Why do I Work in the Hifi Industry?
I had an interesting conversation with a customer who came into the shop yesterday. After a career in sales, he retired, and now spends most of his time painting. He has a pension, and some savings, but is by no means a rich man. He has to be prudent in order to get by, but he finds painting enormously fulfilling. We talked about motivation and fulfillment, which naturally led me to talk about my own experiences.
Music has always been important to me. I grew up in a family of music lovers, with fairly wide-ranging taste. My mother self-identified as a hippie, and ran a disco in the early 1970s, so brought that dimension into my early listening environment. My father liked 70s rock and pop - I remember the Moody Blues, 10cc, The Beach Boys and others all being played at home or in the car.
However there were other aspects. My mother had a great appreciation for folk music, and, like most children of the 70s and 80s, I followed the top 40.
My grandparents provided classical input. Radio 3 was often played, and my grandfather was an early advocate of CD. My uncle also was a source of inspiration, classically, with a love of Mahler, Bruckner, Sibelius, and Wagner.
I experimented with a number of instruments. As I child I briefly played the violin, and later the cornet. I taught myself guitar (bass and rhythm) and drums, and played both to a reasonable enough standard.
When I left home, having something to listen to music on was important to me. Like many, I started with a mainstream 'hifi' system - an all-in-one unit with twin tape, cd, and radio. I bought CDs and made mix tapes, and music remained important to me.
As a young adult, though, I discovered hifi through a funny old electronic junk shop in Southampton, which was literally packed with every kind of amplifier and cd player. I used to go in to gaze at the items, hoping I'd be able to afford it. Slowly I saved up, and bought a JVC amplifier, and a Phillips CD player, and connected them to some Mission speakers. I had a hifi system!
Even at this stage, I could tell the huge difference between this cobbled together collection of hifi separates, and my 'hifi system', which probably cost more than the bits of kit I'd bought from the junk shop.
It was about this time that I started to collect records too. I had a flatmate who introduced me to some new musical ideas - Gary Numan and Fields of the Nephelim, in particular. I picked up a Sony turntable, and was hooked. The ceremonial nature of picking up a record, cueing it up, listening to the needle drop, and the rich, engaging music as it enveloped me was glorious.
At about this time, my younger brother had also started to get interested in hifi. He took a different route. He had a full time job, and lived at home, so had a little disposable income, and gradually started to buy new components from another hifi shop in Southampton - Richer Sounds. Between his new, budget, but good value it, and my vintage, but also decent kit, we had two different styles of hifi between us, and greatly enjoyed listening to them.
One day in Richer, we spotted a half-size, metal-boxed amplifier, with a single knob on it. The chap in the shop didn't know what it was, but I swooped on it, and picked it up for a steal - a Naim Nait! Some Kef Coda 7s were added, at a later date, and that, together with a Sony turntable, formed the basis of my system for the next few years. It always sounded engaging, always had great rhythm. I learned from that experience - often the strangest combinations work for reasons we can't fathom. There's a certain magic, a certain something which we can't really explain or understand, that we almost need to sense.
By the time I'd reached university, my love of music had developed more. I studied at both Strathclyde University, in Glasgow, and Oxford University, both of which gave me many opportunities to see live performances. As a musician, I played drums and guitar in various bands, and continued to collect records.
There was a fabulous hifi shop in Oxford - it's still there - Oxford Audio Consultants. I used to like to go in and look lovingly at the new Naim equipment. However, the people in the shop were never very welcoming. I rather picked up the sense that unless I had money to spend there and then, they'd prefer I didn't disturb them. That impression stuck with me.
At Oxford, I had a particular friend who owned a beautiful, old valve amplifier, and some small speakers. I'm afraid I don't remember either manufacturer, but we spent hours in his room listening to music on this system - it was heavenly. It's moments like that are formative in one's character. Some of those listening sessions still bring me out in goose bumps. This wasn't super-high-end hifi, but it was immersive, and meaningful.
When I left university, I treated myself to a 'proper' hifi. I bought an Arcam CD player, a newer Naim integrated, and some Tannoy floor-standing speakers. It was my pride and joy, and traveled everywhere with me.
As a young man with a theology degree, and a crisis of faith, the obvious thing for me to do was sell wine! That period of time was full of fun. I didn't have much money, but every day I met people. I listened to their stories, and I helped them bring a little joy into their lives. I loved learning about the grapes, the terroir, the viticulture, and I loved using that expertise and knowledge to help others.
Of course, all good things come to an end, and my wife at the time insisted I get a proper job, and my life went downhill then. Suddenly money was the most important thing. Suddenly I was doing hard sales, and working long hours, in an office. I wasn't meeting people. I wasn't bring joy into their lives. I wasn't helping them with my knowledge and expertise. It was all just a bit soulless.
At about this time, my brother had started working in a hifi shop himself, and we kept in touch. He sounded like he was having a wonderful time. Much like my experience of selling wine, he was directly impacting people's lives, helping them appreciate and enjoy their music.
After a few wrong turns, I found myself out of a job, back in Glasgow, and out of ideas. My brother called and told me there was a job in the same company as him - Audio-T. I went down to London, had a chat with them, and was offered a job.
The next few years in London were tremendously fulfilling. I had wonderful mentors, first at Audio-T, and then at Cornflake, who taught me about every aspect of hifi - from setting up Linn turntables, to designing and installing multiroom systems, and, of course, I soaked it all up.
My own system went through countless changes, as I experimented with every possible combination of system hierarchy, so I could learn about what worked, what didn't and why.
The industry is a small one, and I made a lot of friends. I loved my work, I loved helping people, I loved the creative side of crafting a system specifically to suit a person, their home, their music, their budget, and their constraints. I always was mindful of my early experiences in Oxford, and made sure I was welcoming and friendly, and reminded myself that music is the thing that connects us - we share that love, and as such, we're on the same side.
It didn't matter that I wasn't earning very much. I woke every day, looked forward to my work, and lived a simple, and happy life. Unfortunately, the rising cost of living, and the beginnings of a family changed that. Living in London, with a partner and child, with an eye on the future, I started to worry about money, and was soon sucked back into the world of office work, sales, deadlines and bonuses.
Another important thread in my life has been technology - specifically electronics and computers. My father was an electronic engineer, and both my parents and one of my grandparents were radio amateurs. I had a physic lecturer and a computer studies lecturer for grandfathers.
I learned to program from a very early age, and always considered computers to be things to be brought into service to help people, rather than things purely for entertainment.
I was also fascinated by electronics projects. I tried making things, I took things apart. It filled me with interest.
Within the hifi industry I found these passions could find a home too. I relished the chance to repair speakers, replace capacitors in power supplies. I loved learning about the technology underpinning the systems we sold. As the notion of smart homes and digital streaming started to take off, I threw myself into learning how to program AMX systems, and build embedded streamers based on Linux. I serviced countless Rega and Linn turntables, made stereo interconnects, and designed multiroom systems.
It was this technical and particularly IT / Software background that gave me a lucky break. I managed to move into computer consultancy, which kept me interested technically, but was better paid than hifi.
However, a few months after I'd started in my new world, I met up with an old hifi industry friend, who teasingly jested: you're a lifer mate. We won't get rid of you.
He was right. I kept my eye in throughout my time in IT, and for a good period I worked every Saturday in my brother's shop - may wages just about covered the petrol, and I drove all the way from Woolwich to Camberley every weekend!
Over time, I built a successful IT consultancy. We solved some interesting problems, and I met many fascinating people. But I also became terribly burned out, and really not well. I spent a lot of time traveling, and started to realise I wasn't seeing my children as they grew up. Eventually I'd had enough, and put myself on indefinite sabbatical.
That time out helped me reconnect with my family, and with what's important to me. I started playing music again - piano and singing. I was able to spend more time with my children, all of whom are talented musicians. I became active in the musical life of Portsmouth cathedral, and the school where my children go. I go to concerts as often as I can. I see at least six operas every year. Music is absolutely foundational to what I do, and what my family does.
Out of that sabbatical, and my rediscovery of my love of music, came the decision to re-enter the hifi industry. The last two years have been bumpy in places, but on reflection, all the things I used to love are back: I meet interesting and genuine people. I help them bring more joy into their lives. I use my expertise and creativity to solve problems for them. I use my technical skills, both in electronics/engineering, and software engineering to build systems that work exceptionally. I put my skills and abilities into service to help others get the most out of music, because, music is so foundationally important to everyone.
It's tiring. It's demanding. It's never going to be wildly lucrative. But every day I have the chance to bring joy into people's lives. To serve them. And to bring my experience and ideas and knowledge to bear.
I always liked the name of that shop in Oxford - I loved the idea of an Audio Consultant. And that's exactly what I am. Only I like to thing I approach it with humility and willingness to listen and help, rather than arrogance and indifference.
There's a fabulous book which I read once, called "You can't teach a kid to ride a bike at a seminar". It has as it's fundamental premise the vitally important idea that sales is collaborative. Too many people get caught up in the trap of assuming that the customer is trying to screw the salesperson, to get the best price, and the salesperson is trying to screw the customer, to close the deal. But actually, the job of a salesperson is to listen to another human's needs, understand them, and then come alongside them and say: ok, here's how I think we can work together for our mutual benefit to help you get your needs met.
What I love about working in the hifi industry, is I get the chance to do that every day. And that's why I work in the hifi industry.