It's about the people

While I had attended other audio shows before, this was to be my first CES. I suppose I'd come with an agenda. However, more than that, I'd come with a certain conceptual framework, one borne from years of attending the car shows in New York City, first with my father, then with my sons. Whatever else it may be, the auto show is a family event. I learned to appreciate cars and to remain connected to my father -- no matter how far apart we had drifted otherwise -- at and through the car show. So when it came to CES, I arrived with the auto show concept in mind. For as I had suggested in another piece, a love for music and its modes of reproduction are acquired, much as is a love of art or sport. The seed must be planted and nurtured. Frankly, the long term health of the industry depends on the capacity and willingness of those of us who appreciate and love music reproduction, to convey our passion and joy to others - especially our children. It depends moreover on our ability to do so in a way that draws others in by education and emotion rather than by indoctrination and intimidation.

Sadly, there were few families attending the CES; maybe there is nothing about the show itself conducive to being otherwise. Perhaps, it cannot be otherwise. To be sure, nothing about the show is appropriate for young children. It requires quiet listening, patience and a willingness to look but not to touch - unlike, dare I say, the rest of Las Vegas whose telos is to induce looking and touching and then some. Even so, there is no reason why teenagers who love music wouldn't enjoy at least a day's worth of what our community/industry has to offer. Where were the teenagers and the young adults? Where were the families?

I may have come with one conceptual framework in mind, but it took less than a day for another to completely replace it.

I found myself recalling what it was like for me and 1400-or-so other freshly minted Ph.Ds in Philosophy to be hitting the so-called "meat market" in the early 1970s. The American Philosophical Association annual Eastern meetings are held between Christmas and New Year's. The year I was "on the market", it took place in New York City. I went to the meetings bathed in anticipation and fully prepared to display my wares. I had my speech down. I had answers. The problem? I had no control over the questions I might be asked.

And so I was as nervous as I was anxious. I believed in me, but I was not confident. This was a process I had no power to control, however much I might have wanted to. I wandered and I wondered. Would the departments with jobs find me an interesting candidate? Would I be quick on my feet? Would I make a good first impression? Would anyone choose me? Would they be put off by the unconventional topic of my dissertation? (I wrote it on no-fault automobile insurance, not your typical topic for a philosophy dissertation then or now.)

But it wasn't just me facing the interview grind. 1400-plus others had prepared as long and as hard as I had for this moment. 1400 others were competing for the same 120-or-so jobs. The truth? Not all of the 1400 slabs of meat were newly minted; nor were all of the 120 jobs permanent, tenure-track appointments. Some of the 1400 had been here before. Some of those back for another try had been unable to land a permanent job, moving from one one-year appointment to the next. Others had landed jobs only to see university budgets slashed and their contracts expire without renewal. Yet others had been denied tenure altogether and, at a great disadvantage, were forced to start the process all over again. They were officially damaged goods - though no one dared use that term explicitly.

Of the 120 or so advertised jobs, a third were tentative, anticipated openings that might well never materialize; others would be funded but not as permanent positions on the tenure track. They would become one year jobs - placeholders until a tenure track position could be fully funded. Those fortunate enough to score one of these would be back at this again almost immediately upon arriving at their new temporary home, moving to a new place often with family, preparing new classes and preparing to look for work all over again, all simultaneously.

I remember what it was like for the 1400 or so of us, comparing our dance cards. "How many interviews do you have lined up?" "Who with?" Some had few if any. They came to the meetings hoping to get one or two on site. Others had more interviews, albeit in places you had never heard of before. Some were very lucky. They were the "hot commodities " - USDA prime meat aka prized graduate students from the best programs: Pedigree, pure pedigree. They were the Wilson, Magnepan and Audio Research of the job market, 2% lean steak tartar of some exotic rare species.

The great equalizer of course was -- and to this day, remains -- the interview itself. You walk into a room with 15 minutes to make your mark. Your interrogators smile, shake your hand, invite you to sit down. It's show time: Make or break time. They ask a question; you answer. Are they bored? Was I good enough? Please ask me a question about my dissertation. Let me show you my stuff. Take time with me. Get to know me. Listen to what I have to offer. Don't be so bloody disinterested so fast. Is it time to leave, already? So fast! Damn! Thanks; it was a true pleasure to meet you as well. We'll surely be getting back to you really soon. The Grande Inquisition Dayak-style - did I taste sweet to them once they had sunk their sharpened teeth into me?

And so it would go for the 1400 or so academics who, in a sense, had spent all their lives preparing for this very moment. Did the people in this room with the jobs to dole out care at all? Did they stop for a moment to appreciate the level of work or commitment that each of these candidates had taken in an effort to put their best foot forward? Were they looking for solid ground to base honest appreciation upon? Or were they instead looking for a way to say "no", some justification for not feeling too bad about moving on to the next candidate?

This scenario revisited me as I walked that first day through the corridors of the Alexis Park hotel. Not at first. At first, I was just excited to be there. The air was fresh and crisp. It was all anticipation. But by the end of the day, having watched people walk in and out of rooms barely taking notice of the equipment or barely listening to the music; as I passed room after empty or sparsely populated room, looking into the eyes of manufacturers, sales reps, dealers and designers ... this is what I found myself thinking.

Do you want another meat popsicle?

If you want to understand the CES, you have to know it from all sides. This particular one is just one of them - but one to which we attend far too infrequently. Showgoers who casually walk in and out of rooms all within the course of thirty seconds -- passing cavalier judgment like "That preamp sucks; those speakers sound like garbage" -- are entering not just a room but the lives, dreams and aspiration of others. These aren't just rooms and gear. These presentations represent lifetime commitments and passions, often thousands of hours of labor. And, at the end of the day, every manufacturer or designer, every sales rep and importer, is hostage to luck, some good, some bad. You don't know if your equipment will arrive on time or in one piece. You don't know what your room will sound like. You don't know what music will be playing on your system when a reviewer or prospective buyer happens to walk into your room. Despite all your hard work; regardless of how deep your passion and commitment run; no matter how talented you are - you are hostage to fate and fortune.

Some of the 1400 people at the APA in New York got jobs; some didn't. Some came back and tried again to succeed, others didn't or came back and failed. Some persevered, others found alternative careers. It's unavoidable. It's not a matter of fairness, really. No one has a claim on a job. It wasn't an unfair world because the best universities didn't have 1400 open positions to go around. Still, competition for employment hardly justifies potential employers from treating candidates with disdain and disrespect. Power does not confer legitimacy on all that one does.

Some of the companies in our business will succeed. Some folks had great shows; some didn't. Some will be back to try their hand a second or third or fourth time. Some might catch on next year, make their big splash, be the hot product. Some will just move on and do something else. It's just the way of the world. It's not really a matter of fairness. No one has a right to demand success.

On the other hand, we all benefit from the efforts that the manufacturers, designers, sales reps and others make. We all benefit from the risks they take, their willingness to create and display, to make themselves vulnerable to us. And their vulnerability requires that we appreciate and respect them. Maybe we can stop for a minute and think about what these few days feel like from their point of view? In the long run, we'll be better people for having done so.

Okay, I hear you. What kind of reviewer gives a damn about the vulnerability of manufacturers? Aren't they just prime rib ready for our consumption? I don't know, what can I say. Maybe I'm just a metrosexual kinda guy: straight with a gay sensibility, not afraid to let my feminine, caring and stylish side shine through. Or maybe behaving decently towards those whose creative genius makes all this possible is the right thing to do. In either case, it's just fine by me.