For some reason, large, well established audio companies (of all stripes) seem to fear risk and innovation.
The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.
I got the pictures of those dogs at openclipart.org, by the way.
I used to have a contract gig where I wrote articles for Systems Contractor News and/ or AV Network. Every once in a while, I would end up writing a piece that didn’t quite fit the site. I decided to resurrect one of these articles to help jumpstart The Small Venue Survivalist.
I have a confession to make: Established industry leaders tend to bore me. It’s not that they don’t make nifty things, or work on enviable projects. To be sure, I look at an ad for a well-engineered, newfangled thingamabob and start to desire it. I’m especially susceptible to whaddya-call-whos in the transducer category:
“Huh – I would love to get a bunch of those mics on stage to find out if they really do kill feedback problems.”
“Hmm – How cool would it be to put a couple of those super-loud powered boxes in the room and hear what it’s like to mix the whole show at just above their idling point?”
Yes, I do love toys, and a really cool toy is cool without regard to who made it. Here’s the thing, though…
I’m not excited when the “big dogs” do something moderately spiffy, because I expect them to do moderately spiffy things.
Or, at least incrementally spiffy things.
They have lots of money to spend on continual R&D, plus a sizable staff to do that R&D. As such, they’re always improving their offerings.
“Our new design features the super-expo-constant-conical-hybrid waveguide, for higher highs with less distortion and mind-blowingly constant directivity. Directivity so constant, it’s almost a law of nature! See us at booth…”
You can practically bank on them doing this. As much as I recognize that it’s a bit unfair to say it, these advances by the big players just seem unremarkable. It’s not that they’re standing on the shoulders of giants, because everybody is, but rather because they’re giants anyway. Climbing a mountain isn’t an earth shattering achievement when you’re half as tall as the mountain to start with.
Perhaps a more fair way of putting it is that achievements have a semi-objective, if hard to define, “remarkability.” An achievement isn’t diminished by the relative power and resources of the achiever, but the risk of that achievement certainly can be. My heart, therefore, belongs to the “little dogs” that do things that are risky for them.
You know what’s really ironic, though? It seems like a moderately risky endeavor for a little dog can be an unbearable risk for the leaders of the pack.
One possible way for this to work is between two loudspeaker builders. “Little Mutt” is a manufacturer of unconventional but high-performing boxes. For whatever reason, they’re designing and building loudspeakers that are very different from what most other people are building. It’s a risky proposition, especially when those unconventional designs can’t possibly be made at an “entry-level” price point. They’re not the most premium of all premium products, but they are quite a ways out of the league of a casual buyer. On the other side of the equation is “Big Woofers.” Everybody know them, and they have a ton of product lines. They can boast that their offerings are used in giant installs and gargantuan touring shows. They have products that range from downright affordable to “if you have to ask the price, you can’t possibly pay for it.” The R&D department at Big Woofers could probably achieve everything that Little Mutt has done in the space of a month. They might even do it a bit better.
Yet they don’t…why?
I have a theory. (Everybody who works with me has just started rolling their eyes. Whenever any “situation” occurs, or a conundrum crops up, it’s almost a sure bet that I will say, “I have a theory…”)
I could be completely wrong, but I think my notion is plausible. My theory is that a big dog, a pack leader, experiences a subjective level of risk that rises abruptly as they get farther out in front of the herd. What happens is that large, “crazy” leaps farther out in front of the rest of the leaders become harder and harder to justify. All kinds of things play into this, not the least of which is that Big Woofers might actually be owned by an even bigger dog, a dog that measures value not just by profit, but by profits this quarter.
This focus on short-term performance can get to the point that anything likely to lower that metric (at all, even for a short while) is seen as a “very bad idea.” With lots of new orders for already developed products, plus a very healthy installed base, trying something really different couldn’t realistically sink the company. The potential stifler, though, is that unless the new venture does enormously well, there’s a good chance (maybe even a certainty) that the short-term profits will go down. This represents a very high subjective risk, and so Big Woofers just keeps on making incremental improvements to what they’re already doing.
Okay – so what about Little Mutt, then?
Little Mutt, on the other hand, doesn’t need to lose a lot of sleep over short term profits. Since nobody’s looking over their shoulder, they only have to answer to their own needs. As long as they have enough cash on hand, they can keep doing wild and wacky things. If Little Mutt tries something, and isn’t quite as profitable as they might have wanted to be, it’s not nearly as big a deal.
Within reason, of course.
This, ultimately, is one of the reasons why I have a disproportionate love of the smaller players. The upstarts. The little company from the midwest that’s selling a new brand of microphones on Ebay. The guys from down south who build loudspeakers and have a small e-commerce site. It’s downright fun to see what they can come up with, even if it really isn’t any different from the industry standard. It’s satisfying to see them move up in the pack, because there’s a novelty to it. The ultimate exhilaration, though, comes when one of the little dogs does something off-the-wall, because you know they’re taking a big risk, shooting for the moon, and potentially changing how we look at the possible solutions to problems. The big dogs are in front, I know they’re in front, and they’re probably going to be just about as in front next year as this year. The little dog, though? He or she might just be ready to pass a bunch of other dogs. That’s unpredictable, and when it happens, it sure does charge you up.
Do the big dogs deserve their place?
Still, going off into a corner and finding a little dog doing something that’s neat on their scale (or even objectively nifty by any measurement) is something I find more personally rewarding.