by Clive Young.
Ask the head of a major national sound reinforcement company what the state of the industry is, and you're liable to be greeted with a chuckle. After all, what hasn't that level of the touring audio market seen in the last few months?
There's been economic turmoil, gas shortages, new gear coming down the pike, MIA artists, continued drama on the white spaces issue, last call on a major piece of standard equipment, and more. In short, it's been a rollercoaster.
Some things have been consistent--most SR providers spoken to for this report noted that the spring season was relatively strong despite the financial woes that started hitting the country as the mortgage-lending crisis grew on Wall Street. As the touring industry hit the prime summer season, things remained solid. Announced tours cut back in a few cases--most noticeably Disney's Block Party Tour, a five-week jaunt aimed at kids that took off three weeks in the middle after low ticket sales--but nothing major folded.
The number of acts on the road kept audio vendors busy during the warmest months, despite the fact that many of music's biggest stars were either sitting the year out in order to record, or headed overseas for the European summer festival season. There, they could get paid in Euros instead of the shaky dollar, and wait until the fall season to hit our shores.
For the performers that stayed in the U.S., it was a familiar summer--most of the biggest tours were perennials such as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and The Dave Matthews Band. Only three top-grossing groups--Coldplay, Rascal Flatts and the Jonas Brothers--had been in the big leagues for less than 10 years.
Nonetheless, there was work to go around, as the usual suspects among the national tour sound providers were joined by Masque Sound (Moonachie, NJ) and Firehouse Productions (Milan, NY). While both companies have typically fielded a few national tours a year in the past, 2008 has found Firehouse on the road with Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, Hall & Oates, moe., Interpol, Sigur Rós, Goldfrapp, Lou Reed, Ryan Adams and others, while Masque has been out with Van Halen, Jordin Sparks, Ministry, Celtic Woman and Jesse McCartney, as well as supporting some aspects of Maryland Sound International's Neil Diamond tour.
While the summer tour season did respectable business--and that, in turn, kept SR rental warehouses empty--some attributed the success to ticket sale dates held months earlier, before financial issues took such a firm grasp on the nation's psyche and wallet. Others attributed the black ink to a decrease in vacation travel this year due to the skyrocketing cost of gasoline. Although petrol prices have eased somewhat in recent weeks, even cheap gas costs a dollar more per gallon than it did this time last year. To cut back on consuming so much, many productions have gone on a diet, losing both weight (non-essential gear, trucks) and muscle (crew) in the process.
Many tours have been conserving gas by using gear that takes up less truck space and weighs less; that effort may soon be aided by the debut this fall of no less than four major digital consoles: DiGiCo's SD8; Innovason's Eclipse; Midas' PRO6; and Soundcraft's Si3. Each desk is looking to pack more punch into a smaller framework, in part by using software and plug-ins to shoulder duties that would have been the province of various outboard racks in the past.
One national SR provider executive noted he was looking forward to the DiGiCo desk, but lamented, "It's become clear that digital consoles don't have the return on investment that analog desks did. I have good digital desks we got a few years ago, and now I'm looking at these new ones because they're exciting, but also because I know engineers are going to want them instead. Meanwhile, I get plenty of guys who want to mix on a Midas XL4 analog desk, and how long ago were those introduced? Technology is moving quickly, and you have to keep up, but I think there's some 'what's the latest fashion' going on here, too."
That's not the only equipment concern either--as noted elsewhere in the current issue of Pro Sound News, as of September 30, Dolby/Lake has ceased production of its popular Dolby Lake Processor, a standalone speaker optimization tool for concert venues and live sound installations. Another national SR company head grumbled about having to place a final order by the deadline date that would include enough units for upcoming spec'd installation systems and a guesstimate for units necessary for upcoming tours.
Meanwhile, the battle over use of white spaces is growing increasingly bitter. In an effort to free up "white spaces" in the frequency spectrum to use for high-tech gadgets, corporations like Google and Microsoft are pressuring the FCC to hand over frequency ranges that have been used for decades by wireless microphones and personal monitors. Unless the FCC can find a way to balance the needs of millions of current wireless pro audio users with the desires of corporate America for its next-generation wireless communications devices, everything from concert tours to Broadway shows to houses of worship to mega-events like the Super Bowl, will be acutely affected.
While the fall looks to be solid for major touring companies in terms of work--in part because tours were arranged before economic downshifts and $700 billion Wall Street bailouts were being thrown around in the media--it's really 2009 that is now the big question mark. With a hazy economic future ahead, upcoming expenditures for necessary equipment almost a certainty, the white spaces issue likely to come to a head, and no knowledge as to whether the American public will show up in shed seats next year, it looks like the concert touring sound rollercoaster may be gearing up for another set of loops and curves.