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It is the Best of Times, It is the Worst of Times

Sometimes a good line is worth ripping off, and for the slightly abused title here, now seems an appropriate time (with appropriate apologies to Mr. Dickens).

Frank Wells

Sometimes a good line is worth ripping off, and for the slightly abused title here, now seems an appropriate time (with appropriate apologies to Mr. Dickens). The audio industry today is a study in extremes.

In live sound, record profits are being made. Ticket prices have reached new heights. Top-end sound companies are busy, very busy. Concert production companies are branching out ever more into not just installed sound, but into full A/V systems contracting. Live music is experiencing resurgence in popularity down to the local level. Gear is lighter, less expensive and more capable. On the other hand, who is going to replace the legacy artists? Superstardom isn’t what it used to be. Local and regional sound company competition is heating up.

The recording infrastructure is more affordable than ever—everyone can play. The capabilities of today’s gear is staggering. High-end studios report that business is good. But there are fewer of those high-end commercial studios than ever, many legacy facilities have been scooped up by production companies for private use or hybrid in-house/commercial work, others are—or soon will be—condos. Many independent studio owners are owners by necessity; there’s far less money in the system than there was two decades ago, and the business model means that to make a living, they provide the room, the gear and themselves for less than what was once the engineering budget alone. It’s a plus that anyone can play, and a minus. There’s always someone willing to undercut rates. There is great quality production to be found, but there’s also more mediocrity in which it can get lost.

Audio education is a booming business. The number of individuals eager to learn the audio arts is burgeoning. Job availability in high-paying, high-profile audio careers is not meeting demand. Many skilled, veteran engineers now teach as their primary occupation, but not by first choice.

Television broadcast and production experienced a boom in quality and investment with the advent of HDTV. Quality is better than ever. That’s leveled off, though 4K video accompanied by immersive sound might start another round. That’s TV. There’s not much of a ‘best of times’ story to tell for radio, aside from less expensive, more powerful production tools. Radio is not dead, but completely ubiquitous WiFi could be its silver bullet. Radio, as one can experience at NAB conventions, is becoming increasingly IP-based (as are live sound and recording, to lesser extremes). Mass group ownership, regional and national programing, and automation have crimped local employment opportunities. The competition for broadcasting continues to grow, with some production pro opportunities increasing from that competition, a la Netflix.

Movies are still drawing big bucks and the in-house production facilities are busy-busy. New immersive formats mean infrastructure investment and another differentiation for the theater experience as opposed to typical home viewing. Films carry over into portable distribution, increasing opportunity. The looming shadow is the closing of a good number of high-profile post production houses. Smaller crews are often being hired when new production teams are assembled.

Vinyl sales are up and it’s a nice story, but the numbers and market penetration are relatively insignificant. Digital downloads are up, but not as much as CDs are down. Physical media is largely over, the fade has irrevocably started. New digital formats, for audio in particular, are as much niche formats as vinyl (and before the vinyl true-believers go all postal on me, I’m talking business models, not ethereal emotional impact, so keep your headphones on). Digital single sales are up; album sales are in rapid decline. Streaming is up; revenues to the music distribution chain are small, and the flow down to the production community is but a trickle or maybe a drip.

It’s the time we have. Make the best of it.