More so than just about any segment of the music products industry, pro audio permeates every aspect of life. Whether you are in a church, a restaurant, a movie theater, a club or pretty much anywhere else, the chances are pretty good that a pro audio system is shaping your experience. The Music & Sound Retailer reached out to manufacturers dealing with various components of these systems—microphones, personal monitors, audio cables and loudspeakers—to learn about the current state of the pro audio market. Here’s the good news: across the board, things seem to be strong and growing.

“The pro audio segment is strong at the moment, and it seems to be doing better than the MI industry as a whole, which has experienced a relatively flat trend,” said Darius Seabaugh, Vice President of Marketing for The RapcoHorizon Company. “Even during the most recent economic downturn, pro audio has seen growth.”

One reason for this is the very omnipresence that we just mentioned. “Although different aspects of the pro audio market can be seasonal, we have found that, globally and across different market sectors—fixed, touring and houses of worship, for instance—the overall effect is non-seasonal and relatively stable,” explained Ken Weller, Product Marketing Manager for Celestion.

Weller noted that, on the installation side of the market, he has seen particular growth with regard to video capability, opening up the market to additional growth opportunities on the audio side. “Video formats and resolutions have made huge leaps forward in the last decade or so, whereas most publicly experienced audio resolutions have stayed much the same,” he said. “There are notable exceptions and particular improvements, such as in cinema, but the fact remains: the quality of the audio signal you hear in a sports bar is much the same as you would have heard 20 years ago, whereas the picture you see has improved beyond all recognition. This feels like an opportunity for change and growth.”

The pro audio industry is also experiencing great strength on account of an influx of new customers coming to the market not from the professional side but, rather, from the consumer side of things. Doug Swan, Audio-Technica’s National Director of Sales and Marketing, Professional Markets, likened this trend to the one seen in the kitchen appliance and camera markets, where people who are not professionals nevertheless look for professional quality in the products that they purchase.

“It’s a surprise that consumers would adopt products we made for studio engineers, and it’s mind boggling to see them adopting professional products and brands,” Swan said. “People will buy a USB microphone and plug it into their iPad or computer for use not just in music, but also in podcasts and social media. Looking back on original forecasts, it’s exponentially different from what we thought, and it’s been a nice little gift for us so far.”

Weller has seen a trend with, he said, some speaker systems becoming almost commoditized. “At the lower end of the market,” he noted, “simple two-way systems are now almost expected to include an amp in the price. Value here has become keen, and successful products have to become ever smarter while including more features.”
Even beyond products such as microphones, headphones and speakers, Seabaugh sees the influence of non-professional customers seeping into the pro audio accessories market. RHC Holdings has “adapted our product offerings to meet growing retailer trends for things such as iPhone connectivity and MP3 player cables,” he said. “The challenge has been getting the music stores to stock these products. Many times, the dealer will order these products when a sale quote arises, which adds to the lead time of the sale and the potential for missed opportunities.”

Retailers must stay on top of these trends not only because they can easily lose a sale to an online retailer that carries the item their store doesn’t stock, but also because this new crop of consumers, which is more knowledgeable than ever before, often researches products in advance. “I’ve seen many times where the staff member [at a music store] knows less about an item—from a simple wired mic to a digital mixer—than the consumer they’re talking to,” noted Grant Brewer, National Sales Manager for Galaxy Audio. Brewer added that these users then go online and post reviews, videos and comments…so much so that “the people actually using the product can help sway future buyers toward, or away from, [your inventory].”

It’s not that pleasing the end user hasn’t always been a main priority, but, with customers having more platforms than ever before to share their praise and their complaints, companies have to make sure their products are maximally user friendly.
For Audio-Technica, that involves wireless microphones that take frequency coordination out of the mix. “We approach these products the way customers use their phones. They want the devices to choose the frequency themselves,” said Swan, who added that this is as much a selling point for dealers as it is for customers. “We can tell our dealers that the customer just plugs it in and it takes care of the rest. That’s an attractive product because they don’t have to teach the customer how to use it.”

Audio-Technica was focused on frequency long before the average consumer began to take an interest in such topics. In fact, it was related to the FCC selling off portions of the wireless spectrum. “About 10 years ago, we started looking at ultra-wide-band space,” said Swan. “Today, we lead the market in the 2.4GHz space, a license-free band that’s free worldwide.”

This issue, which Brewer called the “wireless conundrum,” will continue to affect the market as it moves further toward digital products. “Over the next five years, this will be the biggest question to be answered,” he said. “The move into digital wireless will be a driving force for change. Tied to this will be the fact that technology is becoming less expensive to manufacture. This will continue over the next several years, allowing more products to move from analog to digital.”

Seabaugh also noted the trend toward digital products, but he added that he expects to see more standardization of the market before that change fully takes hold. “There are still many digital audio networking protocols in use,” he said. “As soon as the industry determines exactly what the standard is going to be and what the products are going to look like—and when everyone adheres to that format—I think that standard is going to accelerate the process and there will be a major push away from analog.”

But don’t expect analog gear to go away entirely. “Not every occasion calls for digital mixers or wireless control,” said Brewer. “Sometimes, this can cause a larger learning curve than is necessary for small applications. Additionally, not everyone desires the ultra-clean sound that digital provides. There is something to be said for the grittier sound and ease of use of analog equipment.”

The ever-changing influx of products, along with new sources of customers and the new ways that they shop for and learn about products, results in great strength for the pro audio market. So, what can a pro audio retailer do to take advantage of this robust space?

“Feedback from our retailers demonstrates that it is very important to have not only the major audio and video products, but also the accessory items to support them, such as lighting cables and connecting devices,” Seabaugh stressed.

Brewer agreed, saying that having all the components of a system in the same place can be beneficial. “Having a complete system that shows the full range of what you provide—whether it is just a simple powered speaker or a full system in a rack—will help the user know what you can do,” he said. “The display is the first thing the consumer will see. Making sure it’s clean and functioning should be a priority.”

Keeping products in stock is also an effective tool for pleasing your customers and for staying ahead of online competitors, noted Weller. “In an era of instant gratification,” he began, “the idea of seeing a product for sale online, but nevertheless going to buy it from a store that’s a two-hour drive away, still makes sense versus a 24-to-48-hour wait for delivery and all the grief that having parcels delivered can entail.”

“One of the things we all struggle with is how customers shop for products, especially online,” remarked Swan. “As soon as we figure it out, it seems like the whole Internet changes again. There is just no going back.” He continued, “Audio-Technica has been in the U.S. for 40 years, and it’s sad to see some accounts that just don’t exist anymore because they didn’t cross into the new world. New accounts come in and take over because they’re in tune with technology and customers, and they know how to reach wide.”

There is no doubt that this industry faces several challenges, as manufacturers and dealers alike must continually stay on top of numerous trends, all while creating the right product mix, learning about advances in technology and marketing products in a way that attracts everyone from the casual user to the longtime professional. But, for those who do it right, success truly is attainable. And that sounds good to us.

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