Summer's Mixed Signals for Live Sound

Newspapers have been reporting mid-year statistics from Pollstar that show the grosses on the Top 50 tours worldwide hit a cumulative $1.65 billion, up 11.2 percent over this time in 2010.
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Newspapers have been reporting mid-year statistics from Pollstar that show the grosses on the Top 50 tours worldwide hit a cumulative $1.65 billion, up 11.2 percent over this time in 2010. But turn to the front page of those same newspapers, and the economic news is quite different.

The Federal Reser ve trimmed back its expectations for 2011 economic growth from the 3.3 percent predicted in April to just 2.7 percent. Meanwhile, unemployment rose slightly in June, to 9.2 percent. These, in turn, are just some of the factors affecting the Consumer Confidence Index, which declined in May to 61.7 percent, and decreased again in June to 58.5. Says Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center, which conducts the Index, “Given the combination of uneasiness about the economic outlook and future earnings, consumers are likely to continue weighing their spending decisions quite carefully.”

With the economy doing so poorly, the concert industry’s upswing is all the more surprising, but tours and events are generally doing good business this summer, which in turn means the live sound sector is busy as well on both the national and regional levels. Major tours are packing ’em in at the sheds and arenas, while regional audio providers have been busy servicing local concert series and providing racks and stacks to an increasing number of national tours.

“People say that consumer expectations are down, but two and two aren’t adding up to four,” commented Jack Boessneck, executive vice president, Eighth Day Sound (Highland Heights, OH). With his company’s tours this summer ranging from Lil Wayne to Widespread Panic to Arcade Fire to Rihanna, he confirmed, “People are going to shows, and no tours have fallen off the road. Everybody’s out there, and they’re working—maybe not long periods of time except for a few— but everybody went out. When I read that consumer expectations are down, I wonder if they interviewed the wrong 300 consumers.”

To be fair, the jump up in concert grosses this year is based on a number of factors, such as the fact that the average ticket price has gone up a shocking $10.23 (13.6 percent) to $84.92—this after the disastrous summer of 2010, which found promoters holding fire sales for such dependable mainstays as The Eagles and American Idol. Another factor affecting grosses has been an industrywide reassessment of how much production to carry on the road.

“We’re getting lots of calls to subhire gear, which means to me that all the mid-level sound players are working, too,” said Boessneck. “Last year, many tours carried control and rented local stacks and racks, so all the mid- and lower-level sound companies were able to make a hell of a lot of money doing that.”

Don Lanier, head of Godfrey, ILbased Pearl Pro Audio, confirmed that regional providers are seeing a solid season. “Our phone’s been ringing and we’ve gotten several new customers either because someone’s moved up or closed shop,” he reported. “Our season’s off to a roaring start with both events and festivals, but also installs are coming on strong. We’ve actually invested in new gear and are considering hiring two people for sales, but we also have steady repeat business and a good reputation in the install market; that really helps us [in comparison to] other companies that may not be as diversified.”

While the economic climate and the concert industry’s current success might seem to be at odds with each other, the two may well cross paths by the second half of the summer, since the success of the early summer season was comprised of tours that had ticket on-sale dates in early spring, back when consumer optimism was considerably higher.

“I think there was optimism in the market at first,” opined Lanier. “It may be cooling though, as these budget talks reach a pivotal point. We need the government to get the price of fuel lower, and to give the American consumer some relief and reason to go spend discretionary money in our markets.”

Despite—or perhaps because of— the economy, festivals are becoming an increasingly important part of the live sound landscape, creating destination events that allow music fans to see numerous acts for a relatively low overall price. While new festivals have been popping up over the last few years, 2011 sees the debut of Kanrocksas (Kansas City, KS); Red Sky (Omaha, NE); Electric Forest (Rothbury, MI); Heavy T.O. (Toronto, Canada); and two indie rock fests in the toney Hamptons outside New York City—Escape to New York, and one week later, Music To Know (MTK).

While music is the heart of any festival, MTK founder Chris Jones sees his production as more of a curated event: “It’s gone away from people going out, listening to music and drinking lots of beer in a field; now there’s something for all your senses.” While the festival will serve up the likes of Vampire Weekend, Bright Eyes and Ellie Goulding, MTK will also present extensive fashion, lifestyle and food elements when it takes place August 13-14. Nonetheless, it’s still keyed primarily towards the music consumer. “We’re in the Hamptons where things are expensive and people go to fundraisers where they don’t think twice about dropping several hundred dollars,” admitted Jones, “but [MTK is] at a price point that allows everyone to enjoy it—we’re about 10 bucks a band over the course of two days, which is a great value. For many people on Long Island, they’ve never had the opportunity to experience something like this, so hopefully it’s a long-lasting memory, an enjoyable day out and they will hopefully become our customers for many years to come.”