[SoundStage!]The Traveler
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June 2002

Killing Them Softly with Their Songs

There's a trendy area of shops and restaurants about a 15-minute walk from my house called the By Ward Market. I walk there daily and pick up my coffee along the way. It's my relaxation place.

Obviously, it's many other people's relaxation place too. But, as in any city, a crowded area also attracts all kinds of folks -- including those most of society might deem "the dregs": drug dealers -- many of whom like to conduct their business right in front of one fast-food restaurant, smack dab on the way to the Market area.

Although the different Market salespeople don't give me the time of day when I walk into their stores, these street entrepreneurs certainly do when I pass by theirs. "Herbs," "weed," "coke," and many other enticements get muttered as I squeeze on by. At first it was fine, but I've gotten tired of Just Saying No.

Although our police try hard, their arrests rarely make much progress. Our little War on Drugs in Ottawa has been about as effective as the one that our neighbors south of the border keep waging year after year. Demand, after all, not availability, is the real problem.

But two weeks ago things changed. I was on my daily quest for a latte when I encountered the unexpected: there was not a soul loitering in front of the fast-food place. I was flabbergasted. What could have happened?

As I approached the Market, the answer became clearer. I heard music -- classical music -- and I started to hear it from 80 feet away. As I approached the entrance to the fast-food joint, the sound was almost deafening. I stopped in front of the door, placed my hands on my ears, and looked around, spotting two massive, thick-metal canisters more than a foot across, each mounted near the top of the overhang. Even a baseball bat couldn't put a dent in 'em (obviously, that's the idea). As speakers, they're certainly not refined-sounding, but they are adept at cranking out high-level SPLs.

If they were playing rap or rock, I'm sure the dealers would still be there -- perhaps their numbers would even grow. But, apparently, classical music has the same effect on drug dealers that Off does on bugs.

Of course, if our local drug dealers ever become classical music fans, the Market would have to change the selection (Country & western, perhaps? Or maybe Amanda McBroom?), but for now classical music seems to do the trick. Just imagine, I thought, they scared 'em off with music!

But that made me start thinking about high-end audio. I wondered if we're accidentally doing the same thing. That thought grew to a certainty when I attended High End 2002 in Frankfurt.

Frankfurt's annual show has become the world's premiere consumer-based audio event, in my opinion. I love it and will continue to return year after year. But, as good as the show is, it falls into the same trap as every other audiophile-based show: Although the high-end audio industry likes to think that it's all about the music, that's hardly the reality when it comes to show exhibits. Based on the "music" you hear, it's not about the music at all. And these days, it's not just audio; many home-theater companies seem to be equally clueless. (Here's a hint for those exhibitors who think Lost in Space is good demo movie: it's not.)

Our industry is driving people away with music just as effectively as that restaurant. When I go to our shows, I don't see a large number of young people. In fact, I'm one of the youngest -- and I'm not exactly young anymore! As I walked through the halls in Germany, I couldn't help but think that the music that was being played wasn't helping. Heck, even I don't like much of it. I generally hear only two genres at these shows: classical music and sound effects.

I define sound effects as those "music" recordings that are anything but music. Certainly, they have musicians playing on them -- but their intention is to make you say "Wow," not to actually express any thought or emotion. Many of these albums are produced by audiophile labels or equipment manufacturers and they serve no purpose other than to sound good on an audio system. It's demo music and it's lousy. It's the musical equivalent of rolling bowling balls back and forth.

At home, most of us are not drawn to effects; we're drawn to music -- and that's what we should be hearing automatically as we walk through these show halls. And not just one type of music -- we should hear all types. Instead, what we hear is a limited subset of music, and worst of all, that anti-music effects stuff.

By all means, classical music should stay. But a wide range of music should be played -- and not just when someone sheepishly brings his or her own music and begs the demonstrator to please play something someone would actually listen to at home. Whether or not the exhibitor likes a certain type of music, demonstration music has to appeal to the listeners who might enter the room. That means demoing with a broad spectrum of musical styles. What's happening right now is precisely the same thing as what happened at the fast-food restaurant at By Ward Market -- for many listeners, a 30-second fragment is enough to turn them around and move them on to the next room, or even out of the hobby.

I can hear it now: I'll be damned before I sell out! Certainly, there are groups of audiophiles who believe that audio systems are meant for classical and nothing else. But these people are naive, not to mention closed-minded. Audio systems are meant for all types of music, and we should be hearing classical, jazz, rock, metal, R&B, hip-hop, you name it. Demo with that kind of breadth and you'll be surprised at who ends up in the room -- and who might possibly turn into a future buyer.

Fortunately, this is not lost on everyone. There are some people who already get it. I remember the second day of the Frankfurt show clearly. I was leaning against a wall, resting, when I faintly heard a Willie Nelson album I like being played in nearby room. Yes, Willie! In Germany! For a few moments I just continued to relax and the music became my focus. Pretty soon, my feet had transported me to the room. It was involuntary -- the next thing I knew, I was seated in the room listening to a system I might have otherwise passed by. They had drawn me in simply with their music.

The audio industry should be doing this all the time.

...Doug Schneider


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