Festivals and large-scale touring are keeping many PA firms busy throughout much of the year, but greater diversification looks set to be crucial to the sector’s long-term prosperity. David Davies sifts the results of the 2015 PA/hire companies survey
Despite fluctuations in the broader economy, the PA/hire companies survey has generally painted a fairly upbeat picture of the sector in recent years. The explosion in the number of live events since the mid-Noughties has meant that activity levels have remained reliably solid, while diversification into other areas such as conference and theatre work has also strengthened many players’ hands.
For the 2015 survey, we appealed for PA/hire companies from across Europe to come forward and express their views. Again, like the engineers' survey, our more passive approach meant a smaller return, but – the responses outlined below should still be regarded as indicative of a business that continues to perform strongly throughout most months of the year.
As in previous years, the UK constituted the largest single share of respondents. Other countries represented in this year’s responses include France, the Netherlands and Norway.
Echoing the results of the last few years, overall activity levels have stayed approximately the same for the majority of respondents when compared to 2014 (63.6%). A reasonable percentage reported an increase (27.3%), with only 9.1% citing a decrease.
Similarly, a question about average payment per project evinces little evidence of change, with a comfortable majority (63.6%) reporting that it is generally staying the same. Only 18.1% reported a decline, which perhaps shouldn’t give too much cause for concern at this stage.
In an interesting contrast to the 2015 engineers' survey, where larger festivals were said to constitute the area in which engineers have seen the greatest uplift in recent years, general touring (40%) and smaller/‘boutique’-style festivals (30%) scored best among the PA/hire firms (see graph).
Time and resources
In another echo of the engineers’ survey responses, insufficient budget/resources and inadequate set-up/preparation time were reported to be the factors that typically have the most negative impact on live sound projects. Plus ça change there, then.
PA/hire firms also noted that the type and feature-set of systems they use for live sound work has changed substantially over the last few years. Indeed, 87.5% said their set-ups had altered ‘significantly’ – the result, no doubt, of the transition to digital operation that has characterised the post-millennial period.
Further underlining this development, 50% of respondents observed that audio networking is now supplanting traditional point-to-point connectivity in their daily working lives by a ‘significant’ margin, with 37.5% reporting a ‘moderate’ impact. After some distinctly variable responses to networking-related questions, it is cheering to report that only 12.5% opted for ‘What is audio networking?’ by way of response (see graph).
In the final specific area of enquiry, a heartening 87.5% of respondents declared ‘moderate’ optimism about the future of the live sound business in the UK/Europe – with absolutely no one reporting themselves to be disillusioned (see graph below).
For the first of this year’s ‘open’, longer-form questions, PSNLive asked PA firms to highlight the primary ways – structurally, organisationally or in terms of personnel levels – their companies have changed over the last few years.
By far the most commonly cited response was the move towards digital systems, although there were also references to enhanced and more responsive organisational structures – as one respondent put it, “new equipment, better trained staff, better premises and infrastructure, all leading to efficiencies and greater service for our customers.”
Next, survey participants considered the extent to which diversification is now an important component of their company philosophy. A significant majority indicated that it is now crucial to achieving prosperity; as one respondent put it, “diversification is the key to our growth. Without it we would not be where we are today.” Another simply noted, “more eggs in more baskets [is the way to go].”
Most respondents indicated that their overall project mix has changed somewhat during recent years, with greater amounts of corporate, theatre and festival work among the frequently cited developments. As one remarked, “These days we have a more stable mix of theatre and festivals, which are more or less the same year after year, and the calendar is [otherwise] filled with one-offs. Previously we tried to take anything thrown at us.”
Finally, participants were asked for their opinions about the recent debate surrounding possible over-saturation in the live touring and festival sectors. In general, there did not seem to be a great deal of concern at present, although several respondents alluded to a long-term change in the festival scene pinpointed elsewhere in the 2015 edition of PSNLive. As one remarks: “I see less work in large festivals [in the future], and a rise in small local festivals where things other than music are important.”
‘PA/hire companies holding steady’ might be a reasonable sub-title for this year’s survey report. Activity levels are good, and there is a more than reasonable sense of optimism about the future. But perhaps most crucially of all, the technology questions reveal that companies are pushing forward with new systems and workflows – in other words, seeking the progress that will be vital to continued competitiveness.
PSNLive 2015 is the 10th edition of our annual report for the European live sound industry. Read it online or download as a PDF using the links below.