Silent on hip-hop legacy as it targets audiophiles with latest SL-1200s
The Vancouver Sun
In the sofa-appointed listening room of a factory north of Tokyo, hi-fi fans can listen to vintage vinyl records on a sound system costing $45,000, including a sleek silver turntable. Musical choices include rock — the Eagles’ Hotel California, sounding warm and vivid through four-foot-tall speakers — jazz and classical. Not on the menu: hip-hop. Or disco. Or the thumping, floor-convulsing sounds of modern techno or house music, which helped make the record player at the centre of this audiophile’s paradise famous.
The turntable, the Technics SL-1200, may not enjoy the name recognition of, say, Fender electric guitars or Steinway pianos. But if you have watched a DJ scratching furiously behind a rapper in the last few decades, you have almost certainly seen one, or, more likely, a deftly manipulated pair.
That legacy seems like an easy sales hook for the Panasonic Corp. of Japan, which has reintroduced the turntable to great fanfare.
Panasonic has chosen mostly to ignore it.
“Our concept is analog records for hi-fi listening,” said Hiro Morishita, a creative director at Technics. “DJs are fine, too, but as a marketing target it’s problematic. We don’t want to sell the 1200 as the best tool for DJing. The 1200 is the 1200.”
It is a dilemma most marketers would long for: a product with a built-in fan base and perhaps too much cultural cachet. For all their passion, Panasonic calculated, the SL-1200’s core customers were not numerous enough, or rich enough, to make reviving the Tech ni cs brand financially worthwhile. It needed to reach wealthy, older audiophiles who would spend extravagantly on gear — not only the turntable, but also the amplifier, speakers and other equipment that the company markets alongside it.
And too few such people, it figured, appreciate the finer points of hip-hop.
Hence the absence of Dr. Dre and the Beastie Boys in the factory’s listening room. And hence a new, more rarefied price: 330,000 yen, or about $2,800, which is roughly four times its earlier cost. Bedroom DJs without trust funds will struggle to buy one, let alone the customary two.
Panasonic admits it struggled with how to acknowledge the SL1200’s history and fans.
“There was a lot of debate,” Morishita said. “Would we keep the name? Would we change the design?” In the end, he said, the company decided the turntable was too iconic to change drastically. The latest version, the SL-1200G, has an upgraded motor and a few other touches, but is otherwise the same as the players Technics made in decades past.
The main difference is in the marketing. Instead of sponsoring DJ contests, Technics has hired a German classical pianist, Alice Sara Ott, to be its “global brand ambassador” and provided an SL-1200G to Abbey Road Studios, of Beatles fame. Serene connoisseurship, not sweaty nightclubs, is the theme.
“It’s unusual in that you’ve had relatively positive associations and decided to disown that,” said Ravi Dhar, a professor of marketing at Yale. “When the brand already has an image that is associated with certain groups, if you try to move away from it, it’s risky,” he said. “But for them, the associations weren’t positive for the market they’re targeting.”
Some famous users have been harsher.
“They never really gave support to the DJ community,” Jeffrey Allen Townes, better known as DJ Jazzy Jeff, said in a Facebook post after the revival announcement, criticizing Panasonic for high prices and for ignoring the consumers who stuck by the SL-1200 during vinyl’s lean years.
The SL-1200 was first made in the 1970s, and while plenty of other record players have come and gone, none are as central to the global culture of hip-hop and dance music.
“If you wanted to be taken seriously, you saved up and you bought a pair,” said Barrington Oakley, a veteran British DJ who performs under the name Cutmaster Swift and won a world DJ ing championship in 1989. Part of the prize: a gold-plated SL-1200. “The life of this turntable has beaten all the odds.”
In 2008, Panasonic said it was closing its Technics audio division and would discontinue most of the division’s products.
Two years ago, Panasonic swerved again, saying it was reviving the Technics brand to target the premium end of the audio market.
Vinyl records were making a comeback, too. In a modest backlash against digitization, record sales in the last couple of years have crept up to their highest levels since the format’s heyday. By early 2016, the SL-1200 was back in production.
Panasonic emphasizes the effort that goes into making the turntables, which are now produced at a different factory about two hours from Tokyo. Only 20 are assembled a day, with most of the work done by hand.
The company does not disclose sales numbers, but said an initial set of 300 special-edition SL-1200Gs, made available online when sales restarted this year, sold out in 30 minutes. Even at nearly $3,000, the turntable may not make any money for Panasonic, instead serving as a loss leader for other Technics products.
“I understand why they’ve done it, even if it’s disappointing,” Oakley said of Technics’ marketing strategy. “At least I’ve learned how to repair my old ones.”
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