Jim Garrett is the Sr. Director of Product Strategy and Planning of HARMAN Luxury Audio.
Note: Jim Garrett’s Op/Ed was written just after much of the country went on lock-down due to the COVID-19 situation.
As I compose this article, I am beginning my sixth week of staying at home, having started a week before the official announcement here in California. And it appears I’ll be here for another four weeks at a minimum. In this situation, it’s easy to let the mind wander and the spirit get down due to the lack of the normal routine and the social isolation we are experiencing. While many things are no longer the same, one thing we have been able to maintain is our connection via music. In fact, I am seeing and hearing more music than ever before. Why is that? It’s because music has superpowers! (Cue heroic theme…)
Music at its most basic has the power to heal, the ability to transport us to another place and time, and the influence to join us together as a common entity. Each of us in our own generation has been defined by music in many ways: the music that was the soundtrack to your high school years, the first dance song at your wedding, and the one song that, no matter where you hear it, will have you and your friends singing along. As the human race, we love to sing. We sing in the shower. We sing in the car. We sing when we are happy. We sing when we are sad. We sing to our kids. We sing to our lovers. Heck, we even sing to our pets. (Don’t try and deny it!) While each of those scenarios will include unique meaningful songs for each of us, the music itself is the tie that binds us all.
How powerful is music? Well, film and television rely on it for your emotional buy-in. It is how you convincingly convey a mood. Moving pictures are certainly impressive with visuals, and we know it drives our industry with all of the talk of beautiful images resplendent in their big-screen 4K Ultra HD glory. But if you are supposed to really be scared, it is the ominous minor-key music punctuated with brass stabs and percussive piano making the hair on your arms and the back of your neck stand on end.
Sorrow? You can count on that emotion coming from a lush orchestral score or a mournful solo vocal backed with acoustic instrumentation. If you are supposed to feel happiness, pride, and joy as the film or show comes to a rousing conclusion, there is the soundtrack again with all of its major key structure and up-tempo goodness. Take away the visuals and the emotional power remains thanks to the score and the soundtrack. Take away the score and the soundtrack and your emotional power collapses quickly, leaving the whole affair largely devoid of its intended impact.
What brings us here? What is the point you say? While everything seems to have changed and moved to the economy of limited or no availability during this global pandemic, music is still here for us. There is no shortage. In fact, we are seeing a true windfall. Music is all around. Just in the last week, how many live musical specials have you seen on TV? How many YouTube videos have you watched of people singing to isolated loved ones through a door or a window? What about all of those live social media performances compiled of individuals performing in their homes, yet together as if still in one place? Yep. Music is being shared everywhere. It is helping us heal – to stay connected in times of trouble. It lets you know you are not alone. It reminds you of your faith that we will get through this together. Music can be our guide.
Let’s talk about some of the musical things I have seen and heard in the last few weeks that made me smile and kept my spirits high. I have to start with John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” YouTube shows. If you haven’t seen any of them yet, make it the next item on today’s agenda. John found a young girl who was planning to go see the Broadway musical, “Hamilton” in NYC, but the stay-at-home situation changed her plans. Luckily for the girl, Krasinski brought the show to her. The cast performed her favorite song live for her via a Zoom conference call and it was awesome!
Early on in my staycation, I watched Joan Jett and the Blackhearts perform “Light of Day” on the morning news through the magic of technology. Joan always sounds great and it was cool to see and hear some real rock and roll music. Even if it was a bit odd to see them playing in a Brady Bunch video matrix from their respective living rooms. I’ve been bingeing on all of the YouTube performances and interviews I can find of my favorite artists. Overall, it’s a rabbit hole of happiness for me.
But it isn’t just professionals and superstars. I loved watching a video of a guy somewhere in South America who took his amp on the balcony of his high-rise apartment to rip some Eddie Van Halen solos for the neighbors. I imagine it was similar to what smoke signals must have been like back in the Frontier days or even pounding out a rhythm on a hollow log. “Hey, I’m here! You are not alone! Let’s communicate!” He called out to the people and received applause from residents in a building across the way.
On a more personal note, I’ve been a musician my entire life. A large number of my friends are musicians too, as are both of my sons, and I am lucky enough to work in an industry focused on bringing good sound to the world. My Facebook feed is filled with wonderful videos of people I know creating and sharing music. I love seeing and hearing this cornucopia of melodies from people I haven’t been able to see or play with in-person in quite some time. It brings back great memories and delivers hope for what we have to look forward to once paroled from isolation.
In my case, I have frequently posted content of my own – typically drum covers recorded at home. But I find myself doing it even more now in hopes of fostering happiness and social connectivity during these trying weeks. I’ve always found music posts tend to generate the most conversation online. Maybe it’s just my circle of friends? No, I don’t think so. Music is a universal language everyone can speak, and we are doing it now more than ever before.
While I have had more time lately for a musical exploration of the listening and playing variety, I am thankfully still working. In fact, I am working more now than before the stay-at-home mandate. Music is here with me. It keeps me productive. When I am not on a call, I have music playing. It’s my daily soundtrack. In my makeshift home office, I have a great little audio system set up for work consisting of a pair of small bookshelf speakers flanking my twin monitors in a near-field application. (JBL Control One with an Arcam Solo Uno if you’ll allow me to tout my own products for a moment.) I’m connected to my laptop’s audio output so I have not only excellent sound for the endless conference calls, but for the music pushing me through the day.
My office is in my loft where I have a high-end 7.1-channel audio system and local music storage consisting of a Mac Mini, a large external hard drive, 2,000+ CDs, and a few hundred vinyl LPs. I’ve got Qobuz and Tidal apps on my desktop ready to go. I am surrounded by music all day long as I listen to old favorites and discover new ones. Nearby in their bedrooms, I get to hear both of my sons taking musical breaks from their online schooling during the day – one of them playing rock music on guitar and the other one learning to play piano in a transition from the violin. It’s a wonderful thing and has been beneficial for my mental and spiritual health!
As part of this article, I thought about sharing some of the music I have been listening to as of late in order to help spark some good vibes and discoveries of your own. I would quickly exceed the word count on just that topic alone though, so we’ll have to save it for another time. I do want to share at least one quick story with you about how music continues to connect us during the days of isolation.
A couple of weeks ago, my good friend Bes Nievera from Music Direct posted a photo on Facebook of an album he was listening to and couldn’t find online. It was the first Animal Logic album – self-titled – and obscure for those not in the know. What is Animal Logic? Well, it was a short-lived “supergroup” comprised of one of my favorite drummers from one of my favorite bands – the one and only Stewart Copeland – along with Stanley Clarke on bass and Deborah Holland on vocals.
Both Animal Logic records are great albums and everyone on that day commented that it is a shame that they didn’t seem to be available on streaming services. Luckily, I have both CDs in my collection, so I posted a picture that sparked some online social media conversation. Someone mentioned Deborah went on to record a number of solo albums afterward. And ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the rabbit hole! While Animal Logic seemed on that day to be in-absentia on music streaming platforms, I quickly found all of the Deborah Holland albums on Qobuz. In fact, her latest was released mere days before that Facebook conversation that started it. I shared that new album with Bes and then headed off to listen to her entire catalog online.
Why I am sharing that story with you? Well, in a moment of weird cosmic randomness as I hit the period on that last sentence, a text pinged on my phone. It was Bes dropping me a note that Animal Logic popped up for him on Tidal via a search on Roon just minutes ago. It has come full circle. We are truly all socially connected via music! None of that would have likely happened if we hadn’t have been reaching out to each other to share a musical connection during our isolation.
All of this music has been a wonderful safe harbor for me during these difficult times, and hopefully for you too. With technology today, we are never truly alone and music is a language we all speak. If you have been waiting for a time to justify having a great audio system, well that time is now! Put together a nice desktop system for your computer. Transform your living room into the ultimate home theater for Netflix bingeing. Put your favorite vinyl on the turntable and take a trip down memory lane. Whatever you do, continue to sing and dance, listen, share, or even compose some music for everyone. If you don’t know how to play an instrument, now is a great time to learn. Unlike toilet paper, there is no shortage of music. It is in abundant supply. So go ahead. Hoard all you want. It’s there waiting to be consumed. And we’ll make more because as a society, that is what we do.
David Tovissi is the Vice President and General Manager of HARMAN Luxury Audio.
What are the challenges of developing and producing the kind of products that HARMAN Luxury Audio is known for?
Harman has a rich history of developing best-in-class products for every business we support. As the stewards of the luxury audio brands, my team’s responsibility is to strengthen five iconic brands — Mark Levinson, Revel, Arcam, JBL Synthesis and Lexicon — that are built upon an unrivaled foundation of innovation and audio excellence.
Our business unit is unique in that success requires capturing the imaginations and channeling the passions of three distinct but demanding groups — our engineers, our channel partners, and our customers! It is not a balancing act as no group will suffer compromise and so an unwavering commitment to excellence is essential to maintaining brand equity and driving the business. Every product we create needs to advance our existing offering and this can be very challenging at times, as our products have already achieved 5-star ratings from reviewers and customers alike.
Where do your best product ideas come from? What inspires your development groups?
Since most of the team are musicians and passionate music lovers, many of the ideas come about in the same manner as musicians in a jam session. We challenge each other to think outside of the box, or as our CEO tells us, we should think without a box at all. We make sure to bring the group together on a regular basis to explore ideas for new and existing products and it can be an inspiring, enjoyable, exhausting experience as everyone has strong energy, ideas, and opinions! Those brainstorms have already resulted in several new product concepts coming to the market in 2021. In addition to our internal product development sessions, we also conduct product dealer councils involving customers from around the globe to validate our product concepts and to get their ideas on what they want us to build.
Do the changing demographics of the Audiophile consumer have an impact on the products you develop and offer?
Absolutely! Not only are the demographics changing but also so are the sources that audiophiles are connecting to their systems. Webster’s dictionary defines an Audiophile as an individual who is enthusiastic about music reproduction. In the past, that term was most associated with an older male listening to music by himself in a dedicated listening room. The modern audiophile is not defined by gender or age.
From my earliest days in this business with Sound Advice, Tweeter Home Entertainment, and later as an integrator with Criteria Design Group, I have placed a huge emphasis on being truly present in the market. That means co-hosting listening events with dealers to observe, listen, learn. The insights you gain from customers and dealers at these events are priceless and informs strategies, new product ideas, new features, and also grounds you in what’s important!
We also work with research firms to provide data regarding the current and future trends in the audio industry. This data along with confirmation from our customers suggest that music enthusiasts today are much younger and more diverse. Their listening habits have also changed, as they are no longer keeping to themselves in a dedicated room but are now sharing their music in more open spaces.
The audience has grown attached to the convenience and breadth of digital and is more comfortable than before with streaming music services like Qobuz, Tidal, and Deezer have incredible fidelity as well as the convenience and variety such services offer.
The Lexicon SL1 speaker made a significant impression at recent trade shows and industry events, do you see this beamforming technology being applied to other products in your portfolio?
Because audiophiles today have moved their music into the main living spaces in the home, it was important for us to develop a product that was less dependent on the room. The result was the Lexicon SL-1. It is a technological marvel, developed by engineers within our Skunk Works design team. We do have plans to apply the learnings from the SL-1 into future Harman products at all price points. Until then, we just want the SL-1 to be that transformative speaker that enables audiences — including apartment dwellers, second homeowners, c-level executive offices — to enjoy spatial sound in rooms that were not purposely for an audiophile experience. We’ll learn from this group on how to best apply the technology in the future.
What is the biggest potential area of growth that you see looking at the audio industry as a whole?
With the introduction of new wireless protocols, we see the need to create more products that are less dependent on hardwired connections. We know that people want to share their music from their phones and other non-traditional audio sources. Of course, these growth trends are often closely tied to the local infrastructures, internet speed, and easy access to music services.
Is there something that manufacturers, and marketers, in the audio industry need to be doing a better job of, in your opinion?
I think all of us can get better at making products that are more intuitive to operate. As an influencer in the audio industry for over 35 years, I have had my share of prototype and beta products in my equipment racks. Some of these products were incredible in performance but difficult to operate. I have vivid memories of coming home from a business trip and seeing my wife sitting in front of an all-in-one system with a 5-inch video monitor watching movies and listening to her music. We had speakers in every room and keypads and touchscreens in the walls but there she was 12 inches away from what she referred to as a Close & Play. That tells you how old we both are. I am reminded daily about making sure we make our products easier to use or no one will ever appreciate how great they sound.
When you attend an audio show, what is the one thing you look forward to the most and dread the most?
What I look forward to the most is meeting with our dealers and my colleagues from the past. Of course, being able to spend quality time with a customer at the booth or at dinner is priceless. I also enjoy running into salespeople and/or installers who I have helped mentor and seeing how successful they have become. We need to keep passing our experiences and passions down to future industry leaders.
What I dread the most is being away from home, the time it takes to recuperate from the long hours and the unhealthy lifestyle. But in short, I love attending trade shows and meeting our partners and customers face to face, and building these great relationships.
How is the current COVID-19 situation impacting your operations and what are your plans once we inevitably come out the other end of this?
This pandemic is having an impact on everyone’s business. Whether it is a supply chain disruption or having to find a creative way to build our prototype products from our basements and garages, Harman was quick to develop a COVID-19 Impact Planning Committee that proactively sought out ways to conduct our business in the new normal. We are fortunate that we have sales and operations around the globe. That means we will see our business ramp back up in phases. We are confident that when the global economy rebounds, we will have the products, logistics, and the customers ready to support it.
What is a common misconception Audiophiles may have about your company and/or it’s products?
With many groups within the Harman family, and many products within the combined portfolio, there is an assumption among those who do not know the brands, have not heard the products, do not understand the business that Harman is gravitating towards volume lifestyle products. That could not be further than the truth.
Yes, Harman offers audio products across a broad spectrum but at the luxury group, our focus is squarely on the audiophile and elite audiences where nothing less than the very best is good enough.
What new products coming out from HARMAN Luxury Audio are you most excited about personally?
It takes over 18 months to design, engineer, and manufacture a new product. My team has done a fantastic job of creating a pipeline of new products that will be launching this year and next. What I am most excited about are the new flagship products we are developing in the labs today.
I am also excited that I will have a say in what products will be launched for the JBL 75th Anniversary in 2021, the Arcam 45th Anniversary in 2021, and Mark Levinson’s 50th Anniversary in 2022. These iconic brands and the customers who aspire to own them deserve to have some amazing anniversary presents from our group.
As an enthusiast, what products from other companies are you personally interested in?
I am not just an audio enthusiast but also an enthusiast of art. I take extreme interest in companies that can combine the scientific principles of acoustics with an industrial design that resembles a piece of art.
Is there anything that concerns you about how music is delivered these days? Things like formats, recording quality, content, etc.
Not at all, I understand that everyone has their own way of procuring their music. I am excited that our industry has created products and formats that reach a much broader group of people. If anything, I wish more people would have the opportunity to listen to is an entire album from artists that created a journey or a story with the individual tracks. Today, people are often letting their music service offer up alternative tracks instead of listening to the whole album. Heck, I remember reading the album jacket looking for the back-story of each song. I really miss that.
If someone was setting up their first serious audio system, what advice would you give them?
While all the components are very important, I often suggest investing more in the speaker system than any other part. The speakers are the “last word” on everything that you will hear… with clear, accurate, responsive speakers, you will have good sound that allows you to adjust and shape the other components.
Name your 3 “desert island” albums.
What a perfect way to end the interview especially since I just spoke about albums. All these albums tell a story about the artists or the influences from the news of that time in their lives.
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On – That album was addressing the social issues of the time and news from the Vietnam War.
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours – This album brought to light all the personal issues the band members were having with themselves. That was most obvious with the cut Lindsay Buckingham wrote and sang lead on, Go You Own Way
The Clash – London Calling – This album was released in the early 80s and right after I graduated from high school. It tells a story about high unemployment and drug abuse which luckily, I never had to deal with at that time.
A consolation album of choice, because I would be on a deserted island, is Jimmy Buffet’s, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes. I would need an attitude adjustment whilst on the island!