of homemade jam, and the “big boys” like Bose, Sony, and B&O, who have the kind of turnover that allows them to promote their products beyond the confines of the audio community. And yet it’s breaking out of the audiophile community that is what’s needed if the high-end is to survive the economic crisis.
Bluntly put, there are not enough audiophiles with sufficient funds to absorb all of the high-end gear being produced. Our market is saturated with hardware of which 40-50 per cent is professionally-manufactured and worth supporting, another 30-40 per cent is borderline, while the remainder is unsalable and has no right occupying floor space at even the dumbest, most obscure and ill-attended of shows.
Like the ex-hippies selling jam and cookies and beads in stalls on the road to some beach resort du jour, the freak show brands should not be allowed to infect the serious companies. Least of all, they shouldn’t have their products reviewed in magazines that purport to be professional. They are self-indulgences that do not deserve our respect, let alone our patronage. Here’s what I mean:
By sheer coincidence, around the time Paul brought up this subject, I had attended a dinner with some industry veterans, at a recent hi-fi show. They shall remain nameless, but they included one of the most successful high-end distributors in the world, a veteran show organiser, and two manufacturers, one of whom is among the biggest, most professional and most accomplished in our field. The topic was precisely the same as that which Paul posited: “What could manufacturers be doing to put high-end audio ‘on the map’?”
They cited the same roster of luxury items like artisan pens, fine wines, supercars, bespoke suits, custom-made shoes, and the other myriad commodities on which those with ample funds spend freely, while ignoring high-end audio completely and absolutely. [Please: no e-mails about what constitutes “luxury”. I resolutely accept that the definition of luxury is “anything you don’t need.” And whether you like it or not, high-end audio is a luxury, EXACTLY like Ferraris and weekends in Cancun and bottles of Siepi.]
Their verdict, with only one person disagreeing, was brutal. They concurred that the same old so-called “high end” brands that don’t sell doodly-squat, but which turn up at show after show, do nothing but dilute the industry. They agreed that presentation, salesmanship and perceived value are the primary differences between the retailing and marketing of the best of high-end audio, and, say, an Hermès scarf or Purdey shotgun.
Suggestions from these sages included severely selective high-end audio areas at any of the “salons privées” around the world, wherein companies such as Bentley and Patek Philippe and Louis Vuitton showcase their wares for people who can afford them. All at the dinner were fascinated by the acquisition of Meridian by one of the world’s five most important luxury goods conglomerates. This would be the litmus test: could high-end audio actually be sold the people who can afford it, rather than depending on impoverished audiophiles? Could the company that owns Cartier and IWC and Piaget sell DACs and active loudspeakers?
If this sounds too elitist for you, then it’s time you had a reality check: what’s more elitist than a $100,000 turntable? A $20,000 cartridge? A 2W amplifier for $80,000????
I’m sorry if, like me, you’re not rich. But unlike so many of my fellow audio journalists I don’t resent the people who earned the money to buy the stuff I wish I could afford.
Maggie Thatcher is credited (and paraphrased) with the observation, “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” To that I add:
High-end audio is wonderful. But somebody has to buy the stuff.