This article originally appeared in the February/March 2021 issue of Canadian Music Trade magazine.
By Michael Raine
Over the last five years or so, there’s been a convergence of technology and circumstance that has swelled the market for audio products for home-performance and work-from-home needs. And the best part for suppliers and dealers is that this market — which was growing before COVID-19 and skyrocketed during it — isn’t going to disappear whenever the pandemic mercifully ends. As well, it’s a far wider market than many MI dealers typically serve. It’s young and old, male and female, professional musicians and musical illiterates, individuals and companies, and those with budgets both small and very large.
According to Statistics Canada, by June 2020 as pandemic lockdowns were enforced across the country, 40% of Canadian workers were doing their jobs from home. By comparison, in 2018, just 10% had the option to work from home, even just part-time. And very importantly, not all of those millions of people are going to return to the office when this is all over. Another survey released by Statistics Canada in July 2020 found that nearly a quarter of Canadian businesses expect that at least 10% of their employees will continue to work remotely after the pandemic. In many cases, employees are enjoying gaining the hours they previously lost to their daily commute, and employers are realizing that, contrary to their previous assumptions, productivity has not gone down.
This growth in the work-from-home market is complemented by the growth in the home performance market that was already beginning prior to the pandemic, and in some areas has exploded during it. By home performance, we’re talking about livestreaming musical performances and video games. And while livestreaming video games using platforms like Twitch has been continually growing for almost a decade at this point, livestreaming music performances from home has been a new endeavour for countless musicians over the last year as they were prevented from touring or even playing at the local pub. For this, they have been turning to a number of platforms, including Twitch, but also Facebook Live, Instagram Live, YouTube Live, Zoom, and more.
As well, podcasting is continuing the growth trajectory it’s been on for a few years. According to Podcastinsights.com, by Jan. 1, 2021, there were about 1.75 million podcasts available. That total has tripled since 2018 when it was around 550,000. And the majority of these podcasts are recorded in people’s homes – even some of the biggest ones, like Marc Maron’s infamous garage set-up that hosted President Barack Obama, among others.
“We can’t call the last nine months just an uptick. It’s through the roof; it’s insane,” says Graham Collins, the manager of Long & McQuade Pro, the national retailer’s specialized recording- and pro audio-focused location in Toronto. “It’s pretty broadly based, too. I’d say, first and foremost, yes there’s podcasting people, then secondly people who may already play an instrument and are just looking to record because they’re home and have nothing better to do and hear you can do that kind of thing and think it’d be fun to do that. Also, people who were sort of already into it and are looking for something a little better than they previously had. Then it’s people working from home with Zoom calls for work or to talk to relatives and friends because you haven’t been able to see them. I mean, it’s really across the board.”
Collins certainly isn’t the only one noticing it. Each of the dealers CMT reached out to described the growth in these related markets for at-home audio needs in emphatic terms.
When Matt Van Hemmen of The PA Shop in London, ON spoke to CMT in 2019
for an article on serving the home recording market, he mentioned the sales growth he was seeing at that time in gear for non-musical applications like podcasting, home-based voiceover recording, and livestreaming. “Last year when we did the article, it was one of the things that came up, but I don’t think anyone was thinking it would be so full-force. Well, obviously no one expected what was going to happen this year, either,” he says to CMT near the final weeks of 2020. “It’s been a pretty massive shift, honestly. When everything first went down back in March and we closed, we were kind of sitting here being like, ‘What the heck is going to happen for the next few months?’… But within a month pretty much anything you could think of – audio interfaces, desktop boom arms, microphones – like any specific audio control devices that are designed for streaming were completely backordered. Everyone jumped on it at pretty much the same time, and I think everyone had the same idea at the same time.”
Likewise, for Alexandre Kano, founder and president of Moog Audio in Montreal: “Everything exploded in those categories. Like USB sound cards and USB microphones, and even some headphones and isolation products, like mic guards and acoustic panels… Now we’re fully loaded and even after all that big surge, it’s still going on. We’re selling out of sound cards and everything that has to do with podcasting or vlogging and stuff like that. So, it’s really doing well. Before it was normal and steady, and now it’s just on fire,” he says to CMT in mid-January 2021. He recalls that as soon as the shutdowns began, DJs were the first customers to flood the store’s website and phones looking for sound cards. “I was getting calls every 40 minutes from DJs asking what the best sound card was and suddenly everything was sold out everywhere. All around the world, it was madness for sound cards. And then after we started receiving a lot of stock and everything went back to normal. But it’s still selling every day and still crazy.”
“During the first lockdown of the pandemic back in March,” adds Jason Hart, manager of Steve’s Music’s flagship store in Montreal, “the sound cards sold out and you could not get them by the end of April, and then you had to wait.”
In each of these conversations with Collins, Van Hemmen, Kano and Hart, they all almost immediately mentioned that insatiable demand for external sound cards.
“Some of them that we ordered in March just came in December that we’d been waiting for,” continues Hart. “The microphones and the sound cards are almost impossible [to keep in stock]. And everybody seems to want the same companies, like the Shures and Sennheisers and the Audio-Technicas. I’m trying to sell them another brand, but it’s like, ‘No, I’m going to wait’ or ‘I’m going to look for it somewhere else.’ But what’s really nice is that a lot of people are trying to shop locally and not to go to Amazon. That’s really, really nice, but if you can’t get it and they need it, then they’re looking elsewhere – locally first, but then if they can’t, then they’re obviously going to go to the big box stores and that type of deal.”
It seems, in talking to our interviewees, that especially when it comes to USB microphones, customers are often coming in with a particular model in mind. Most likely this is driven by online research and a lot of googling “best USB microphones.” In this market, the Yeti microphones from Blue have long been popular models, and Van Hemmen singles out Rode’s NT-USB and NT-USB Mini and the Samson Q2U as other popular USB mics. But for Collins at Long & McQuade Pro, there’s no question what model has been the winner with his customers: “Far and away it’s been the Audio-Technica AT2020USB+. It’s insane; like usually if someone came in and said, ‘I’ve been looking for a USB mic’ and they’d been given a recommendation as to one, nine times out of 10 times that was the one that they were recommended,” he attests, though notes that because of Audio-Technica’s recent changes in Canadian distribution, he’s had a hard time replenishing their stock.
The other standout product for Collins over the last couple years has been the RodeCaster Pro podcast production studio. “There was nothing else like it on the market… It took a while for it to pick up. Like, when it came out [in December 2018], it seemed almost like an odd bird, but there was really nothing else like it on the market.”
Van Hemmen also mentions the RodeCaster Pro as being “a first of its kind” that catered to a growing niche market. “I remember thinking that every time someone came in asking for a podcasting setup that had pads where you could trigger things, you always had to put together some MacGyver-like solution for them. There was never really a dedicated product base for it yet, and then — timing is everything — this year everything started coming out. The TC Helicon GoXLR [mixer] is another great example for streamers.”
Another of the product categories to get a big boost from the surge in home-performance needs is acoustical products. And, for the good salesperson who wants to further maximize their sales in things like microphones and simple audio interfaces, room acoustics provides a good opportunity.
“One thing a lot of people are not noticing but I notice a lot is the acoustics of their space. So, acoustic panels are something that’s super important and a lot of [customers] don’t know it,” says Kano at Moog Audio. “Even though they’re buying a better microphone or headphones or whatever it is, when they’re doing a performance you can hear that natural reverb that is sometimes not great for your recording or performance. So, I think acoustic paneling is something that more people should consider to be the second step after they’re buying the microphone or headphones.”
And for those who are more focused on speech than musical performance, simple reflection filters or portable vocal booth products are an obvious need at the moment. This is true for people like podcasters and singers, but especially for professional voice actors.
“One of the things I’ve seen a real increase in are things that have to do with sound treatment for the microphone. Specially, something like the Aston Halo or the sE Reflexion Filter that form a sort of semicircle or hemisphere around the microphone to kill most of the room sound,” says Collins at Long & McQuade Pro. “I just can’t believe how many of those things that we’ve sold! It’s unprecedented. I don’t know if that is a general trend because, at least right now, there’s been this shift in the industry to recording at least partially remotely. Studios are saying, like, ‘Okay, for us to make this work, you’re going to have to deaden some of the room sound’ and it’s obviously way cheaper than trying to get your whole room acoustically treated. So, that’s definitely one thing where I’ve just never seen so many of those things sell.”
One of the best by-products of the work-from-home explosion for our interviewees is that they’ve each seen a previously-uncommon customer base grow exponentially for them, from broadcasters, companies and corporate professionals, to the government, teachers, and fitness instructors.
“For more corporate companies, we’re doing non-stop Zoom integration with the products from Biamp,” says Kano about Moog Audio, adding that corporate customers have also been buying a lot of microphones (USB mics, but also high-end microphones and mic guards, too), sound cards, and compact and user-friendly video switchers. “So, we’re doing a lot of installations for video conferencing sound systems. So, speakers with a DSP processor that you can use for Zoom or Google Meets or whatever video conferencing they’re using. We’re doing a lot of those and that is a really big market that exploded with the current situation.”
As well, on the government front, one of the most interesting purchases mentioned to CMT came from Collins. He says Long & McQuade Pro has sold around 300 USB microphones to the Ontario attorney general’s office. “That’s something you might not necessarily think of,” he says. “My understanding is that they’re for court reporters so that they could continue to work from home for trials.”
Another market that Collins would sometimes serve before, but which has grown significantly during the shutdowns is animation studios with voice actors working from home. This obviously relates to the sales surge of the portable vocal booth products he mentioned earlier. “We’ve dealt with a number of actual animation studios who had, I guess, reasonably full-time or strong contract people who they were prepared to buy gear for so that they could do it from home. Those people were all using Source-Connect, which is a way to interface remotely with performers into a studio recording. So, it’s a piece of software that usually the studio will buy and it’s fairly expensive, but then there is a free client-side software,” he explains. “But basically, it’s all audio-over-IP and the idea is that, ‘Okay, we can’t have you in [the studio] right now, but we can send a bunch of gear that is studio-quality and you can just do it from home.”
Likewise, in the terms of customers one doesn’t normally expect, Van Hemmen says he has been really surprised at the number of teachers, especially for subjects like music or physical education, who have been shopping at The PA Shop. It’s a market he says he rarely served previously.
“They had to start figuring out wireless systems for if they’re teaching something like physical education, where they can’t sit in front of the computer and need to step back a little bit. They’re people who probably never thought they’d have to learn how to do this kind of stuff. But we kind of got lucky, too, where a lot of products came out this year that were conveniently timed,” Van Hemmen says. “The biggest one for us has been the Rode Wireless Go. Basically, it’s smaller even than a normal belt pack would be and it’s one receiver and one transmitter with a microphone built-in. So, you just clip it onto your shirt and you’re good to go. It’s not nearly as complicated as having to wire up a receiver to an interface then to a computer. It cuts out a lot of the gear because it can sync right to the computer with USB. That’s the kind of thing where in ‘regular times’ I would’ve expected to go through maybe a few dozen here and there, but instead it’s a few hundred here and there. We got four cases of them yesterday after waiting for three months on them and I don’t expect them to be here by the end of next week. It’s insane. I mean, we could’ve predicted that, ‘Hey, everyone is at home so there’s going to be a big jump,’ but it went exponentially past that.”
In addition to teachers, Van Hemmen says fitness instructors fronting Zoom classes (for obvious reasons) and corporate customers are the other groups creating this huge demand for the simple wireless microphone systems.
“I wasn’t expecting this as much – I expected this group to go more towards plugin USB microphones – but it’s people who are doing large-scale Zoom meetings. So, businesses who are trying to do presentations and everything. You’ve got a guy in his living room with a poster board set up and he’s got to walk around and talk. The USB microphones that are out there are not designed to pick up room noise. They’re always designed to be right in front of you. So, if you have to even remotely move away from your desk, it’s not going to work for you. I don’t think anyone expected that group to jump in on this but it’s filling a lot more needs than originally expected,” says Van Hemmen about the Rode Wireless Go. “It’s weird, it’s a market we would normally never deal with. We deal with the occasional conference centre installation and that kind of thing, but the fact that they were able to adjust as quickly as they did and come up with some solution like that was pretty impressive.”
For Kano and Hart, they both say that in the Montreal market there was a huge initial surge, and still a higher-than-normal demand currently for things like sound cards and microphones coming from broadcast companies. For instance, Hart says his Steve’s Music location got a large order for sound cards and other related home audio gear come from RDS, the French-language sports broadcaster, early in on in the pandemic shutdowns. He’s also seen a lot of individuals from the broadcast industry in the store (or on the phone) looking for gear, and often it’s for higher-end stuff than the typical USB microphone.
“I also see big broadcasters who are buying tons of stuff for their employees so that they can be remote,” adds Kano.
A lot of the explosion in the home performance and work market will obviously recede once things return to normal (whenever that will be). The return of people to their offices will be gradual, unlike the very sudden shutdowns that sent them all home at the same time. But that said, there is a lot of evidence that a good chunk of the market will continue to work from home.
“I think it’s going to be part of a new way of life,” says Kano. “A lot of companies will notice they’re saving a lot of money by not having a building and I’m talking with owners who are thinking, ‘You know what? I’d maybe rather pay a portion of [employees’] rent and leave those people at home and just work with Zoom and such instead of renting a big building downtown’ and stuff like that. I was just having this discussion with some guys who were saying, you know, ‘Everything is running well and we’ve equipped everybody with better headphones and microphones and stuff like that, so what’s the purpose of having this big building and offering all those add-ons that you’re trying to offer to your employees when they could be at home?’”
Van Hemmen does warn, though, that the post-pandemic world could likely see less demand for PA gear than was normal pre-March 2020. In large part this is because of the sad demise of so many nightclubs and music venues. “I don’t think that’s going to come back to where it was. I mean, we’ve seen a number of venues close, especially here in town, where we’ve got their PA systems in the back warehouse right now up for sale. There’s just not going to be a lot of venues left when things come back,” he laments about London, ON and the surrounding area. “Like for DJs, most of the nightclubs here in town have turned into restaurants and it’s going to cost them too much to turn back at the end of it, so they’re probably going to stay that way. It’ll be a weird environment for sure.”
But on the other hand, Van Hemmen does believe that the growing home performance market is now just a normal part of the entertainment and content-creation landscape. “I think the podcasters are probably going to stay. The streamers are probably going to stay. I don’t really see any of that stuff fading back to where it was before. Same with the musicians who have switched over to it. I don’t think they’re going to stop doing it once they can start playing live again,” he predicts. “I think it’s a pretty safe bet. I mean, even between tours, if you’re at home for a week between shows, why not have a stream three or four days a week? So, I think most of it is going to stay.”
It’s going to be a pretty different world post-pandemic than it was just a year ago. You never want to dismiss or devalue the pain and hardship that COVID-19 has caused so many people and businesses across our industry. At the same time, it’s incumbent on all businesses owners and managers to be seeking bright spots and identify where growth is happening and try to grasp that opportunity. And it seems clear that everyone working from home, regardless of what they do, has opened or expanded a unique product segment that MI dealers are well-positioned to capitalize on. And interestingly, a lot of it has nothing to do with music.