[Updated April 27]
On Tuesday, April 21, 20 major high-end audio manufacturers sent an open letter to Joel Davis, founder and CEO of JD Events, urging him to immediately cancel AXPONA 2020 or offer “the option of withdrawal and an immediate refund.” (footnote 1)The letter argues that the COVID-19 pandemic “has clearly altered [the audio] landscape out of all recognition” and disputes the viability of the show’s rescheduled dates from April to August 9-11.
AXPONA’s decision to postpone the show instead of canceling it outright makes it an outlier among hi-fi shows. Munich High End (May 14-17) canceled months ago, and the Montréal AudioFest (March 27-29) canceled after briefly considering postponement. The much smaller T.H.E. Show in Long Beach (June 12-14) will announce a date-change soon. The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (October 1-4) plans to go forward as planned if Denver’s Gaylord Resort and Convention Center is open, but the organizers sent out an email to audio press on April 10 floating the possibility of turning RMAF into an online show. “But we are also committed to offering full refunds if for some reason RMAF doesn’t happen,” the letter stated. That leaves AXPONA as the only show committed to an earlier date that has not offered the possibility of refund without a penalty.
We at Stereophile wondered if the letter reflects the industry’s majority opinion. In an attempt to find out, we contacted a number of manufacturers, several of whom took part in an April 17 livestream event promoting the postponed AXPONA, cosponsored by Stereophile and cohosted by hosted by Michael Fremer of Stereophile and Analog Planet.
We also requested a response from Davis, who promised a statement but, as this article goes to press, has not yet provided it. We’ll publish Davis’s statement as soon as possible upon receipt.
No quick return
“There will be no quick return to normal,” states the letter, which was spearheaded by Luke Manley of VTL. Arguing that the industry at large does not support the August dates, it declares that, because of the economic shutdown made necessary by the pandemic, many audio companies face “the almost total loss of at least three-months’ revenue [and a] critical cash-flow crisis…. The risks of social interaction and communication, as well as the substantial additional costs, make attending any show in an effort to stimulate sales a very real threat to both exhibitor and business health.”
After noting that many audiophiles are in the most vulnerably demographic groups, and that members of the audiophile press share the industry’s concerns regarding health, travel, and attendance, the letter casts doubts on the prospects of satisfactory consumer turnout and press coverage. (Stereophile has not taken a position on whether the postponed show should go forward, but we have informed JD Events that if the show takes place as scheduled, Stereophile will not participate.)
“Supporting the industry that AXPONA serves means helping hard-pressed companies by cancelling the show and releasing the money they paid in advance for an event that will not now happen,” the letter states. “Under the circumstances we feel that it is no longer reasonable or responsible for JD Events to try to use the promise of a postponed AXPONA show to withhold exhibitors’ (in many cases desperately needed) funds, and we urge you to follow the lead of other events and announce the cancellation of the show immediately. Even if you do not cancel, the fact that you simply cannot deliver the show as originally sold (in terms of attendance or coverage) means that all exhibitors should be offered the option of withdrawal and an immediate refund.”
Among the signatories are representatives of major loudspeaker and cable companies including Magico, Stenheim, The Quest Group (dba AudioQuest and GoldenEar), Vivid, XLO, and YG Acoustics. Also signing were representatives of Basis, CH Precision, Constellation, Grand Prix Audio, Jeff Rowland Group, Manley Labs, Music Hall, PS Audio, VTL, and several distributors and dealers.
“I found AXPONA not forthcoming, and I decided to take a leadership position in writing an open letter to them for what I believe is for the greater good of the industry,” Manley told Stereophile. “The points in the letter came into focus as a result of numerous conversations with fellow exhibitors who expressed serious concerns over the health and safety issues that doing a show this year entails, as well as the currently unrealistic financial burden that it places on them. There are more than enough exhibitor signatories to make the strong case that the August postponement is not what exhibitors need. The questions raised by the letter are valid and need to be answered. AXPONA has been stonewalling and tone-deaf about this, including in their Livestream event this past Friday.”
Several industry members whom I reached for comment noted that when Munich High End canceled their 2020 show and moved it to May 13-16, 2021, they offered exhibitors either a full refund or, if they chose to carry their payment forward, a 5% accommodation. AXPONA has offered no refund to exhibitors who wished to cancel, nor a guarantee that they could keep their rooms if they pulled out.
These issues are addressed in the standard AXPONA exhibitor contract. “Management may refund to Exhibitor no more than a prorated amount of Exhibitor’s total cost of participation paid after deducting all expenses and reasonable compensation to Management,” the contract states. “If for any reason Management determines that the location or dates of AXPONA should be changed, no refund will be due to Exhibitor, and Management will assign to Exhibitor, in lieu of the original space, such other space as Management deems appropriate, and Exhibitor agrees to use such space under the terms of this Agreement. Management shall not be financially liable or otherwise obligated in the event that AXPONA is relocated or postponed . . .. If Exhibitor desires to cancel this Agreement, Exhibitor may only do so by giving written notice thereof to Management, Attention: Show Manager. In such event, Exhibitor shall be liable for the following cancellation fee: 100% of the total amount billed. Payment of cancellation fee must be received by Management within 15 days after cancellation.”
One signatory is Manley’s room partner at AXPONA, Elliot Goldman of Bending Wave Audio, an audio dealer and distributor for CH Precision and Göbel. Reached by telephone, Goldman told Stereophile, “I don’t want to hurt anyone, but when they decided to move the show to August, they didn’t notify us in advance or offer any options. If they continue with their plans, I can either forfeit the money or be forced to spend extra money to come to Chicago for a show that, at best, will have 25-30% of [the usual] attendance. Who the hell wants to do a show in August? How can you possibly socially distance in an elevator?”
Goldman speculated that if AXPONA doesn’t cancel the show, many industry members will not participate in future shows. “By not giving us an option, they’re saying that we don’t count. We’re the show, not them. I don’t want to hurt them financially, but please don’t put me in a situation that I have no say in. I don’t even know if my European partners will be able to fly here in August.”
At least one company that did not sign the letter—Von Schweikert Audio—would have done so if they’d had a little more time to decide. Leif Swanson, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing, told Stereophile that his company supports it. In an April 12 post to whatsbestforum.com, Swanson wrote, “It’s not just about wearing a mask or downed attendance. It’s about the global effects of sales, and for a show promoter to not take any of this into consideration is just wrong…. We have had to completely restructure how we operate to keep production moving forward and still keep with this quarantine. I could care less about audio shows for the rest of this year.”
You might think that those participating in last Friday’s livestream event, which was intended to promote the show, support having the show go forward as planned. But among the livestream participants were several companies that also signed the letter: YG, the Quest Group, PS Audio, and Manley Labs. In fact, EveAnna Manley of Manley Labs used the opportunity to protest the current AXPONA plans. “This coronavirus is not going away on Trump’s schedule,” Manley told Stereophile in an interview. “No one wants to be in a confined hotel room breathing together. Me, I’m exhibiting in the headphone arena with people sitting down and sneezing all over my headphone amplifier and picking up headphones and putting them on their heads. There’s no way I can disinfect against that. This show would not be safe for anyone. And look at the demographic of who attends these audiophile shows—it’s old white men. And look at the age demographic of your typical reviewer. It’s irresponsible to even think about having a trade show in 2020, especially an audiophile show. I’ve got thousands of people relying on me to do my job, and I’m not willing to put myself at risk. Luke’s [letter] is fantastic, and I’m so glad he reached out.”
Several others we spoke to expressed the idea that canceling the show is the right thing to do. “It’s a very bad idea to have a show in August because of COVID-19,” Joe Reynolds of Nordost told Stereophile “The timing isn’t good, and I don’t think people will come to it. I’m very sympathetic to the situation JD Events is in—it’s a very tough issue—but I’m surprised they haven’t called it off. I was hoping the show would be canceled without needing to send a letter. In a similar vein, Aurender’s John-Paul Lizars noted that while he was not contacted about the letter, he’s “in concert with what it says. I would prefer that show be canceled completely and the money refunded. This is not the right time.”
Several industry figures expressed more conciliatory views. One example is Desmond Harrington of Pass Labs, who told Stereophile, “I think the August date is very optimistic, but I’m keeping an open mind.”
Ray Kimber of KimberKable expressed faith in Davis and AXPONA. “I don’t know if I will sign the letter because I watched the process AXPONA went through last time, and I thought it was sensible and thoughtful. They kept me apprised of their thought processes and they asked me what I thought. Hence, I’m comfortable letting it go for a little while to give them time to ponder. It now appears, with other events being canceled well into July, that they must be evaluating the situation. I’m supportive of the concerns expressed in the letter, of course, and of keeping the industry safe.”
“I was saddened by the letter and felt that it was premature,” Zesto Audio’s Carolyn Counnas told Stereophile. “To be honest, it pissed me off, because I don’t think it was coming from the right place. I think they should have waited until June. Why bite the hand that feeds you? AXPONA has never demonstrated that they would do anything that is not in the best interests of the industry. They’re assessing the situation every day. They’re the easiest people to talk to; you just need to pick up the phone and talk to them. If they put the show on, I believe that the situation will warrant that we can have a successful show. If they think it won’t succeed for them or us, I trust that they’ll do the right thing and cancel.
“My gut feeling is that the Universe is in transition, and we can’t say what will happen in August,” Counnas continued. “No one in their right mind can make the decision right now. But in June, we’ll know. I think that Joel, as smart as he is, is weighing the situation daily, and I’m willing to stick it out with them until then.”
By email, Wilson Audio’s Daryl Wilson wrote, “After reading the open letter, I can see why so many manufacturers have signed it. I understand the concerns that the letter articulates so clearly.”
“These are very unique times,” he continued. “Even two months ago, no one could have predicted that the entire world economy would grind to a halt. At a time when business is not ‘as usual,’ companies are working together in creative ways to find solutions. We who are companions in this industry need to find a balance between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law as we work together to endure this enormous challenge we’re facing. I think, given the unprecedented circumstances we are in, that it would make sense for AXPONA to consider possible resolutions that take this chapter in history into account.”
Krell’s Walter Schofield told Stereophile, “I believe that Joel and the people at AXPONA did the right thing by postponing, and I believe they’ll do the right thing again.”
This is, as they say, a developing story. We await AXPONA’s response.
Footnote 1: As of April 27, the number of signatories has grown to 78. The new names have been added to the letter posted here.
NEXT: Open letter to Joel Davis of JD Events »
Open letter to Joel Davis of JD Events
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