A day before I sat down to write this article, I did something I used to do every week, but haven’t done in two years—I saw a movie at a theater. It was Licorice Pizza, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who has previously made some films I’ve really liked—Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Hard Eight, and Punch-Drunk Love are the ones that spring to mind.

Shot on 35mm film with old-school lenses, giving the movie the look of the era, Licorice Pizza takes a meandering walk through early-1970s Encino, California. It’s shown from the perspectives of lovestruck Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his love interest, Alana Kane (Alana Haim, a musician from the all-female band Haim, acting in her first film). I went to see it in the theater for two reasons. One was that I had a little bit of time on my hands. The other was that it’s what I call a real movie that deserves to be seen in a proper theater, as opposed to the endless stream of comic-book crap that has been filling up cinemas and could just as well be watched on a television screen—or on a computer, a tablet, or even a phone.

Licorice Pizza

But as I sat in the theater, alone, I felt a sense of dread for films like this. No one was there—not before it started, not during the show, not afterward. I was the only one watching, so I could snap the picture of the screen I’ve include here. If there had been one other person in the audience, I wouldn’t have taken my phone out. The solitude I experienced also made me wonder how well movie theaters will manage as the pandemic morphs into the endemic phase of COVID-19. Admittedly, Licorice Pizza is no blockbuster release, but I don’t think my lonely experience is rare. Friends who have seen movies in theaters over the past few months have told me there’s always tons of empty seats—even for the comic-book films.

That experience also caused me to think about hi-fi shows, which also rely on having crowds of people to be successful. Later this month is the first hi-fi show I’ve planned to attend in two years—Florida Audio Expo 2022, to be held February 18–20 in Tampa. Coincidentally, Florida Audio Expo 2020 was the last show I went to before the pandemic shut everything down.

Embassy SuitesEmbassy Suites by Hilton Tampa Airport Westshore, home of the Florida Audio Expo

Will anyone turn up for Florida Audio Expo 2022? I can’t possibly know right now, but I’m not foolish enough to think that it’ll be as busy as before—though I’d be happy to be proven wrong. I feel that way not because of my theater experience but because of what happened at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month. With only about 40,000 people attending, it wound up being way smaller than before—less than one-quarter of the attendance of CES 2020, which was the last in-person CES (the 2021 show was virtual). Some blamed the poor attendance at CES 2022 on fears over the Omicron variant, which arrived in the United States in December 2021 and has since triggered the fifth wave of coronavirus infections. Also, many high-profile exhibitors pulled out, likely for the same reason.

But I’m not sure the attendance woes can be blamed entirely on Omicron. How many more people would’ve gone to CES 2022 if the variant hadn’t cropped up? Would there have been twice as many people? If so, that’s still less than half as many as CES 2020. And I don’t believe for a second that we would’ve seen the four or five times as many attendees needed to equal or better that show. The truth of the matter is that not nearly as many people—for whatever reasons—had planned to come to CES 2022, compared to previous years. And we may never see CES 2020 levels of attendance for that event ever again. And while CES has not been relevant in hi-fi for many years, it’s a good barometer for all product shows, including hi-fi, because it demonstrates the number of people that are willing to show up for public events these days.

CES 2022CES 2022

That this has happened to movies, trade shows, and other events that rely on the presence of crowds doesn’t surprise me. Back when the pandemic began and the first lockdowns were happening, I heard predictions that people would be chomping at the bit to get out and do stuff again when the lockdowns lifted, even a little bit. And movies, public events, restaurants, and so on would be busier than ever. But at that time, I was skeptical because I felt that if people were locked down for long enough, their habits would change; and they likely wouldn’t want to do the same things as before.

How quickly habits—and even our bodies—change is something I started thinking about when I went on a five-day fast about 20 years ago. I decided to do it for the supposed health benefits, but I’m not so sure fasting did much to make me healthier. It was hard, but I don’t regret it, because it did teach me something about my body and mind.

You might think that if you didn’t eat for five days, you’d get so famished that you wouldn’t stop eating for the next five days or more once you started eating again. But the person who coached me through the fast told me that wasn’t going to happen—he warned me that I probably wouldn’t feel like eating at all by the end of the fast, which surprised me. Yet, he was right—at the point I could go back to eating solid foods, I could hardly finish half of what I thought was a normal meal. That was because I would start to feel full and, mentally, I just didn’t want any more food. It took me the longest time before I could eat what I had considered, prior to the fast, a normal-sized meal.

Going on a fast and going to a movie or a hi-fi show aren’t the same thing, but the point I want to make is that if you change someone’s habits, it doesn’t take them long to adapt to the change and have it stay that way. For example, try going to bed at a different time tonight, and for the next few days. Chances are, within a few days, your body will change its internal clock and be expecting you to go to sleep at that time every night from then on. Or try changing the timing of your meals—similarly, you’re likely to find that your body will very quickly adjust to the times of your new eating plan. Or just start going for a walk every day at a certain time—in no time at all, you’ll find your body naturally getting ready for that walk at that time every day. New habits develop quickly and you leave the old ones behind just as fast.

Likewise, I think that when people stopped going to movie theaters because of the pandemic, they found other ways to entertain themselves—and that’s probably going to stay that way for me. I don’t know if I’ll go see another movie in the theater any time soon, even though, pre-pandemic, I used to go every week. Licorice Pizza was a one-off event for me. Similarly, the people who stopped going to hi-fi shows during the pandemic probably found other ways to learn about and experience products. Furthermore, many manufacturers found different ways to present their products to the world. Face it, two years is a long time—much longer than is necessary for habits to change.

Does this mean that hi-fi shows will die? I don’t think so—at least, not all of them. But the prospects for putting on a successful hi-fi show have been altered by the pandemic.

There were a few in-person hi-fi shows in 2021; tiny affairs, before the pandemic, that were tinier still when they were held again, which showed the public wasn’t raring to go back to them, either. While I didn’t go to any of those shows, feedback I received from the few people I knew that did said they were good—if you weren’t expecting too much. That kind of reminds me of watching Don’t Look Up on Netflix a few weeks ago. I’d read several reviews beforehand that said it wasn’t any good, so I had low expectations. As a result, I came away pleasantly surprised, because I found it mildly entertaining throughout. But had I started watching with high expectations, I probably would’ve been disappointed, because the film itself was overly long and filled with heavy-handed humor and satire that didn’t always work. If any of the people who told me about those small hi-fi shows had gone with high expectations—none of them had—they probably would’ve been disappointed.

CES 2022LG at CES 2022

Expectations are what I think affected the outcome of CES 2022. I suspect some people thought CES would come roaring back this year, so the show would be as good as or better than before. When that didn’t happen—not even close—it seemed like a tech-show massacre. Truth be told, 40,000 was more than I thought would show up. I think that if the CES organizers had lowered expectations beforehand, people wouldn’t have been so let down. For example, had the organizers said they were only expecting one-quarter or one-fifth of the attendance of CES 2020, given what we’ve all been through since then, CES 2022 might’ve wound up looking okay.

As it stands right now, I’m going to Florida Audio Expo 2022 with modest expectations, mostly because I want to be pleasantly surprised. This is only the third time the show has been staged—the others were in 2019 and 2020. I wasn’t expecting much when I went to the first one. It was a brand-new show, so I knew beforehand that it would likely be small. However, there were enough exhibitors to go see and report on to make it worthwhile. Plus, being in Florida in the wintertime was splendid. In 2020, I was also pleased to be there because it seemed to be slightly bigger than the previous year; likely because that inaugural show came off so well. So all I’m hoping for in 2022 is to see enough exhibitors to provide some decent coverage for our SoundStage! Global site, just like the first year. I am also hopeful for the same in March, when I attend the annual Montreal Audiofest. It, like the Florida Audio Expo, is a small show, so this year, like previous years, it doesn’t have to break records for me to be glad I went.

High End 2019A packed room—PMC at High End 2019

But Munich’s annual High End show, which is scheduled for May but hasn’t happened since 2019, is an event I don’t have high hopes for at present. Although High End is not nearly as large as the CES show—as it used to be, or even as it is now—it’s huge compared to the rest of the hi-fi shows around the world. Attendance in 2019 was claimed to be over 20,000, whereas other hi-fi shows have attendance figures in the hundreds or low thousands. In fact, its size and international flavor are what make High End a great show. But exhibiting there is very expensive for manufacturers, and traveling is costly for the global visitors the organizers want to attract. Will manufacturers still want to exhibit at High End? Will people still want to come? Will foreigners, vaccinated or not, even be allowed into Germany? The organizers haven’t done anything to temper enthusiasm for High End 2022, so if it goes ahead, expectations for it might already be too high.

Even the so-called experts in any given subject aren’t good at predicting the future in their supposed areas of expertise. For example, two years ago, no infectious-disease experts were predicting that COVID-19 would still be affecting us the way it is in 2022. And even at the beginning of December 2021, who would’ve forecast the havoc caused by the supposedly “milder” Omicron variant? That includes those on the business side—did analysts, economists, or reporters foresee that so many airline employees would call in sick and there’d be all that travel chaos around Christmastime?

I don’t blame any of these people. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and having foresight is next to impossible in many instances.

I know quite a bit about hi-fi shows, having been to so many over the years. However, I’m not about to go out on a limb and tell you what hi-fi shows will be like in 2022 and beyond. But I am confident enough to say that people’s habits have changed and hi-fi show organizers should recognize what has happened over the past two years, and be prepared. Things aren’t the same for hi-fi shows as they were before the pandemic. So, for the time being, I’m going to continue to go to some hi-fi shows and report on them because I think it’s good for our readership and the industry—but time will tell how important these shows will remain for everyone, as well as how many people will actually be willing to come to them with me.

. . . Doug Schneider