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Live sound: The end of the beginning?

Jon Chapple 27 May 2015
David 'Wiggy' Wiggins

It’s a sad fact that the first generation of pioneers are being depleted, with such luminaries as Bob See, Jack Calmes, Charlie Watkins, Albert Lecesse, Gene Clair, ML Procise and Derrick Zieba all having left us quite recently. In view of their achievements and those of many other brilliant and determined individuals – literally, the founding of an entire industry – it’s only natural to view their passing as the end of an era.

Live sound is a very young business. Even Clair Global, one the biggest names in live sound, has yet to celebrate its 50th birthday and many of the key figures still active in sound reinforcement today can trace their histories back to the mid-’70s or further. These people carry a priceless repository of knowledge, experience and contacts, but sooner or later they will not be part of the scene.

The good news is that the business remains in excellent hands at ground level, as the sheer professionalism and technical capabilities of contemporary touring crew, plus some remarkable equipment, now bring unprecedented levels of safety, performance and predictability to touring. As The Wall Street Journal recently commented: “Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll are out; efficiency, tech skills and professionalism are in.”

Additionally, we are at last starting to see some external investment in the industry, including examples of venture capital partners taking stakes in several major manufacturers. So, what might the touring sound business look like in, say, 2025?

  • In all probability there will probably be far fewer companies in it. Assuming that live performance remains the primary revenue source for many artists it is reasonable to assume that the overall amount of work will be roughly constant: this means that the number of hands necessary to do it will be stable and thus about the same number of people will be working, but for a much smaller group of employers.
  • This would be the result of an ongoing process of consolidation. This arguably began with Clair Brothers (as it was then) acquiring Showco in 2000, later followed by dB Sound, MD Systems, Audio Rent and latterly Concert Sound. Here in the UK, the SSE Audio Group has acquired Melpomen, Canegreen and most recently Wigwam, There are numerous examples elsewhere and this global trend will surely continue as smaller PA company owners execute their retirement plans.
  • Consequently international concert touring may in future be handled by a small group of providers, with the vast majority of it covered by four or five large operations, located at globally strategic points, working very closely with each other and geared up to deliver technical solutions from major stadia down to (perhaps) academy-sized venues.

This changes almost everything for almost everyone – I’ll explore this more fully in future episodes…

Dave Wiggins is a freelance marketeer and pro-audio pundit.

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