A Punter's Eye View
Musician, ‘superstar’ and SOS contributor Tony Hastings has a right old go at equipment manufacturers and music shops.
I am a punter. Like most people who read this magazine, I get excited by new products. I even occasionally end my articles with that hackneyed old phrase "it was so good I'm thinking of buying one," and honestly mean it. Even though I am in a slightly more informed position than most because of my contacts within the industry and working for Sound On Sound, I still suffer from 'when are they going to get it into the shops-itus?!' Which brings me to why I am sounding off.
Since the demise of instruments with names like 'Mini Moog', 'Odyssey', 'Prophet', 'Jupiter', and the advent of numbers like '7', '106', '900' - each preceded with a suitably hi-tech combination of letters such as DX, JXP, etc - it appears that manufacturers have decided that a product no longer needs a particularly long lifespan and that the anonymity of a series of ascending numbers will fool us all into selling the 'hot product' we bought only yesterday to buy the new 'mega product' that we are going to see tomorrow. The only problem is that we have known about the new DJXSP 800 for months, and yet the only one in the country is being passed around various magazines for review - like schoolboys passing an illicit cigarette around behind the bike sheds. Sometimes it's as much as a year before the product is readily available, by which time we are all really frustrated and have probably bought something else instead!
For the large manufacturers this may not be such a problem, but for smaller producers it can put them out of business. Yet by virtue of the way new equipment information is used to stimulate the market, everyone is forced into releasing details of their latest plans way ahead of actual production dates.
Now I am all in favour of innovation and creative steps forward, but sometimes I feel like there is this great 'trick' going on right in front of our eyes. It's as if the manufacturers deliberately leave out a few important details so that the next model can boast its "new improved features." Of course, a lot of the blame lies with us, the consumers. We have been slowly conditioned into expecting more and better products by the day - even though most of us only use 30% of the features at our disposal.
However, wouldn't it be great if all the energy currently being put into bringing out re-packaged, watered down, overworked, cheaper versions of the same technology used five years ago were suddenly put into bringing out a product that had a lifespan. The DX7 had it for many years - but where is the new DX7?
The American companies tend to be a little less ruthless in upgrading their 'models' as speedily as the Japanese; I have lost count of the number of different FM-based synths there are now. Companies like Ensoniq struggled hard in this non-stop market to produce instruments, like the Mirage and ESQ1, which lasted a good number of years. Then they produced a completely new instrument, the EPS sampler - and more recently the VFX. The only drawback is also their advantage, and that is that they have a very small market share. This means that they have to believe in and support one product for a longer period in order to get the necessary return from it.
But where do all the new buyers come from? And where do all the old products go?
There are only a certain number of people in the market for these goods, and only a certain amount of finance available to buy them. I certainly can't find the cash to purchase everything that I want (or even anything I want, sometimes), yet music shop windows are full of the most recent items just begging to be taken home. Which brings me on to the other reason why I am sounding off: music shops.
We all need music shops. They are a place where we can see the latest gear in the flesh, speak to someone who (hopefully) knows all about it, play or listen to the equipment firsthand and, eventually, purchase something. A good shop provides an atmosphere where we, the punters, can feel relaxed, unpressured and amongst friends. Where we know that we will receive accurate information, excellent aftersales service and, most importantly, the best deal around.
I say that manufacturers have changed, but music stores have changed equally dramatically. Years ago when I went into a music shop, it would have some of the latest equipment (that didn't get changed every five minutes), lots of standard items and a good, healthy secondhand department. The price of new equipment was pretty much the same wherever you went - unless the manager was an old mate, in which case he'd be able to "sort you out a deal."
Then, over the same sort of period that manufacturers began increasing their output, the magic phrase "PHONE FOR BEST PRICE!" started appearing. Just look at the back pages of Melody Maker and a large proportion of shops will list all the hottest products with that phrase beside them. That really annoys me. Why bother to advertise in the first place? Why not just say, "We sell anything you might want cheaper than anyone else!"? It is simple, to the point, and doesn't confuse the issue.
The reason why prices aren't printed is to make you think that you are going to get a great deal, without upsetting the manufacturers who insist that everyone should sell their gear at the same price.
The problem is that we are all greedy. We all want something for nothing - but big stores doing silly deals is only the short term answer. It's a bit like Sainsburys putting corner shops out of business. A string of hi-tech dealers can probably take a large amount off the recommended retail price for you, but your smaller dealer in a more remote area is hard-pressed to make any sort of profit in that kind of price war. Yet it is the smaller dealer that can often offer you a better and more personal service. Many 'Get 'em out of the door as fast as possible' dealers don't care what happens to you after they've got your money. So you pays your money and takes your choice, quite literally.
In the midst of this, however, a completely new breed of merchandiser has arisen: the 'appointment only' stores. These are usually dedicated to hi-tech products that are displayed in such a way that you can hear them in the best surroundings, without having to compete with the bloke playing 'Smoke On The Water' two feet away. You get a salesman all to yourself, for as long as it takes - and you might even get a cup of coffee! Usually, such places only carry specific products, but as a consequence they only attract customers who are specifically interested in them, and so the level of service can be that much higher.
So, to summarise my points.
Manufacturers should slow down their output a little so that we can all try to grab a breathing space. Maybe giving new products a name instead of a number will help to give them a longer life? And how about producing a few more items of equipment where the basic unit need not change but that innovative new ideas and source sounds can be added via new ROM cards or a new chip (like the Korg M1), without making the unit obsolete.
As to music shops, well cheapest doesn't always mean best. So how about putting prices back in adverts and offering customers the sort of service and extras that keep them coming back to you, without having to engage in a price war that puts the smaller companies out of business.
Opinion by Tony Hastings
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