The More Things Change....

Written by Bill Leebens

Oh, you think you’re so smart, Mr. 21st Century Hi-Tech Man. You know all there is to know about your fancy-schmancy stereo gear, you’re an expert at marketing it on all that social stuff, you’ve read all the gurus, you’re confident you’ve got your business COVERED.

Only one problem: you’re wrong. Not only that, somebody else had your business figured out better than you…nearly a hundred years ago. How is that possible? The stuff you’re selling didn’t even exist a hundred years ago—??

Wrong again!

In the 1920’s “talking machines”—gramophones/record players— were already a mature industry, and radio was growing by leaps and bounds. The primary reason for the existence of these devices was to provide music in the home. So, while the tech might’ve been a little different from today’s audio gear, the intent was exactly the same.

Feeling smug about our biz? I strongly suggest you take a look at any issue of the old trade journal The Talking Machine World, which went out to retailers and manufacturers of…talking machines. The magazine started in 1905, ceased publication in 1928, and by 1922 was publishing a 200+ page issue every month. Alongside articles on and ads for needles, motors, crank handles, new record releases, and regional sales news, there were numerous articles instructing salespersons in just how to sell those talking machines. There are headlines like:

That seems intuitive, no? And yet, donkey’s years later, how often have you suffered through a demo that was just all wrong, with material totally unsuited to the equipment? Maybe Also Sprach Zarathustra isn’t a great choice for that little 2-way desktop speaker with a 4″ woofer…

Demonstrators in stores or at shows are often caught between a rock and a hard place, when customers want to hear their favorites—which may be dog-mauled copies of terrible recordings. If another listener walks in and hears the resultant horrors, a bad impression can result. Perhaps the answer is a banner which says “Customer Request Now Being Played: Kindly Reserve Judgment”— or something more tactful.

At any rate: we can agree that successful demos usually require carefully-selected material. Nearly 100 years ago, even sellers of hand-cranked gramophones that used steel needles to play noisy 78s knew it as well. The gear may have improved—but why hasn’t our ability to present it?

Sometimes even the oldest and best-known aphorisms can be overlooked or forgotten. “Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle” is familiar to carnivores and vegans alike—but what does it mean, really?

It means the salesperson should help the customer experience the benefits of a product or service, not just present the factual nuts and bolts of it. High-end audio is often guilty of obsessing over design details of a device, which may be nothing more than well-intended trivia when it comes to actually making a sale or providing a true user experience. That speaker may have state-of-the-art componentry and aerospace-spec build quality, but if the customer doesn’t feel great when his favorite music is played, all that is moot. Irrelevant.

And so, Mr. High-end Audio Salesman, learn from your predecessors:

My initial response upon reading that headline was, “well, DUH.” And yet: how often do we forget that the gear is not an end in itself? I suppose it could be if one wanted silent monoliths to polish and ooh and ahh over in a non-listening room, but even by audiophile standards, that’s just plain weird. If the headline isn’t clear enough, the sub-head really cuts to the heart of the matter:
“Convince a customer that a certain make of machine will produce the best music and the sale is made.”

That may have been easier with a $15 gramophone than with  a six-figure super system, but the goals are the same, no?

[Should you care to take a look at back issues of  The Talking Machine World—and I highly recommend that you do, it is indeed humbling—go here and pick any issue. Or go to the main site, American Radio History, and pick and choose from Audio, Wireless World, and a zillion other mags and books capable of making your day disappear.—Ed.]

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