Last fall, I was attending a Dante symposium presented by Audinate in New York City. Shortly after lunch, while waiting for the afternoon session to start, I was sharing conversation with Sound & Communications’ Editor, David Silverman, and he made the following observation: “Look at the attendees. It’s primarily middle age males.” I looked, and lo and behold, he was right. Fair amount of gray hair here. My guess is that most of them were “audio guys” in their previous professional lives: enthusiasts who safely transitioned into the AV industry as the world of commercial production facilities began to shrink.
I can personally speak to this because I am one of them. I lived audio since I was a kid and turned my passion for it into a career. Sometime in the mid-2000s, 80-hour week after 80-hour week in front of an SSL 9000K mixing console took their toll. I made the transition that would allow me to be with my children more…and just in time. The market booking out the large commercial facilities dried up.
Well, here is what I and many of my kindred counterparts found: Audio was alive and well in AV. I began programming different DSP platforms. It was a brand new world for me and I loved it. To some degree, I felt sort of reborn, and whatever that driving force is that fuels a person’s passion had found a home. Flash forward back to Manhattan and David’s observation and what it really means. Are we turning some sort of corner here? I must admit, I have not really been paying attention. When I look out over a large conference room filled with industry professionals and see primarily males with varying degrees of graying hair, I am compelled to ask the following two questions: Is there a new generation of “audio guys” coming up through the ranks? And why does it have to be guys?
So, to the point of diversity. I am employed at a mid-size AV firm that is female owned. I see daily the impact of the diversity our owner’s leadership brings to the mix, and it is substantial. She is as qualified and professional as any male I encounter in my professional life, and she leads with strength. And, thus, she gets my complete respect. I’d have to ask her if this is true or not, but it seems to me that she is, somewhere in her subconscious, aware of herself being a minority in her position. To that end, and just by being herself, I think she is cognizant of bringing her A game every day. And I can say the same thing about the lone female integrator in our installation department.
So then I ask, “Is there value in the effect their diversity brings?” You bet. How about as a positive impact on your bottom-line business model? Today, as your sales teams and project management teams engage clients and prospective clients, are they encountering increased degrees of diversity? Is your firm keeping step with that? If those clients and prospective clients actively seek to embrace diversity as an initiative, would they not be more inclined to have business partners that do likewise? Do they reach a comfort level with you more quickly and is the connection somehow more deeply rooted because of this? You can’t tell me that this isn’t a very real possibility and, if so, as a result, eventually a quantifiable impact on the bottom line.
And then age. I’m not so sure there is a next generation of audio enthusiasts coming up behind us. If there is, it doesn’t look like us. Why does it matter? Well, for one, with all the experience we bring from our years of being “audio guys,” we have the disadvantage of not being totally immersed in what audio looks like to the generation just coming out of school now. I remember, as a student in audio engineering school, taking a field trip to the AES show in New York City. I walked in and for the first time stood in front of a large-frame SSL mix desk. I thought it was the size of an aircraft carrier and totally sexy. The neuron wiring map of a young developing brain was forever altered.
An “audio guy” was born. Can you tell me what like experiences are occurring to the young generation today that carry such an impact? I can make some guesses, but for sure? Just plain nope. What does that mean? Thirty years from now, when these 20 year olds are turning 50 and sharing their stories just as I am sharing mine, what will those stories be?
The patriarch founder of the firm I work for is 94. He makes his way in from time to time. He is still actively involved in the business. He tells me his stories. He shares his legacy. And the passion he had for audio as a young man is still totally there. I feel the connection we share, despite the separation between our generations. We, as the “audio guys” of this industry, have a responsibility to inspire the emerging generation. For most of us, this isn’t just a job. So what to do? I know, right out of the gate, we should begin by meeting the up-and-coming generation where they are most likely to be an attentive, inquiring audience: at school. There are plenty of opportunities for lecturing and it’s as simple as letting local high schools and colleges know you are interested.
You do not have to be a gifted public speaker. You need only pass along your story, and let the passion you have for it do the rest. Technology is intrinsically cool. That’s the message. That’s the inspiration. Take some time to see what kids are connecting with today. Speak to them with an understanding of those connections. Let your enthusiasm shine. Watch their faces light up. If I were to pass along something of value that had been passed along to me, it would be the art of critical listening. I believe this is a very difficult thing to learn in school. Heck, it was hard to learn under the tutelage of a gifted master. And that is why I treasure the experience. It is unique and interesting, and hard to teach.
If we don’t inspire the next generation, who will? How will there be “audio guys” tomorrow if they can’t recognize the subtleties of sound or know what to do with it? Excellent audio in an AV application does not just magically happen. If you are a business owner and you are sending someone out to tune a large, challenging corporate space, and that individual is sonically challenged, how is that of long-term benefit to your successful business model?
Most people in professional environments do not have a clue about critical listening, but if the expensive space they just paid for sounds mediocre, they will generally feel uninspired about it. If the space has punch and clarity and a sense of articulation, they will say, “Wow.” And “Wow” is foundational to repeat business. But “Wow” requires attention to detail that starts at the top. Ownership has to understand and demand this. Employees must be capable of executing this. Even if the job was sold with the most inexpensive God-awful gear, there is still the impact of best practices and the ability to use the ears to extract the best audio it’s capable of delivering.
There are no shortcuts to becoming a highly competent critical listener. It is the Jedi Master/Padawan learner relationship (geek reference) that takes a young hire with an interest and turns him or her into a capable professional. The point of all this is that, not only do we need to bring the next generation into the fold, we need to mentor and train them into teammates who are effective contributors to the successful growth of your organization. Want a leg up on your competition? Be better than them, top to bottom. Simple. Quality young stars are key to a dynasty team.
Infusion of new blood into the AV industry is requisite. The writing is on the wall. Aging white males cannot carry this industry indefinitely. So, in conclusion we need to:
• nurture the emerging generation through interaction and engagement, affirming their sense of excitement and wonder, in the same ways as we experienced as we came of “audio guy” age. Let them know that pursuit of AV as a career can be fulfilling, all the while providing a good living.
• cultivate a welcoming climate for diversity, however it may look, and recognize its application as a model for growth in sales reach, client satisfaction and corporate culture.
These are good and right things. Let us strive for and look forward to a new and a younger generation…a diverse and culturally rich generation. Our industry could use both.