The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CXLI: Rocky Mountain RIP
The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is no more. The announcement was made on the 2nd of September, not quite five weeks before this beloved high-end audio show was scheduled to be held in Denver in October.
Yes, COVID-19 was the final straw. This was the second year in a row that the show organizers had to do their best to recover their business losses caused by the pandemic and hold out until the last possible day while constantly hoping that the conditions would eventually improve for holding a potentially crowded public event. Every hi-fi show over the last 18 months has done this, mostly because these events have to be planned out months in advance. That means spending money that will need to be recouped later.
The week before RMAF announced its demise, AXPONA had just broken the news that their Halloween weekend show in Chicago would be postponed until April. We still have the Capitol Audiofest set for November and the Florida Audio Expo in February but forgive me if I seem pessimistic about those happening.
Why did the show organizers at RMAF decide to pack it in for good, though? Well, the last few years have been tough on Rocky Mountain. First, RMAF founder Al Stiefel passed away in 2009- he was the heart and soul of the show and everyone thought it was over then. But Al's wife, Marjorie Baumert, told everyone that the show must gone and did such an excellent job that for the next couple of years, it was clear that the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest was still everyone's favorite show, attendees and exhibitors alike. The only thing people didn't like about the show was the line at the elevators at the Marriott Denver Tech Center. Yeah, I was late opening my exhibit room many times because of those slow-ass lifts.
A few years ago, however, the Marriott decided to remodel the entire hotel- while the RMAF was happening, unfortunately. To tell you the truth, that was one of the only years I didn't attend since the beginning of the show, back in 2004, because it sounded like a mess. Sure enough, it was a very tough kind of show to have during widespread construction. Everyone complained about everything.
I did attend the next RMAF at the fabulous new venue, the Gaylord Resort, way out in the middle of nowhere A.K.A the Denver International Airport. That was 2019, and it turned out to be the last RMAF. This was another troubled effort, mostly because the fabulous new digs for the show were far more costly for exhibitors and many balked at the new prices. The Gaylord is an absolutely gorgeous venue, to be sure, while the Marriott was just another Marriot. But I also didn't see anything wrong with it. I talk to a lot of people in the industry, and many of us wish the RMAF had stayed the way it was at the Tech Center.
So why is the loss of the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest so tough and so aggravating for everyone involved?
High-end audio shows have come and gone over the last few years. The landscape is changing, for better or worse. It was a big deal when most of the specialty audio industry bailed out of the Consumer Electronics Show that was held in Vegas every January. That, after all, was the BIGGEST show for high-end audio. We were set-up at lavish digs at the Venetian, and it was very expensive as well, but we paid our five figure hotel bills because this was where business was made in the electronics industry. It wasn't even open to the public. We were there to make deals, and people were there to make deals with us. Sadly, CES stopped giving specialty audio the support it needed to keep going year after year, and gradually, most of the high-end audio companies left. That was a blow to our business, and others as well.
New shows come and go, old shows move from town to town, others try to launch and never quite get off the ground and maintain any sense of momentum. But people loved going to the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. They loved traveling to Colorado in October, where sometimes it would be 80 degrees and sometimes, there would be snow on the ground already. Most of all, everyone loved the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of RMAF, so different from the oh-so-serious CES. Rocky Mountain was one of the first hi-fi shows for the general public, really the first show that picked one location the same time every year and did it year after year. All those other shows--AXPONA, T.H.E. Show, Capitol Audiofest, Florida Audio Expo and all the smaller regional shows--owe a debt of gratitude to Al and Marjorie and their organization.
So it's sad that the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is gone. It's sad to me because I used RMAF as an excuse to go visit my parents in Western Colorado. My dad passed away last year, and my mom just moved to Florida. Traveling to Colorado was always a highlight of the year. I loved it there--I even lived on the Western Slope for a few years as you might recall. I always thought I'd come back to stay one day. Not much of a reason now.
Why is this, the end of RMAF, so important to the world of vinyl and turntables and such? Well, a huge swath of vinyl lovers and analog enthusiasts learn more about the hobby from attending high-end audio shows. You have three basic choices when it comes to buying a new turntable. You can just buy one out of the blue and hook it up and hope for the best, which is probably both the most popular and least productive way to do it. You can visit a dealer, but you will probably keep reminding yourself that somebody's trying to sell you something and you won't fully relax and give into the music.
Or, you can attend a high-end audio show and listen to all the cool gear at once and perhaps formulate an idea about what you like, what you want and what you need to be deliriously happy listening to music for the rest of your life. If you want to hear what a $150,000 turntable, or a $25,000 cartridge, or 400 grand worth of loudspeakers sounds like, you can. You can sit all day, all weekend, and hear the very best there is, usually for less than $20 (some hi-fi shows are even free!). You can meet and talk to people who aren't expecting to make a sale right then and there, so the pressure's off. Oh, and don't forget the marketplaces downstairs at most hi-fi shows where they sell all sorts of LP's and CD's and reel-to-reel tapes and vintage gear and accessories and headphones and an endless array of electronic gadgets.
But we can't do what we're doing anymore. People are losing a lot of money with this pandemic, but people are also losing a lot of money planning these events, hiring staff, taking deposits from exhibitors in advance and spending that money on marketing and advertising so that the money's gone when it comes time to cancel the show because the CDC says so, or because you're not selling enough tickets or getting enough exhibitors to make it worthwhile. Only one show has managed to pull off an event since the pandemic hit in March of 2020, and that was T.H.E. Show in Long Beach in June, the one I mentioned when I last talked about the influence of the pandemic on the industry, when we had the luxury of a small window of optimism.
That show was very small, sparsely attended, but I haven't heard of a Sturgis-like wave of infections traced back to a few masked audiophiles in Southern California who probably showered in Purell as they walked down the hotel corridors.
However, we gotta stop packing up the car for a road trip every time the sun comes out. We need to stop chomping at the bit. We need to let it pass. When it's over, I'm positive the world will be different in many unexpected ways, just as unexpected as the course of the pandemic itself. Until then, we can stay home and play records and be safe.
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at firstname.lastname@example.org and see his Blog site
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