The on-going success of long-running events like Bonnaroo has inspired a now-packed festival marketplace, which in turn is helping keep sound reinforcement companies busy. NEW YORK, NY—While the Sound Reinforcement industry never comes to a halt, the winter months traditionally provide a brief respite sandwiched between the final rush of holidayrelated work and the marathon of tours and events that kick off in the early spring and end once after the next holiday season. The comparative calm provides an opportunity to not only take stock of the 12 months that just ended, but also strategize for the coming year.
Summing up 2014 is pretty simple, however: It was a barnstormer. Pollstar estimated concert industry ticket sales at an all-time high of $6.2 billion in North America—which in turn kept sound companies at every level busy, whether they were sending full productions around the country, providing local stacks and racks to tours, or tackling audio for local events.
Jack Boessneck, executive vice president of Eighth Day Sound (Highland Heights, OH), sees the momentum of last year continuing: “I think this year is going to be the biggest ever—that’s the trend. Everybody’s going out to work. I’m always an optimistic guy, but this year, I’m unusually optimistic.”
That will translate into the expected arena and shed tours carrying full production, but Boessneck also predicts a surge of small- and mid-sized tours as well that will be running tighter ships when it comes to bringing along audio equipment. With up-to-date line array systems readily available from regional providers around the country, many artists may make the rounds carrying less production, in part because there seems to be an expanding variety of venues to play, ranging from local theaters to outdoor events to wineries, making a case of “one system fits all” very unlikely.
“The trend’s gonna be that smaller is better,” explained Boessneck. “There’s going be more acts who are going to carry control gear in a bus bay or behind in a trailer. If you look at the size of the venues that are getting played…there are more places to play on a smaller level, I think.”
On the other hand, some think that the current precipitous drop in gas prices will spur more 2015 tours to invest in the consistency that comes from carrying complete audio systems. “I think [the drop] makes it more economical to carry productions,” said Paul Owen, vice president, Thunder Audio (Livonia, MI/Nashville, TN). “When you have the trailer on the back of a bus with some in-ears, digital consoles and a backline, you’ve got the fuel of the bus and that’s your transport cost. With fuel prices being as low as they are—and we own our own trucks and run them, so obviously we see the impact of that straight away—I think it makes it more presentable for people to carry production without worrying that they have to go to another truck now.”
If nothing else, the slide of gas prices—the national average being $2.06 as of mid-January, a full 40 percent less than the 2014 peak of $3.70 last April—will leave more money in consumers’ pockets to potentially spend on concerts. If ticket-buyers are looking to get the most bang for those unexpected bucks, they may well get some ducats for some of the endless number of festivals that are increasingly dominating the concert industr y landscape.
“There’s still a lot out there, and five or six have expanded to doubleweekends, like Coachella and ACL [Austin City Limits],” said Boessneck, whose company provides audio for ACL and Bonnaroo. “There hasn’t been a huge attrition of festivals; they just keep going and find more footholds, so their brands get stronger.”
Owen, whose company provides systems for Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Orion and the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, among others, sees the festivals’ success as a no-brainer to consumers: “They’re buying tickets for an event now, not an artist per se. People are getting Bonnaroo tickets before the lineups are even announced because they know they’re going to see a wide variety of the top artists in the business in three days.”
While festivals have always been around, their current ubiquity has changed not only the touring industry, but also how sound companies approach providing audio for them. Just 10 years ago, audio vendors saw the then-comparative handful of multi-day events as a double-edged sword: Festivals were money-makers, but taking them on meant keeping systems off the road that would otherwise be touring. Now, with the pervasiveness of fests, the situation has changed.
“You can do a festival ‘tour,’” said Boessneck. “If you’re smart enough—and some of us are, I’m sure—you can put together a system to do festivals, with tweaks in between them, because this one needs delays, next one maybe you leave them in the truck, and another one one needs more control [systems]. You’ve got to have good sales people and it’s a little bit of a balancing act, but you can do it.”
If there’s going to be more work this year, sound companies are understandably concerned that they have inventories to match the gear needs showing up on Requests for Quotation. “You have to have everything in your arsenal,” said Owen, “but you’re always going to stock up on what’s more prominent, and we know what we’re sub-renting or what we’re using in the touring market, and we can’t really see a big change from Avid Venue Profile being the most dominant desk right now. It’s the go-to console, the majority of festivals use it and it seems to be the most-asked for, riderwise. However, I do think there’s room in the market for a new console to come in here, whether it be SSL or whoever, but at the end of the day, it has to be roadtested and have reliability.” Boessneck felt some alternatives might be around the corner: “Yamaha’s got a new top-of-the-line console [the Rivage PM10] coming out. Otherwise, it’s quiet, but not a complete lull. Everybody’s threatening to put out something new. There’s a lot of staples of this industry that are getting a little long in the tooth, and I’m sure every manufacturer knows their product’s life cycle. But what’s the timing? The timing is ‘Don’t kill what you’re selling if it’s selling!’”
Eighth Day Sound