Don’t Play That!

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When people visit the OMA showroom in Dumbo, Brooklyn, they rightfully expect to listen to music. Sometimes they bring their own music, vinyl, CD’s or a hard drive with digital files. We even have a tiny device that allows anyone with a smartphone to use Bluetooth to play anything they have on their phone. I encourage people to play or request whatever music they like- there’s no point in putting on a very impressive classical LP for someone who wants to hear pop, rock, rap or punk (I have not had any punk requests yet, I must say). The important thing is that I get the listener to connect with the music. Often I’ll play things that are obscure, instead of taking the path of least resistance and just playing music that everyone knows (although I do some of that too). We keep wooden record crates on the showroom floor, each crate containing a genre (rock, jazz, symphonic classical, even solo piano and solo violin/cello, etc) and I really enjoy spontaneously crafting a demo for someone as I watch their reactions to what I’m playing for them. It’s a very organic thing.

When I have gone to other audio showrooms, the demo process could not be more different. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me (I try and do this anonymously) what I want to listen to. That’s because they don’t care. The dealer wants me to hear what he thinks is most impressive on the system. That music will most likely fall into a playlist which is even more limited than that of most FM rock stations today. It contains maybe a hundred albums, many of which have very little musical value (for me, at least) but spectacular sonics. The Hugh Maskela choo choo train song comes to mind, along with singers like Norah Jones and Diana Krall.

When you go to an audio show, this whole thing is even worse, because you will hear the same songs coming simultaneously out of different rooms, a truly sad phenomenon. It’s as if the dealers and manufacturers are actually afraid of playing something that is not on that audiophile play list. This is one of the reasons why we don’t do audio shows any more.

So you can imagine my surprise when I found the following piece in my email inbox from the least likely source: Stereophile Magazine, telling the story of Grammy Award winning producer and chief engineer of the San Fransisco Symphony, Jack Vad, who had gone to the 2014 RMAF show (Rocky Mountain Audio Fest) –

“When he’d carried his latest recordings, which I think are superbly recorded, into rooms at the show and asked if he could play them, exhibitors were anything but enthusiastic.”

Vad “had brought along a flash drive containing high-resolution tracks from SFS’s new, Grammy-nominated West Side Story and Masterpieces in Miniature SACD/CDs, both conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The latter included a performance of Fauré’s Pavane whose beauty nearly overwhelmed me...” writes Stereophile’s Jason Victor Serinus.

“I wasn’t asking to play cuts that were overly challenging, such as something by Anton Webern,” Vad told Serinus after the show. “I thought they were selections that would be entertaining, and I knew them really well. But in most cases, if there wasn’t a technical snafu— there were some playback systems that couldn’t grab the material— there basically wasn’t one room I went into where people didn’t want to get my music off the system.” (emphasis mine.)

“What Vad found especially confusing was that his music never drove other show attendees out of rooms. In fact, at his formal demos, people were enthusiastic, and even applauded. ‘There was a sort of ubiquitous editorializing going on,’ he lamented. “It was almost as if there was an invisible hook, and a feeling that, somehow, there were so many problems that this material brought out, either in the components’ integration or execution, that exhibitors didn’t want to be heard. I’m assuming this, because it happened to me many times.”

Exhibitors never declared that Vad’s West Side Story tracks sounded poor. Instead, they stopped them midstream, according to Serinus.

“It’s not that I went in there undercover, pretending to be someone else,” Vad continued. “My name tag clearly said I was connected with the San Francisco Symphony. By the end of the show, I began to wonder if I had to be a Stereophile reviewer to be treated decently.”

I’ve emailed Jack Vad with an invitation to bring that drive and any other music he likes to OMA next time he visits New York.