Towers of Babble: A Day In The Life Of An Audio Conference Attendee

On October 11th 2016 » By Tyler Barstow

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It’s 11:25 on Sunday morning and I am in a double wide trailer room at an audio festival listening to Side A of Billie Holiday’s tragic batch of swan songs Lady In Satin. I am one of seven at the moment, and “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is hitting me harder than it ever has while the rest of the room fawns over one of the many exaggerated systems in use this weekend. I’m having a hard time with the whole thing. It feels sort of pornographic, sort of untrue, to be talking about Holiday’s struggles with heroin and deep, unmitigated longing for something she never found in the same breath as the signal chain that’s bringing it all to us today. To pun the phrase out of existence, I don’t get the connection, and I don’t feel as if she’s there in the room with us. I feel as if I’m stepping on the toes of the sacred and that I cannot do anything related to her or her music justice, and so I stop scanning my fantasy football lineup looking for a happy distraction from myself, send some sympathy to the good-hearted organizers, and leave. I’ve been here for half an hour and have already let someone down.

At this point it’s obvious to me that I should have taken my Effexor before I left the house this morning. In the words of the King of Swamp Castle, this is supposed to be a happy occasion and instead I’m all elbows and knees and two left feet, emotionally speaking. While it’s objectively difficult to imagine anything all that meaningful ever happening in the conference caverns of a semi-suburban Marriott, I’m not in a generous mood and so I enter the main building trying to open my mind not so much to what I’m about to see as how I’m about to see it. I need to let it just be a thing about speakers and whatever, I tell myself, as I make my way to the headphone room to meet up with my friend-turned-co-worker David. My wife and daughters have, for their own health, already retreated to a local museum of some kind and left Dave and I to a variety of devices designed to give you the truest relationship with the artists and music you love. Whatever the hell that could possibly mean.

After avoiding a pair of $3 water bottles and being told a startlingly-meta conference truth by an earth-shaped guy about having to know the name of what we’re looking for if we’re ever going to find it here, we head back into a lobby area where someone is playing electric guitar through a youth group amp and, based on the reaction, he’s really ripping it. To my ears, it sounds like the kind of thing that would be playing while Jesus returned riding a John Deere lawnmower and sporting a Marlboro Red and a worn-out bathrobe but that’s fine. Different strums, etc etc. As the guy finishes playing, I turn and see an audio cable company with a sign about a promotion they’re running at the conference. The tagline reads “Ask for a Freebie from the Librarian” alongside a picture of what is obviously intended to be a porn-ish image of a woman in an sort-of buttoned blouse looking over her glasses at whoever knowingly. It’s a big hit with attendees, as you can probably imagine, and indicative of the kind of insular stupidity that events like these have come to be, at least partially, known for. Cromagnon-ism of this kind has become typical at these events and explains the tiny number of women I see here. For so long, this type of stuff has been seen as being sinister and gross, both of which it is. No one has asked me but, as we step into the main conference showroom, it has me thinking that if things like this are going to survive and dare I say thrive, the people involved are going to need to grow up.

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In the next room we find our way to a turntable booth related to someone David has been talking to recently. They’re pretty great, he says, and could be a cool offering for our folks if we can figure the pricing out. Sounds good to me and, as we start looking over them, they seem pretty sweet. It’s important, maybe for everything and everyone ever, to look vaguely European and intelligent from across the room and these things are doing both in spades. I don’t know why, but I’m struck by the fact that the most expensive one looks like something F Scott Fitzgerald would enjoy doing blow off of and, looking back on it now, I was right about that. That is what it looked like. Take that as you will but, in my book, that’s as winning an endorsement as I know how to give a turntable.

The rest of the room is what you would expect if you make a habit of coming to these things. Record cleaners that look like your grandfather’s popcorn maker, a legacy music CD club shilling albums written by people that no one anywhere has ever heard of, and a wall of wooden speakers that would look great as the backdrop for a live feed Spanish guitar music podcast. In other words, the whole place is a structural wet dream for anyone who has ever raised their voice in a conversation about hi-fi components, which brings me to my next thing: the place is stuffed to the gills with people who know everything there is to know about everything. It would be difficult to put into words the number of disappointed, disaffected, and non-aspirationally approving grunts I hear while sorting through the amoeba of attendees here. And they are, unquestionably, all connected not so much to one another as they are to a mutually held Great Truth: mainly, that much of What It All Means is having complicated, thoroughly considered and reconsidered, and easily-agitated beliefs about The Way one should listen to music and The Kind of music you should be listening to. I would wager a paycheck that no one here has heard, or would be willing to hear, a Young Thug song. And as I’m fielding unspoken death threats for laughing when someone yells “look at the knobs!” for some Will Robinson-saving something or other, I finally figure out what bothers me so much about the whole thing. It certainly isn’t the nerdom, I play Magic the Gathering and could probably recite every line from every Star Wars movie in order and I understand the hallowed place that Information About A Thing has in our struggle to keep our heads above water in an uncaring universe. It also isn’t the genres of music the people here liked. At the end of the day, I don’t actually care what you listen to and in the The End, whatever the hell that ends up being, it won’t matter either way. Listen to whatever makes your world spin more smoothly in the meantime.

What bothers me is that at an event that is supposed to be worshipping the hardware behind one of the most sacred human rituals and art forms, all I can seem to find is a bunch of crotchety dudes saying crotchety things about the most non-crotchety stuff maybe on the entire planet. That I can’t seem to go 15 feet without another reference to tits or someone hawking inexplicably expensive shit. That one of the only temples we all share in common has been turned from a house of Active Listening prayer into a den of Elder Bro Comments and Fanfare. Etc etc.

It felt cheap, is what I’m saying, and while I understand that discovering the cheapness of things is a part of growing older, I can’t help but be standing in the parking lot 45 minutes later wishing that something like this could actually matter. That my excitement about it from the week before could be justified even on, like, a moral level. That yet another one of our Sacred Things hadn’t been hauled up for all to see talismanically before being chopped up and sold as another portable, individual proof of How Right We Are to be added to the collection of things that prove How Right We Are that each of us carries around with us. I wanted something that didn’t need sex to sell it, and maybe that thing doesn’t exist, so next year I’m staying home.

Tyler Barstow

Tyler Barstow

Tyler is the co-founder of Vinyl Me, Please. He lives in Denver and listens to The National a lot more than you do.

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