Where to buy mics and mixers
The line between pro audio and MI (musical instruments) at retail has become fairly fuzzy these days. Dan Daley writes
There was a time when opening and operating a professional recording studio was a capital- and cost-intensive proposition. Like governments and militaries, it compelled the creation of a separate and complex infrastructure: a retail backbone that could supply the increasingly complex equipment that digital technology was serving up.
That all began to change when music recording left cities and moved to suburban spare bedrooms, and the people doing the recording became not the greying gearheads of the 1960s and 1970s but rather the musicians of the 1990s and onward – the very group that had looked to MI retail for its needs. And that has dramatically changed the landscape of retail for both musical instruments and professional audio equipment in the US and elsewhere.
Paralleling the downward drift of music sales in recent years, the decline in the commercial studio business has been no secret within the industry. That was formalised in a sense in an article in the Los Angeles Times in October, 2009 that estimated that as many as half of the Los Angeles area’s commercial studios have closed or been sold to artists for private use. However, the same article made note of the fact that the overall computer-recording music market went from just under US$140m in sales in 1999 to almost US$0.5bn in 2008, according to National Association of Music Merchandisers statistics. The largely software-based pro audio sector is now one of the largest revenue generators for some large MI retailers.
Pro audio sales now represent ever-larger percentages of revenue at MI stores. Jon Haber – president of Alto Music, a five-store chain in the New York City region – says pro audio now accounts for the majority of its online sales. In fact, it’s one of the reasons the company plans to become more aggressive with its online sales in 2010: ‘We had not done much in the way of online selling before, but based on how well pro audio sales are from the website, we’re now going after that market,’ he says.
It’s a big market, thanks to an explosion in software development that has seen most of the professional audio industry’s most expensive hardware turned into software plug-ins that cost as little as US$69. The market for personal music recording has mushroomed, decimating the conventional studio business but in the process creating an nebulous market with prices that range from a few dollars for a USB cable to tens of thousands of dollars for the more sophisticated hardware that forms pro audio’s upper tier, such as the SSL AWS 900 and Neve Genesys digital consoles.
‘Recording is the next logical step for any musician, so any musician becomes a potential pro audio customer, too,’ says Mr Haber, and hundreds of MI retail stores seem to agree, bolstered by a huge array of affordable audio products from signal processing to microphones. ‘There are now more stores and people catering for that market than ever before,’ he says.
The next logical step for those MI retailers that have embraced pro audio in a big way has been to take it beyond just product sales. Some stores have added systems and acoustical design consulting as a service for pro audio customers, like Alto Music, while others, like Washington Music Center in Maryland and Guitar Center Pro in multiple US states, have entered the systems integration and installation sector, in some instances subcontracting out construction of personal recording studios where they have provided equipment and expertise.
Alan Levin, vice president of MI superstore Washington Music Center, says that the company has been in pro audio for over a decade, via subsidiary Washington Professional, and sees the challenge of pro audio as part of an MI retail proposition as one of scale and of the double-edged sword that mixing recording products with musical instrument sales entails: ‘You have to have the knowledge base that can connect a guitar player with recording equipment – you have to understand the language of both domains to be a good salesperson, and not everyone has those abilities.’ Then there are the often-changing trends in what can be a very fashion-like business, swinging from analogue to digital and back again. ‘It’s like it was years ago, when amplifiers went from tubes to transistors and then back again and you had to carry both,’ he says.
But as MI retail moves deeper into pro audio territory it encounters companies that have staked that space out exclusively. Dale Professional Audio in New York City, a 20-year-old division of Dale Electronics, services only the pro audio sector. ‘No one comes in here to buy a guitar,’ Joe Prout, a sales representative there since 1995, says archly.
He views MI retail excursions into pro audio sales with scepticism, citing several that have tried only to pull back, including Audio Techniques, the pro audio sales venture by Manny’s Music in the 1990s, before it was absorbed by Sam Ash, which itself has re-integrated its pro audio sales back into its Manhattan store operations after a stint as Sam Ash Professional. ‘There might be companies that claim to be pro audio sales operations, but you have to do it exclusively to do it well, to service clients like network television and high-end post production, or outfit a concert hall,’ he states. ‘You just can’t do that and sell musical instruments and do both well.’
The sentiment elsewhere in the States is similar. Jim Pace, president of Audio Intervisual Design (AID), a pro audio-only dealership in West Hollywood, California, believes that the commoditisation of music itself has been matched by the widespread availability of the digital tools to make it. That, in turn, devalues the knowledge base he says is needed in order to make long-term strategic purchasing decisions, whether by Hollywood film studios or home studio owners. ‘That lack of knowledge focuses buyers on short-term solutions and low prices,’ he says. ‘That’s a scenario that the big-box stores will always win.’
Dedicated pro audio companies do have a significant area of overlap with MI retail in the arena of personal recording studios, and it’s a space shared with an enormous and ever-growing number of products. Mr Prout acknowledges pro audio departments in MI retail stores can address the needs of recording musicians – but only up to a certain point: ‘That’s a market where people are shopping price, not service,’ he says. ‘That’s not our model.’
Dedicated pro audio retailers find themselves having to raise the ceiling on their sales and service offerings to try to maintain a separate and clear sense of identity to customers. For instance, Pace emphasises that AID has increased its systems integration and installation practices, as well as adding more sophisticated digital data storage systems, such as storage area networks, that they can sell, install, integrate and maintain. Aiming for the very top tiers of the industry is a strategy he says differentiates companies like his from MI-based pro audio sales. ‘They can’t follow us there,’ he says.
GC Pro, however, the subsidiary company of mega-MI retailer Guitar Center, has ambitions to take pro audio sales and service to a national level. As of 2009, GC Pro has 33 locations, all of which are in US cities that also have Guitar Centre MI stores and most of which are co-located with the larger store. Rick Plushner, GC Pro’s director, says he plans to open four more GC Pro locations in 2010, increasing his current staff of 65 people accordingly. In 2008, GC Pro launched its Affiliates programme, in which systems integrators, acoustical design and construction service companies can become part of larger bids by GC Pro for studios, post houses, houses of worship and other substantial projects, with GC Pro acting essentially as the general contractor. Thus far, says Mr Plushner, the main client base has been educational and house-of-worship, with some personal recording studios filling out the list: ‘We have it at the point where a GC Pro customer can write one check for a ground-up construction of a facility, the equipment and its installation and systems integration,’ he explains.
GC Pro routinely uses the resources of the parent company’s MI stores in fulfilling project orders, but Mr Plushner says those 214 stores across the US also act in the role of a training network, from basic Pro Tools classes on up to high-end systems training for GC Pro sales and support employees, something that he believes refutes the notion that an MI-based retail company can’t provide high-level technical support. ‘It’s a great synergy,’ he says. ‘Any customer can come to any store and get a solution that’s comprehensive at any level.’
Still, Mr Plushner agrees that the line between pro audio and MI at the retail level is becoming ever less distinct: ‘You have hobbyists, then you have everyone else, and they all could be considered professional to some extent or another.’
Evolution can move in more than one direction, apparently. Gand Music in Chicago began carrying high-end professional audio products in the mid 1980s, including large-format consoles and multitrack tape recorders. At the time, at least three Chicago-area music stores had started and spun off pro audio divisions such as Audio Lines, SG Audio and DJ’s Pro Audio. ‘Everyone was under a lot of pressure by the manufacturers to sell pro audio gear,’ says owner Gary Gand. However, he resisted spinning his pro audio sales operation off and kept it integrated with the rest of the store. In retrospect, he’s glad he did: ‘Every one of those [pro audio] spin-offs is gone now,’ he says, victims of the drastically less costly, low-margin generation of pro audio software and the strategic shift by some pro audio manufacturers to sell direct to the public. ‘The upper level of the professional business contracted to the point where it couldn’t support that many pro audio dealerships. Music recording’s now done by musicians at home, so it makes sense to keep pro audio in with the musical instruments.’
Professional audio retail resists becoming a clearly defined market and thus remains a difficult sector to forecast. Jim Pace of AID keeps a product box on his shelf to remind him of its ephemeral nature: an iMic – a USB microphone adaptor. ‘It costs $29 and it says ‘Turn Your Laptop Into A Recording Studio,’ or words to that effect,’ he says. ‘I hope that’s not where it’s all headed.’
Published in PAA March-April 2010