This Business IS What It Used To Be

I’ve heard a lot of people complain that our business isn’t what it used to be. I don’t think that’s correct at all.


I started back in the mid-80’s, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Reagan was president. Single-disc CD players without a tuner cost $1000 or more. Most systems were done with a cassette deck. No amplifiers had active crossovers, and no amplifier had more than 4 channels or less than 2. We learned to make passive crossover networks ourselves, build enclosures, and troubleshoot noise problems. Every head unit needed a DIN/RCA adapter, every head unit used a DIFFERENT DIN connector, and 10″ subwoofers needed 1.5 CF sealed to do “OK”. The Japanese were just popularizing “extra-cab” pickups.


You know who our clients were then? People with cars they cared about and who cared about music. People would come in with their Corvettes or Camaros or E30 3-Series or Porsche 912, and they wanted better sound and they could afford better sound. Later, rap and subwoofers really blew up, and CD players dropped in price, and our industry temporarily blew up, like Boston Market restaurants or Beanie Babies. After that, you could make a good living in our field without engaging with high-fidelity.


Non-musical adjacencies have always been around. When I started, they were AC and cruise, and intermittent wipers. Can you imagine making a business out of adding those items nowadays? The OEMs took those beaches long ago. Then it became CD players and security and then rear-seat entertainment, and then rear-view cameras and iPod integration. Now it’s CarPlay and Android Auto, and remote start and cellphone control, but we can see those going OEM as well. OEM audio offerings have made the marine market more difficult to break into, and motorcycle audio would be more comforting if motorcycle sales were increasing, rather than the opposite. I don’t see OEMs going into radar/laser countermeasures, but with everything else that consumers want in their cars, OEMs have reduced their cycle time significantly. We have a limited window until consumer-demanded features come stock.


What OEMs still rarely do is great audio. That’s not the problem. The problem is, they aren’t bad at doing good audio. They’ve taken away a lot of the middle. We have to up our game.


The system in the 2020 Tahoe I rented recently had stereo imaging and tonality I wouldn’t have dreamed of from an aftermarket system in 1986 – and it was significant better than the 2015s. It needed more volume and it needed more bass, but most people in our industry couldn’t have gotten sound that good with an aftermarket system, I’m afraid. The 2019 CTS I rented before that was a 6-channel system – fronts, rears, center, sub – and while it also could have used more bass, it was damned good from either front seat (as Brian Mitchell warned me about some time before).


If a $100k car comes with a great sound system, that’s expected. When a Chevy truck comes with a good sound system, that’s a problem.


Those of us from the 80’s usually started in a home-and-car store, where we were exposed to great sound from home gear. Those of you who have been in the field for 20 years or so probably entered in when the tide of subwoofer adds and CD installs was at its high point. That tide has gone out. We’re left with some temporary adjacencies with a half-life, installed radar/laser – and great music for people who care about their cars and their music.


This business isn’t what it once was – but it is again what it used to be.


My Recommendations:


    • Learn great sound.


        • Experience. Go to a two-channel stereo store and get a demo.


        • Learn. Engage with how this stuff works. We would have killed to have access to the level of information we can easily access today.


        • Take charge. Pro Sound Guys would never want to do an event without having control over the levels, the EQ, and the crossovers. DSP is just a tool for managing the results. Do you think the sound guy asks the band if they want him to use a mixing board to manage the sound?


    • Get better at installing. Stop damaging vehicles. Shooting self-tappers into sheet metal will get you sent to the inner circle of hell. Make stuff look factory. If your installations look like factory installations, they are worth more. You’d be surprised how many referrals you get from premium dealerships when their service people see great work that honors the integrity of the vehicle.


  • Get better at selling. Maximize every ticket, get paid for your better techniques, and improve your close rate.


      • Stretch the field. Start offering better options, rather than making the client’s mind up for them. Use the Triplicate of Choice, with the top level being something you are worried they’d never buy.


      • Sell better speakers. Better speakers usually take the same time to install correctly as cheaper speakers (increasing your profitability per hour of installation) but they also make you look better – and they have better margin than electronics.


  • Get better at planning your business. Predesign some systems. Look at some systems you’ve sold in the past. Is the gross profit what you need? What DO you need? Figure out which partners you want to be working with from a defensible profit position. No reason to stake your businesses’ health on a margin structure designed to appeal to a thousand-store chain, or to online sales.


    • Market to higher-income clients. You know what the economic definition of demand is? “The willingness and ability of consumers to purchase a good or service.” I didn’t say to blow out regular Joes – but don’t be average.