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Rosy Retail Outlook

If the AES Convention in Los Angeles was any indication, the pro audio industry seems to have rediscovered its mojo, introducing a slew of new product and technologies, suggesting that 2015 might be rosier for retailers than the rollercoaster ride of the last few years.

If the AES Convention in Los Angeles was any indication, the pro audio industry seems to have rediscovered its mojo, introducing a slew of new product and technologies, suggesting that 2015 might be rosier for retailers than the rollercoaster ride of the last few years.

“Overall, I think we’re anticipating a strong 2015,” states Bill Wrightson, senior vice president, technology merchandise for Guitar Center. “I think 2013 and 2014 had their ups and downs. We enjoyed good years, but we’re quite bullish about 2015. We’re seeing a lot of really good technologies coming out that we think will excite the market across almost all of the categories.”

In past years, sales were relatively even across all price points, according to Brad Lunde, founder of TransAudio Group and Las Vegas Pro Audio, who focuses on recording and post production clients. But now, he says, “We see all of our high-end brands doing well, and the things that represent extreme value do well. But the things in the middle are hard to sell.”

There has also been a shift in the way that customers and dealers interact, says Lunde. “Everybody scaled their businesses back with the decline of business back in 2006, 2007. Now business is improving and they’re sort of understaffed, but the business is different, because the customers don’t necessarily want the same behavior from a dealer that they did in 2006.

“What the customers want to do is come to the dealer and say, ‘I want that thing; send it to me.’ They want to evaluate it and decide if they like it, and if they don’t like it, send it back and get something else. End-users, unfortunately, are not asking for advice. They’re just buying and making up their own minds.”

Two things can give a dealer an edge, Lunde believes: “The dealers that carry inventory are seeing additional business, because they can deliver now. And the dealers that have to special order [products] are relying solely on relationships to justify the wait. But if you don’t have relationships or inventory, it’s tough.”

The market is also continuing to evolve, says Tom Menrath, strategic development, Vintage King Audio, which has outlets in Detroit, Nashville and Los Angeles. “For our core customer—engineers, producers and studio owners —the transition to the ‘professional private studio’ continues,” he reports.

“Many commercial facilities are closing down or finding ways to reinvent themselves. On the other hand, more and more private recording studios are being built, allowing engineers and producers to offer a one-stop solution to artists and record labels.”

Vintage King, which was founded on the sale of new and resale of vintage analog gear, is somewhat unique, continues Menrath. “We work closely with many manufacturers to develop products specific to our customers’ needs—basically, ‘state-of-the-art vintage,’ for lack of a better term.” He adds, “Our sales of used and restored vintage gear keeps our 14-person tech shop quite busy.”

So what exactly is selling currently? Wrightson has seen variations in growth across those categories. “Of those major categories, we see moderate growth within the live sound and recording categories. Within recording, however, there are subcategories that are experiencing very strong growth. One that immediately comes to mind is what we call iOS for musicians. It’s an area where we anticipate continued, very strong growth for 2015, and even beyond.”

Apple’s mobile products have become very important very quickly, according to Wrightson, as both an independent platform and as an extension to existing products, such as remote control of digital mixers. “It’s become a big business for us; we’ve dedicated space in our stores for iOS, as well as dedicated a specific category that’s front and center on our website,” he says.

“Where we are seeing very strong growth, and we expect to see very strong growth next year, is within the digital mixer realm,” continues Wrightson.

Menrath, looking forward to 2015, says, “It’s really exciting to see the amount of small format consoles being developed; we expect this to continue. The past year saw console introductions for API, Neve, SSL and many others. Equally exciting is the groundbreaking DAW control surfaces being offered by Avid, Slate Pro Audio and others.”

“We’re selling a lot of ATC speakers,” Lunde reports, “because customers hear them and they see what a difference it makes in their recording, in the time they invest in the recording and how much less work it requires at the mastering level.” Looking forward, he adds, demand for speakers could surge in one particular market, at least: “Dolby Atmos seems to be of great interest to the post industry, because it seems to have a lot of interest coming from the consumer and the home install markets.”

Guitar Center also sells a lot of audio interfaces every week. “It’s in the thousands,” he says. “And we’re selling about two-thirds as many devices specific for iOS as we are ones that are specific for Mac and PC.”

As for the future, he continues, “I would not be shocked to see more DSP and more connectivity and control built into powered speakers, and integration of that with digital mixers.”

Wrightson also believes there is an opportunity for wireless mic manufacturers. “The wireless segment of microphones continues on a very strong growth path, fueled primarily by the proliferation of digital wireless. The hint is that, with wireless technology, you can transmit more than audio. I think that could even spark more interest in, and migration to, wireless microphones.”

But as Lunde observes, dealers face a fundamental challenge to selling any audio product. “I don’t think customers give dealers that much opportunity to add value. They just want to buy it and try it at home.

“If the customer doesn’t really give your dealer a chance to add value, he’s really not letting the dealer sell anything—they’re focused on delivery and being competitive. With the required inventory at the dealer level becoming larger and more diverse, they have less time to market. That means they’re pushing more and more of the responsibility for marketing and creating demand off to the manufacturers.”