The title of this article isn’t what you think it is.
You can’t shop for electronics or technology without hearing “prosumer.” People assume this portmanteau is a contraction of “professional-consumer.” Only marketing wonks have made it so.
That is neither its original meaning, nor the topic of this post.
The term was coined in Alvin Toffler’s seminal book Future Shock as a contraction of “producer” and “consumer,” predicting the merging of the roles of consumption and production into the life of one individual, primarily due to customization of mass-produced objects and the creation of highly specialized products. That is, person A makes widget X, who sells X to person B who makes widget Y, which person A, in turn, buys…it’s a massively networked set of cottage industries. This trend has exploded in the last decade. When Wired writes about micro-manufacturing and “no more factories,” we’ve probably arrived at a prosumer tipping point.
That, dear friends, is what this post is about. And yes, this is audio-related. Chances are, this article is probably about you, too.
Prosumerism: Why Now?
The growth of this trend can be largely attributed to the Internet and economic globalization for increasing individual access to tools, techniques, and materials. Things may be designed anywhere, be manufactured in the same factories that major brands use, and shipped anywhere…if it’s even a physical product at all. A prosumer can build pro-level anything in his or her own home by ordering parts from anywhere in the world.
If you doubt that we’re in the era of the Tofflerian prosumer, one need look no further than two trends: The proliferation of products that can be customized online, and the increase in cottage industries – often just one person – making technically advanced or unique products for niche markets that compete in every way with mass-produced products. Even if you’re not into Marxist theory, this shift has interesting implications for those of us who use audio hardware and software.
Prosumerism in the World of Audio
Let’s look at those two big themes as they pertain to the world of pro audio: Mass customization and the creation of niche/unique products.
First, “mass customization” is common in the world of audio hardware. There’s Michael Joly, who modifies cult-favorite Oktava MK-012 microphones to make them lower-noise and with better frequency characteristics. The well-known Oade Brothers who modify off-the-shelf, mid-level (the marketeer’s “prosumer” range!) audio recorders to produce lower-noise results with better dynamic range that compete with higher-end professional units.
Next, consider those who basically create gear for themselves, and then wind up turning that into a business to sell those products to others like them. You have Robb Nichols from Aquarian Audio, producing some of the best-quality, low-cost hydrophones out there. Dan Dugan of San Francisco makes automatic mixers used by huge networks in his one-room (albeit massive) workshop. Musicians make their own audio hardware, like the insane effects pedals Zachary Vex, and the analogue synth modules of Mike Brown (Livewire), Tony of MakeNoise, and Scott “Harvestman” Jaeger.
This doesn’t apply to just hardware! Shareware is made by individuals, to say nothing of audio plug-ins. Most apropos to this site, individuals like Chuck Russom and Tim Prebble, who use sound effects for a living as sound designers, create sound effects for other sound designers, bucking the aggregate-effects-house business model. I’d not be surprised if each of them will wind up purchasing each other’s effects collections…the ultimate in prosumerism.
What I think is most interesting and exciting, though, is it puts the users of this equipment into direct contact with the manufacturer. No marketing layers to penetrate, no call centers to deal with, no email-only front-line tech support. I don’t know how many of us take advantage of this, but it’s an amazing experience. The consumer directly can influence the producer by providing feedback, or even just doing something unique with the product that the producer never intended, and letting them know about it.
So…what’s all this got to do with you?
- I know that some of my readers are these people I’m describing, so consider this the longest thank-you letter you’ll ever get for the killer products and amazing customer service.
- If you use these products, close the loop. Call or email the Makers of Your Things and tell them what’s great, what sucks, how it can be improved, and what you’re using it for. Otherwise they produce things that get sent into an abyss, and I suspect that’s not what they want to do. They want to make things for people, not widgets that fly off the shelves for the absolute lowest cost. It’s about relationships.(Their attention to detail also can make for better products.)
- If you’ve been wary about small-batch, hand-made products, that’s OK…and smart. But do some research and ask around, and you’ll find that there are a lot of very experienced and smart people out there making solid products. BUY FROM THEM. It stokes the independent spirit and gets money into the hands of the makers, not the sales department or marketing team.
- If you’re interested in electronics or make things for yourself, get online and talk about it. The law of averages would suggest that you’re probably solving someone else’s problem, too.
Be a part of the greater ecosystem and community of products, or make some of your own. You’ll be all the richer for it.Tags: alvin toffler, audio equipment, consumer, cottage industry, future shock, hydrophone, micro-manufacturing, microphone, prosumer, recorder | 11 Comments »