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Does the “Rider-Ready” Dynamic Narrow Choices?

Dan Daley • July 2019The Biz • July 15, 2019

Along with all the rough riding and wrangling, RodeoHouston produces 20 major concerts featuring a diverse array of top acts at NRG stadium. “When the artists agree to play our event, their production teams are always at ease when they learn that we fly L-Acoustics,” says entertainment managing director Jason Kane. LD Systems provided a massive K1 rig for this year’s March 3-22 series of events, with acts performing on a rotating star-shaped stage. Photo by Ryan Paulin

“Social proof” is a phrase that predates the era of social media but perfectly describes how people act within it. The term, coined by Robert Cialdini in his 1984 book Influence, describes a psychological and social phenomenon wherein people copy the actions of others in order to adapt to unfamiliar situations and environments. The concept is especially prominent in ambiguous situations where people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior, and are guided by the assumption that the people around them in environments similar to theirs possess more knowledge about a current situation. For instance: A guy from Mexico finds himself at a Green Bay Packers game (it could happen). He feels out of place until someone plops a cheesehead hat on him, and suddenly he’s part of the family.

‡‡         Bring on the Rider Ready Concept

Social proof can arguably describe the dynamic that’s come to be known as “rider-ready” — the phenomenon in which certain sound system brands have come to be widely accepted by top-tier touring music artists that list them on their contract addenda. The rider-ready notion first made its presence felt nearly a decade ago, in concert touring. Recorded music was fading as the main revenue source for the music industry and being replaced by ticket sales to live shows.

As a result, with the increased pressure on live-music production to sound ever more like a record, high-fidelity, high-articulation sound systems were no longer an audiophile dream but a necessity in an increasingly competitive touring market. Thus, touring artists and their production staffs looked to find the tools that could assure them of shows that were as perfect sounding as possible, night after night. Over the course of that decade, that pursuit led to a narrowing of brand choices, as those tour professionals collectively decided upon a handful of brands that they’d rely on for the road, certainly because they were very good sound systems, yet also in some cases, simply because all of their peers did so.

‡‡         And Everyone Else…

That’s created some challenges for the more than one dozen other major sound system brands that have been in place for decades or have more recently come into touring’s largest market in that time. If the common wisdom is to use one of just a handful of brands, is it unwise to use anything else?

Of course, the answer is no. There are plenty of touring shows that are using systems from manufacturers other than a certain two or three, often because the rider-ready dynamic has created new opportunities, as other brands offer deals and discounts to stimulate sales. The tour-sound business at this point is robust enough to accommodate a fairly large number of brands. And as live sound moves into new niches (is there a hipster hotel lobby or airport built in the last five years that does not have a small stage and mini line array?) more opportunities arise for those brands to adapt their technologies for them.

‡‡         Other Markets

However, rider-ready may become a bit more pernicious, as the idea moves into other verticals beyond touring. Specifically, the phenomenon is making inroads into sports venues and houses of worship in recent years.

In case of arenas and stadiums, municipalities and counties are demanding that the sports venues they underwrite with their bonds make those ever-higher mortgage payments ever faster. That’s bringing more music and other touring performances into those venues and, collaterally, it’s also bringing more rider-ready brands into those venue, where tour-sound systems plug into similar makes and models as fills to cover upper- and behind-the-stage seating areas. If a venue’s house system is one of the handful of desired brands, its secondary speakers, such as those used to fill in hard-to-reach seats that are blocked by scoreboards and other video systems, or as delay speakers when the stage position results in a very long throw to the farthest seats, are easier to program (via compatible DSP) and integrate into the touring system.

This makes life easier for touring professionals, but it also make the venues that invest in these brands more attractive to tour promoters and producers. In that way, rider-ready begins to skew outcomes on a much larger scale. And just as a growing number of music venues now are owned or managed by two or three show producers, such as Live Nation or AEG, those same consolidated companies are being brought in to manage the entertainment applications for stadiums and arenas that otherwise would have just been sports palaces, a trend that will likely reinforce the rider-ready dynamic in those venues.

Another vertical that’s now seeing the effects of the rider-ready phenomenon is the house-of-worship market. As larger churches are increasingly used as performance spaces, the same dynamics that brought the rider-ready concept to the fore in secular music touring became present in religious shows as well. However, in the HOW market, the social-proof concept may play a much larger role. While opinions about the relative merits of particular sound systems abound in pro audio circles, the decision makers in the HOW vertical tend to be less technologically astute. It’s a business that relies heavily on volunteers to operate its media machinery, and the opinions of those users are likely more influenced by advertising and marketing than by hands-on experience. As a result, the decisions taken by a few influential peer churches can have an outsized effect on the purchasing choices of other churches that watch them for their own aspirational cues. It is, actually, the epitome of social proof in action.

We’ve seen pro audio come to rely on one or two products before, most notably Avid’s Pro Tools platform, and even that ubiquitous icon hasn’t managed to shut down a host of other recording, mixing and editing software around it. We’re already seeing sound-system brands that had been well entrenched in certain verticals starting to actively market themselves to other sectors, or double down in areas where they already have a sizable market and mindshare, or both.

But at the same time, when too many users from too many sectors gather around a very limited number of system options, the result can be problematic. Among other perceptual issues, it creates a kind of “everyone else” effect, wherein the majority of brands are perceived of as “other,” in a kind of non-cognitive — but nonetheless very real — caste system. That kind of hierarchy is not planned, nor is it accurate or economically desirable, yet… there it is. In fact, the rider-ready phenomenon is the outcome of another modern-problems dynamic, the tyranny of choice: too many options can vapor-lock decision making, which could create a not-necessarily salubrious status quo in the live-sound universe.

For now, the amount and diversity of work is enough to satisfy the revenue requirements most if not all the sound-system brands on the market. We’re currently living through a golden age of live events — one of the reasons we’re seeing so many brands and models right now. But at its core, it’s also a game of musical chairs, and the music will at least slow down someday. How manufacturers manage this era of the industry will largely determine where — or if — they get to sit at the next one.

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