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Raising Capital: Martin Connolly on 25 years with Capital Sound

The touring firm's senior project manager reflects on an illustrious 25 years and offers his predictions for the future of the rental market.

This year sees Capital Sound’s senior project manager, Martin Connolly, celebrate his 25th year with the London-based touring company. Daniel Gumble finds him in a reflective mood, as he looks back on a quarter of a century in the live sound and touring market and explains how a journey of personal self discovery set him on the path to a career in pro audio…

PSNEurope finds Martin Connolly in the midst of one of the busiest periods on the Capital Sound calendar when we catch up with him to discuss his 25th year with the company. The south London-based touring operation has just drawn the curtain on the inaugural All Points East festival, which ran over two weekends (six days in total) at east London’s Victoria Park and featured such world-beating acts as The National, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Bjork, LCD Soundsystem, Patti Smith, St Vincent, Beck, Lorde and The XX among many more. On top of that, preparations for the – at time of going to press – upcoming British Summer Time Hyde Park shows, featuring the likes of The Cure, Paul Simon, Pink Floyd legend Roger Waters, Eric Clapton and Bruno Mars have began in earnest. However, while each of these city-based summertime festivals fall under the microscope during PSNEurope’s conversation with Connolly, it is the arrival of his 25th anniversary with the firm that provides the basis for our discussion.

For Connolly, the personal and professional strands of his relationship with music, and particularly the touring industry, are profoundly intertwined.

Indeed, despite entering his teenage years at a time when free gigs and festivals were commonplace across the country – free shows from the likes of the Rolling Stones and Hawkwind were among those that would fuel Connolly’s growing passion for music – his roots in live music and the world of pro audio can be traced back to an altogether more personal place. At the age of 18, the tragic death of his twin brother Brian in a motorcycle accident prompted Connolly to quit his day job working for the council and set about discovering more about the life of his late sibling. His decision to do so marked the beginning of a career that would not only take him on a personal journey of self-discovery, but would eventually single him out as one of the touring industry’s most influential figures.

After spending several years on the road as a live sound engineer, his move into the realm of rental services some quarter of a century ago has seen him lead Capital Sound through some of the most significant technological changes in the sector’s history, while steadily growing the business and cementing its place as one of the touring market’s most influential players.

Here, Connolly speaks to PSNEurope editor Daniel Gumble about the events that shaped him during his formative years, his Capital Sound highlights and what Brexit means for the future of touring…

Tell us about your entry to the world of live sound and touring.

Like all kids I was into music, and at the age of 15 I was at Hyde Park when the Rolling Stones played there but I missed their set. I remember listening to Alexis Korner, but as we all know, because it was a free festival it got pretty uncomfortable, certainly for a young lad. So me and my friend left. But from that point on I was into going to see music. In those days there were all these free festivals. Some friends of my brothers were in a band, so at the tender age of 18 I went to see them. They used to rehearse every weekend in a cottage in Kent, so I went to see them for a weekend and ended up staying for six months! Most of the band were on the dole. They realised they needed a PA, which they bought from ESE (Eric Snowball Electronics). I operated it for the three shows they did, and when that came to its natural end, after we were kicked out of the cottage for not looking after the garden, they decided to buy a better PA, and that came from [legendary speaker designer] Malcolm Hill. That gave me and introduction to Malcolm and I’d already had the introduction to Eric Snowball. Malcom was building PAs and ESE was not only running PAs but they had the country and western market and a bit of the Motown market sewn up through the promoters they were working with.

So what was your route from that point to your joining Capital? Did you know from that point on that you wanted a career in touring?

It was a difficult time, having lost my twin brother at the age of 18. It was one of those self-finding missions; several guys in a band I knew were friends of his as he was the musical one out of the two of us. I thought I would go and see these guys and maybe I would find a bit more out about my brother, because at the age of 18 I didn’t really know him – as he’d gone to a different school to me. I was a bit unsettled by his passing away and I was between jobs. I’d quit my job working for Bromley Council in the wages office, so I was in limbo. A lot of people of my age that got into the industry have similar stories – they had friends in bands or they weren’t happy in their 9-5 job. It was like a breath of fresh air, you weren’t clocking in and out every day, and it felt like a rosy business to be moving into. I never had any thoughts about whether or not this path would lead me into my 60s, you never thought that far ahead. ESE offered me work so it was a logical route to take, they needed someone just to plug some boxes in, and they were doing shows with people like Chuck Berry. That led me into more professional shows.

I got a call to go to the Sunday Palladium, a matinee variety performance (two shows, afternoon and evening), which was the first professional show I was asked to mix. I was taking over from an engineer who was leaving and I was told he would help me through the first show and I’d then do the second one. As I arrived he just said, Here’s the mixer, I’ve got a plane to catch. See ya!

How did you get through that?

Well, I survived. All those acts would do a 10-week tour with a week in 10 different venues, so I continued, and I continued to do other work with ESE. And through a strange coincidence, the guy I replaced at ESE turned up to pick up a PA for a country and western act he was doing, and he said he was looking for a powerful sound system for a band he was working with. I asked if he’d been to see Malcolm Hill. He went to have a listen to that PA, told Malcolm he liked what he heard, but that he wanted eight times as much, which Malcolm managed to get built, and that was for AC/DC. That was how AC/DC got introduced to Malcolm Hill, and eventually I ended up working with them as their monitor engineer.

What was it like being on the road and mixing monitors for AC/DC?

It was a very busy time. They would start a tour and it would just roll on and on. We would do 12-week tours of the States and then move on to other territories. That was back in 1978. They never sound-checked. Their attitude was ‘what’s the point in playing in an empty venue?’ The crew would do the sound check and that’s the way it was. It was the early days of touring, not as polished as it is now when it comes to catering and hotels. They just ran a very heavy schedule – not many days off, I can tell you that. They were right on the cusp of success. I started with them in ’78 and then in ’79 they came out with Highway To Hell. That sealed the deal for them, giving the band their first ever headline tour of America.

We shipped all the PA from the UK and I flew over, met the gear at JFK and we had to clear it all through customs into an artic. I jumped in the artic and we had to drive it all the way from the east coast to Oakland in time for the first show. We did that in three days. The driver did a great job, but you weren’t governed by the driving laws that exist these days…

How did you get into the rental business from being an engineer?

I got married! I was touring right up until 1985. That year it was with the band Fastway and the drummer (Jerry Shirley) and his wife set a blind date up for me in New York. And that lady I met is still my wife to this day. I’d gone over to America just with shorts and t-shirts, so when they told me about the date I said, That’s ridiculous, I haven’t got anything I can wear to a French restaurant! So the singer leant me his jacket, someone else leant me a black shirt, some jeans and some boots, so I was dressed all in black. And the rest, as they say, is history. Right around that time, Malcolm decided he needed someone to run the rental side of his company. It dovetailed nicely, which came with being in the right place at the right time. Capital Sound’s history has been about that a lot, as life is in general. I did that from 1985, and within four or five months we were involved with Live Aid. Here’s your introduction, the biggest show that’s ever happened in the UK!

How did you manage to pull it off?

It was very difficult. [Chief sound engineer] Mike Scarfe was based in America, so he came over. Every employee that worked for [rental firm] Hill Audio was given the opportunity to get into the show if they worked on it. Not everybody rose to the occasion, because at the time you didn’t necessarily have people who specialised in stage patching. Fortunately radio mics weren’t as dominant then as they are now, so radio frequencies weren’t too much of a problem. That’s how we got enough crew together to run the show.

Presumably there were still a few hairy moments along the way?

Well, I had the best seat in the house because I wasn’t actually there on the day. My situation was that I did all the rehearsals, and on the day of the show me and my wife set up two sun loungers in our living room and watched the whole thing on TV. Of course, everybody to a man, when they talk about Live Aid, will say, What about Paul McCartney losing his vocal? Well, the true story on that is that there were two channels for the piano and one vocal mic and they got patched to two separate mixing consoles. It was just one of those things, especially after such a hard, stressful day. For a show of that size and the complexity of it, for what systems were around at the time it’s amazing that it was pulled off and that that was the only fault. Everyone got through it remarkably well.

In the 25 years that you’ve been with Capital, the industry, and the company itself, have both changed dramatically. How have you been able to negotiate such significant shifts?

You have to keep your finger on the pulse and be aware of developments. With all the major sound manufacturers there are developments, whether it’s mixing consoles or loudspeaker systems, and you’ve got to be at the front of them.

When line arrays came along, we actually didn’t have one straight away. We first had to get into line array technology because we had a client that requested one. At that point we bought into Meyer Sound because Martin Audio was still developing its line array. When you move into digital networks and digital consoles, you have to be at the cutting edge. You have to be leading the way.

You’ve also got to retain your clients. If people didn’t want to use us we wouldn’t be in business. We are a relatively small company; if you look at the other big giants they’ve got hundreds of employees and we’ve got 15. But the products we use, like the MLA system, has opened up different markets for us.

What have been some of the key moments or projects that have helped the company grow over the years?

Our first involvement with AEG was very important for us. Our first involvement with Loud Sound was in Victoria Park where we use Martin Audio line array, and they were just very keen to move on to bigger shows. Now we’ve ended up with BST in Hyde Park. Also, our Progress and Circus shows with Take That fall into that category. They were developmental years for the company and the products and systems we were running. They were very complex shows. The Circus tour was absolutely remarkable. But there are also much smaller shows that were amazing. We did a corporate show for Vodafone with Elton John that was incredible. It was a private party for about 10,000 people!

Talk us through the biggest industry changes that have shaped the business over the past two and a half decades.

Digital desks have been a huge jump forward. But saying that, we had an analogue desk out last month. There is still a demand for them. Certain acts insist on them so you have to have them as part of your stock. We have Midas consoles H3000 and XL4s, but you have to maintain those. With digital consoles the landscape on those is moving so fast, every manufacturer is in a race to produce the next generation of consoles. It’s very hard to keep pace with it because of the financial involvement, so as a company you have to set your stall out and say this is the manufacturer or this is the range we think will stand the test of time over the next six or seven years, and hopefully you’re going to be right. With speaker systems, everyone used to think they had a lifespan of 10 years. Digital desks seem to be bearing up very similarly – they aren’t disappearing as fast we thought they would and the investment is a lot, so they have to last a long time.

Since you joined the company, the number of live outdoor events and festivals that take place every years has grown substantially. Does that have a positive knock-on effect for the company?

It’s two-fold. There are so many festivals now that a lot of acts look at the festival market and may do a shorter tour. The festival season starts at the end of May and doesn’t end until September, so if you’re a band that has the opportunity to play loads of festivals between those months you’re going to take them. You’ll probably make more money because you don’t have to pay for a sound or lighting system; you’re just going to take your control equipment. And it’s not going to slow down. There is a huge appetite for live shows at the moment, and you never see a show being cancelled because they can’t get the equipment or people aren’t buying tickets. If any shows do fall by the wayside it’s probably because they are on a sticky wicket when it comes to selling tickets. But shows that are attracting around 25,000-30,000 people – if they are in cities – stand a very good chance of doing good business.

Do city festivals present different challenges to traditional festival settings?

They do in the UK. We do festivals in Hungary (Sziget, Bolt and Balaton) with no noise limits. They are running the system at 106-108dB, but in the UK it is generally whatever the local authorities deem the limit. It tends to be 75dB from a designated ‘sensitive point’.

You can have a site that is 10 miles away from a sensitive point and you can be way under the limit, but if someone can hear it they can phone up and complain. That’s the issue. Local councils will set the limit, we will adhere to it, but people can hear it so there are still complaints. And then the council has to be seen to respond, so even though you’re under the limit, when the promoter applies for the licence again next year, the sound company will possibly be asked if they can improve upon offsite spill. That’s where MLA comes into its own.

In June you provided the audio system for the first All Points East festival in London. What was the response like to those shows?

The promoter, production team, everyone was very happy. It couldn’t have gone any better. We are familiar with Victoria Park because we’d been doing Field Day there – that was the first London park we were asked to do sound for – the LED Festival – and that was through Loud Sound.

As the years have progressed we’ve made changes to the sub design; we maybe don’t put in as many boxes as some others would because we feel there’s no need. Capital will look at every single site independently. We won’t just say, This is what we put in for festivals. APE was highly successful and we’re looking at future years for that project.

What are your predictions for the future of touring and what Brexit might mean for the live sound market?

If we all end up having to do carnets we’ll be very upset, even though we still have to do them for Switzerland and America, so I don’t think Brexit will affect our industry too much. The industry is quite resilient when it comes to political change. I don’t think the knock-on effect will be anywhere near as catastrophic as some people are predicting. It’ll be business as usual.