BY KEN “POOCH” VAN DRUTEN
In business, money talks. And the music business is just that… a business.
When we are talking about the live event industry, money has always been king, but over the past five (or maybe 10) years, money has taken a sinister front seat to the point that NOTHING else matters. Business managers are deciding which vendors are getting their gear on the gigs, essentially giving the accountants the power to decide what tools we technicians get to use.
As a sound engineer who has honed his craft, has years of experience, and is an extremely specialized technician, I find it offensive that I am not even ASKED what tools I want to use anymore. In fact, when it comes to spec’ing gear for a tour, the world has flipped on it’s head. It is assumed, BECAUSE I have vast experience and a good reputation, that I can “make it work” with anything. So… the cheapest is, almost by definition, the best. Once the decision has been made as to which vendor we are using, I have to go to that vendor and beg to get the gear necessary to get the job done. Often this is outside of the parameters of what they bid on and, therefore, not in the budget. Either the vendor loses, or I lose in this scenario. Either way, it’s madness. (Side note: Regardless of what the numbers say, when I lose, the artist and the audience loses, too.)
Who wins in this scenario? The the accountants, and the business managers. The millionaires. You know… The guys who are driving the $200K cars, and have multi-million dollar homes.
It’s an alarming trend but, in hindsight, it was inevitable. Money has always been a deciding factor. But 10 years ago, engineers and system technicians were still able to make decisions about which gear they needed in order to make their job efficient, and the show successful.
Profit margins are so close that you can’t really blame the money people for what they have done. They are trying to cut expenses and make money for their artist, so they can make their percentage. But what I do blame them for is where the cuts are made. When I work for an artist who has two buses, and only uses one, or has two planes, etc., that is profit not being well spent. I get that it is the artist’s money and they can do whatever they want with it. But these decisions—made by people with no real idea of the consequences of their decision to anything other than the bottom line—are damaging their show.
And the artist doesn’t even know it.
Let’s get to the nitty gritty. As an FOH engineer, I get paid to make it sound good on ANYTHING. If you bring me enough boxes for coverage, properly powered, and in good working order, I can make any of the top 10 line array boxes on the market “work.” The problem becomes… how hard do I have to work at getting them to sound good? Do I have the time in the day to spend three hours aligning, tuning, and listening to a PA that is sub par? I do not. Production managers are caught in this conundrum as well. They are being asked to load in later and later in order to save on labor costs. I am being asked to work with sub par gear, in LESS time than what we used to get with top-of-the-line gear.
The real question is this: How far down the rabbit hole do we go? Will I be asked to make a Chinese knock-off line array sound like one of the top five line array boxes? Will I be asked to make a semi-pro console “work” because a pro console is out of the budget?
Only time will tell, but for now the pirates and thieves are running the show. The rich get richer, and the poor get screwed. Am I happy to have a job and be working in this business? YES! I am blessed and lucky to be able to work. Has my job gotten harder since I started 26 + years ago? YES! It seems like we used to have a happy medium between the money, and the tools. It has gone askew, and we have all learned to adapt or die.
Like many Empires vanquished, (See what I did there? SO happy Game of Thrones is back…), once you relinquish control, you’re dead. We will never be in a place in this business where the money men don’t have the ultimate say. We have given up the castle, and they are enjoying the bountiful feast we served them on the best china. For me, being a peasant isn’t so bad, but it sure would be great to be the King.