The Sydney Opera House often crops up on those simplistic timelines of history: look how far we’ve come from wattle and daub, being the suggestion, writes Phil Ward. Well, it may stand for progress of one kind but as this industry evolves we might heed the words of one man whose frame of reference starts in Sydney but extends all the way to Wiltshire – and a place where the druids, if they were putting on Elektra, used real blood.
David Claringbold has joined German loudspeaker pioneer d&b as chief marketing officer, and brings a wealth of experience from Sydney Opera House and elsewhere.
“When I decided to leave the Opera House it was all about taking on the really big challenge with the support of my family,” he reports. “It was also on the agenda to have another spell living in Europe, having been here before with Euphonix, although we didn’t realise those two things would come together so perfectly. We’re delighted they have.”
Having already left ‘the House’ in 2015, Claringbold set up a consultancy that included d&b among its callers, leading to lengthy conversations and eventually a position on the board of directors. When a global marketing position became vacant, Claringbold seemed the natural choice for a manufacturing company going through its own genetic drift.
“I’m very happy to be in a space that encompasses marketing, communication and branding because there’s so much to say,” he continues. “My predecessor had laid the foundations of a much-improved new structure for these resources, and it’s set up perfectly for my particular blowtorch to get working.”
Claringbold follows several luminaries into the d&b camp after a period of feverish recruitment, including familiar faces from around the world like Mike Case, Christian Stumpp, Gianni Abruzzese and Xavier Pion. He’s based in Germany at the Backnang HQ, but will be familiarising himself with all the d&b acolytes globally and, especially, the UK operation in Nailsworth that played such a crucial role in putting d&b audiotechnik on the international map. “I have a huge amount of respect for Simon Johnston and the marketing team in the UK,” he confirms, “and we’re now melding the way we think as I get to know the DNA of the brand.”
Claringbold had branched out from Sydney Opera House before, and in Europe, by joining the Euphonix team in the UK. By 2006 he was back to oversee a huge change in the venue’s culture and resources, not to mention technical upgrades, and it was an experience that deepened his understanding of the human dimensions in an arts organisation of such iconic status.
“It was pretty clear from the board of directors that the whole business was being held back by some ingrained thinking, and I moved back from London because this provided me with an opportunity to do many of the things I’d always wanted to do. I was able to change business systems, the way things got presented to clients, the skills, the leadership, the services… things that hadn’t been addressed properly for 20 years or more. Once they were delivered I was able to put forward a really far-reaching technical vision for the place – not just stage systems but the whole venue.”
Indeed the technical agenda was only part of Claringbold’s expanded brief as director of theatre and events as he took command of 500 staff in his mission to establish a modern service culture throughout the complex. It included ticketing, marketing, commercial programming, recording, broadcast, event operations, technical management and front of house – as in welcoming customers, as opposed to mixing. Bringing this empirical knowledge to the d&b table can only strengthen the routes to market for the German manufacturer’s rapidly expanding portfolio of application-specific products.
“I don’t have a traditional marketing background,” Claringbold admits, “but it’s not just technical either and I have good instincts for what the market needs. We’ve had long discussions at d&b about our vision for the future and I see my role as emerging from that vision. I have formulated my ideas about this into a presentation called Sound Futures, which I made at Prolight + Sound in Frankfurt. It’s what I advocate for the sound community.”
Claringbold’s presentation illuminates the vital role sound plays in human life, with an unflinching perspective of some 60,000 years. “Acoustics has played a role in why Stonehenge is the shape it is, why cathedrals are the size and shape they are,” he points out. “And in our own time the evolution of the venue usage model also indicates how non-linear the employment of sound has become, with bands branching out from night clubs to become an important revenue stream for formal concert halls, churches being re-purposed as nightclubs, and stadium arenas doing so much more than sport. This evolution provides the opportunities for our technology partners to empower those business models for the future, nothing less.”
At one stage in Claringbold’s career Euphonix represented a very far-seeing integrated solution for the kind of cultural epicentre that Sydney Opera House is, and it’s hard not to see a similarly holistic campaign within d&b to elevate its advanced sound reinforcement offer to the very highest level. The venues, Claringbold believes, are ready for it.
“These places are going to be more and more dependent on being acceptable for all levels of programme,” he says, “to sustain their business models. You can’t say you have an excellent venue just because the design of it looks cool; every aspect of the customer’s experience needs to be fantastic, from your first arrival and the first things you see, hear and touch. This is all before the performance even starts…”
Sound can be a brand definition tool, according to Claringbold, not only for venues and destinations, but also retail and other enterprises. “What they should take seriously is the emotive power of audio to communicate,” he adds, placing sound in a challenging new context.
This is clever: audio becomes no longer a luxury, on the one hand, nor a routine service alongside air-conditioning on the other. It’s put onto an agenda that investors will recognise and that will touch them where they are most sensitive – where, in the end, it really hurts. And that agenda is the ability to generate profits, without which the most glittering crystal palace may as well be a mud hut. If audio can be identified as a powerful conduit to revenue, it’s going to get a lot more attention from the suits.
“Investment bears no relation to the importance of the human senses, pro rata,” continues Claringbold. “Sight gets nearly all of it, even though touch, sound and even smell are critical in identifying your relationship with a brand. This gives us a huge opportunity to increase our level in that ratio – but only if we can convey our value proposition.”
It should help, in theory, that greater synergy between video and audio is promised in the immersive future of virtual and augmented reality – a roadmap that Claringbold identifies as essential not only to d&b’s fortunes but to those of the entire industry. “The future of multi-dimensional sound experiences is the path we’re on,” he confirms, and you’d have to be caveman not to see it – although, if you are a prehistoric sound designer, you should be very happy with Stonehenge.