Audio News

Re-Tales #9: Mind the Gap

Re-Tales #9: Mind the Gap

To borrow Lyric Hi-Fi owner Leonard Bellezza’s words from last month’s Re-Tales, the traditional audiophile customer base “is graying.”

That doesn’t mean the future is bleak—not necessarily. Many in the industry have hope for hi-fi’s future. For that potential future to be realized, however, audio dealers must adapt. Interest in better sound seems to be rising. Consider vinyl’s resurgence; regardless of your views on vinyl’s ultimate fidelity, it’s a big step up from the earlier fashion for MP3s and cheap earbuds. (There’s good news on that front, too: Those earbuds morphed into Beats headphones, then Beats into good-quality headphones.

There’s very good reason to expect hi-fi to thrive: It offers something of real value—good music, beautifully reproduced—and there’s a large potential audience that hasn’t discovered it yet. I spoke with several audio store owners, and others, and asked what they were doing to reach that potential audience.

Maier Shadi, owner of The Audio Salon in Santa Monica, California, has been in the business since 1991. At age 18, he approached his local hi-fi store with $10,000 in his pocket, aiming to buy an audio system. The dealer was reluctant to let him into the VIP room where they kept the pricier gear. “I didn’t want my store to be like that,” Shadi told me. “We’re not snooty about it. We have the same kind of service for all customers. We’ll go to someone’s house who buys a $200 DAC….It’s about developing the relationships….The small projects become big projects.”

Shadi has done his share of market development. He set up a system in an art gallery for an album-release event for a high-profile musician. He has set up high-end systems in front of his showroom, showing passersby just how good recorded music can sound.

I also spoke with Rich Maez of Colorado-based Monarch Systems Distribution. Maez and business partner Jon Baker are tuned in to the hobby’s generational divide. When they seek new dealership partners, they factor age and succession planning into their decisions. “There’s a huge amount of potential in the industry,” Maez told me. But the hobby remains mostly male and largely white—and, yes, it’s graying. Those who aren’t developing new clientele, Maez said, are missing the boat. What’s the best way to reach younger people? Here’s one answer: music, whether it’s live or Memorex.

Noho Sound and the World of McIntosh Townhouse, both in New York City, have hosted live-music evenings. At such events, live music is combined with music delivered over one or more high-quality hi-fi systems. Showcasing established and/or emerging musicians can draw new audiences. Such experiences have the added benefit of helping people connect—or reconnect—with what live music sounds like.

In 2007, Tyler and Dana Mueller took over Next Level HiFi, located in the Chicago suburb of Wayne, Illinois, following the passing of the previous owner. Before the pandemic, they were hosting “Sunday Fundays”: listening events where they open their appointment-only showroom to anyone who wants to attend. It’s casual, BYOB. Some people bring speakers to swap into a system. They recently started hosting those events again, with a 10-person limit and masks required. All ages attend.

All the dealers I spoke with said that guys who are, say, 50 and up still constitute an important part of their business. Shadi, though, says his turntable business is starting to be driven by younger people. He’s seeing customers in their 20s and 30s who have outgrown “very basic, college-dorm–type all-in-one systems” and are upgrading to better quality. Some buy preowned, certified gear; others dabble in DIY; still others are into higher-end headphones, the mythical audiophile gateway drug. You have to offer them an upgrade path.

New customers include “way more women than before,” Shadi told me. “Women are buying a lot of turntables—for sons, husbands, themselves. It’s almost like a return to the 1950s and ’60s for us: A hi-fi system is seen as an essential part of the home. Women are trying to bring the family together around music. It’s cool, the way people are using this medium to connect with family and music and memories.”

Speaking of family: Shadi recently sold a system to a woman who had inherited her audiophile father’s extensive record collection. Customers in their late teens or early 20s have been handed down, say, an older turntable and come in for a graduation gift of new speakers.

Tyler Mueller, of Chicago’s Next Level, said they worked with clients in their 20s and 30s but then those clients had children and vanished for a decade or more. When their kids became teenagers, the parents reappeared with their kids. Recently, one such father visited the store with his 17-year-old son to introduce him to the hobby.

Disruption stimulates change. The pandemic may have helped build a bridge over hi-fi’s generational divide by forcing audio dealers (and others in the industry) to become more tech-savvy, organizing webinars, utilizing Zoom, and making use of social media to stay in touch with customers. The customers, too, became savvier. “[Age] 45–65 is still our sweet spot,” Mueller told me, “but they have gotten into apps, social media, Zoom, etc. It’s good that people are getting more tech-savvy. Maybe a year ago, a 65-year-old wouldn’t have downloaded the app.”

Here’s another way that dealerships diversify: They serve new areas as other dealerships close. Shadi recently set up a system for a customer in Knoxville, Tennessee. Aaron Sherrick, of Pennsylvania’s Now Listen Here, reported customers driving up from North Carolina to listen to speakers he carries.

It’s like evolution: In times of rapid environmental change, those that don’t adapt die out.

Published at Thu, 20 May 2021 15:31:26 +0000