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Inside SSE’s acquisition of Capital Sound

Phil Ward investigates the rationale behind SSE Audio Group’s recent acquisition of touring company Capital Sound…

On the 17th July, and after 28 years and 10 months, Keith Davis resigned as a director of Capital Sound Hire, the Wimbledon-based pro audio rental company that had come to feast at the top table of an industry dominated by competitors at least 10-15 years older. It was the natural conclusion of a dedicated career and delicate negotiations between Davis and John Penn, the founder of the SSE Audio Group that now owns Davis’ legacy.

As a result Capital Sound is spearheaded now by Paul Timmins, formerly operations and development director, the culmination of his own 18-year journey with the company and his emergence as Davis’ successor in the forefront of activities during the last few years.

It creates a powerful clique. On the hire side Capital Sound joins Wigwam Hire, Tarsin and Canegreen within the SSE Audio Group, as well as SSE Hire, and completes a geographical spine of rental physique from the North of England to London. Each has joined under different circumstances, but gradually SSE is building a cradle of business security during a period of generational shift and protective consolidation right across the industry.

One night stands

There are several influences at work behind this strategic move. Firstly, John Penn identifies the contemporary phenomenon of the ‘one-off’ – a single night of full-scale, full-production rental that requires all the effort and infrastructure of a high-profile tour for one very special occasion.

“The one-offs are usually for a corporate client, but not always” he tells PSNEurope. “We did one in Dublin last week, with Anastasia. There’s a lot of prep, especially with the channel counts of today. When they were fewer, you just bashed a channel list into an analogue desk. Nowadays, it’s 96-plus channels with loops and laptops and a whole load of frequency-sensitive radio kit. It’s a lot of work.”

Add to this the growing requirement for ‘A’ rigs together with backup or exchangeable ‘B’ rigs, and the squeeze is on.

“You work on the basis that you’re doing as much as you can do, so you can’t do much more,” admits Penn. “That’s it. You can’t be too picky. You’ve got to take what comes at you. But every new job is a new regular client in the making, some new business you can win, so it’s about delivering on those difficult one-offs so that you get the opportunity to shine. We did a one-off control package recently, because the artist on tour couldn’t get the kit to this one-off event, sent off this massive spec and afterwards we get a call from the tour manager saying: ‘how come the kit for this one-off is better prep’d than stuff we’ve had out on the tour?’ After that tour, the next time they did a festival run we had an A rig and a B rig out with them.”

Then there are the new, more complex live performance patterns – especially during the summer, when artists display a growing habit of festival hopping between opportunities for selfies in Ibiza. They’re not on tour as such, but they appear on stage at these festivals with a good-to-go control package and set list. This makes the life of the rental company even more complicated.

“That is exactly what both Rita Ora and Lily Allen – among many others – have been doing with us all summer,” Penn continues. “Artists now do ‘summer festival runs’ that happen at weekends, two or three gigs here and there, often geographically miles apart. So a lot of them have two sets of desks, two sets of backline, two sets of radios and so on. It’s a lot of planning and logistics.”

Stock in trade

All of which means a greater demand for stock, available more flexibly and with more personnel on standby. “Right now,” says Penn, “we’ve got A and B rigs in prep for Imagine Dragons, N.E.R.D. – the A rig’s come back and they’re adding to it – and Shawn Mendes, on top of prepping four stages of flip-flop desks for the Rize! Festival. And, of course, that’s as well as all the A and B packages we have out already.

“What happens is one of the rigs comes back, you store that for a fortnight and strip it down to use parts of it, but then you’ve got to rebuild it again when they need it. It takes a day to do that; they don’t pay for it because as far as they’re concerned it’s been done and it’s us that’s undoing it, and you need your payroll crew to do it again properly. You’ve got to be on your toes. We’d always rather use our own stock than sub-hire it.”

But of course ‘our own’ stock has now dramatically increased. In January, Paul Timmins enquired about the availability of some d&b audiotechnik J-Series kit for a Sam Smith run, although he didn’t want the amplification. “Normally I’d shy away from that,” says Penn, “because what are we supposed to do with what’s left? But we were expecting d&b’s new GSL system, with no amps because they’re the same as the J-Series, so it was a good fit. This continued with other bits and pieces, until the point where a fresh conversation with Keith was almost inevitable.”

‘Fresh’ because one particular topic had cropped up before, with the irrevocable insistence of fate.

“Keith and I had spoken about his pending retirement a few times,” admits Penn, “and time moves on. To put it into perspective: last Saturday I sent Yan [Stiles] a card to mark the 10th anniversary of Canegreen joining the fold. Ten years! Anyway, in Keith’s position the main concern is a secure legacy, and we’d already demonstrated we could work together in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.

“I think we also have a track record of taking care of businesses within the Group, and letting them be themselves and play to their own strengths. It’s not about the gear anyway; it’s about the people. That’s where the real value lies in a business. And, this time, things fell into place and we were able to strike a deal.”

“It was important for us to see what had happened with Wigwam,” says Paul Timmins. “That was a model we could recognise and use to gauge the likely outcome of a deal like this: five years on, Wigwam still has a powerful identity in the same location. That was key to building our confidence in taking this step.

“In the long term, we can see that Wigwam is the ‘face’ of SSE in the North and, although we are still Capital Sound, in rental terms we can be the face of that group in London and the South. It does mean that there are two SSE locations in London and that may change over time, but for the foreseeable future things will continue as they are. As and when we need to respond to enquiries more fixed installation in nature, we now have the resources to turn to.”

Riders on the storm

Another drain on resources is the increasing specificity of the riders. Acts are now very choosy, which is one of the main drivers behind Capital Sound’s policy of the past few years to offer more choice in terms of kit – especially loudspeakers, which have traditionally fallen into either one camp or another in order to provide a competitive edge.

“Choice is key,” says Timmins. “I think we’ve possibly embraced this more than others in recent years, especially as it is driven now by the loudspeaker options. With consoles, generally everybody has most options in-house, but hitherto rental companies have grown up with one brand. Three years ago we went to four brands, and we’ve had incredible success with that. It’s actually brought in new business, and definitely got us out of a brief period of flatlining. John recognised that, and I believe he saw an extension of the benefits made possible by the aggregation of SSE’s and Wigwam’s loudspeaker stock when that happened.

“It’s great having all these brands, but you’ve got to be able to support them in terms of technical expertise. I think we all share that view now: you’ve got to be able to provide people their first choice. I suppose SSE led the way with V-DOSC, while Wigwam championed d&b and we had Martin Audio and later Meyer, but by adding d&b and Outline we’ve made ourselves just that little bit more tasty.”

“Clients don’t just want 10 radio mics,” adds Penn. “They want this mic with that capsule, that mic with another capsule, some in this frequency band, some in another… same with ears, beltpacks, so many details. They have their preferences, and you need to match the specification. If you have a bigger pool of equipment within the Group you’re more likely to achieve that. ‘I’ll swap my 10 channels of Sennheiser for your 10 channels of Shure’, and so on. We’ve made it an absolute policy of providing the spec, no compromise. We’re now in a position across the Group where we have a very good spread of all the key brands, with all the economies of scale that we can exploit at the same time.”

Let’s just take a look: by phoning one number, you should have access to major loudspeaker rigs by – in no particular order – Martin Audio, Meyer Sound, d&b audiotechnik, L-Acoustics, JBL and Outline; and consoles by Digico, Midas, Yamaha, Avid, Soundcraft, SSL and Allen & Heath. That should keep most European customers satisfied.

“This deal was the option that provided the greatest stability for the Capital brand,” concludes Timmins. “It enables us to keep working at the top level with the artists we know, and to give Keith the rewards he deserves for devoting 40 years of his life to this industry. Everybody came out of it in a good position.”