by Steve Harvey.
The downward trend in the number of commercial studio facilities and the proliferation of project studios have been driving forces behind the introduction of more affordable products by high-end pro audio manufacturers in recent years, and vice versa. Those manufacturers have increasingly turned to retailers for their help in reaching that expanding customer base. The prodigious expansion of professional audio products at the music merchandising-oriented Winter NAMM Convention is evidence of that shift, yet challenges still remain.
"Retailers are faced with any number of brands that they might choose to sell or recommend to their customers, and if we have products that are interesting enough and at the right price, it's then a question of how we can reach the biggest market together," says Jim Motley, partnership manager for Solid State Logic. Although the console company had made outboard products since 1991, it's only since Peter Gabriel and David Galke acquired the company five years ago that there has been a deliberate effort to address the burgeoning home-studio and hobbyist market.
"We've gone through four very aggressive years with a lot of product releases to establish ourselves with enough of a platform to move through that channel," continues Motley. But, he notes, "From our perspective, it's been not only about having the right product to move through the channel but finding the right partners within that channel to move the product."
The present downturn in the economy has perhaps only heightened a shift in the behavior of retailers over recent years, as Brad Lunde, president of TransAudio Group, an importer, distributor and wholesaler for brands such as ATC, Daking, Drawmer and Tonelux, observes. "It used to be that you could take new products out to the dealers, and they would introduce it to the marketplace for you. Dealers are not willing to introduce products to the market any more. They're so pressed for inventory dollars, floor space and shelf space that they really only want to sell proven winners."
There's also the question of expertise, and of time management. "Generally speaking, a lot of the retail channel doesn't have sufficient training, knowledge or expertise to handle a higher end, relationship-based sale," comments Motley. "Or they don't have the time, because their phone is ringing 60 times an hour and they need to process lots of orders for $99 controller keyboards."
The solution is to take a hybrid approach, according to Andrew Wild, VP marketing for Euphonix. The company began its move into retail, initially with Guitar Center Professional, even before introducing more retail-friendly products.
"Obviously, if it's a product like the Artist series we don't individually need to get involved in the sale," explains Wild. "In some cases the stores have some very knowledgeable staff who know our products very well. But when it comes to the larger consoles, even if those retail outlets don't have the knowledge, we have representatives in each of the countries who sell the larger products and can work with those retailers on a one-on-one basis."
The relationship is a win for the manufacturer, for the retailer, and also for the customer, Wild believes. "It allows [the retailer] to put together a package that includes not only our consoles, but also every mic and every cable. It makes much more sense to the project studio owner because then he has a one-stop shop for everything. And now we have the whole chain, from a box shipping over the internet to us helping out project studios to us selling big film consoles," he says.
Yet problems remain, not least what Lunde sees as fewer avenues to the marketplace. "I think manufacturers are working harder to find more and more diverse customers. They're finding that the business is concentrating with fewer and fewer dealers."
SSL was originally exclusive to GC Pro with the SSL AMS900 console/DAW controller and other products, shares Motley. "We've gone from that to 42 or 43 active accounts at its peak, and we've trimmed it to about 35." But, he allows, "The number that are fully engaged, supportive and on the maximum discount level has definitely shrunk over the last two years."
All retailers have some access to the AWS900 now, says Motley, but for sales of that console, Duality and even Matrix, SSL will likely also get involved since it requires in-depth product knowledge. "It leaves us as a manufacturer in a position where we say, how much work are we doing, how much work is the retailer doing, and what's fair reward for everyone involved?"
Yet the retail channel isn't always accessible. Lunde says, "There are some items that I sell direct, but only because I can't find a dealer. I had to introduce a whole mechanism just to introduce new product and to try to develop product lines that weren't yet ready for distribution." Lunde's solution is Las Vegas Pro Audio, which provides a web-based outlet for products, such as Pauly Superscreens. His TransAudio Group site also hosts detailed product information and, for Daking, high-quality audio samples of the devices' sonic character.