Thank goodness for the summer months -- not that I (nor most of you) ever stop working. As for my failure to relax, websites and magazines don’t take breaks, but a huge chunk of the audio industry certainly does, not least because the collective populations of most of Europe take off for the whole of August. Sometimes, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I welcome the period of relative inactivity.
Believing unconditionally in the Judeo-Christian work ethic and loathing most elements of socialism save for looking after the elderly or the infirm, and having grown up in a country that considers two weeks a year paid vacation enough, I am at odds with the Europeans’ four-weeks-or-more annual sloth-fest. But Europeans, when asked about the overriding indolence of the majority, counter with, “We work to live, and you live to work!”
To me, “mañana” is shorthand for “I’m a lazy bastard who’s more than happy to be bailed out by British and German taxpayers.” It does, however, explain why Greece, Portugal, Spain, (southern) Ireland, and Italy are rapidly slipping into a catastrophe that recalls the Great Depression, with France sure to follow.
What this has to do with hi-fi, beyond the annual slowdown (hi-fi sales always boom in the autumn and winter, when people are indoors, not on beaches), is moot beyond explaining the seasonal tranquility. Although the calm months provide an opportunity to reflect, and to digest all that was unveiled at Newport, Munich, and Chicago, it also allows the entire industry to brace itself for the fresh onslaught of shows commencing every September. The steady flow of review equipment continues, the record labels don’t put their catalogues on pause -- in other ways, it’s business as usual for some of us. But still I reflected . . .
Sitting back and listening to an LP for sheer pleasure the other day, rather than to assess the LP itself or the system on which it’s played, I had to marvel at how the simple act of listening for enjoyment alone is almost a luxury. One almost has to steal time to wallow in music. And it’s not just the now-familiar explanation that Gen Xers, millennials, et al, have so many other options for their leisure time, such that children of the 1960s -- restricted to sport, books, movies, TV, radio, hi-fi, sex, and drugs -- must seem impoverished in comparison.
There’s an interesting “however” to suggest things may be improving, if only in a pathetically small way. We all know about the LP’s revival, which has yet to plateau (although one industry insider I spoke with thinks that it has, and that there may soon be a vinyl glut). Fountain pen sales are holding, while there’s a rumoured, concurrent bump in the sales of personalised stationery. One of the UK’s remaining bookstore chains reported a better-than-merely-detectable upswing in the sales of “dead tree” books and has stopped stocking e-readers. “Slow” is back.
Don’t get too excited, though, because on the other hand, the recent revelation from the record industry’s official body, that something like half of the “new wave” of LP buyers do not own turntables, gives rise to the aforementioned allusion to a possible plateau in LP sales and a potential lack of sustainability. Confusion certainly reigns.
A fellow audiophile, a Hollywood producer, told me of a couple of recent insider incidents and observations that give with one hand and take with the other. The first is completely negative: he said that Blu-ray (forget DVD) sales are completely “over” in North America, and that downloading and/or real-time streaming have won. He says it applies to all physical media, not just video-related. And he bemoaned the dearth of high-end retailers in greater LA (“maybe one or two”).
As a codicil to this, when pushing his partners about the sound quality of their hit TV show (he’s one of us, after all), he was told to forget 7.1 because “nobody wants surround sound or home cinemas -- everyone uses soundbars.” As a result, to ensure compatibility with the dominant need for mixdowns to stereo (the subject came up when I asked him if I was alone in finding much of the dialogue in modern shows unintelligible*), recording for multichannel was a costly waste.
But his killer point was this. We were discussing a brand new, high-profile series of classic-rock LPs by a major label taken from digital masters. As my friend has the ear of the record label, he said that audiophiles would tear them to shreds for this. The response from his friend at the label? “Like I care -- the presses are working 24/7 and I still can’t keep up.”
As I said, good news and bad. In this case, quantities up, quality down. Which -- with the exception of the flood of sublime new TV series -- kinda defines the modern world, eh?
[*Both amusingly and worryingly, when asked about the unintelligibility of dialogue in recent shows, including his own, he blamed the actors, not the sound engineers. He says -- bluntly -- that too many actors mumble. God bless subtitles, say I.]
. . . Ken Kessler