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Got it Live – And You Want It!

Dan Daley • December 2019The Biz • December 14, 2019

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Yes, it’s Christmastime, a few weeks on the calendar when the last of the fall touring is over — other than some very high-paying New Year’s Eve gigs — and the spring touring season is still a few months away. But as it’s turning out, one category of live sound never takes a break: live events. Music — touring and otherwise — is now simply a subset of the much larger and very, very lucrative live-event industry.

Spending on experiences and live events has increased roughly 70 percent since 1987, according to a report by the Harris Group. B2B events — trade shows, Apple-level product roll-outs, Tesla car introductions and oligarch weddings (trust me, at that level, all nuptials are transactional) — generated more than $1.07 trillion of direct spending by 1.5 billion participants globally in 2017, according to an Events Industry Council report in 2018. Critically, that figure is more, when services around events are factored in the global economic impact comes to $2.65 trillion, according to the Rental & Staging Network. The event industry in the U.S. alone provides over 5.9 million jobs. And more of them will be filled by people like you.

Four years ago, London’s pioneering Ministry of Sound nightclub added 16 overhead Martin Audio CDD15 speakers, making effective use of Dolby Atmos immersive technology. Photo by Maxoidos

‡‡         Why and What It Means

The increase in event production is attributable to a number of factors, including the ascendency of Gen Z, who enjoy spending their money on live events, travel and other experiences (as opposed to owning “stuff”) that can be shared on social media, and to a broader economy that has seemed to defy gravity since the end of the great recession almost a decade ago. But better data technology also plays a part: events are more elaborate and expensive than ever, but because sponsors can now much more precisely see the benefits of their investments — the average ROI for live events is now as high as 34 percent ¬— they’re more likely to keep spending, and spending more each time.

And quite frankly, you ain’t seen nothing yet. We’re about to embark on the 2020 presidential elections, and whether you love or loathe Donald Trump, the guy has made live events a signature thing. Expect more of those, along with plenty of other bombastic extravaganzas from the candidates’ partisans and opponents. Forbes reported that in the last election cycle (2016), event-related spending by Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders totaled nearly $150 million; next year’s payout could double that. It won’t be hard to spot the name-brand line arrays at these shindigs.

Then there’s sports, which go on no matter who’s president. The number of those live events went from 35,607 in 2018 to 40,293 this year and is projected to increase to 43,348 in 2020. And it’s not just the games: the NFL Draft in Nashville (which we wrote about in these pages earlier this year) had all the audio and video of a major festival, generating a record $133 million in direct spending — a 79 percent increase over the $74 million at the 2018 event in Dallas.

‡‡         Good News… Very Good News!

This is the best news the pro audio industry has experienced since sound went digital. Concert touring has turned into the savior of the music industry, and fans are spending more money on shows than ever, driving touring revenues higher each year, but they’re still a fraction of what overall live event revenues are producing. However, it must also be said that music and other live entertainment remains a huge part of contemporary live-event production now, driving demand for everything that comes with that, from tour-grade line arrays to monster video walls and complex moving-fixture lighting designs. Ironically, music contributes to the controversies that further fuel political events. Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Beyoncé and other major music artists have all loudly complained about Trump’s appropriation of their music (though I’m sure payments for them show up in their BMI and ASCAP statements).

Live sound has traditionally been music-centric, and that assures any live-sound provider a seat at the larger live-event table if they want it. But if event work isn’t high on a company’s strategic list, they’ll be leaving money on the table. For starters, music touring is far from an endangered species, but Pollstar’s mid-year numbers this year were off by about 26 percent from the year before. It’s a significant drop, though possibly the kind of statistical fluke caused by a few megastars staying off the road for a few months. But it’s also a reminder that live-sound companies need to constantly be looking for ways to broaden their client base, and the current “peak event” environment creates the moment and means to do just that.

It helps to think of music shows and live events as part of the same business. Sound-system manufacturers have certainly been doing so for the last few years, making installed versions of their touring systems instead of dedicated hang-and-bang speakers for the installed-AV market. An even longer-running synergy has been how consumer lifestyle brands have partnered with music artists and promoters over the years. One of the less apparent but no less critical tenets of those partnerships has been the quality of the sound at those sponsored events. Poor sonic quality at an event where the music is a major part of the brand strategy is a deal killer.

It’s hard to compete on sound quality alone now, because everything sounds good — audio technology has reached the point where sonic quality can be taken as given. At some point, video will reach a similar threshold, with LED wall pitches now regularly in the single digits. That’s why all of the vendors vying for live event work have to push the boundaries of their technologies, and that includes live music. Expect to see demand grow for immersive sound in the next few years: Dolby’s Atmos and DTS’ DTS:X have made overhead sound sources a desirable thing now, and event venues are beginning to implement installed versions of those systems, like the one at London’s Ministry of Sound nightclub. The VR and AR systems that video providers are bringing to live events are going to expect that kind of sonic capability in coming years.

Keep your eyes — and ears — on the live events business. Rather than moving beyond music, it’s taking music with it, and that’s a place you need to go.

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