[SOUNDSTAGE!] Doug Schneider is the Publisher of SoundStage!
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Monthly Editorial by Doug Schneider
September 1998

What's Old is New Again -- But It's Still Old

I get a kick out of stories that I hear businessmen tell every now and again. This one involved one guy's plan to create a world-class, print-based audio magazine. My friend, a true entrepreneur, was all ears for this man's plan because if it worked, he would be in for sure.

The guy started by explaining that he felt that Stereophile was the most influential of all the current high-end audio magazines. My friend agreed, as many others likely would. The goal the guy had in mind was to replicate Stereophile's success and that would be more than sufficient. My friend agreed. How would they get there? That was the plan.

The guy went on to explain that if they wished for the same success with their magazine, they would simply have to copy everything Stereophile did -- that includes the size of the magazine, article format, type of paper used, layouts on the pages, fonts, and even the writing styles, etc. Of course, the title of the magazine would have to be changed, but that was minor. After all, if everything else remained the same, then they would surely enjoy the same success.

My friend sat dumbfounded for a moment before blurting out, "What a beautiful plan!"

The guy was unsure for a moment, but felt he had surely won over this potential business partner -- it was such a brilliant plan, right?

My friend’s face then turned a different color as he stared hard into this guy's eyes. Then he looked down and then back up again.

"That is your idea of original? This is your plan! This is what you want to do -- to copy someone else? Is that all you are capable of? Do you have an original thought in your head?"

Of course that partnership went no further, but you see the same thing happen time and time again. Copy what's been done before and the same result will follow -- except it doesn't.

Copying someone else is no way to make a mark. Take the movie industry, for example. The film students that the actors played in last summer's horror-spoof Scream 2 slyly pointed out that there has never been a movie sequel better than the original. One student cited The Empire Strikes Back as the sole example of a sequel that was better, but was quickly informed that Star Wars was a trilogy and so The Empire was not technically a sequel. It didn't count. By midway through the movie, the students conceded that sequels are never as good as the originals (of course, Scream 2 paled in comparison to the original Scream as well).

Moving back to audio, the best audio magazines have always had original direction. Did Stereophile get to its position of influence by copying someone else? I don't think so -- in fact, I'd wager that it took a lot of hard work and original thought, with Larry Archibald and John Atkinson leading the way.

People reflect on the ‘80s as if they were audio's hey day -- as if it were the ‘80s that made audio. They seem to feel that if we recreate that era, then the success of that time will surely come back as well. The ‘80s supposedly had it all -- two great high-end audio magazines with what are now legends on their mastheads. In fact, Harry Pearson and J. Gordon Holt are so idolized to this day that there are people who seem to want to be them, to emulate them -- HP and JGH sequels for the ‘90s and beyond. However, people forget that HP and JGH had no models for themselves and what they created came from within -- they were, in fact, originals too. As John Atkinson took the editorial helm at Stereophile, he again charted his own direction for the magazine that is leaving a mark to this day.

Furthermore, reflecting back to the ‘80s through clear lenses reveals a time in audio that was not quite so rosy as we want to remember.

  1. Although high-end audio did prosper and grow in the 80's, audio equipment literally flew out the dealers’ doors in the ‘70s -- that was the time for prosperity! My friend, a former audio dealer, still rejoices in the memories of people buying dozens of records in a single buying session and looking to upgrade their components many times in a year. Although the vinyl-philes will hate me for saying this, it was the CD that floated audio's boat through the ‘80s, just like home theater is doing it today.

  2. More importantly, the companies that did prosper in the ‘80s were not imitators. Manufacturers that succeeded charted their own courses and built products that had never been built before. Look at the results from Monster Cable, Wilson, Krell, Mark Levinson, Wadia, among many others -- companies that took a fresh approach. Magazines that flourished did so because of the originality of their approach -- there was nothing to rehash from days gone by.

When people wish for a decade that has past, they are doing so through rose-colored glasses. I don't think that there is a way to bring the ‘80s back -- and frankly, I don't think I want to anyway (have you seen The Wedding Singer yet?).

I remember a number of years back when Stereophile took a bold step and, egads, changed the actual size of the magazine! Remember that? Yes, a new larger format! Audiophiles used to the old digest size were up in arms over the whole thing. They didn't know what to make of it, and they seemed to feel that it was going to hurt the high end. "Why change when we want to rest," seemed to be the reigning attitude. Of course, that was another good decision and proof that progression, and not regression, is what is needed. Those who hope for the ‘80s to return and who model their businesses around that are simply digging a hole for themselves that I hope others don't fall into -- remember, sequels don't work.

The times have changed and what we need today is some originality -- something new -- so adaptation is the key. Fortunately, in audio there is plenty that can be done about that and lots of room for original thought. Look at the online industry, for example. What's possible today is a fraction of what will be in the future. At SoundStage! we are trying to create something unique -- something original. To do that we may hit a few bumps along the way, but I think in the end it will be worth it because we used a brand new medium.

I don't only look to the online industry for the answers. In the print world there is still lots to be done, and I'm impressed by the approaches of two relatively new publications. Although Art Dudley's Listener may resemble the physical appearance of The Abso!ute Sound and Stereophile in the ‘80s, the content is far different. Listener's approach to audio is the right on track and can be summed up with a single word -- fun. And while we've been taught what's $ensible for many years, Myles Astor has taken the opposite approach, the high road, so to speak, and gone for the gusto with Ultimate Audio -- targeting equipment that is far from my own shopping budget, but will appeal to the higher-end shopper. I would think that Myles may think of such gear as looking down from the Olympia of audio. Both are unique approaches and not rehashes of what's been done before, and this should be applauded.

I think that as we approach the year 2000, it's time to give way to change. Let's not take something old and try make it new again. Instead, let's make something new and give it a chance to get old.

...Doug Schneider

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