Low End Theory

ShackWatch: Music Has the Right to Children


By Brendan I. Koerner

The biz-school adage I'm about to drop isn't quite a classic on the order of "Buy low, sell high." But it's a good'un nonetheless, and I hope you budding entrepreneurs out there will take note: When you can no longer compete on price, it's time to rebrand yourself for the hoity-toity. Take shrimp caught in the U.S.—it's getting massively undercut by cheap imports from Vietnam, so our pals out on those Gulf Coast trawlers (or, rather, their PR folks) are rebranding those tasty little crustaceans as Wild American Shrimp. Now, I'm a cheap bastard, so I'll stick with the imported dreck that Popeye's ladles out. But I can definitely see the appeal of this strategy.

So, too, can Radio Shack, once home to an array of low-priced keyboards perfect for the little Michael McDonalds in your household. But no longer—the cheapest Shack synth now costs over $50, and most are like the LK-1261 pictured at right—relatively high-tech beasts complete with LCDs, light-up keys, and USB ports. Why did America's favorite peddler of rectifier diodes forsake those of us who simply want a sub-$30 unit that rocks a little bossa nova beat? Because the mighty Shack knows it's no match for the music industry's answer to Vietnamese shrimp farms—Chinese factories that have produced a glut of toy-grade keyboards. The whole (somewhat) sordid story after the jump. PLUS: Transferring our Rowdy Roddy Piper obsession to Markie Post!

I actually first noted this phenomenon late last year, while shopping at my beloved Gem Gem Gem value store up on 125th Street. The Gem Gem Gem, as readers of this space know all too well, is a clearinghouse for the basest in electronic gear—if you've ever craved a craptacular Uniden cordless phone with the coveted RocketDial feature, this is your place. They also sell electronic toys made by a Hong Kong-based company called Polyfect, among them a darn fine keyboard that offers enough rhythms and sounds to satisfy anyone in the 3-to-9 age range. The price? A humble $19.99, which makes it an acceptable risk for mommies and daddies blessed with rambunctious young'uns, not to mention the creative forces behind innumerable ironic indie bands. (During my lamentable indie-rock phase—which I blame entirely on an ex-girlfriend—I once saw Mary Timony play a miniature Fisher-Price synth at the Black Cat.)

Even during its '80s incarnation as a total discount store, before someone figured out that selling cellphone plans was the wave of the future, the Shack couldn't compete with those kinds of prices. Its private-label Casio knockoffs were cheap, to be sure, usually in the $30 to $40 range, but it's not like they offered any more scintillating options than the Polyfect model. And that Gem Gem Gem offering is only the tip of the iceberg; check out this JCPenney model for $24.99, and comes complete with (per the hype sheet) "plastic, electronic components." The more aesthetically inclined may want to shell out an additional $5 for Cooltronix Tune-a-Fish. Yes, it's obviously intended for the wee-est of wee ones, but the specs actually compare favorably with what I remember from the Reagan-era Shack models—8 rhythm sounds and 8 instruments was pretty much the standard back in the day, and we didn't get no fancy "demo songs." Also, hey, it's shaped like a fish. So it's got that going for it, which is nice.

In the face of all these budget options, the tsars of Shackdom seem to have decided to abandon the low-end in favor of the mid- and high-ends of the market. Let's disregard anything over the $100 mark, as I'd sooner saw off my left arm with a rusty machete than part with a Franklin. What we're left with on the Shack's musical roster, then, are a bunch of synths in the $80-$90 range with some impressive specs—the LK-1261 isn't really all that different from the Yamaha PSR-70 my dad spent a literal fortune on back in the day. They're obviously going for cheap musicians, rather than kids just learning that whole Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge thing.

Low End Theory

The Shack should tread carefully, however. Rebranding yourself for sophisticated tastes after years of serving the low-end market is one of the most difficult things you can do—yes, Penelope Cruz, it's even harder than becoming a mactress, believe it or not. The snobs have you stigmatized as for the peons, while the peons don't have the scratch to pay the premium you're asking. Would it be too much to ask the Shack to throw us poor misers a bone and come through with a sub-$30 keyboard to compete with the toys? My unborn children will thank you for giving them the opportunity to learn music; otherwise, they're gonna have to suffice with blowing on some empty Budweiser 40-ounce bottles.

MARKIE POST: A few eagle-eyed readers recently noticed that, once again, I recently namechecked the infamous "perfume on a pig" scene from John Carpenter's They Live, this time in the service of discussing low-end TV antennas. No, that was not an accident—I just think that "Rowdy" Roddy Piper is an unrecognized genius, and I was planning on plugging him until the cows came home.

But now, thanks to our brothers over at Jalopnik, I've got a new celebrity obsession: getting The Fall Guy on DVD, and in turn bringing glory to the force of nature that is Markie Post. Seriously, I remember totally salivating over a picture of her in a leotard circa 1986, and this is my way of thanking her for assisting in my gentle usherance (word?) into manhood. Wanna help out? Visit the Jalopnik link above, write a firm-but-polite letter to 20th Century Fox, and pray.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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