State of Live Sound

Apr 27, 2010 4:11 PM, By Blair Jackson



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By the time you read this, American Idiot will have premiered on Broadway, with SR support from Masque Sound.

By the time you read this, American Idiot will have premiered on Broadway, with SR support from Masque Sound.

While the music industry as a whole continues to face challenging times, with sales of even the most popular albums decreasing year to year, and the rise of individual digital track purchases still not compensating for the volume of losses, the live touring industry has remained relatively robust. As M.L. Procise, senior touring director of Clair Global, the world’s largest touring sound company, remarks, “It seems that especially in tough times people want to escape and go out and see bands that they love—somehow they find the money for it.” Dave Shadoan of another giant audio company, Sound Image, agrees…to a point: “People are still going to shows—most of the big tours are doing okay—but there are also a lot of people who, because of the bad economy, can’t go as often, or they’ll stay away from the high-priced shows. For a lot of people, ‘disposable income’ is down to a husband and wife going to dinner and a movie. The trip to the Mouse House [Disney World]—people aren’t spending that money now.”

Indeed, on the surface, glancing at the top tours of last year it looked like good news all around. Led by U2’s amazing 360-degree stadium shows—all of which sold out and which are on track to do so again this year—and buoyed by popular tours by the likes of Madonna, AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, Elton John and Billy Joel, The Eagles, and Kenny Chesney, many arenas and sheds were filled to capacity. That’s the good news. The less than great news is that the support overall for many tours was “thin”—i.e., demand for some perennials (like Springsteen, for example) was not as great as in previous years—and many of the summer amphitheater acts performed for full houses only because of a plethora of heavily discounted seats. And although many look at 2009 as the crater of the recession, with some economic indicators looking up (marginally) for 2010, the continuing high unemployment rate and an overall lack of confidence in the nation’s economic fortunes have the potential to actually make this a tougher year than last year on the live sound front domestically. One harbinger may be the upcoming Eagles/Dixie Chicks/Keith Urban tour, which has been ambitiously booked into a number of stadiums in large markets.

“It’s too early to tell how the summer season is going to be,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, the leading live music industry publication. “If you look at what’s going to be out there, it’s a lot of the same music that’s been out there every year. In the summer you see a lot of the boomer bands combining in twos and threes to try to do another tour of large venues, and for the most part those have done fairly well. The outdoor festivals that are coming, like Coachella and Bonnaroo, will probably do fine because they get big acts and they’ve also established themselves as places people want to go, no matter who is playing. And country has proven to be dependable, too, year-round. What’s interesting about that market is it’s largely newer acts. If you look at who sells a lot on the rock side, you’re looking at Springsteen and U2 and The Eagles, AC/DC—all these acts that have been around for decades. But in country it’s Zac Brown, Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts… It’s going to be interesting to see what happens when the Rolling Stones are no longer around and Paul McCartney is no longer around and Springsteen isn’t touring anymore. Who will take their place at the upper level? It’s hard to say.”

Glamorous names aside, the live sound business is much more than just the top-grossing touring acts, of course. It is clubs and auditoriums, church installs and corporate events, conventions, legitimate theater, wineries and Indian casinos—an incredible panoply of microbusinesses, each an economy in itself. And looking at this deeper landscape, the results are perhaps more mixed than they are at upper strata of big music tours. We recently spoke with reps from a handful of top sound reinforcement companies to get a sense of the market’s strengths and weaknesses.

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