For well over a year now, as the global economy stutters along towards recovery, "cautious optimism" has been the phrase I've felt best described the mood amongst audio professionals, manufacturers and production personnel alike. In an admittedly unscientific polling that included attendees of the recent Frankfurt Musikmesse/ProLight&Sound, reports of staff covering NAB and from a dialog in thePro Sound News LinkedIn discussion group, that cautiousness has somewhat abated. Manufacturers, distributors, facility owners and engineers alike are still being careful about new investment, to be sure, but they are also reporting that business is generally good.
Part of this may be simply a resignation to the new realities of doing business in a marketplace both ravaged by the economic downturn and irrevocably changed by technology, both in production paradigms and in finished product distribution.
In a world where traditional room-to-let studios are becoming fewer in number, versatility is the new byword oft cited by commercial studio owners, personal production facility owners and engineers (the latter increasingly, if not predominantly, being owners of personal production facilities themselves). The ability to reinvent oneself, to stretch beyond a niche that was formerly sufficient to provide enough work that one didn't have to branch outside one's comfort zone, is a common theme among those staying busy. Those whose credits already represented their versatility and flexibility are among those reportedly doing well. For example, John King of Chung King Studios is branching out, relocating his main studios to get more space for less and developing rooms to cater to the indie scene where big budgets are nonexistent. He's not ignoring his traditional client base, including planning an all-analog room for those who prefer to avoid digital production.
Folks say they are working harder; doing more with less is another recurrent theme. Studios and engineers need more clients to make the same income in a market where budgets are small, and there's a rising trend of recording singles as opposed to album projects. Many manufacturers, distributors and sales operations are reporting increased sales, but also that every sale now has to be worked for. Local dealers have to contend with national pricing competition. Live-sound pros are adapting by working larger numbers of smaller events. The cost of operation in all areas continues to rise, offsetting increased sales and bookings.
Knowledge is an additional factor that can help improve versatility. Even in a price competitive marketplace, reliable advice can generate repeat customers. This is true in sales, in providing trustworthy and performance-proven guidance towards an appropriate piece of gear or software. It is equally true in production, where the ability to craft a sonic masterpiece is augmented when an engineer or producer can guide clients through unfamiliar territory, such as internet marketing.
The “good ole days” are good and gone. It's a changed world, and that change has had its ripple effects into our small industry. There's a Darwinian process at work now in professional audio. Those slow to adapt to the new realities, to the new predators challenging our livelihood, will fall by the wayside. But it's not just the young bucks that will step forward, survive and thrive. As one consultant pointed out, it's worth noting that few pro audio manufacturers have gone out of business due to the economic downturn, even if business has not returned to pre-crisis levels. There's a lot of intellect and tenacity to be found within the individuals making up the pro audio community. Even if it's difficult to make the time when already working harder, doing the necessary homework and working smarter are essential in this Brave New World.