Last month, I wrote about our 25th anniversary of online publishing. In that article I described how we began, how the SoundStage! name came about, the events that took place before we secured the soundstage.com domain name for the initial website, and some of the other things that helped us to get off to a pretty good start.
At the end of the article, I mentioned some other aspects of our history that I might write about in the future, including “about when I figured out that one website wasn’t enough, which is how the SoundStage! Network was born.” That topic is something I decided to write about this month, mostly because people often ask why we have so many sites. There were three main reasons:
I was a programmer who liked to code
As I wrote in last month’s article, I was working as a programmer and network analyst for a Canadian government-owned corporation when our first site launched in 1995. I was by no means a programming and networking guru, like some of the people in the industry I knew back then, but I was pretty ambitious, prolific, and entrepreneurial. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, in addition to programming extensively and setting up networks in my day job, I had a steady stream of small-business clients that I contracted myself out to on a part-time basis for programming and network tasks. In those days, seemingly every business on every street corner needed help with computers.
I did that kind of work mostly for the money, but also because I enjoyed it. As I often told people who asked me why I did what I did, I’d usually reply with something like this: I like to build things with computers. So with one website up and running successfully, it wasn’t that long before I wanted to create more—and I started to see opportunities to do so not long after the debut of that first site. That brings us to reason two.
We needed to make more money
The original SoundStage! site was launched for fun, which made it a hobby. Making money wasn’t even on my mind. But within two years, it started to generate enough revenue from companies that wanted to advertise on it that I could see how it could turn into a business that paid people—me included.
But even though we were off to a pretty good start and making some money, it was obvious at that time that a single website couldn’t generate enough advertising income to cover expenses AND make a living for me and the people I needed to make SoundStage! a success. At least, not in the audio industry. That’s because there wasn’t enough advertising money at that time to support the organization I envisioned, even though manufacturers, distributors, and retailers were all paying many thousands of dollars for ads in the numerous audio print magazines that existed in the late 1990s. The problem was that many of those companies didn’t even have their own website, let alone the wherewithal to advertise it or even the foresight to allocate a budget for it.
That said, there were some forward-thinking manufacturers in the 1990s that saw the potential of the Internet, and had advertising budgets to match. However, if you found one of the rare forward-thinkers willing to spend a decent amount of money on online advertising, that company still wouldn’t hand over the many thousands of dollars per month they were prepared to pay to a print magazine. But that company would still want topflight exposure for what they’d be willing to pay, which meant they’d usually want to see their ad banner prominently displayed and not mixed in with a bunch of other ads. That normally meant assigning them an exclusive location, likely at the very top of the web page, beside or even above our site’s own logo. Once you sold that, the prime advertising real estate on the website was gone. As a result, it was difficult to accommodate more than one premium advertiser on a single website, which greatly limited the revenue it could generate.
There also wasn’t any other way to make money apart from advertising, at least not ethically. Paid subscriptions weren’t—and still aren’t—feasible; even in the early years of the Internet, people had become accustomed to free content. I also never entertained the idea of an affiliate program to generate commissions from products that sold because of reviews published on the site. Back then, and still today, I feel that commissions create an obvious conflict of interest. Such a system is, in my view, unethical to implement, even though many websites in the past have done that and some currently do operate that way. Therefore, advertising was, and still is, the way to go to generate revenue and stay on the up and up.
The simple fact that there had to be numerous prominent spots for potential top-paying advertisers was reason enough to grow beyond just one site. So, with a number of writers on board, we started that expansion toward the tail end of the 1990s. And that strategy for growth worked—we began popping up one site after another, sometimes within a couple of months of each other, resulting in our advertising roster growing larger and larger each month. This, in turn, allowed us to pay our existing staff and recruit more, and even pay for world-class measurements of loudspeakers and electronics—something that no other online publication was doing.
The increased revenue also permitted us to send our writers to plenty of audio shows, which became a really big thing for us—we could have our coverage of the shows online almost immediately, whereas with print magazines it took months. In fact, one of our first expansion sites was called SoundStage! Live, and was created specifically for our show coverage. That site is no longer with us, but it was the precursor to SoundStage! Global, which came many years later and is still part of the SoundStage! Network. SoundStage! Global features show coverage, product introductions, and writers’ blogs.
The increase in the number of sites certainly allowed more advertising money to come in. But while we were building one site after another to increase our revenues, there was method behind what some people saw as ever-expanding online madness, which the focused show content on the SoundStage! Live site reflected. This brings us to the third and perhaps most important reason to grow our network of sites. . . .
We could improve the breadth and depth of content we created
What was launched as SoundStage! in 1995 is called SoundStage! Hi-Fi today—it’s the website you’re reading this article on. The name change happened about ten years ago, for reasons I’ll explain here. It was—and still is—devoted to two-channel hi-fi across all price ranges. But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, home-theater equipment was a really big deal, so we wanted to review plenty of it. The problem was that it would’ve looked as out of place on SoundStage! then as it would look on SoundStage! Hi-Fi now. To address that, we created a site called Home Theater & Sound where we could review that gear. This meant we were able to focus on a category of equipment we weren’t reviewing before, and also to have a writing staff focus on it to produce the best content for that market segment, instead of trying to shoehorn home-theater content into a two-channel hi-fi site, which is what some of our competitors did. In summary, an expansion like that one allowed not only for more content and more advertising space, but also for improved content for our readers.
In the early 2000s, we were already reviewing plenty of esoteric, expensive hi-fi on the original SoundStage! site, but we believed that this type of content needed to be brought together on its own site where it could really stand out. Fittingly, we created the site that was originally called Ultra Audio, but has been called SoundStage! Ultra since 2010. At the other end of the price spectrum was more affordably priced hi-fi gear. Although we’d never intended to spin off a budget-oriented hi-fi site as early as we did—in 1999—there was a really good website at that time called GoodSound, founded and operated by Marlon Ben Feld, that presented us a way to do so. That year, Marlon decided he wanted to continue with his studies in music, so we bought the GoodSound.com domain name and associated content from him, added an exclamation mark to the end of its name to make it GoodSound!, so it fit in with SoundStage! better, and carried on his work reviewing budget-priced audio equipment. Marlon then went back to school at Columbia University and has since earned a PhD in music theory. That purchase ended up a win-win for both sides.
If you noticed, the three sites I mentioned—Home Theater & Sound, Ultra Audio, and GoodSound!— didn’t have SoundStage! as part of their original names. That wasn’t the case with every new site we created—we had many more, and I could go on about them forever—but it was with a number of them. In hindsight, it was a mistake that we needed to fix—we simply didn’t realize how important it was to brand everything with the SoundStage! name, two decades ago.
Recognizing that flaw, in 2010 we went through the SoundStage! Network as it existed at that time and eliminated some sites that weren’t working well, merged some sites if there was a good reason to do so, and renamed the sites that were left so each had SoundStage! in its name. I already mentioned that Ultra Audio had been renamed SoundStage! Ultra. GoodSound! became SoundStage! Access, and kept the same mandate to cover affordable two-channel hi-fi. Home Theater & Sound was handled differently. It was originally retitled SoundStage! Xperience, but, since then, Xperience has taken off in a more music-oriented direction, so about five years ago we expanded Access’s mandate to cover home-theater equipment and shifted the new reviews for that product category there. In hindsight, we probably should’ve just merged Home Theater & Sound into what became SoundStage! Access back in 2010. Nevertheless, Xperience has since been freer to focus more on music and the equipment that’s used to make music, and reviews of home-theater equipment still have their place within the SoundStage! Network framework.
It was also during the 2010 restructuring that the original SoundStage! site became SoundStage! Hi-Fi, with the new domain name of SoundStageHiFi.com. In turn, the SoundStage.com and SoundStageNetwork.com domains, which originally pointed to SoundStage!, were redirected to a new portal site we built, which exists today to showcase the latest articles on all of our sites, display our YouTube videos and some content from our social media pages, and act as a repository for all the product measurements we do. For us, being dynamic and willing to make changes where necessary to provide better content for our readers is part of the SoundStage! Network culture—and having all these sites facilitates that.
Since the 2010 expansion, we’ve continued to add new sites, all with SoundStage! in their titles. For example, our most recent addition was SoundStage! Solo, which we created in 2018. It focuses exclusively on headphones, earphones, and related products. In 2017, two sites were added. At the beginning of that year, it was SoundStage! Simplifi, which features convenience and lifestyle audio products—these were products that didn’t fit well on any of our existing audio-related sites, so it was a good way to expand the breadth of products we review yet again. In July of that year, SoundStage! Australia was born—our first international site—creating an unexpected yet interesting opportunity.
Unlike the rest of the SoundStage! Network, the SoundStage! Australia site wasn’t created around the type of equipment reviewed in its cyber pages, even though there’s more hi-fi from Australian manufacturers on it than on any of our other sites. Instead, the reason was geographic location, which is something we hadn’t anticipated when we began building up the SoundStage! Network. Yet this new type of site fit ideally into the SoundStage! Network framework, even though it runs a bit differently—SoundStage! Australia is hosted on the same server as the rest of our sites, in North America, but its content all comes from Australia, under the direction of editor-in-chief Edgar Kramer, who lives in Australia and has built up a topnotch team to work with him there. It’s worked wonderfully, so, in 2021, I’d like to see us expand the SoundStage! Network with another international site—or two.
The right reasons—then and now
We have had 20-plus years of site expansions, so I’ve had plenty of time to assess if it was the right decision to grow from one website into many. The answer is yes. Based on the need to increase ad revenues, it was the right decision then and it would still be the right decision today, even though print magazines hardly exist now and most companies are spending more of their money for online advertising than on full-page paper ads. The simple fact remains that to generate enough revenue in the audio industry to be able to create the type and scale of content that we do, you have to have plenty of advertising spots—something a single website can’t provide. Reason two is the take-home lesson every current and future audio publisher should take to heart.
Leaving the financial considerations aside, a single website just can’t cover the wide-ranging aspects of audio products that exist today—at least not well and with the depth necessary for serious readers. So reason three was valid, too. Nowadays, we have two-channel hi-fi products across a broad range of price ranges, home-theater equipment, headphones and earphones, Bluetooth speakers, all-in-one components, convenience and lifestyle products, custom-install electronics and speakers (i.e., home-automation components and in- and on-wall speakers), outdoor speakers and electronics, and whatever else the future brings. All these product categories demand their own editorial spaces.
The SoundStage! Network infrastructure can adjust to those everchanging needs. While we’re nine websites deep at the moment, I have every reason to believe that we’ll continue to grow as the audio industry grows. It was the correct strategy in the late 1990s and it remains the correct one today. Besides, there’s always reason one—I still like creating websites.
. . . Doug Schneider