This month marks our 15th anniversary of publishing online, and most would think we should have some sort of celebration. Well, maybe we will at the two-decade mark. Instead, it seemed more appropriate to me to reflect on what brought us to this point, to think about our successes as well as our failures, and to tell you where we plan to take things from here to make SoundStage! Hi-Fi and our entire network of sites even better.
In October 1995, when the Internet was still in its infancy, I worked as a network engineer for a large corporation. Yahoo.com was the big thing then -- sites such as Facebook.com and Google.com didn’t yet exist. I worked in a cubicle, and it was there that I dreamed of creating an online publication covering audio gear. The name for it came quickly: Soundstage. I then added an exclamation point, because the whole notion of presenting this website to the world seemed so exciting. But Soundstage! didn’t look quite right. SoundStage! did. The site went live in November 1995.
You might have noticed the prevalence of the pronoun I in the preceding paragraph. That’s not because I’m selfish or want to take all the credit; rather, when the idea for SoundStage! came about, the business consisted of only myself. However, I knew that if I wanted regular content, I’d need more writers. SoundStage!’s first writer was a friend I called up from the old “The Audiophile Network” bulletin-board service: Dave Duvall. Having someone helping boosted my morale, and soon I had many more writers onboard. After a few years Dave went on to do other things, but I’ll never forget that he was the first to help. Another guy who came on near the very beginning was Doug Blackburn, who’s still with us today; in fact, after me, he’s been here the longest. I could go into great detail about the others who joined us early on -- many of them still with us today -- but that would turn into a lengthy history lesson. (Perhaps for our 20th anniversary . . . )
When I started this whole thing, I never envisioned doing it for so long, and never imagined we’d grow into the SoundStage! Network. Still, the concept of a network came along not long after the launch of the SoundStage! site. (For the story of how the SoundStage! Network came to be and why it still exists today, read the November 1 feature on the SoundStageNetwork.com portal site.) Nor did I ever imagine quitting my job and doing this kind of work full-time. But by 1998, that’s exactly what had happened -- and I’m very glad it did, and that we’ve stayed in business this long. I have wholeheartedly enjoyed doing this work, and have learned many things that I wouldn’t have had SoundStage! never started. It was the start of a new life for me.
What I’ve learned in running this venture has extended well beyond audio: starting up a business, accounting and finance, web development and publishing, copyright law, and on and on. But it’s what I’ve learned about reviewing audio equipment that I’ll elaborate on here -- what will be most relevant to you, the reader, is for me to explain some of the things that have happened in the last 15 years that still guide us now.
When I began publishing SoundStage! in 1995, I’d already been an audiophile since 1981. I had a pretty good idea of the products on the market, but little technical knowledge, and only a limited understanding of how the review system worked. By jumping in head first, I had to learn a great deal quickly enough to produce timely, relevant content that readers worldwide would like -- and in the 15 years we’ve been online, we’ve never missed a monthly update. Early on, I also learned the importance of providing outstanding reports on audio trade shows, and how to do them on the spot, from the shows themselves while they were still going on -- a sort of “live” coverage that has been a hallmark of the SoundStage! Network for almost as long as we’ve been publishing. But not everything was easy; we flubbed some things simply because we were brand-new to the game, and lacked the experience to handle them. Knowing what I now know, I’d have done some things differently. But that’s just part of learning, and those first ten years actually went by reasonably smoothly; one thing that made the period easier was that we enjoyed constant growth.
The worst snags actually came after that first decade, when we became a bit too comfortable, even complacent, with how we’d long done things -- and because of some other things I didn’t see coming. After a decade or so of running the company, I was getting burned-out and tired -- understandable, given the pace we kept during that time. At about the same time, I suffered a back injury that had me reeling in pain for well over a year. The burnout and pain distracted me enough that I took my eye off the ball -- I wasn’t watching what we were doing as closely as I should have. As a result, the SoundStage! Network started to lapse in quality, and some of our competitors began to catch up.
A number of things went wrong at the time, but what bothered me most were these: our reviews were often not timely enough; often, reviewers wrote about products that were relevant to themselves but not necessarily to our readers; we were reviewing too many products from too few companies, and too many very-high-priced products; and too many affordable products were not being reviewed at all.
We were still publishing plenty of good and useful reviews; it’s just that we weren’t as good as we could or should have been. Yes, I was exhausted and injured, but I was still the founder and publisher of the SoundStage! Network: It was still I who was ultimately responsible for the operation, and it was my inattentiveness, for whatever reason or reasons, that had caused these problems. The main thing I was thankful for was that this dark period didn’t last forever -- it was more or less one bleak winter. We were able to fix things fairly quickly, even if I was still not operating at 100%.
My injury still dogged me, but I speeded up my rehabilitation so I could work more consistently, and with more diligence and better focus. And when I realized that we were slipping, my burnout miraculously vanished -- I wanted to work again. Most important, our management team created an elaborate and effective plan to revamp the entire SoundStage! Network and improve on those areas in which we’d fallen back. As a company, we were again progressing and improving, and we again had the kind of energy we’d had when we started out. In fact, 2010 has been our most productive year yet: redesigns of all five SoundStage! Network websites have been successfully completed, including a complete revamping of this site. The work was extensive and exhaustive, and of a scope we could never have managed in the mid-1990s, no matter how ambitious and earnest we were. Back then, we just didn’t have the necessary experience. Now we do.
When, 15 years ago, I sat in a corporate cubicle and dreamed of being an online publisher, I never actually believed that the dream might come true. Nor did I ever imagine that, today, I’d still be doing this work, let alone writing an article explaining how we got here. I’m glad I made that idea a reality, and I’m thrilled with the results, but the work isn’t finished. The task before us now is to use that 15 years of experience to make SoundStage! Hi-Fi and the entire SoundStage! Network even better for our readers. One example of that is what will appear in this space next month: My exposé of high-performance loudspeakers, and what buyers should expect to get when they pay a higher price.
. . . Doug Schneider