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Pro Audio

MI retail and pro audio have been on a convergent course for several decades now.

The overtures were made initially by pro audio companies seeking broader markets; the poster child for the phenomenon could have been Tascam’s PortaStudio, which when it was introduced in 1979 leveraged the then-ubiquitous Compact Cassette format into a fourtrack proposition with a six-fader mixer and internal bussing and EQ integrated into a single unit. Its simplified multitracking operation and affordable $999 cost (that would be almost $4,200 today, but still cost-effective considering the alternatives at the time) made it a hit among musicians who wanted more control over their recordings.

The PortaStudio and its many variants over the years were a bridge between the domains of MI and pro audio, making at least rudimentary engineers and producers out of a generation of musicians. The PortaStudio was no toy: Bruce Springsteen recorded his 1982 Nebraska LP on a PortaStudio 144 in his New Jersey bedroom, and Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was mixed down to a Portastudio 244. Recordings like these proved that music artists weren’t limited to expensive and complex commercial recording facilities.

This vanguard of pro audio products also set the stage for what has grown into a substantial industry, with much of its sales now done through MI channels. NAMM’s data shows that the retail value of pro audio products, a category that includes speaker enclosures, power amplifiers, mixers, processors, multitrack recorders, cables and microphones, last year advanced a steady if unspectacular 2.3 percent to $1.55 billion, compared with $1.52 billion in 2014. That places it second only to fretted instrument sales as the leading revenue generator for MI retail.

A Migrating Sector

Anthony Thompson, who for the last 15 years has managed the professional audio department at Alto Music’s Middletown, New York location, says that as pro audio products have become more ubiquitous, easier to use and less expensive, they’ve been migrating from a dedicated department in the store and infusing other departments. Pro audio recording products remain centered around the store’s dedicated department, but products like looping systems will also be displayed in the guitar department.

The pro audio department is still the place to go for the high-end products,” he says. “But as the products have gotten less complicated and less expensive, they’ve moved into other areas. And that helps stimulate overall interest in recording.”

Finding a home for pro audio can take a while. Nashville’s Corner Music has been selling the category for several decades, but as the products have become more software based, the department has migrated, as well, to a small alcove in the rear of the store, where buyers have to first pass through keyboards and live-sound areas to get to it. Pro audio manager Joel Dobbins says that pro audio simply needs less space these days, as hardware now centers around interfaces and controllers. But, he adds, that has its own charms.

“It’s kind of like a little club back there,” he says of the den of shelves and displays that looks like a stage in a small club. “It’s also an efficient use of the space that we have.” Pro audio may yet move again, as Corner Music prepares for an upcoming renovation. Pro audio is also often compartmentalized online, but the linkable nature of the internet allows for plenty of cross-pollination.

“Because computer audio has been such an important segment of Sweetwater’s business, we do dedicate a category to it online,” says John Grabowski, senior director of merchandising at Sweetwater.

However, he adds, links allow for the flexible cross-merchandising products between multiple categories too, “So a product may be able to be found in computer audio, recording, and even live sound,” he says.

Grabowski says further that product videos, which are also linkable from product’s landing page, have become an invaluable tool in selling a product. “[They] can go a long way to closing an online sale,” he says.

The Live Music Factor

Recording equipment is also getting a boost from the growing popularity of live sound gear. As the larger music industry changes its emphasis from selling records to selling tickets, that transition is being felt at retail. “Demand for high-quality portable sound systems…remains strong,” NAMM’s 2016 Global Report found. Easy-touse, self-powered live-sound systems “have been a hit with buyers,” the report states, noting a 4.5-percent sales gain in loudspeakers.

Increasingly, live sound mixers, such as the PreSonus Studio/live, the Behringer X-32 and the Midas M32, are specifically designed to be used in either or both recording and live-sound applications, and can accommodate multitrack recordings of live performances.

Thompson says that interaction is creating a synergy at retail, one that’s also further accelerated by social media. “We’re seeing the recording and the live-sound products become more integrated with each other, and that’s what people want,” he explains. “Musicians don’t want to just play anymore – they want to capture and share their music. They want it to go from their head to their guitars out to a show that then gets posted to their SoundCloud and YouTube accounts.”

In that way, says Thompson, sales of instruments, PA systems and mixers, and recording gear have become more intertwined than ever before, creating a new opportunity and a new challenge. “It’s easier to sell the guitar buyer on a pro audio product and vice versa,” he says. “But you also have to make them understand that just because they can record it doesn’t mean it’s going to sound like a record.”

Sweetwater’s John Grabowski agrees, having watched as the role of recorded music in an artist’s career or potential revenue stream has changed. “People are still recording - maybe more people than ever before,” he says, “but most of them know that their recorded music may serve mostly to drive ticket and merch sales. But I think that the democratization of pro audio, whether through user-friendly and extremely affordable recording technology or increasingly feature-packed and affordable hardware, has made pro audio more popular with musicians.”

In-Store Know-How

Who’s doing the selling is as important as what’s being sold; pro audio has its own canons of knowledge and knowledgeable sales people are as critical in this sector as they are in guitars and drums.

While music stores have relied for generations on musicians as a source of sales people, those working in pro audio tend to come from more isolated verticals, in recording studios, post production or live and installed sound fields.

George Adjieff, CEO and co-owner of Westlake Pro, the Los Angeles successor company to West Lake Music, believes that MI retailers have been overlooking a major potential source of pro audio sales people in the form of graduates of the hundreds of media academies and collegiate media-arts programs across the U.S.

“You can’t take someone from another department and just put him or her into selling pro audio,” says Adjieff, who’s spent 35 years in retail, most of it in MI and pro audio sales. “They have to be passionate about the stuff. Just as they would be for any instrument.”

Adjieff is practical enough to know that convincing a newly minted graduate of a school like Full Sail University or SAE Institute to move directly into retail sales is long shot. But, he says, it usually doesn’t take too long after graduation for some economic realities to set in. And the schools themselves – which are heavily dependent on Federal student-loan guarantees – are under pressure to get students placed into paid employment situations directly related to their fields of study, to meet newly tightened requirements around those loans. In fact, he was scheduled to address that subject on a panel at the AES Show in Los Angeles in September.

“It’s an issue for MI retail – there haven’t been enough truly knowledgeable sales people about pro audio, and that can make or break the success of a pro-audio department,” he says. He further suggests that instead of waiting for post-graduate economic realities to make themselves felt, retailers ought to reach out to schools in their areas directly and pitch the idea of a sales job to incipient graduates. “You might be surprised, and so might they,” he says.

More Options Than Ever

Pro audio is not a monolithic proposition; it’s been through several inflection points during its evolution, and those changes can sometimes be reflected in how MI retails adapts to them. Skip’s Music, in Sacramento and Elk’s Grove, California has been selling pro audio products for most of the company’s 40 years in business. But, says Tony Mason, pro audio manager at the Sacramento store, as online sales began to undermine margins on electronics keyboards, he discovered that the ubiquity of keys as interfaces for recording systems and the natural proclivity of his keyboards sales staff, along with the migration of more pro audio to a software format made a compelling argument to combine the two departments.

“They just seemed to make sense fitting together, and it’s been working out well,” he says. “Digital products like synths and personal multitrack recorders like the Zoom H8 fit together nicely. In the end, they’re both really computers.”

Mason also points out that live sound products are also incorporating recording aspects, blurring the lines between pro audio and live sound. He points to digital mixers like the PreSonus StudioLive, Yamaha’s TF series mixers and Allen & Heath’s QU series mixers as examples of how musicians are looking for one platform to enable them in the studio and on stage. He’s also seeing a divide emerge between high-end recording software platforms, where Avid’s Pro Tools leads a small pack, and more products geared to casual and entry-level recordings, like PreSonus’ Studio One, Steinberg’s Cubase, Ableton’s Live and FL Studio 12.

“Musicians have more options than ever to get into pro audio now,” says Mason. Merging that with keyboards made sense, but the most important part is having the knowledge on staff. There’s a lot more to know about now.”

While many stores continue to present pro audio as a separate department, the reality is that as recording technology migrates further into the software domain, the category increasingly becomes fluid enough to stand on its own or find an attachment to other major MI categories. It becomes a natural action to propose a handheld multitrack recorder to a drummer for rehearsals or an iPhone recording app to a guitarist to stimulate his or her songwriting ambitions.

Pro audio is a kind of über category that can pool nicely in other departments. What it’s not doing is going away, because everyone is a producer and an engineer these days. 

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