Expanding Fortunes

by Baker Lee
in FOH at Large
Illustration by Andy Au
Illustration by Andy Au

One day, in the not too distant past, I found myself wondering if I had stepped into an alternate universe. I was providing a monitor rig to the morning TV show, Live with Kelly, consisting of a microphone package — including a few wireless mics, a console, a split snake, in-ear monitors, monitor wedges and a tech to set it up and run it. Over the last 15 years, as the show morphed from being Regis and Kelly to Kelly and Michael to just Kelly, I — as an agent of S.I.R. NY — have been one of the show’s main providers of backline and audio for incoming bands that were in need of a monitor package of more than two or three mixes.

On this particular day, my team and I found ourselves walking into a situation where Clair was the backline provider and S.I.R. was in charge of the necessary audio required by the band. As the irony of the situation dawned upon us, I couldn’t help thinking that we had entered Superman’s
Bizarro world, where everything is the reverse of the “normal” world. Considering that since the latter half of the 20th century, S.I.R. has been known as one of the premier backline companies in the country and Clair Brothers has had the same reputation in the realm of audio providers, it seems highly improbable to have found ourselves in this inverted world, but there we were, sharing the same stage — Clair backline and S.I.R. audio!

Spinoffs of Spinoffs

Okay, so while this doesn’t exactly represent of a tear in the time-space continuum, it does signify a change. It’s not the end of the world as we know it, as that happened a few years back when SFX acquired and combined regional concert promoters into a single national entity. Shortly thereafter, the company was sold to radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications, who in turn created Live Nation — a spin-off company that combined forces with Ticketmaster to become Live Nation Entertainment — the world’s largest concert promoter.

While this type of corporate ownership has been contended in regard to antitrust laws, one cannot blame any company for wanting to expand its horizons and control more of the market in which it does business. This is capitalism at its best — and worst. In the best scenario, a conglomerate can provide a turnkey operation that enables the company to make more money while offering a complete service at a savings to the consumer. The worst situation would be if the business edges out smaller companies while making more money without passing along the savings to their clients.

E-x-p-a-n-s-i-o-n!

Make no mistake about it, I do not think that Clair and S.I.R. are in real competition with each other, as each company has a particular niche in the world they inhabit, but I do see more of a trend for entertainment service companies to branch out and expand their base of operations. While the larger companies have the resources to expand at a rapid pace, the smaller companies are getting in on it too. It’s a natural progression for an audio company to start providing small lighting packages, video packages and staging when requested by prospective clients. It not only helps one to stay in the game, but also propels the game to a new level. Friends of mine who started out owning an audio company now tell me that their video and lighting is actually generating more cash flow than their audio. These people are not traitors going over to the other side, but instead are practicing good business policy by meeting the required needs of their clients.

Rather than bringing in outside vendors, theaters and sheds are following the same path of all-inclusiveness for visiting bands by providing racks and stacks as well as consoles and monitors. Not only is it a timesaver in regard to set and strike, but it provides the venues with extra income as well. Television shows such as SNL and The Tonight Show have been self-reliant in regard to audio for their guest bands, but even recent additions to the TV circuit — such as Colbert’s Late Show and Late Night with Seth Meyers have actually built their studios with great sound included in the plans. Even Live with Kelly recently upgraded its monitor system to fulfill most visiting band requirements. So, what’s a sound company to do? With mainstay audio gigs such as television fading to black, a company that wants to stay in the game needs to expand their horizons and incorporate other disciplines to stay viable. This is not solely an audio problem, and friends of mine with lighting companies have increased their operations and have gotten into the audio game — if for no other reason than expedience.

A Natural Progression

Growth is good, and it doesn’t have to be about controlling a particular market or ruling the world. It’s about survival in a world of constant change and, possibly, that requires carving out a new path to travel.

At the moment, we are in the annual doldrums. It’s the time of year that my phone starts ringing and all the engineers I haven’t heard from for the past year start calling for work. Unfortunately, we all work in the same business, and dead for them means dead for me, too (and if not dead, at least very slow). It’s difficult enough keeping my regular techs on gigs and, regrettably, there just isn’t enough soldering or inventory to justify everyone being in the shop for two months, but — despite the doldrums — there is work to be had, albeit other than sound.

The engineers I know who keep working in slow times are the ones who diversify. They do backline gigs; work as guitar techs and even do lighting and video. Some have union ties and pick up stagehand work from Local 1, while others have rigging skills. Certain engineers try to pick up recording work with their Pro Tools rigs, while some even jump on the trucks just to make it through until the next tour or audio gig arises. While it is not exactly the same as Live Nation or TV work, it is a form of diversifying to make more profit and, although not ideal, it certainly beats living off one’s savings or having a desperate month or two wondering where the next paycheck is coming from.