This article originally appeared in the April/May 2019 issue of Canadian Music Trade magazine.
By Andrew King
Home recording is an inherently unique productcategory – one that’s complementary to virtually every other department in your store while also being a niche unto itself. Put simply, it’s a rabbit hole of discovery and experimentation and evolution that’s just as likely to appeal to a rock guitarist, jazz pianist, or hip-hop MC as it is to those drawn to recording specifically because they want to make music without necessarily being instrumentally-inclined.
There’s also a common joke in recording circles about suffering from G.A.S. (gear acquisition syndrome), which tells you all you need to know about why this category should be equally as appealing to MI retailers across the country.
For these reasons and many others, home recording equipment has been a relatively stable and consistently rewarding category for retailers, and while recent trends don’t match the significant growth seen at the cusp of the digital revolution, the numbers are still pretty encouraging.
In its latest Global Report released midway through 2018, NAMM indicates that U.S. sales of recording products advanced 2.5 per cent from 2016 to 2017, accounting for $504.3 million in total revenues. While the outlook for the near future isn’t entirely rosy – in large part based on the ongoing shift towards software-based solutions, for example, or the general trend with hardware of packing more features into smaller, less expensive packages – this is a remarkably innovative sector that doesn’t show signs of slowing down.
Even just navigating some highlights of The 2019 NAMM Show, one could find entry-level monitors that tune themselves to their environment, modelling microphones that can emulate the character of countless studio classics, and increasingly simple, sleek, and cost-effective interfaces.
And even more encouraging is the fact that, countering some downward trends in certain sub-categories, the market for home recording gear has notably been expanding in terms of demographic diversity and even beyond just musical applications in recent years, offering some attractive opportunities to bring entirely new kinds of customers through your doors.
“There have been some unexpected growths in certain aspects of recording sales that I think a lot of manufacturers are just getting around to addressing,” begins Matt Van Hemmen of The PA Shop in London, ON. He’s talking about a substantial uptick in sales for non-musical applications like podcasting, home-based voiceover artists, and streamers (think YouTube content creators), which countless manufacturers – including the likes of Blue, Rode, Audio-Technica, Roland, and Shure – have been addressing, either with specific products or application-specific bundles.
“Even a year ago, there weren’t really any specific products tailored to these users’ unique needs, and it was a bit more of a challenge combining pieces to get the solutions they needed,” Van Hemmen continues. “As the industry has adjusted, however, we’re seeing plenty of solutions, from new mixers with built-in voice processing or sound effect triggers to new microphones that are more focused on tracking a voice in non-ideal environments, and I imagine as the recording industry embraces this group more fully, we’ll see even more advancements tailored to their needs.”
Laura Dickens says she’s seeing a similar trend with podcasting and streaming customers at Moog Audio’s Toronto location. As such, bundles built around simple interfaces or USB microphones from reputable manufacturers have been performing rather well so far in 2019.
This trend is even emerging in smaller markets like Fredericton, NB, where Matthew Blanchard of Tony’s Music Box estimates that about 20 per cent of their recording sales are for these types of non-musical applications, from podcasting to even some local terrestrial radio broadcasters.
With home recording being one of the store’s smaller departments, Blanchard says that Tony’s has found success in stocking versatile products that are widely accessible in terms of their price points and intended applications, pointing to mic models from Audio Technica’s 20 Series as an example. “We move a lot of those because, even if it’s not something musical, a one-channel interface and an AT2020 is going to give you a great recording,” he says.
In fact, in the last year, Audio-Technica introduced its own Streaming/Podcasting Packs that include a 20 Series mic, headphones, and a scissor arm stand for desktop mounting. Graham Collins, the manager of Long & McQuade Pro in downtown Toronto, notes that he hasn’t only noticed an uptick in podcasting and streaming customers, but also in the size and complexity of the systems they’re sourcing – systems that “go beyond the basic one person, one mic scenario.”
He elaborates: “I find it encouraging that people are generally becoming more concerned with the quality of their production content. In most cases, these aren’t audio professionals or even experienced amateurs, but people with an idea or conversation that they want to share. It’s nice to be able to help them and steer them in the best direction for what they can afford.”
Of course, the “starter pack” idea is one that’s just as common on the music side. Interestingly, all of our panelists’ stores serve relatively sizeable student markets, with each being close to post-secondary institutions that either offer recording arts programs specifically or reputable music, journalism, or broadcast programs, for which many students are investing in basic recording packages.
“I’d say the majority of our in-store recording crowd is made up of students from the various programs nearby,” estimates Van Hemmen. “We basically have two distinct waves of students. The first wave comes right at the start of the school year and comprises the students just getting started, who don’t necessarily have a defined idea yet as to what exactly they’re going to need to get everything up and running.”
He says most of them will opt for the pre-assembled bundles that The PA Shop puts together specifically for such customers, “though some do spend some time with us to craft a set-up more tailored to their needs,” he notes.
The second wave comes towards the end of the school year. “This group is mainly upcoming grads who are ready to jump into recording fully and now have much greater and more specific needs for a full studio setup,” he says. “They’re used to working on some pretty high-end gear on campus, so many of them are going for the mid- to high-range gear – mainly interfaces and monitoring – in order to achieve a sound quality they’re used to having on hand.”
Blanchard says that, with Fredericton being a student town for much of the year, they do see a fair amount of younger people wanting to get into recording – “even if it’s just putting some rap vocals over a track,” he says. “For them, it’s often about affordability,” and so, like The PA Shop, Tony’s will point those customers towards packages with a quality mic, pair of headphones, and basic interface for a few hundred bucks.
Being the major metropolis that it is, Toronto hosts quite a few schools and institutes with recording and production programs, and Collins notes that Avid’s Pro Tools platform is quite popular because of that. “Everyone in a recording arts program basically needs a copy of Pro Tools because it’s such an industry standard,” he says. “Fortunately for them, there’s an educational version available, and we go through tons of them at the beginning of a term.”
That raises an interesting point about software in the retail environment. While all of our panelists’ stores do sell software, according to NAMM’s 2018 Global Report, it’s largely a declining category in the retail environment thanks to many DAWs and other tools being downloadable and/or based on online subscriptions. That said, between physical boxes and solutions like the XCHANGE Market Platform, which enables physical retail stores to easily sell digital licenses, it is still a viable source of revenue and conducive to bundling and complementary selling.
As Collins alluded to, Pro Tools is L&M Pro’s bread and butter when it comes to software. Beyond that, he has some insights into the figures like those NAMM is reporting. “What has happened over the past several years is that most DAW platforms have become full-featured production tools that already include a ton of instruments and plug-ins. Previously, you’d get a smattering of plug-ins included so you’d have to go elsewhere for specialty plug-ins. But the quality of the included plug-ins has gotten so much better that a lot of people don’t feel the need to shop around for boutique plug-ins.”
Another factor is that software manufacturers are starting to sell value-focused bundles of their continually-growing libraries, which also reduces incentive for people to shop around. “Komplete from Native Instruments accounts for 50 per cent of all software sales for good reason,” Collins puts in. “There’s just so much stuff in there that with a single purchase, it’ll keep you going with enough sounds and instruments for a very long time.”
Van Hemmen adds that, with more and more hardware solutions now including basic DAWs or promo plug-in bundles, software is starting to steer people’s hardware choices. “For people just entering the recording world especially, I see many of them focusing on which software comes with the hardware just as much as the hardware itself,” he reports. “People want to get the most all-around value for their money.”
Generally speaking, Collins says that microphones, preamps, and interfaces are L&M Pro’s three core product groups in the recording world. “In the case of microphones, more often than not, it’s about building up a collection that enables someone to be versatile in different types of recording situations. Mic placement is one of the most interesting areas where people will have different philosophies about how to best capture something,” he asserts. “Ask five people how to ‘properly’ mic a piano and watch the fur start to fly.”
That idea of “collecting” is one that makes recording equipment such an attractive product category for many outlets. “Our regular customers tend to be in a state of constant evolution, with each one having a list that they’re working on piece-by-piece to work their way to an ideal set-up,” Van Hemmen shares. “It’ll go in stages, initially starting with adding pieces they didn’t have – more I/O, more monitoring options, adding on controllers – and eventually progressing to going right back to the start and upgrading the core of the set-up and starting the cycle all over again.
“Everyone has such unique needs,” he continues. “You may have one customer who cycles through mic after mic in search of the sound they keep hearing in their head, but another who is constantly switching interfaces to fit ever-changing I/O needs.”
On that note of individual needs, as Collins mentioned in the context of microphones, engineers are constantly in search of solutions that will contribute to their signature sounds and workflows.
“I would say that our customer base is interested in finding an edge to set them apart from other recording, mix, and live engineers – whether that’s an interesting and unique mic or piece of outboard gear,” shares Dickens. “It isn’t enough to use all of the same plug-ins and equipment that everyone uses. Engineers want to work creatively with pedals, FX boxes, and rack gear – the stranger, the better.”
Van Hemmen has also noticed a growing trend in portable recording rigs – “compact travel set-ups that allow the engineer to travel to the artist instead of bringing the artist to them,” he says. “With how gear has evolved, there are now so many options we can offer, and so much processing power to get studio-quality sound from nearly any environment in such small packages. We have mics that can emulate other mics and interfaces that can emulate classic pres and give you a huge and produced guitar tone from the comfort of your bedroom or the nearest café.
“The options really are endless,” he says, “and with all the inspiration out there, why contain your art to one space?”
The demographics driving home recording sales are also expanding in encouraging directions; after all, a widening customer base means increased potential for sales, and all of our panelists report that the pie is growing as more women+ get into the game.
“While recording still seems to be a largely male-dominated field, we are definitely seeing more women taking it up and running with it every day,” Van Hemmen reports. “Many are recording engineers, though a large group is performing artists who are keen on recording and producing themselves fully to get their music out there and have it be 100 per cent theirs.”
Collins reports the same trend in Toronto, noting that while there’s still a “boys club” in play in various facets of the industry, it’s “very encouraging to see the numbers gradually evening out.”
In fact, Dickens and Moog Audio are actively driving that trend with some of their initiatives. “In terms of gender, we regularly run workshops and encourage womxn to attend by reaching out through social media,” she says. “However, I would say there are still significant barriers for womxn working in music and sound.”
Beyond gender, Van Hemmen says The PA Shop has seen an increase in shoppers from both the younger and older ends of the spectrum. “For the younger end, I think, more than anything, it comes down to how much more accessible the recording world has become,” he opines. “Being able to build a small home setup without needing thousands of dollars opens the door to a lot of people who are interested in getting into recording on a budget” – and in MI retail, anything that “opens a door” to a new avenue of music making or creativity is a major opportunity to capitalize on.
“For our older clients,” Van Hemmen continues, “it’s not as big of an increase, but it is definitely worth noting.” That group, he says, is comprised of people who typically have previous recording experience and are eager to dive into digital tracking and mixing.
“We’re even seeing some mixer-based interfaces coming out with onboard recording that perfectly appeal to what these customers are after, allowing for more of a gradual transition than having to jump straight into a DAW-only environment,” he offers, adding: “They’re often the most enthusiastic customers to work with, and without being super caught up in the technical aspect of it, have a huge amount of passion for just the art of recording in general.”
The key things to consider before starting or growing your recording department include your approach to stocking and staffing. As Blanchard noted, home recording is one of the smallest departments at Tony’s Music Box, but still earns its place based on its performance considering the amount showroom real estate it occupies.
“We stock Yamaha’s HS Series monitors and always try to keep a pair of 5s, 7s, and 8s in stock, along with Steinberg’s interfaces, so we keep our stock mostly limited to those brands, though do have access to a lot of higher-end brands,” he shares. He also points to Steinberg’s own UR22-mkII Recording Packs as a solution that does quite well at Tony’s. “Again, I’d say between
80 and 90 per cent [of our customers] are people that are starting from scratch, and for the price point and value you get on those packages, they’re fantastic.”
Blanchard also reinforces the idea that someone shopping in virtually any other store department could be a home recording customer; the potential for upstreaming is enormous.
As with any similar endeavour, you can start small, see what gains traction with your customer base, and build or fine-tune from there. Of course, having a knowledgeable staffer or two that are (or are interested in being) well-versed in the department will be critical to its success.
“While it is of course still vital to find well-versed staff for MI departments, something like recording requires that same degree of music and industry know-how to be balanced out with a deeper technical understanding of the gear,” says Van Hemmen. “In a sense, you have to approach this as more of a tech-based field than a music field. It’s one thing to know how a piece of gear functions, but to know why it works, how to integrate it properly, and how to troubleshoot any problem that may arise at any stage is another thing entirely.”
That said, he notes that knowledge can be taught and improved upon fairly easily. “Communication is really the most important and valuable piece that’s required,” he says. “We have a wide-ranging customer base, and you need to really be able to communicate just as effectively no matter who walks through the door … at a level that they can connect with and relate to.”
As for means of gathering that knowledge and keeping up-to-date with the latest innovations, there are plenty of sources; Dickens mentions announcements and gear reviews online and in trade publications and attending conferences and trade shows as examples.
But ultimately, it really comes down to people being interested and passionate enough to take the initiative, and as any of our panelists will tell you, in this corner of the market, that kind of passion and eagerness to learn comes with the territory. It’s also a big part of what makes catering to this customer base so potentially rewarding.
Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief of Canadian Music Trade.