As I write, 2013’s California Audio Show has just wrapped. Tickets for The Chester Group’s Australian AV and Audio Show have just gone on sale and I’m looking forward to my third successive Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver. Hifi shows are great fun because the people – exhibitors and attendees – are passionate about good sound and music.
I asked myself a simple question: would my non-audiophile friends enjoy the music at hi-fi shows? The answer snapped back: Nope!
Because the music that they constantly play – it says nothing to me about my life. (Hang the blessed DJ)
“Everyone’s a critic and most people are DJs.” – The Hold Steady
Like pretty much everyone else these days, I used to be a DJ. Nothing original in that. However, I am more than little proud that I didn’t start DJing until I was 35. What was originally intended to be a one-off gig for fun and beer turned into five years in a super-niche, super-local scene. I later ran a somewhat hit and miss British music night in Sydney before hanging up my headphones as I ticked over into 40. I like to think I was a reasonably good tune selector. DJing taught me what music works and when. Like the punch line to a good joke its success hinges on timing.
In the booth, it’s easy to play the hits of the day and keep people comfortable. However, my self-imposed mandate was to create an event that offered greater musical meaning. Artists like The Smiths, The Cure, Pulp, Oasis, Joy Division, New Order, Blur, Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles sat at the core of the music policy. I’d favour “Transmission” over “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, “She’s a Lady” over “Common People”, “19th Nervous Breakdown” over “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.
“I am a DJ – I am what I play” – David Bowie
A good DJ will draw you closer with something you might know before hitting you with something you don’t. The safety of familiarity opens up the listener to discovery. A good DJ will aim for the audience synapse fire of “I’ve forgotten how much I love this song” before “I know this song and I like it very much”.
A good DJ isn’t only selling music, (s)he’s selling a good time. The music is a conduit to a higher goal. It’s the same in hi-fi demo spaces: it’s the gear and not the tunes that are up for grabs. The music is the conduit to a higher goal.
In either domain, familiarity will only get you so far before the audience’s collective nausea takes hold. No matter how much I love a song – even the ones that I’ll take with me to the grave – I don’t want to hear it all the time. My Sydney club night ruined Blur’s “Song 2” and Pulp’s “Disco 2000” for life. Everybody knows over-familiarity breeds contempt. Everybody knows.
“When you write from your gut and let the stuff stay flawed and don’t let anybody tell you to make it better, it can end up looking like nothing else.” – Louis CK
The audiophile world has been overrun by the ragweed of same-same music choices – it bears little resemblance to the world of music purported to be its raison d’etre. Rather than attempt to solicit harder-to-nail responses – ones that range from the piquing of an interest to igniting a musical love affair – many hi-fi demonstrators the world over are immobilised by the anxiety of not wanting to drive potential customers from the room. This is why we endure songs chosen primarily for their inoffensive sonic attributes – the tail wagging the dog. We’re more likely to hear music that sounds pretty and nice before we’ll hear something jagged or dangerous.
Anomalies do exist. I’ve heard the likes of the Sisters Of Mercy, Talking Heads, Trentemoller, Captain Beefheart etc. ring out from many a showroom – but they are exactly that: anomalies. Jewels sparkling in the sand. And you know what colour sand it?
During the past three years, I have developed an aversion to the homogeny of jazz quartets, string quartets, Diana Krall, Patricia Barber, The Eagles and that Nils Lofgren song. Most tellingly I’d never heard of Diana Krall before entering the world of audiophillia.
The working title of this article was “Enough with the Diana Krall already”. I’m singling her out because she’s an audiophile cliché and if you talk in clichés you say nothing. Moreover, she’s the epitome of a particular flavour of music that’s way over-represented in hi-fi demo land. Considering how much music is out there in the world, Krall gets way too much of a look in. And her stuff sounds pleasant enough on pretty much anything.
People don’t get excited if their only response is “This sounds nice” or “I know this song”. And if people don’t get excited about the music you choose for your hi-fi demonstration, they won’t get excited about the gear you’re trying to sell them.
I’m not alone in this viewpoint. I hear these sentiments murmured in show hallways and hotel bars time and time again. I’m being more vocal here because I love the audiophile world and I’d love it to be better. I too want to see a younger demographic attend shows and society meets. I want to hear more than the narrow band of music that’s wheeled out time and again.
Head-fiers don’t suffer this problem quite as acutely. They often bring their own selections on laptops and iDevices. Personal audio has the inherent advantage of everyone in the room being shielded from even the most eccentric or avant-garde choices.
And herein lies the kicker: have you ever noticed how headphone meets tend to attract a younger demographic? It’s because these folk are getting excited about good sound quality with music THEY like/know. Don’t believe me? Go look at a photo of your most recent local audiophile society gathering and then compare it with a snap from a recent Head-fi event. See the difference?
“Why not embrace the shit?” said an old friend. Well I could but what of the desire for younger listeners at shows. How many times have you read complaints in the audiophile press that kids today don’t appreciate good sound (they do!) or that they’re happy with MP3s played back through tiny white wires (some are not!). The way to lasso new audiophiles is through music they know and love.
Know that I’m not demanding to hear music that I like (or know). I simply want to hear more variety. Do we really need need to hear “Keith Don’t Go” or “Hotel California” again? I’m sure it was the same with Graceland and The Nightfly in the 1980s. It’s not because they are bad songs or albums per se. Who am I to judge? FWIW, I dig Donald Fagen and Paul Simon immensely. My complaint is that we’ve heard that Eagles song a thousand times already and as an audience we have become comfortably numb. (See what I did there?)
All this would sound rather negative if I didn’t offer up some ideas on how to improve things – not that my suggestions are that radical. These words should not be misconstrued as aimless venting. Anyone can pick nits. Describing a problem without offering a solutions rings with arrogance.
So – here’s my big idea: you are a DJ and you are what you play. Perhaps hi-fi demonstrators should see themselves as DJs. They should see themselves as DJs because they ARE DJs. They are playing tunes for other people to enjoy (with the broader aim of selling the gear that’s making it happen). Whilst I concede that the audience turnover in a demo room is super-swift, it doesn’t mean the guy in charge of the tunes shouldn’t aim high(er) for that “what-the-heck-is-this-I gotta-have-it” reaction.
1. Play more new(er) music. Those who claim there’s no-one making good music anymore simply doesn’t get out of the house enough. There’s more great music being made now than in any point in history; you just have to work harder to find it. Moreover, newer music often sounds like older music: El Perro Del Mar sounds like she was beamed in from a 50s surf movie. Global Communication could be 1980s Vangelis. ATOMTM apes Kraftwerk.
2. Play more classics. With new songs in the bag, why not drop a bit of the aforementioned Paul Simon or Donald Fagen back into your playlist? What better way to solicit those “I’d forgotten how much I love this song” reactions from (some of) your audience? Just because the majority of your audience is 40+, middle-class and male doesn’t mean they don’t like to rock out. Play more Beatles and Stones, more Led Zeppelin, more Neil Young WITH Crazy Horse. Cue up something by Queen or The Who. Dust of that Dylan box set. Blondie? The Ramones? Television? Do you honestly think a visitor to your room will rave to his non-audiophile mates about having heard Hell Freezes Over on a $50K rig? Of course he won’t! But he will if you play “Desolation Row” in its entirety.
3. Keep your audience interested. Think about sequencing and timing when making a demo playlist. Follow up a classic song with something unfamiliar or new.
4. Hit up Pandora for ideas on what to play. Simply feed it an artist that you like and it will auto-generate a personal radio station than you can tweak in real time. Use it as a means of discovery OR run Pandora in your demo room. Here I concede that the lossy encoding is not ideal.
5. Don’t be afraid to let visitors to your room play their own music. Yes, they might play something that isn’t optimally recorded or mastered. Yes, it might drive others away – hang tough. Giving visitors the ability to hook in their own tunes isn’t easy but neither is it impossible. Have a sturdy budget turntable to hand – nothing too fancy lest your guest’s record is dirty. Have an iPod dock front and center. The Pure i20 sports digital output and will run you less than hundred bucks. Get a subscription to MOG or Spotify running in the room. Wifi connections are notoriously bad at shows but that doesn’t mean you can’t bring your own.
6. Full album playbacks – let there be more of them. RMAF 2012 saw the Von Schwiekert room play host to after-hours listening sessions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Tommy. Not only did they pack the room out each night, people applauded at the end. That’s the sound of audiophiles lighting up with excitement. I sat in the same room for a full forty minutes during the daytime just because Talking Heads’ Speaking In Tongues was being played on reel-to-reel and in full. I don’t care about the medium as much as hearing that album being played on a killer system IN ITS ENTIRETY.
If you want to see many of the above suggestions in action at a show, just visit the Zu Audio room. The music being played there is ALWAYS different. Rarely could it be described as ‘safe’ or ‘bland’. Don’t be afraid of what you see/hear in there – it’s one possible future of successful hi-fi demo spaces. Check out Zu’s Facebook status update from last weekend’s California show:
If this were happening in Sydney I’d drag all my (non-audiophile) friends to the Zu room primarily because most of them are LCD Soundsystem fans.
One final thought. I put myself in the hypothetical position of being a hi-fi demo guy. What music would I choose? In trying to apply some of the above, I’ve fashioned a Spotify playlist. It’s called “Enough With The Diana Krall Already”…