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What’s With all of the Bad Demo Music?

The poor selection of demo music in the majority of the rooms at audio shows has always been a sore point with me and my circle of associates.  There are many pleasant exceptions, but for the most part, the music in play is something I’d never sit through at a friend’s house.  Apart from heavy metal and demo music, I can sit through most anything.  There are both innocent and nefarious reasons for playing such simple music, and the show attendee needs to be especially aware of the nefarious reasons.

I sympathize with the challenges faced by the exhibitor.  You’re trying to catch and hold the attention of someone who enters your room, and you have perhaps 30 seconds to do so.   Play a piece of free jazz when a potential customer wants to listen to 19th century string quartets, and that person may well walk out of the room.

The trend toward playing generic musical pabulum (otherwise known as demo music) is in my mind the worst of all worlds however.  It’s much like cooking a dinner for a group of individuals and trying to accommodate all of their tastes.  The meal ends up a failure with no one liking it.  Better to not compromise the recipe and risk offending one or two individuals’ taste buds.  Just don’t get carried away with the opposite extreme.

Sometimes the exhibitor’s rationale for playing unchallenging music is more nefarious than merely trying to strike musical common ground.  Everyone wants to show their work in the best possible light, and the truth of the matter is that many systems are incapable of unraveling multiple complex musical lines or reproducing the dynamic range of dense, large scale musical works.

The system which flatters a solo vocalist accompanied by an acoustic guitar may very well fall flat on its face when presented a more difficult challenge.  You don’t know until you test it.

I once co-exhibited with someone and discovered him at the back of the room with the remote volume control in hand.  He was “artfully” compressing the music, because his system (his personal reference system) was incapable of handling the dynamic range.  Needless to say, this exhibiting relationship did not last.  In my ethical universe, behavior like this is like the butcher who leans his hand on the scale.  Attendee beware.

So, those rooms where simple music is played raise my suspicion level for the above reasons, but please don’t misconstrue this as a price point thing, as I’ve heard wonderfully musical $2,000 systems and atrocious 6-figure systems.  Systems are a reflection of the designer’s musical values (or lack thereof) and their competence to achieve their vision.

This brings me to music servers and the proliferation of them at shows in recent years.  The large majority of exhibitors won’t load a CD you bring with you onto their server.  You have a better chance of having a record played, but interestingly, at this year’s Rocky Mountain Audiofest, very few rooms were actively playing vinyl.  Many rooms had turntables, but my impression was that this was primarily for credibility and visual effect than for musical playback.

Again, I’m sympathetic to the challenges faced by the exhibitor.  You don’t want to play a request for music that will clear the room.  I’ve made this mistake.  At the same time, it’s not all that difficult to read the situation, and in a worst-case scenario, pull the music after 10 or 20 bars.  Use it as an opportunity to interact with the audience.  You can always invite that individual back at a later time.   Sunday mornings and after hours gatherings are ideal times for this.

Playing complex music that perhaps 10% of your audience can relate to can stretch your audience’s patience and/or limits.  I’m thinking late 20th Century classical, free jazz and such.  If you stretch your audience too far, they may misconstrue their unfamiliarity with the music as a flaw in your system.  Again … wait for after-hours or Sunday mornings.

One individual I’ve worked with handles the demo request situation both gracefully and humorously.  When asked if he could play a CD, he replies:  “yes, but under the following conditions:  if it’s really bad, I get to keep it so you don’t subject others to it, and if it’s really good, I get to keep it as well”.  This exhibitor will happily load someone’s CD onto his music server.

Shows and audiences have a group consciousness.  I’ve found my play list evolves over the course of a show and it tends to shorten as well, based on how people are responding.  Interestingly, there’s a remarkably consistent response to particular pieces, and it’s not the same from show to show.

We live in a short attention span society, and an environment like a show puts pressure on attendees to shorten that attention span even further (read this, if the topic interests you).  As exhibitors, we need to both respect the intelligence of our visitors (no musical pabulum, thank you) while at the same time not going to the other extreme with too much “difficult listening”.