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COVID-19 Can’t Stop Pro Audio Retail

There is already a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for pro audio, as retailers recount a short sales dip before rebounding.

COVID-19 Can’t Stop Pro Audio Retail New York, NY (June 25, 2020)—When much of the country started going into lockdown at the beginning of March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the bottom fell out of pro-audio retail equipment sales. “We were 35 percent down for one week; that was scary,” says Chris Bolitho, Vintage King Audio’s Los Angeles-based sales director.

Contrary to the predictions, this was not the start of a recession, however. “Within days, it turned around,” says Bolitho, as he and his sales team reached out to clients and discovered that many of them were gearing up to work at home. “All of a sudden, we went from this one week of scariness to being 20 to 25 percent up, week over week, what we had projected,” he says, as clients snapped up desktop speakers, USB microphones, sound absorption panels and room correction tools from the likes of Trinnov.

Brad Lunde, founder and president of Las Vegas-based high-end pro audio products distributor TransAudio Group, reports a similar experience. “Our business exploded,” he says.

When the lockdown came, Lunde worried at first that he couldn’t conduct business as usual, visiting clients and demonstrating products. As things currently stand, he says, “You can organize a trial, but you can’t personally show up.”

ATC reference speakers are a cornerstone of Lunde’s business, so he decided to offer a discount on the U.K. manufacturer’s SCM25A Pro and SCM45A Pro models, he says. “Just to sell the same amount I was selling already. But I did four months of business in one month. ATC is still trying to catch up to the orders; I’ve kept them busy.”

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The bump in ATC numbers was accompanied by upticks in sales for associated studio gear such as Drawmer monitor controllers and Tube-Tech’s CL 1B compressor. They’re gear “that could transcend location and be useful at home as well as in a studio,” he says.

“We went from everybody having a place to work to nobody having a place to work—and then trying to figure out, once it became clear it wasn’t going to be over in a week or two, how to set up a professional small studio at home. I think a lot of people put their money into high-end, high-value products of distinction,” Lunde says. “Business went crazy, and we’re still slammed.”

A big part of Dale Pro Audio’s business is supplying gear for use in large gatherings of people, such as houses of worship, schools, concerts and corporate applications. Needless to say, observes Tim Finnegan, who handles broadcast, recording and install sales for the Jamaica, NY-based company, things quickly came to a standstill in that market.

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“This is not traditionally what audio companies have had to face before,” continues Finnegan, noting that gatherings for entertainment and other purposes are usually the last to be affected during an economic downturn—although this is obviously more than that, he notes—and not the first. “We tried to open our minds to what else we could be doing to get sales and help people,” he says, looking for potential sales among churches holding services outdoors and restaurants that need to announce customer orders.

One bright spot for pro audio retail has been supplying local broadcast solutions for outdoor church gatherings. “It started with people looking for a $200 FM tuner that Rolls makes,” he says, referring to the HR70 FM transmitter, which has a range of around 200 feet. “You gather your parishioners in their cars in a parking lot, put up a large screen and projector, and broadcast the audio,” which can be picked up on FM radio.

Then Rolls Corp. ran out of stock. “The next best thing is a few thousand dollars—a Wi-Fi solution that’s a little more complex to set up,” says Finnegan. Plus, being Wi-Fi, older parishioners are not necessarily as comfortable with the technology, which requires them to download an app and listen on their cell phones.

Happily, Finnegan reports, Dale Pro Audio has weathered the storm. “We were prepared for it financially, so we’ve been able to weather it very well and sales have come back.”

Vintage King has managed to largely avoid stock issues, according to Bolitho. “We always hold a lot of inventory—many millions of dollars-worth—so when the supply chains got screwed up, we were in a good position to carry on shipping.”

Maybe Vintage King hasn’t had the exact model of an item that a customer wanted, he says, but a good alternative has generally been available. Competitors relying on a just-in-time or just-too-late supply model have not been so successful, he says.

“The profile of the business changed, and in that sense, we’re lucky that Vintage King is a very adaptable company,” says Bolitho. “The number of sales orders has doubled, but the average order value has taken a hit. We’re not selling $200,000 recording consoles at the moment, but we are selling 1,000 $200 interfaces, for example. So it’s about learning how to move fast and having a good way to pivot and provide other options.”

Lunde, currently working from his home north of Phoenix, AZ, suspects a good number of Chinese-made goods, especially at the consumer end of the market, will not weather the current crisis as well as many pro-audio products have. “I think the consumer business is going to suffer,” he says, not least because of U.S. import tariffs and the fact that audio hobbyists have less discretionary budget to spend.

We shouldn’t underestimate what we are going through, as Lunde points out. “This is a seminal event that changed the world overnight, like a war. Everybody has to live in a new environment with a whole new set of rules and pressures and problems. To all of this, we have the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution perhaps restarting,” he says, as the U.S. and other countries grapple with the best way forward in a pandemic and a recession, neither of which are likely to be over anytime soon.

There is already a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for pro audio, though, as news filters out that production facilities including Abbey Road in London and Barefoot Recording in Hollywood have reopened for sessions. Because, as Lunde says, “People miss the opportunity to work in a studio. That’s where music is made. It’s not the same as working from home.”