A friend recently told me a true story that highlights the ‘outsideʼ view of live sound.
It begins with a veteran club comedian being booked by a well-to-do sporting club to entertain an audience of around two hundred. Accepting the booking, our comic pointed out that he would need a microphone and asked whether the club had one. They had not, so he passed on details of a local PA hire operation and thought no more of it. Unfortunately...
He fetched up at the venue on the appointed date, met their entertainments officer, walked into the large room where he was to perform and asked if they had managed to arrange a microphone. The lady said, ‘Yes, no problem. We contacted your friends but they wanted £200 and we discovered that we could buy a microphone for only £89ʼ. As she handed him a shiny new SM58 a horrible realisation began to dawn...
With admirable self-control he asked about the rest of the system – amplifiers, loudspeakers, mixing console and so on. Iʼm sure you can guess the rest.
Why we are where we are
To those within the industry this is just another story that illustrates the hilarious ignorance of ʻoutsidersʼ, but in the opinion of your humble correspondent it has rather deeper meaning and perhaps gives a clue to why we are where we are. In a nutshell it highlights the fact that audio, and particularly live performance audio, is hopelessly undervalued by the great listening public. This is a Really Bad Thing, and I’ll tell you why.
In a curious example of synchronicity, ATC recently began a series of studio-based listening events ‘designed to give a better understanding of professional audio recording and production processes to select groups of retailers in audiophile consumer markets across the world’.
Because the great gig-going public have no understanding of the challenges involved in delivering satisfactory audio throughout a venue, nor any appreciation of the technologies or costs involved in doing so, they have nothing on which to base their expectations. Consequently these are, from a pure audio viewpoint, very low – generally if they can hear the singer and a bit of everything else then they’ll accept it. Concert sound (even on tours that have the biggest production budgets) has to be apocalyptically bad for anyone to seek a refund purely because the sound was poor.
They’re much more likely to get upset by the video, lighting, merchandise, concessions or toilets than the quality of what they’re hearing. Given the cost of concert tickets, it’s all the more surprising that gig-goers aren’t more discerning. But there is little evidence to suggest that they have any expectations at all of the live sound they hear. Given that the basis of everything – everything – we do is audio, doesn’t this strike you as weird? That our primary customer knows nothing about the product they pay us for, and apparently cares very little about its quality?
Could it be that this factor is the first domino in a chain that falls down all the time?
Perhaps promoters and tour managers actually know that the leeway for audio quality is usually large in terms of what the punters will accept. Does this, plus the very wide choice of equipment and providers, allow them to continually beat audio production prices down to unrealistic levels? Could it be that this ultimately limits the income available to audio production companies and thus the capital available for reinvestment, which in turn limits their own growth and the funds available for manufacturers to research and develop new products? Could it also explain why our industry is unusually unattractive to external investors?
In summary, if our end-consumers don’t generally care much about audio quality then that indifference must logically have a direct, though convoluted, corollary in terms of the prices we can charge. (Significantly it works the other way round in Hi-fi World, where a combination of polished techno-babble marketing and an admirable avoidance of the laws of physics allow that industry to charge astonishing sums for mono-directional speaker cables and similar nonsense. Is it a coincidence that in hi-fi world the ultimate goal is perceived audio quality?).
So what do we do?
We educate people, that’s what we do. If we can sow the seeds of understanding in our end clients then, in time, their expectations should gradually align with the delivery potential of the people and systems that make it happen.
How do we do it?
Far be it from me to make work for others, but is there a more noble cause in which our various industry associations could engage? Plasa, for example, could well flex its organisational and financial muscle to tell the outside world what we really do, how difficult it is, how much it costs, how clever and dedicated our crews are, how extraordinary are the various arcane technologies that we use and so on. A real PR exercise for the whole business, which could start, for example, with Plasa thinking laterally about inviting some non-trade people to a VIP tour of their flagship show in London – maybe some radio stations (Planet Rock has a strong focus on live performance), magazine editors from numerous fields including music, MI, hi-fi, camping, fanzines, in fact any titles that might be bought by concert-goers, and so on.
The more you think about it the more you realise just how wide our customer base really is.
Here’s another, just-about-still-topical idea: over the Jubilee weekend, Britannia Row handled production for the gig in front of Buckingham Palace – probably the highest-profile live music event since Live Aid, with a TV and local audience numbering millions, and global awareness. Again, it’s telling that Britannia Row MD Bryan Grant referred to the PA system as having to be ʻinvisibleʼ. But what a fantastic opportunity for an enterprising industry body to approach one of the quality weekend papers with a ʻhow it was doneʼ story...
As an industry, we have an extraordinary story to tell. Letʼs get out there and tell it.
Our source, Audio Boy, is an audio industry insider, following the Fast-and-Wide brief.