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PSNLive market report 2015: Sound engineers

After several years of reports revealing fluctuating levels of optimism, the 2015 PSNLive engineers’ survey indicates a surge of confidence about the future and emerging audio technologies, says David Davies

After several years of reports revealing fluctuating levels of optimism, the 2015 PSNLive engineers’ survey indicates a surge of confidence about the future and emerging audio technologies, says David Davies

Although the number of live events, especially during the summer, has continued to increase in recent years, the optimism of sound engineers hasn’t exactly been unwavering. Rapid turnarounds required by intensely scheduled tours, as well as insufficient back-up and support, have meant that the lot of the touring engineer hasn’t always been a happy one.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that these concerns have disappeared from the 2015 report, but taken overall this year’s responses do point to an increased sense of momentum about live sound. Activity levels are strong, and are expected to remain so, while new technology and streamlined workflows are being embraced more fervently. However, there are longer-term concerns that should be noted carefully: for example, some fear a lack of innovation in events production, while others highlight a lack of properly skilled engineers coming into the industry.

This year, we appealed for engineers from across Europe to come forward and express their views rather than approach them directly. Since this constituted a more passive approach than in previous years, the total responses were somewhat fewer in number than we might have wished. Consequently, what we have here are more the thoughts of a very informed focus group than a comprehensive survey per se.

Nonetheless, those who did answer did so thoughtfully, so there is still plenty of food for thought contained within the results of the 2015 engineers’ survey.

Core data
Once again, the UK constituted the largest single share of survey respondents, while the Netherlands was responsible for the second largest amount of responses. Other respondents came from markets as far afield as Colombia and the UAE.

In terms of overall activity levels, 66.6% of respondents said that their activity levels have remained the same or increased in 2015 to date when compared to 2014. Underlining the present health of the mainstream festival market, larger festivals constitute the largest increasing share of our engineers’ work, followed by smaller festivals and general touring (see graph).

In a result that points to overall improved economic conditions, 40% of contributors expect their average payment per project to increase overall in 2015, with only 10% predicting a decline. This should be cheering news for anyone looking to train to enter the industry, or perhaps move across from the studio world.

It has been a tradition of previous PSNLive reports that insufficient budget and resources as well as inadequate set-up preparation time top the list of the factors most likely to impact live events negatively. Absolutely no change there this year, and with acts looking to cram in ever more dates as their recorded income continues to dwindle to dust, it’s a situation that is unlikely to change any time soon.

Technological transition
The fact that nearly all live sound engineers have moved over to digital desks is taken for granted at this point, but the extent to which they have engaged with networking and more sophisticated onboard software and effects has been shown to be variable. However, on the evidence of this year’s report, broader technological transition is now firmly underway.

To wit, two-thirds of engineers confirmed that the type and feature-set of systems they use for live sound work has changed significantly over the last few years (see graph). Meanwhile, nearly 89% of respondents confirmed that audio networking is now supplanting traditional point-to-point connectivity in their daily working lives by either a significant or moderate margin – an emphatic result after several years of decidedly erratic responses on this topic (see graph below).

Future facing
With nearly 89% of respondents declaring themselves to be very or moderately optimistic about the future of the live sound business in the UK and Republic of Ireland, there is certainly no sense of imminent risk. But responses to the longer-form questions do reveal some deeper concerns about the long-term outlook.

No surprise to find that noise restrictions constitute a commonly-cited challenge to live sound events. But even more frequently aired is a reservation about the access to training (or lack thereof) and standard of younger engineers coming into the profession. “There are too many people willing to push up faders and claim to be an engineer, yet who possess next to no knowledge about spec’ing or even setting up a mid-level PA system,” maintained one respondent.

There were also calls for governments and local authorities to make it easier to stage live events in response to a question about what can be done to encourage further growth of the business. “There should be more leniency with regard to SPL levels,” suggested one respondent, while another urged the powers that be in the UK to take a more supportive approach to the industry’s overall contribution to the economy: “The [government ’s] blinkered view is depressing at best. We have some of the best artists and technicians in the world, and we punch well above our weight.”

There has been a fair amount of talk lately about possible over-saturation of the touring and festival markets. Most respondents didn’t seem overly concerned about a theoretical decline, although diminishing opportunities for bands to get started at a grassroots level are giving cause for concern. Whatever the future holds, the fact that an increasing number of live sound engineers now have ‘portfolio’ careers that may include studio/installation projects and educational work, among other duties, should stand them in good stead.

The quality and availability of those personnel embarking upon their careers does represent a genuine concern, but in general engineers are continuing to enjoy the benefits of the live event explosion that began in the mid-Noughties. Time-poor and over-stressed they might be, but overall they remain very busy and – as the answers to the technology questions reveal – highly engaged with the changing demands of their profession.

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.