Fly-in Gig?

by Dan Daley
in The Biz
Singer-songwriter Wendy Colonna performing at the Austin-Bergstrom Airport in Texas.
Singer-songwriter Wendy Colonna performing at the Austin-Bergstrom Airport in Texas.

Next Time You May Not Have to Leave the Airport

With touring budgets tight, the image of rock stars turning first-class cabins into flying blow bars is so 20th century. And besides, airports are no fun. Between TSA intrusiveness and the fact that more people than ever are flying, small wonder that bus rentals are up. Being on the road these days means being, literally, on the road.

But there may be more airports in your future. These skyway pit stops are increasingly becoming destinations in and of themselves, serving as locales for music performances. Nashville International Airport (BNA), which is certainly no stranger to passengers involved in music touring, just opened its newest stage, in Concourse C (American, Southwest), on June 9.

Built by locally based AV integrator SpringTree Media, the sound is kept tightly focused on the seating area of the concourse’s main food court using JBL AC18 compact speakers on either side of the stage, with a JBL Control 312CS sub perched in the ceiling.

“We can’t really do a lot about the acoustics except keep the sound off of reflective surfaces and on the seats,” explains SpringTree Media’s owner Peter Vaque. “It’s really not a problem.”

The musicians who perform at the airport are all top-notch — not surprisingly for Nashville — and are paid scale. Musicians’ natural tendency to “adjust” their live sound is kept in check remotely by the use of a Soundcraft app on an iPad. Vaque says the mix is checked just before a show, and he uses EQ and dynamics presets they’ve programmed for each instrument type. Macros programmed into the Control 4 automation system manage the three video screens and LED lighting that are part of the performance package.

Used on behalf of Arts at the Airport, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the new stage is the flagship of six performance areas located in the terminal, which has been hosting music performances since 1988 but which expanded the program, with professional sound and lighting, in 2001. (Not the best year for airports.) An average of more than 700 music performances take place on the stages each year.

‡‡         The Bigger Picture

Airports have become reflections of larger urban trends in recent years. The quality of airport terminal food is no longer the automatic punch line it once was, as brands like Wolfgang Puck, Phillips Famous Seafood and Carolina Beer Co have opened airport locations. The same goes for shopping — luxe brands like Chanel and Rolex are no longer limited to duty-free shops in the international terminal. At North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT), you can place an order for a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

They’re all part of a growing array of distractions that are offered to more than 600 million people who pass through U.S. airports annually, creating a huge and largely captive audience for brands and employment for more than 1.3 million people, in the process generating $1.2 trillion in economic activity — seven percent of the total U.S. workforce and eight percent of GDP.

It’s logical that entertainment options are following suit. Two airports in particular — Austin-Bergstrom International (AUS) in Texas and BNA — have multiple stages with sound and lights that some of the bars and clubs on their respective music thoroughfares — Sixth Street and Lower Broadway — might envy. In fact, AUS has a total of six music venues, the largest being the main terminal’s “Asleep At the Wheel” Stage at the Ray Benson Roadhouse restaurant. That venue, which usually hosts a two-hour music performance five days a week and more during special events like SXSW or Formula 1 races, has two Mackie DLM12 12-inch powered coaxials (full-range to eliminate the need for subwoofers) along with four additional DLM12s for stage monitoring. Audio is mixed through a Mackie DL1608 16-channel digital mixer with iPad control. Other stages at that airport use a combination of small Yamaha mixers and Yamaha and JBL speakers.

‡‡         Clubworld and Concerts

It’s not just concert venues invading airports. A few of them have homegrown music clubs. There’s a scaled-down version of the iconic Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge at BNA, complete with a single or duo warbling in the corner through a QSC portable system. Chicago, another music city, is trying to hang onto George’s Music Room, an iconic West Side record store that found a second life at Midway Airport. The venue, which sponsors live music in the airport’s food court, is losing its airport lease under a revamped concessions lineup. (Gentrification, apparently, now extends to airports.)

The idea is spreading, and “name” artists are participating. For instance, Jet Blue has run a series of live concerts, dubbed “Live From T5,” from its terminal at JFK, which has featured shows by Aloe Blacc, Goodie Mob, Taylor Swift, Ellie Goulding, Lady Antebellum, Sarah McLachlan and Daughtry. It’s a far cry from Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, a pioneering ambient piece that the quirky composer wrote in 1978 as an arch homage to the mundane aural environment of the Cologne Bonn Airport (CGN) — which was finally performed in an actual airport, in San Diego (SAN), in 2015. Seattle (SEA) and Munich (MUC) have also been getting into the act, so to speak.

Live music in airports isn’t going to make Live Nation’s accountants nervous, but it’s becoming popular and pervasive enough to possibly make the world’s largest (and notoriously acquisition-happy) concert promoter at least sit up and take notice. Capitalism never sleeps, and if a collateral effect of concerts in airports is happier travelers, then it’s also about selling stuff, from indie musicians who hawk CDs during those gigs to national stage sponsors that get positive brand reinforcement to millions of passing pairs of eyes every year. Brands with both professional- and consumer-facing sides, like Sennheiser, Shure and Bose are well suited to leveraging the phenomenon.

What’s especially encouraging about the trend is that it’s relying on quality sound systems, with a clear understanding that the glass-and-stone interiors of contemporary airport construction are suddenly requiring attention to acoustics. The fact that music and sponsors would venture into such a challenging environment underscores how broad the value of live music is.

So the next time you’ve got time to kill in an airport, don’t think of it as a waste. Instead, consider where the best place put the FOH console might be for next time.