The hi-fi industry is built on passion

The hi-fi industry may initially have resisted the onslaught of digital and streaming, but now it must encourage people to get the best out of their music, whatever its source, says The Clarity Alliance operations director Phil Hansen

The man who led the way in the digital music revolution is without doubt Steve Jobs. Sure, he didn’t invent MP3, the MP3 player or the online repository of music, but he did wave his magic wand over it and convince people that iTunes and the iPod is the best way to buy, store and listen to music.

And who can argue with a business that sold 25 billion music tracks by 2013 and more than 400 million iPods by the end of 2014?

It’s also hard to argue with the prediction he made at the time of the iPod and iTunes launch: “It will go down in history as a turning point for the music industry. This is landmark stuff. I can’t overestimate it!”

The music industry was revolutionised by the rise of the compressed music format and portable audio player. And now downloading is giving way to streaming, as the figures from the BPI indicate: downloads dropped 12 per cent in 2014, while streaming increased 49.5 per cent. This, of course, is creating headaches for the music industry, as its revenues are further impacted by the “£10 per month gets you all the music you want” model, rather than £10 buys a CD.

The fundamental change that we are witnessing is from music ownership to music rental. It’s great for the consumer, but arguably bad for the labels and the artists.

But is it good for the hi-fi industry? Are retailers and manufacturers seeing the benefits of this revolution? How are people listening to music?

The hi-fi industry is built on passion. A passion for music, a passion for quality and a passion for the kit. But passion can be a double-edged sword – it certainly drives a desire to survive and strive for the best, but can also lead to a stubborn defence of the status quo to the detriment of business prosperity.

It is fair to say that the hi-fi industry did for a while fall into the latter category, not sure really how to respond to the change in consumer behaviour. I remember talking to one well-known retailer back in the early 2000s who said: “I have no interest in talking to the iPod generation.” And he wasn’t untypical. It’s much the same as the reaction that this passionate industry had to the CD in the early 80s. But eventually market forces can’t be argued with and that passion to survive won and is doing so again now.

Inventive equipment manufacturers made CDs sound better and built a successful industry on it. Today we see the same manufacturers embracing streaming. There is hardly a manufacturer who doesn’t have some kind of wi-fi or Bluetooth capability built into their products.

Naim Mu-so
Naim Mu-so

What we have to do as an industry is convince people, just as we always have, that their music can sound much better played back on ‘proper’ hi-fi equipment. So it is hugely encouraging to see companies such as Naim and Arcam launching consumer-focused products that bring new people into the hi-fi stores. And the rise in higher-resolution streaming from the likes of Tidal and the rumoured service from Apple Music have to be welcomed as another step on the road to bringing back quality to the consumer.

The total antithesis to all these 1s and 0s is the impressive resurgence in vinyl. The BPI, in its Music Market 2015 report, recorded UK vinyl sales at 1.3m albums in 2014 compared with 800,000 in 2013 and just 200,000 in 2010. That’s a very impressive 65 per cent year-on-year (2013-14) growth, which goes hand-in-hand with the rise in sales of turntables. According to GfK there was a 96 per cent increase in turntable sales from 2013-14. And we’re set to see it double again in 2015, when GfK announce the figures at the Clarity conference in February.

What we have to do with vinyl is no different from what we have to do with streaming (or previously did with CD). We have to demonstrate that by using quality equipment, it can sound better, be more fulfilling and tap into the emotions.

And that is precisely what The Clarity Alliance is going to do when it presents, in conjunction with The Chester Group, Styl:us 2015. On April 23-24 at the Park Inn, Heathrow, music lovers will be able to feed their passion for vinyl at the UK’s only dedicated analogue music event. With new and used vinyl for sale, turntables galore, hi-fi systems, artwork displays, seminars on turntable set-up, demonstrations from well-known DJs, plus live music, there will be something for everyone no matter what their relationship with vinyl. We’d love to see you there.

And finally, when Steve Jobs, a man passionate about music, went home after a day in the Apple office, he listened to music – on vinyl, using a British-made Michell GyroDec turntable.