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State of the Industry-Live Sound

Conventional wisdom holds that the live sound industry is largely recession-proof—that despite the ups and down of the economy, people still seek out momentary relief from their woes by enjoying something that requires pro audio, be it a concert, theater production, a service in a house of worship, or some other live experience.

Conventional wisdom holds that the live sound industry is largely recession-proof—that despite the ups and down of the economy, people still seek out momentary relief from their woes by enjoying something that requires pro audio, be it a concert, theater production, a service in a house of worship, or some other live experience. This year finds that wisdom being proven true once again, though the economic climate remains challenging across the board.

Following the economic quagmire of 2010, the live sound industry has seen some improvement in 2011, if not necessarily a gangbusters recovery. National and international touring has seen a major rebound at the box office, which in turn has kept audio providers busy. Meanwhile, market research shows regional and local rental and staging houses to be cautiously optimistic about the coming year, and pro audio manufacturers have started making notable major product introductions again. Not all trending concerns have been economic, however, as the string of high-profile staging collapses this summer has given many pause for thought.

While the summer of 2011 concert season was a marked improvement over the previous year, that might not be considered a difficult feat. Last year saw major stadium acts fall out of the market as Kenney Chesney took the year off and the second North American leg of U2’s 360 tour was postponed to 2011 due to back surgery for singer Bono. Meanwhile, usually dependable summer mainstays like The Eagles and American Idol floundered at the box office, and tours like Christina Aguilera never made it out of the gate.

At the time, fingers pointed at the uncertain economy, artists that hit the road every summer, and a dearth of new acts worth seeing, but the primary culprit in most eyes was high ticket prices. With audiences resolutely staying away, promoters responded with a slew of discounts for troubled tours, all the while professing in the press that they’d learned their lesson and that in 2011, ticket pricing would be radically different. And it was—the average ticket price on the top 100 tours skyrocketed 13.6 percent—$ 10.23—to a jaw-dropping $84.92, according to Pollstar’s midyear business analysis.

With apparently nothing learned from last year, it’s all the more surprising that the concert business is up incrementally, thus providing steady work for live sound vendors at both the national and regional levels. The first quarter of 2011 found national touring in a more pronounced winter/ early spring lull than usual, but things picked up as temperatures rose outdoors. U2 and Chesney returned to the marketplace, the former wrapping up its U2 360 tour two years and 110 shows after it started, with the record for most successful tour ever ($736.1 million) under its belt. Meanwhile, there were no aggressively troubled tours at the box office, and the trend in recent years of fans turning to multi-act festivals like Bonnaroo, Coachella, Outside Lands and more seemed to continue. That said, however, the marketplace for large-scale music events may have become saturated as some fledgling fests reportedly barely squeaked into existence (Escape To New York) or never hit the stage due to low ticket sales (Music To Know).

Local and regional rental and staging providers have mixed feelings about where they stand, however, as InfoComm’s October 2011 Economic Snapshot Survey highlights. The survey’s Performance Index revealed that a full 38.5 percent of respondents characterized the last six months as “good” in terms of their business activity, but 33.3 percent found it to be only “fair.” Conversely, 42.3 percent expected the next six months to be “good” and 27.5 percent expected things to be even better, rating the coming half-year as “strong,” while only 22.9 percent predicted a “fair” outcome.

In line with those findings, the Perceived Company Position index, measuring how rental and staging companies feel about their company’s financial health, found that 62.8 percent see it as “better” than six months ago and 28.2 percent see it as the same, with only 9 percent finding things to be worse.

One indicator of an improving economic climate in 2011 has been the rise in high-profile live sound product introductions. In recent years, manufacturers had held off on introducing scores of new products—a pointless exercise if the marketplace doesn’t have the financial means to upgrade to the latest thing. In contrast, 2011 has seen a growing confidence on manufacturers’ parts, with the introductions of a number of notable releases, from Midas Pro2 and Pro2C consoles to the upcoming Shure Axient wireless microphone to Adamson’s bubblingunder Energia line array to Harman’s HiQnet Performance Manager, to name new entrants in just a few product categories. These introductions come on top of increased acceptance of gear that bowed earlier in the recession, such as Martin Audio’s MLA system and L-Acoustics’ K1/Kudo, both finding increased traction in the U.S. market this year.

One alarming trend that emerged this summer season had nothing to do with economics or new gear, as four separate incidents of extreme weather led to staging failures at high-profile concert events around the globe.

On July 17, high winds at the Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest in Canada caused a stage roof to collapse just after Cheap Trick cut its performance short and left the stage. Then on August 8, a Flaming Lips show at Tulsa, OK’s Brady Block Party was cancelled just before showtime when 80 MPH winds hit the outdoor venue, blowing over a 15-foot video wall and tearing off roofing. On Saturday, August 13, when a Grandstand stage roof fell just prior to a Sugarland concert at the Indiana State Fair, five people died, including a spotlight operator perched in the rafters. And less than a week later, on August 18, six people died and 140 people were injured, 10 critically, when tents and numerous stages’ rigging collapsed at Belgium’s Pukkelpop festival during a violent thunderstorm.

Greg Smith, senior director account manager at Clair (Lititz, PA), observed, “We weren’t directly involved in any of those accidents, but with this being the litigation nation that it is, I am sure that there will be more pressure on the industry as a whole to pay attention, whether that be in the way of wind-damage insurance policies that are issued for live outdoor events, or possibly even more oversight from OSHA. Right now though, I would say everyone’s focused on safety; we always have been, of course, and it’s an integral part of our in-house education, but I think this will lead to a refocusing on safety at every level of the industry.”

The first staging collapse, at the Ottawa Bluesfest, particularly resonated with Jack Boessneck, executive vice president at Eighth Day Sound, who explained, “We had equipment on the stage in Ontario. One of our clients, Death Cab For Cutie, was supposed to play after Cheap Trick. With stages going over this summer and people losing their lives, it’s a tragedy and everyone’s understandably upset.” Nonetheless, it hasn’t made his audio teams unduly nervous about going to work, he reported: “It’s a complete non-issue for crews; nobody’s waiting for the next shoe to fall.”

Pointing to the sheer number of events that are held every day and amount of work done by audio companies around the world, Boessneck remarked, “Overall, I think we’re a safe industry and have a good record for what we do. And we seem to be pretty good about policing ourselves. The bit about the show must go on? It always does.”