A multi-disciplinary journey in music, sound, and field recording.


Posted: April 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: gear, theory

Use gear made by those who make gear they themselves use, and make gear for other users. That's prosumerism.

[Gigantic über-thanks to Tim Prebble and Richard Devine for their contributions to this article.]

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

Prosumer Music Kit

ZVex pedals and Livewire synth modules.

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.

The Benefits

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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: , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

11 Comments on “Prosumerism”

  1. 1 Miguel said at 8:39 am on April 30th, 2010:


  2. 2 Chuck Russom said at 9:57 am on April 30th, 2010:

    What a great article. And thanks for the mention! The indie guitar pedal builder scene is what really inspired me to start producing my sound libraries. I really like how there are online communities where people who sell a product and people who use the product all get together and talk.

    Last year I got obsessed with buying pedals made from the smallest builders I could find. People are making some crazy stuff in their garage these days and the quality often exceeds what you find from the pro companies.

  3. 3 Matt said at 12:11 pm on April 30th, 2010:

    Shame on my ignorance, and thank you for educating me. Great post.

  4. 4 Matt said at 12:26 pm on April 30th, 2010:

    Also thought I would share this:

    These handheld and custom windscreens sound great and were started by a guy in Maui in his garage.

  5. 5 Bryan Jerden said at 12:49 pm on April 30th, 2010:

    I have have been collecting boutique gear since I was a kid, and my dad has too. It runs in the family you could say. I am glad to see more of it out there. Lunch box pre’s, hand made synths-even sound libraries.

    Great article

  6. 6 Scott said at 6:54 pm on April 30th, 2010:

    Inspiring post. Thanks for this!

  7. 7 Colin Hart said at 12:04 am on May 1st, 2010:

    Great post Nathan! I’m a huge fan of boutique gear, even some larger companies that could be considered boutique (Manley, GML, Chandler…). And of course sound libraries! Grabbing Chuck’s and Tim’s soon, hopefully will be done with mine sometime this summer.

    Thanks for the post! This is collaboration at its greatest!

  8. 8 tj milian said at 7:36 am on May 1st, 2010:

    we are living in such an exciting time. the tools for sound design keep getting more advanced and esoteric due to the passionate pursuits of all the creative tinkerers of the world. thanks for the excellent article and thanks to those who spend so much time inventing and producing fascinating sound creations. long live the noise!

  9. 9 Nathan said at 9:15 am on May 1st, 2010:

    Thanks for all the comments so far, everyone. Some of you, like Matt and Colin, are calling out some other excellent micro-scale prosumer-esque products, like the Redhead…keep those coming in the comments to help spread the word!

  10. 10 Robb Nichols said at 7:14 am on May 3rd, 2010:

    Nathan, you appear to be a person of a great many talents! Thanks for the skillfully-written and insightful post, which would have been a pleasure to read regardless. But I’m especially grateful for your kind words towards our hydrophones.

    Kind regards to you and your readership, Robb

  11. 11 Andrew said at 3:57 am on May 8th, 2010:

    Great article Nathan!

Leave a Reply