Here's an old joke: how do you end up with a million dollars in high end audio?
Simple: start out with FIVE million dollars.
In his classic management book "Up the Organization" (HERE
), Robert Townsend wrote (paraphrasing), "there are only two reasons to be in business: to have fun, or to make money. If you're not doing either, what are you doing in business?"
Despite what you might think from looking at the four-, five- and six-figure prices common in high end audio, few manufacturers, distributors or retailers get rich in this industry. High-quality parts bought in small numbers (due to limited production quantities), combined with extraordinarily-high production standards, guarantee that it's not going to be cheap to build most high end gear. Those companies which manage to grow to the point where unit costs become reasonable, tend to incur the derision of audiophiles, who sniffily refer to items they can afford as "mid-fi".
Is that fair? No, it's not. Motorheads don't dismiss Audis or even Minis simply because they cost less than Porsches or Ferraris. As if that's not bad enough, audiophiles then denounce gear they feel is TOO expensive. Rarely can a manufacturer win.
Wondering how this relates to the shows in Vegas? Here's how: folks who work in high end audio know there's very little chance that they'll get rich doing it. They do it out of a love of music, of the technology, and in all likelihood, love of the people who have introduced them to both. That's certainly how it worked for me.
Not to get all warm and fuzzy, but those shared enthusiasms make the high end industry rather different from most business communities. The closest I've encountered is the racing world, which is similar in its passion, but with a whole lot more money and viciousness thrown in.
The shared passions and joys are coupled with the need to cooperate, in order to survive. I mention this not to indicate how tenuous is the existence of many high end companies (although such is true), but to point out how bonds are created in this business...or in any area of life.
Your standard cut-throat business would likely NOT have produced a gathering like the one Audiogon Amy and I were fortunate enough to attend Thursday, the first night of CES: a dinner dedicated to the memory of Jim Thiel.
Occasionally you'll hear the expression, "no one ever said a bad word about him", but how often have you seen a roomful of not just friends and family, but competitors, rivals and relative strangers laughing and weeping together about such a person?
Well, it was a first for me.
Thiel President Kathy Gornik spoke at length about her partner of over 30 years, and if there was a dry eye left in the house by the end, I didn't see it. Dawn, Denise, Gary, Lana and Micah of the Thiel company-family also spoke of their boss/friend/mentor, and made me marvel at their passion and commitment. Fellow guests included John Atkinson and wife Laura LoVecchio, former Stereophile publisher Larry Archibald and wife Laura Chancellor, industry leaders such as Richard Schram of Parasound, Chris Russell of Bryston, Dave Gordon of Audio Research, Gabi van der Kley of Crystal Cable, Simon Zreczny of Audio Consultants, Joachim Gerhardt of Sonics and Richard Vandersteen of (obviously) Vandersteen Audio, amongst many others. I was also pleased to see Henry Juskiewicz, CEO of Gibson, who's had a lengthy association with Thiel.
What was stunning to see and hear was not just the obvious respect and affection everyone there had for Jim, but the love and support extended to those who were and are still grieving: that's a rare thing indeed. And having been a boss, it's hard for me to imagine partners, coworkers and subordinates with as much respect and affection for The Boss as the Thiel folks had, and continue to have, for Jim. That's even rarer, and is as proud a legacy as any speaker Jim ever designed.
Despite the occasion, this was a genuinely fun night. I've worked for Fortune 500 corporations and for the federal government (sorry!), and I can assure you that I never encountered so much genuine humor and good will in any of THEIR gatherings.
Enough with the serious stuff. Respect, affection and a spirit of community are part of what make the high end a special place, but raw creativity and just plain goofiness are important elements in the mix, as well. Next time I'll get into the goofier stuff, and some of the cooler toys I saw at CES/THE.
And hey: I even HEARD a few of them.