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COVID-19 and Pro Audio: An Industry Interrupted

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the pro-audio industry in ways both expected and surprising, but while manufacturing and recording are recovering from lockdown, live sound is being left behind.

 

The October edition of Pro Sound News is usually our annual State of the Industry issue, featuring extensive rundowns of where recording and live sound stand in the moment. Our October, 2020 issue won’t be one of those, however, because at this moment in time, the state of things is both obvious and impossible to tell. Everything continues to hinge on the COVID-19 pandemic and the ever-shifting—and occasionally shifty—timetable as to when we’ll have vaccines, when they’ll get rolled out, who’ll take them first, and how far and how fast we’ll get back to “normal”— whatever that is now.

The whole world seems determined to make sure our post-pandemic lives move forward as if nothing ever happened, however, so while we’re faced with an industry interrupted by the pandemic, if we’re going to pick up where we left off, it’s important to know where we were before 2020 went off the rails.

Recording studios today may not be the high profile, big room facilities of yesteryear, but they continue to proliferate at a surprising pace. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2018 (the most recent year on file), there were 1,894 recording studios in the United States. That number has climbed every year since 2009, and there are, believe it or not, hundreds more studios now than there were during the height of the record industry in the late 1990s. Some remain focused on music, others are podcast-only and most specialize in “anything that comes through the door,” but while the early lockdown days of the pandemic shuttered all of them, cursory evidence suggests that studios are bouncing back in a big way.

Numerous studio owners I’ve talked to in recent weeks volunteered with incredulous voices that things were looking up, the general sentiment being, “I was busy all August and it hasn’t slowed down. It’s actually a little busier than it was before the pandemic.” Their theories as to why it’s happening range from “pent-up demand from musicians and content creators who developed lots of material while in lockdown” to “people who built home studios only to realize that professional-sounding results require not only professional gear, but professionals, period.”

There are a lot of recording professionals these days, to be sure. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2019, there were roughly 13,000 “sound engineering technicians,” which the bureau basically defined as recording engineers/ mixers for music, film, television, podcasts and so on. Those pros made a mean annual wage of $67,000. Are there as many engineers now in 2020? Lack of income during lockdown may have caused a shakeout with some audio pros turning to other forms of employment to keep the lights on — or it may have led to more people stuck at home with a personal studio to declare it and themselves now “professional.” Time will tell.

And about those personal studios. If there’s any business that happened to be in the wrong place at the right time during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s pro audio manufacturers that make affordable entry to mid-level audio gear, ranging across mics, interfaces, mixers, headphones, studio monitors and so on. Demand for their products has exploded this year, getting bought up by corporate professionals trying to up their Zoom game while working at home, recordists, musicians, audio professionals scrambling to build pro-level facilities at home so they can keep working, podcasters, and more.

Live Events Pros Set for #RedAlertRESTART

Many manufacturers that serve those categories are finding the unexpected success to be a double-edged sword. The out-of-left-field upsurge allowed them to keep employees working full-time instead of having to enact furloughs—a great thing in a difficult time. However, the upswing also brought with it concerns that they could appear to be profiteering off a terrible time. That said, it’s hard to accuse a company of gouging the customer when they don’t have products to sell. With the pandemic affecting overseas manufacturing before COVID-19 even hit U.S. shores, until recently, numerous brands found themselves scrambling to get units on shelves. Much like the current housing market, there’s too much demand and not enough inventory, and some manufacturers have found themselves sold out of certain products for weeks at a time while awaiting shipments from overseas.

For all the unexpected success related to recording, however, there’s little to be cheerful about in the world of live sound. There are far more people working in that side of the industry, and few are making any money in the field this year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2019, there were 74,000 “audio and video technicians”—defined loosely as production pros for tours, concerts and events—making a mean annual wage of $51,000. They haven’t earned nearly as much this year, as alternative outdoor events like drive-in concerts proved to be intriguing experiments in most cases rather than fiscally sustainable entertainment formats. Some manufacturers serving the live sound industry, too, have had to implement shortened work weeks, furloughs or layoffs to keep moving forward.

Meanwhile, their customers — local, regional and national live sound companies — are looking for every way possible to cut costs, whether reassessing their inventory and then eBaying aging gear, shifting focus to installation if they can, or changing their warehousing strategies by subletting, moving to smaller facilities or packing their entire shop into storage. They’re fiercely determined to tough it out, but the truth is, they shouldn’t have to.

It is a disgrace that at this writing, months after their introduction, Congress hasn’t passed either the RESTART Act or the Save Our Stages Act, both of which would directly or indirectly help struggling sound reinforcement providers.

The bipartisan RESTART Act would extend the Paycheck Protection Program, providing small businesses— like sound companies and venues, for example—with 16 weeks to use those funds if they have fewer than 500 full-time employees and have had a decline in revenues of at least 25%. It would also provide small business loans that businesses could take up to seven years to pay back, allowing up to two years before they have to start paying.

Meanwhile, the Save Our Stages Act, which has 28 bipartisan cosponsors, would create a new $10 billion Small Business Administration program to provide grants of up to $12 million to eligible venues, producers, promoters and others to help cover up to half a year’s worth of expenses like payroll costs, rent, mortgage, utilities, and PPE, among other needs.

Given that venues across the country annually generate $9 billion in ticket sales alone, protecting the businesses behind such a strong economic driver should be a no-brainer.

The need for those acts’ passage is all the more necessary because local and regional audio providers and the venues they serve are crucial if the concert industry’s going to return. As regions slowly relax capacity regulations over time, local, club and theater-sized shows will lay the foundation for that comeback; now is the time for our elected officials to make sure those vendors and venues will still be in business to make it happen.

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