The holidays are an awesome time of year. If you are lucky, you are healthy and enjoying family, great food, and some relaxation. Audiophiles however don’t appear to be as chipper as the rest of us.
I am a self-admitted home audio fan, and as a lover of music and home audio, I try to keep tabs on the home audio market by reading what may be the bible of home audio: Stereophile.
So, I am reading the December 2022 issue and I come across a column on page 156 entitled, Ch-ch-ch-changes in the hi-fi Industry. Summing up the tone of the column the author Julie Mullins interviews a few people in the home audio industry about how the market has developed some creative ways to distribute and market audiophile products in the U.S.
One of the people interviewed for the column was Anthony Chiarella, the owner and operator of Specialty Sound & Vision. Chiarella tells the author that audiophile brands are in need of more dealers. Well, that seems obvious. If you can’t market like the way that large brands such as Sony, Sonos, LG and Samsung do to get in front of the public, the best way would naturally be to use dealers as conduits to reach end users.
Chiarella notes that some manufacturers have partnered with automobile companies to develop sound systems for luxury vehicles. Some of these companies Mullins cites include Burmester and McIntosh, which has enabled these audio companies to get their name in front of the much-coveted luxury market.
He then goes on to say surprisingly that many of these audio companies are producing solutions for the custom installation market to stay relevant in today’s diverse home audio market. Chiarella however has a problem with the installation market because it works with architects, builders and interior designers in some cases, rather than directly with homeowners to hide audio components to meet a range of homeowner objectives.
“CI has killed audio retail,” he tells Mullins in the column.
“ … It’s as if audio has been banished.”
I hate to be the bearer of bad news to audiophiles that actually agree with that statement, but it wasn’t installers that have negatively impacted the audiophile market, it’s the lack of evolution that’s occurred throughout the audiophile market that has put audiophiles on the back of milk cartons.
Audiophiles Stuck in the Past
Let me say that Chiarella is correct in that some traditional audiophile brands have adapted to the evolving consumer market. Some of those manufacturers include Mark Levinson and Revel from Harman Luxury Audio, Bowers & Wilkins, Meridian, McIntosh, KEF and of course some other manufacturers. These companies have partnered with automobile manufacturers to get their name in front of the luxury consumer market, and in the case of the Harman Luxury Audio brands, as well as Meridian and Bowers & Wilkins, they’ve made significant investments into their respective custom installation product lines.
The benefit of these companies’ custom lines is that they are serving that valuable luxury consumer market and potentially beginning that long process of developing consumer and professional loyalty through their integrator.
Consumer awareness and loyalty is really what the audiophile market has been missing now decades. Back in the 1990s when audiophile manufacturers should have been developing their marketing plans towards Gen X (about 65 million Americans), they were too busy patting themselves on the back for making great sounding, uber-expensive gear for the Baby Boomer generation and they completely ignored an entire generation.
Now with Gen X in their late 40s to mid-50s that ship has sailed, and now they are staring at the Millennials and Gen Z generations—if they even recognize the consumer landscape. Millennials (late 20s to early 40s) now make up the largest consumer demographic in the U.S. (approximately 72 million) and the vast majority of them likely do not even know the audiophile market exists. Moreover, Gen Z, the demographic right behind Millennials which totals roughly 68 million, is a generation that has primarily grown up on streaming content and headphones, which means they are probably even further out from the audiophile galaxy.
Underscoring these numbers, I did a brief Google search for the age of Stereophile readers and found an item from a 2009 Stereophile post that stated the median age of the magazine’s readers was 41. Another item in my searches was a 2006 post from the magazine that stated the median age was 48. Both posts also indicated the majority of its readers were Baby Boomers. Just to put that into perspective, at 54 I am firmly in the Gen X demographic and likely the oldest person by several years at my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) school. Do you think the magazine’s readers have gotten any younger over the past 13 years … it’s unlikely.
Now facing a declining market—let’s be realistic, boomers are no longer prioritizing audio purchases—they are looking at retirement, the state of their 401Ks, their IRAs and what the future of healthcare holds, so finally alarm sirens may be finally sounding for audiophile manufacturers.
A Role Model to Emulate: The Musical Instrument (MI) Industry
The solution for audiophile manufacturers is honestly easier said than done, but it starts with targeting younger Millennials and Gen Z as potential consumers. O.K., so how can audio manufacturers take on this daunting task? Let’s look at the M.I. (musical instrument) market for inspiration.
M.I. manufacturers that include Fender, Paul Reed Smith (PRS), Friedman Amplification and more recently Gibson have done a great job at what I’ll call gorilla or grassroots marketing using platforms such as FaceBook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram to invest very little money into direct interaction with consumers and potential users. Additionally, companies like PRS, Fender and now Gibson have used traditional media channels to reinforce their respective messages.
As a result, looking at PRS, a company that was formed in the 1980s now rivals benchmark brands of Gibson and Fender with a user roster filled with A-listers such as Carlos Santana, Mark Tremonti, Myles Kennedy, John Mayer, and session ace Tim Pierce.
Looking at PRS as the gold standard of how to market products people don’t really need but passionately desire, the company’s founder Paul Reed Smith is a guitar genius and one of the M.I. market’s biggest personalities who also happens to be a very good interview. Smith, his personality and of course his products translate well on sites like YouTube and the company has grown exponentially over the past 20 years. Gibson has positioned itself as a go-to, aspirational luxury guitar company with instruments that cost as much as $50,000 (limited edition “Greenie” Les Paul) through the company’s work with Metallica’s Kirk Hammett who currently owns the original Greenie. Gibson is also aided by its history with icons such as Jimmy Page, Slash, Angus Young and Randy Rhoads all playing the company’s products.
What shouldn’t be overlooked in the success of Fender, Gibson, PRS, and Friedman for example, is that these companies offer diverse product lines. Friedman, whose users include people like Chris Shiflett from The Foo Fighters, Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains, and Richie Sambora, offers amplifiers from $250 all the way up to $4,300 for a Steve Stevens signature model amp.
Fender does the same thing with products from its Squire line checking in for less than $200 to expensive Custom Shop models that can cost thousands of dollars.
Again, the important thing to stress here is these manufacturers attract young consumers to the entry level of their respective product lines and as those consumers build loyalty to these brands, they move vertically up the respective product lines to purchase more expensive products such as an R9 1959 reissue Gibson Les Paul or a Private Stock PRS that serve as expensive aspirational purchases.
How many audiophile manufacturers employ gorilla/grassroots marketing techniques, partner with media companies with proven track records and/or offer diverse product lines to attract new consumers? I know Bowers & Wilkins, Meridian, and Harman luxury Audio all employ these tactics and it’s no wonder why they have successfully carried their brands into today’s new era of home technology, which is underscored by the complexity of the market.
What’s the bottom line as we head into 2023 for audiophile manufacturers: The market is more competitive than ever with audiophile manufacturers competing against the gaming industry, as well as streaming media, the Internet, professional sports, and of course traditional hobbies to gain the attention of American consumers. Put more simply: It is time to stop complaining about the state of consumer audio, stop blaming integrators because installers got it a long time ago—they are actually growing luxury and audiophile audio sales—and do something immediately to help your niche category grow by developing diverse products that range from entry level to custom; market aggressively on social media, and partner with the right media companies to find new consumers and reinforce your social media before you go the way of the Dodo bird.
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