Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part CXXXIX: High-End Audio in the Time of COVID
(June 2021)

By the time you read this in June 2021, I will either be at my first high-end audio show since February 2020, or I won't.

T.H.E. Show, held each June in beautiful Long Beach, California, is forging ahead with this year's show, and the entire high-end audio industry is holding its collective breath. It's viewed as a gutsy move, especially on the heels of the announcement that High End in Munich, the largest audio show in the world, just decided the week before to wait until 2022 to make any further plans for future shows.

Munich was the among the first wave of international shows to cancel back in May 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that's when everyone in the industry realized we were all suddenly in financial peril. What are we going to do without Munich? That's where everyone gets momentum for the coming year!

When we first experienced the gravity of the pandemic, many of us were astonished that the high-end audio industry was this fragile. Didn't we have a pandemic-proof business plan by selling products meant to be enjoyed in people's homes--and usually by a single person, perhaps one sheltering in place? We didn't understand what was coming, all those dominoes, starting off with the audio shows cancelling one by one. That had more of an impact than we expected.

It made perfect sense at first. People from all over the world, jamming into crowded rooms, sitting shoulder to shoulder, whispering comments to each other the whole time, leaning in to hear over the music. People in the back of the room, the corners, making deals in hushed voices so as not to bother the paying attendees. High-end audio shows, and conventions in general, are often breeding grounds for global outbreaks. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Vegas every January was often the worst--after making business deals with vendors all over the country, as well as the world, we'd always come home after the show and spend the next two weeks sick in bed. Every year, the virus seemed just a little more ornery.

We even talked about it. One of these days, the CES flu will be really serious--maybe even deadly.

Sometimes the industry has candid conversations about the need for high-end audio shows and whether or not the ROI is there. As an exhibitor, I knew that it was expensive to do a show, and that it was hard to chalk up actual sales to our continuing presence at them. I always felt that the high-end audio dealers were the MVPs--they made the sales that put money in our pockets. But trade shows? Meh. And we were wrong, because high-end audio shows aren't just for the attendees. It's where the industry connects, makes deals, develops relationships.

After each show was cancelled last year, from AXPONA and Munich in the spring until the usually busy fall schedule, we'd look to the next show on the schedule and wonder "Are we going to flatten the curve by then?" The answer, of course, was always no. As this stretched out over the months, more dominoes fell. Dealers had to close their businesses just like everyone else--either through state laws or just the fact that millions were losing jobs and trying to sell luxury goods in this sort of environment bordered on tone-deafness.

Audio manufacturers that had been around for decades suddenly laid off their staffs and temporarily closed their doors. That was the scary part, our come-to-Jesus meeting at my magazine, when all of our advertisers had to put a hold on their spending because no one knew what was next. Suddenly, the job I'd always dreamed of was in jeopardy. Figures, I thought.

As the months wore on, some companies actually folded. Some made a comeback when the vaccines were announced, and some were able to get rolling again. Some have been strangely silent and we don't know what's going on. Just the other day someone in the industry told me that many legendary audio manufacturers, the kind of big-name companies that everyone knows, quietly shuttered the windows and doors without any press releases or announcements, and we wouldn't figure out who until the dust settled. That's an almost sickening thought to people like me who have been in the hobby for most of our lives.

Our attitudes changed once thousands started to die. High-end audio companies started getting involved with the crisis. Fern and Roby, one of my favorite audio brands, is part of a larger company in Richmond VA called Tektonic Design Group. Their team of master machinists, engineers and carpenters were able to retool and manufacture much needed parts for hospital respirators. VPI, the legendary turntable company, started making hand sanitizer based upon their record cleaning solutions. VPI even designed a simple metal hand tool/widget you could use to open doors, press elevator buttons and more. Other companies kept their employees on the payroll by digging into the reserves and coming up with special projects.

Meanwhile, on the next block where people actually make the music we listen to, things were much worse. Live performances came to an immediate halt when all the music venues closed down. As any working musician will tell you, that's how most survive in an already daunting business--by hitting the stage almost every single night and connecting with audiences. Making music is such a social activity, and the audience is an essential part of that.

Many of these performers, such as Satoko Fujii and Afro Yaqui Music Collective, record remotely with musicians around the world so all in the community stay connected and productive. Live performance podcasts became the norm. We all know that the vast majority musicians tend to work their asses off just to make a living, but the mood out there was becoming fraught with desperation. We're talking about the soul of the world, suddenly crushed under the heel of a microbe.

Now it's May of 2021, and things are certainly looking brighter. Just after the mask mandates were lifted the other day, I drove past a local pub, locked up since I moved to Portland last year, and they were open and packed and featuring live music. It all looked so strange to me.

I'm sitting here, waiting for the first high-end audio show in the US to make it out the starting gate. I've just heard a rumor that the Long Beach show is trying to pull off this show as a gesture of good faith to the hotel--last year, the costs of cancelling shows at the last minute were also devastating to everyone involved. We all do our best to make it happen, we keep an eye on the COVID numbers and trends, and if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. One by one, each show announces they're going forward. They get as close as they can without passing the point of no return and winding up with an expensive show where no one, including the exhibitors, shows up. I did forget to mention that one high-end audio show managed to pull it off. It was in Taiwan. There are a lot of audiophiles in Taiwan, so the show was basically cut-off from other countries. Attendance was much higher than the last time the show was held, in a pre-COVID world. That's called a carrot on a stick, at least for all of the US show organizers.

There's a point to all of this. It's kind of obnoxious for me to stand on my soapbox and talk about the effect a pandemic had on an industry that specializes in luxury goods, the kind of goods that prompt the same consumer reactions as three-bedroom, two-bath tract home prices in San Jose. I can hear the orchestra of tiny violins from here.

The point, I think--and this is tough for an introvert like me to say with a straight face--that we underestimated the importance of seeing our friends in the industry on a regular basis, and meeting with retail customers and just the public in general. Sure, most of us learned that we can keep the world afloat while working from home, and why haven't we been doing this the whole time? But we're all so eager to get back to normal, to go back to shows, to hang out and talk about our hobby, which often revolves inviting all your friends over to listen to music.

Yeah, it's about money. But this other social component, the one we pretend is the driving force behind our love for music, is actually kind of true.

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