Tag Archives: Risk

Eggs, Baskets, And Such

If all your eggs are in one basket, and that basket seems to be going nowhere, it might be time to escape the basket.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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I’m not exactly the biggest fan of the financial industry. The prevailing culture at the high levels of that business just rubs me the wrong way. However, this does not mean that applicable philosophies can’t come from them. To wit: Diversification.

Diversification of investment helps to shield you from market misfortunes. If you have all your money tied up in a traditional media company, and traditional media tanks, you’re going to be in real trouble. If you have some money in traditional media, some in tech, some in bonds (and so on), traditional media getting hammered won’t sink you outright.

It’s the same in terms of a music career. If absolutely everything is riding on a single, narrow specialization, you can face metric-tons worth of frustration and misfortune if that specialization isn’t “the in thing.” On the other hand, being able to fill multiple roles provides a bit of insurance. The more the roles differ from each other, the more insurance you have – and the currently fashionable skilset may just subsidize an unfashionable one.

Sometimes Problems Are You, And Sometimes They Aren’t

A barrier that some of us have to understanding this (I certainly have it, so I’m preaching to myself here), is the idea that things will always get better if we keep our heads down, do the work, and just wait things out.

You might want to ask how the horse-drawn carriage business is doing with that mentality.

Sure, there are still horse-drawn carriages, but they’re nothing more than a curiosity when compared to mechanized transport. It’s not a problem with cyclical fashions. It’s not a problem with horse-drawn carriage builders not having a great work ethic. It’s a problem with very few people needing or wanting a horse-drawn carriage anymore.

If our eggs are in some sort of metaphorical basket, a real bit of smarts is being able to determine when that basket just isn’t going to travel anymore. If the basket’s going nowhere, and it’s not in our power to make the basket go somewhere, we need to seek a different basket.

For example, I don’t think the “major, flagship, music-only recording facility” basket possesses any real momentum anymore. This is not to say that large studios for music production won’t continue to exist. They will, but they will continue to become more and more a luxury curiosity. With much of their capability having been computerized and miniaturized, the big studio with the large-frame console is far less necessary than before. This is why I personally don’t want to invest much in a large-studio-centric career. It’s not a good bet on average. The industry’s need for flagship music studios has dropped dramatically, and no amount of hustle, advertising, or longer work hours will change that.

This kind of thing also happens with bands and musicians. There are players out there who are locked into niche specializations:

“All I play is black metal.”

“We never do covers.”

“No solo projects allowed.”

“If we can’t be as loud as we want, we won’t play.”

These are just archetypes, of course, but you get the idea. I think you might also be able to see the potential problems.

If people in the area don’t want to go to black metal shows, it doesn’t matter how much you practice or how much marketing you do.

If there’s a great gig that would make your band real money, but requires covers, you’re outta luck.

If band members can’t pursue their own projects, and the band just isn’t “sparking,” they’re being denied other opportunities to have real careers in the business.

If the band is only really appropriate for enormous venues and giant festivals, you’re missing out on all kinds of other places to play – and this is a big deal if you’re not yet super-famous.

In contrast, the folks who are able to do lots of different things, at lots of different times, and in lots of different places are much less limited. I’m not suggesting that everybody has to be good at everything, but I am suggesting that it’s good to find a variety of things that your natural talents connect to. Even though the actual disciplines can be surprisingly different (like live-audio and recording), a lot of the basic concepts and terminology can transfer. Diversification isn’t trivial, but I don’t think it always has to be a monumental struggle, either.

We’re all limited, but imposing additional, artificial limits on ourselves can make us overly reliant on the world being in tune with exactly how we are. If we can diversify, we probably should.


Why I Am (Not) Interested In The Industry Standard

Industry standards are helpful reference points, but are not necessarily the best possible approach.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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Remember my article about a patch-scheme for a “festival style” show? It actually raised an eyebrow or two. A fellow audio-human (who works on much, much, much larger shows than I do) asked me why my patch list was backwards from what everybody else does. His concern was that, in the festival situations he finds himself in, my “upside down” patch would monkeywrench things if accommodated. It would just be so much easier for everyone if I followed the industry standard of (I guess?) starting with the drums – “kick is channel 1,” in other words.

My response was that, if I had things laid out one way, and a guest engineer came in who wanted them to be another way, then I would be happy to set up any softpatch desired. What I neglected to add at the time was that, if I was “that one guy” where everyone else wanted a different order, I would be happy to just use the standard patch. It wouldn’t ruin my day at all, and it would make things easier for everybody else.

To be open and frank, though, there was something else I wanted to say. I censored myself because I think there’s a place for diplomacy and courtesy, especially when the conversation venue (Facebook comments) isn’t really good for nuance.

What I wanted to say was, “Because my way is better. Why would you put the drums first? They’re the bottom of the priority list.” (The drums are important, but in a small-venue context they usually need the least help from the PA to be in the right spot.)

What was said and unsaid in that conversation is a microcosm of how I feel about industry standards. There are industry standard mics, techniques, PA styles, stage layouts, and whatever else, and they exist for good reasons. Knowing what those reasons are is a good thing, because it’s part of understanding the craft. At the same time, though, industry standards rarely equate to “the best.” They tend to equate to “works acceptably in a wide range of situations.”

58, 57, IBM

Back when Apple Computer was struggling for acceptance, there was a saying: “Nobody every got fired for buying IBM.” IBM was the industry standard for machines used in an office environment, and even though the Macintosh computers at the time were leaps and bounds ahead in terms of user-friendliness, people kept buying IBM and compatible devices.

Why?

Because IBM was known. Large numbers of people, from the users to the admins, had experience with them. Everybody knew what to expect. They knew that appropriate software would be available, or could be developed by folks that were easy to find. They knew the parts would be there. They knew they could get work done with IBM, even if the computers weren’t revolutionary. They knew that IBM was readily respectable by everyone that they wanted to impress.

In the same way, you could say that “Nobody ever got fired for buying SM-58s and SM-57s.” They’re industry standard mics because they’re built to withstand live shows, basically sound like what they’re pointed at, and literally everybody can get them to work in a reasonable way. They’ve been around forever, and have been used by everybody, their dog, and their dog’s fleas. Even if somebody doesn’t know the model numbers, asking them to draw a picture of a vocal mic and an instrument mic will probably get you an SM-58 and an SM-57.

But they’re not the best at all times. I’ve heard a lot of 58s that imparted far too much low-mid garble to a singer’s voice, and I’ve never once easily gotten as much gain-before-feedback out of a 58 as I have an ND767a. I’ve miced up tons of amplifiers with all kinds of mics that weren’t SM-57s, and I’ve been perfectly happy about 99% of the time. I’ve done the same with drums. If “sounds decent” is the main priority, then I have a bunch of mics that do that AND take up less space than a big ol’ 57. There are other mics out there that work better for me, in terms of the total solution offered.

This isn’t to say that great things can’t happen with the SM series! I once heard an artist in a coffee shop with a keyboard amp and a 58-style mic. It was the most perfect setup for her voice that you could imagine. I wasn’t expecting what I heard, but she made it work beautifully. Sometimes, “industry standard” and “perfect for this particular application” DO line up.

My point is, though, that in a broad sense the “hidden secret” of being industry standard means being “extraordinarily average.” Thoroughly inoffensive. Safe. Something people won’t be fired for specifying and purchasing.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but for people like me…well, it’s kinda boring.

Sometimes You Need To Be Bored

That last sentence might seem a bit incendiary, depending on who you are. It’s very important to note that being un-boring is a luxury that’s unavailable to many in this business.

A good example is what happens when a venue wants to spend time working with acts that regularly tour at the regional level or above. To be acceptable to those acts (especially if they bring production techs but only minimal gear) requires that the PA and lighting rigs be easy to handle by most folks. The personnel working for the house might be excited about the new mixing consoles that lack a physical control surface, but that’s not something that everybody is prepared to accept. There are plenty of audio humans who just aren’t ready for the idea of having no physical controls at all, whereas probably every sound tech is fine with a console that has a control surface. That’s why control surfaces are still the industry standard. The new surfaceless consoles are nifty, but not for everybody, so a bit of “boring-ness” is required in order for the venue to play well with others.

Industry standards are accepted everywhere, which makes them a safe bet. Non-standards are “risky,” because they tend to conform to the desires of a smaller number of people. Risky is often exciting, however, because that’s where innovation occurs. Iterating on the standard makes the standard more refined, but it rarely produces breakthroughs. It’s entirely possible to, say, “bend the rules” on mixing console cost vs. functionality if you’re willing to do weird things (like dispense with a control surface). Some people will get it, and some people will think you’re crazy. Catering to your own brand of crazy is acceptable if, like me, a guest engineer even being in the room only happens about 0.8% of the time. It’s not acceptable at all if a band tech is going to be “driving” on a regular basis.

Why I’m Not Particularly Interested In The Industry Standard

I personally tend to shrug my shoulders at industry standards for the same reason that people shrug their shoulders in general: There’s almost nothing exciting about what’s been done a million times. Since I currently don’t have to meet riders or provide an easy environment for other techs to work in, I have the luxury of basically doing whatever I want as long as it works.

I love giving “upstarts” and bargain items a chance, because it’s fun to see just how far a piece of gear can go if you spend some time with it.

I don’t fight feedback with per-mix graphic EQs, because the idea of hacking up a whole mix to solve a problem with one input seems crazy to me.

I use a homebrew console because I wanted to have a virtual, independent monitor-world, and nobody made a traditional console I could afford that would do that in the way I wanted.

I don’t use a control surface for mixing because I’ve never cared about moving a whole bunch of faders at once.

I’ve never personally owned an SM-58 or 57, because they just aren’t interesting to me.

I’ve stuffed a cheap measurement mic inside a kick drum on several occasions, because I wanted to see how it would work. (It was actually pretty okay.)

And I just generally roll my eyes at how so much of show production, which used to be a kind of “outlaw” business that pushed boundaries and did things for the fun of it, has become a beige, corporatized affair of trying to basically be like everybody else. It’s like cars, you know? They used to be cool, distinctive works of art, and now every car company is essentially making the same three boring-as-dirt sedans, three bland SUVs, and three unremarkable pickup trucks, because it’s all run by “money” people now who are terrified of not being more profitable next quarter and thus will never do anything interesting YOU GUYS LET ME KNOW IF I’M RAMBLING, ‘KAY?

Now, you can bet that, if I ever went to work at an AV company or production provider, I would be willing to conform to industry standards. In that environment, that would be the appropriate thing to do.

But right now, I have the freedom to be weird and have fun – so I intend to enjoy myself.

I’ll say it again. “Industry standard” doesn’t necessarily mean “the best.” It just means “people will accept this about 95% of the time.”


The Cost Effectiveness Of Premium Soda

$1.00 per usage cycle is a magical number.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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Whether or not you like them, energy drinks are actually pretty cheap.

That is to say, for about a buck you buy a can of soda. You consume the contents of that can and chuck out the container without a second thought. You got exactly one use out that product for $1.00, and you barely noticed the transaction at all.

In my mind, that’s a pretty strong definition of “cheap, and cost effective.” The acquisition price was basically forgettable on its own, and the amount of utility you got for that acquisition price was reasonable to you – maybe at an unconscious level, but reasonable.

For show-production techs, there comes a day when we either have to procure our own gear or procure gear with someone else’s money. On that day, we have to think about cost effectiveness. We may not give it the conscious thought it deserves, but some sort of mental evaluation takes place. In this business, an oft-occurring result of considering gear is “sticker shock.” We look at the price attached to something and go “Geeze! That’s a lot!” Sometimes the reaction is justified, but there are other times when the number associated with entry isn’t rationally compared with what happens after the entry occurs. In certain cases, the long-term utility of a piece of gear actually makes the entry cost seem microscopic – but that can be hard to see at the time.

Now, there are all kinds of ways to determine cost-effectiveness. Some available methods are incredibly granular, taking into account depreciation, cost of transport, industry acceptance, and so on. Dave Rat, for example, put together a rather interesting “Buy Vs. Lease” calculator that you can find at the bottom of this post. If you know me, you know that I’m a great appreciator of granularity. I like to be able to deal with all kinds of minutiae. I like sniper-rifle focus in lots of areas, especially when it comes to mixing FOH (Front Of House) and monitors from the same spot.

But when it comes to making purchasing decisions in a rational way, I think that getting buried in a barrage of detailed considerations can lead to paralysis. I think that a basic shorthand can help make cost-effectiveness decisions go much more quickly – which provides a shortcut to the fun part, which IS GETTING NEW GEAR AM I RIGHT?

Anyway.

When I talk about shorthand, I mean REALLY shorthand. It’s probably one of the quickest questions you can ask yourself about a piece of gear: “Will I be able to get enough usage out of this item that each deployment cycle will have cost $1.00 or less?”

Of Power Amps and Microphones

At my regular gig, the amplifier for the full-range FOH loudspeakers is a QSC GX5. It’s been very good to us, and by my shorthand test, it’s been entirely inexpensive.

See, I just passed my four-year mark at the job. We do just a bit more than 104 shows per year, so the amp has about 416 shows on it. GX5 amps retail for $400 when brand new. Divide $400 by 416 shows, and you get a “cost effectiveness factor” of $0.96/ deployment. To be brutally honest, that’s peanuts. It’s not that we’d want to, but at this point we could just give the amp away and have lost nothing more – proportionally speaking – than if someone had bought and consumed about 400 energy drinks.

And the amp is still going strong! (It needed a replacement power switch last weekend, but that’s it.) It’s cost effectiveness is already slightly better than what we, as a society, expect from a product that we simply buy, swallow, and eliminate into a toilet.

Four hundred dollars might seem like a sizable chunk of change (and it is when your budget is constrained) but when you look at the whole utility of something like a power amp…well, you ultimately realize just how cheap certain aspects of live-sound have become.

In the same vein, I bought six EV ND767a vocal mics at the beginning of last year’s August. One of them died early on, so the total cost per working mic was $155. They haven’t all been used at every show, but figuring everything out in excruciating detail isn’t what a shorthand is for. As a group, those EV mics have been available to me at about 132 shows so far. Their cost effectiveness factor (as a group) is $1.18 / deployment, and improving every week.

When you consider that a vocal mic can be trouble-free for hundreds of shows, $100 – $200 for such a transducer works out to be what you would expect for a “mediocre commodity.” In the long run, a bog-standard stage microphone doesn’t actually cost any more than something you would casually throw away.

So, when it all comes down to it, dividing the purchase price of gear by the number of expected usage cycles can be illuminating. There’s quite a bit out there that, over its lifetime, becomes of no more monetary consequence than “fancy sugarwater.” If you need a quick assessment of what it makes sense to buy, items that can reach the $1.00/ deployment neighborhood are probably decent bets.

You have to be careful, though, because this kind of shorthand doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

The Blind Spot

What you have to realize is that there’s plenty of gear in plenty of situations that can not, and should not be expected to meet a long-term goal of “throwaway” pricing.

Mixing consoles, for instance, are unlikely to quickly reach the price point of mass-consumables. Pricing as compared to functionality has indeed gone over a cliff, but even that hasn’t stopped mixers from being a premium product. A $3000 digital console can do a LOT these days, but even doing 312 shows a year (six days a week, every week) it would take over nine years to make the console “disposable.” Especially with digital consoles, nine years is rather longer than the effective product lifecycle.

A console is a premium product, not a consumable. You can use the dollars/ usage cycle calculation to get an idea of your potential value for money, but trying to get to the $1 point just isn’t an appropriate goal. If you’re going to use a shorthand to determine cost-effectiveness of gear, you have to take care to apply the appropriate “goal ratios” to appropriate items. Gently treated and well-constructed mics, cables, amplifiers, and small-venue loudspeakers can usually be looked at as commodity items. Mixing consoles and large-format loudspeakers usually can’t.

For the non-commodities, an approach more in line with traditional cost/ benefit analysis is far more appropriate.

For everything else, if it seems to be made decently and will have a long-term cost effectiveness that’s comparable to premium soda, it’s probably a decent buy.


Some Tough Numbers

Alternative Title: Why it’s so hard to get paid and get promoted.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

I’ve heard plenty of legitimate complaints about concert venues and “promoters.” I put promoters in quotes because it seems like the loudest and most legitimate complaints are aimed at the folks who create concerts by charging musicians money (directly) to play their own music. The correct word for those folks is rarely “promoter.” The appropriate nomenclature is probably more like “parasite,” or “scam artist,” or “Sauron, Lord of The Black Land” if their activities are egregious enough.

(Seriously, if someone “offers you the chance” to pay them money to play a gig where “you’ll get lots of exposure,” do yourself a favor. Walk, run, bike, drive, or charter a spaceflight that will take you FAR AWAY.)

Anyway.

I’ve also heard lots of complaints about venues and concert producers that are less legitimate. Many of these gripes have a kernel of legitimacy in them, but the blame is misdirected. I have to admit that I get a bit “hot” when I hear misdirected blame, and I also have to admit that it’s taken me a while to realize that my annoyance isn’t really helpful. The problem is education and understanding, and if I’m sitting around being mad instead of helping people to get educated…well, I’m not participating much in a solution, am I?

To that end, I want to present the following. It’s essentially a set of numbers that I think explains certain aspects of the economics of small venues. These economics, in turn, help to explain certain entrenched realities in what it’s like to get paid for a small-venue show, and why small-venue promotion is the way it is.

BEFORE WE START: The venue I’m presenting in this article is a “hypothetical room.” It’s what you might call a composite character, and so it doesn’t directly represent any one venue that I’ve been involved with. Certain parts of the model may apply very differently to actual, individual venues in individual locales. Please proceed with caution.

A Theoretical 200-Seater

Let’s say that there’s a certain human who really digs live music. The opportunity arises for this particular human to put together their own room. The space isn’t massive – the capacity will be about 200 people – and the spot will be “competent,” though not exactly world-class.

The plan is to put on about 160 shows per year, which is three shows per week and a handful of special events.

The first cost to the venue operator is startup. This is to cover some basic, cosmetic renovation of the space, an audio and lighting rig, and a few little things that have to be addressed to be compliant with local regulations.

Startup Cost: $30,000

Zoinks! That looks like a lot of money. It’s not so bad, though, because the plan is for it to be essentially amortized over 10 years. Divide the startup cost by the expected 1600 shows, and…

Startup Cost Per Show: $18.75

The thing with gear is that it requires maintenance. Things break, or just wear down, and so there has to be money in the budget for fixes and replacements. The decision is made to put $1000/ year into a “fixit” fund.

Maintenance Fund Cost Per Show: $6.25

The next thing to consider is the cost of leasing the space. The building is owned by a landlord who is sympathetic to the arts, and so the rent for the 4000 square-foot space is pretty darned “rock bottom.” The rate is $1/ square-foot/ month. Do a bit of math on that, and you get this:

Rent Cost Per Show: $300

On top of the rent will be the utilities required to keep the lights and gear running, the water on, the room at a comfortable temperature, and so on. Some things in the building are efficient, and some aren’t. When it all comes out, the various “monthlies” might work out to this (a wild guess on my part):

Utilities Cost Per Show: $10

The next thing needed is a show-production craftsperson. They’ll be both an audio-human and a lighting operator, and they’ll be decent enough at their job that most musicians will be happy with how things go.

Production Tech Cost Per Show: $85

The venue operator decides that some help is needed in the area of running the door, taking money, and other tasks.

Venue Helper Cost Per Show: $40

With all of this in place, the venue operator wants the acts coming through the room to get some press. The decision is made to supplement the venue’s own website and social-media promo with a print ad in the local independent. It can’t be so small that it’s easy to miss, so the decision is made to secure a 1/6th page space. The ad is black and white to save a few dollars, and each ad has all the shows for the week. The per-week cost is $360, and that works out to:

Print Promo Cost Per Show: $117

One of the final things to take into account is PRO licensing with ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. PRO licensing is what (in theory) gets artists paid for their songs being played as covers in bars, clubs, theaters, stadiums, and whatever else. The good news for our hypothetical venue is that it’s NOT a restaurant or bar – it’s going to basically be a theater. As such, the licensing will probably be worked out to be a small portion of the gross receipts from the door. With that being the case, we’ll just ignore the licensing cost.

Now then.

You put all of this together, and the price for our theoretical room to have a night of music is this:

Total Cost To Open The Doors For A Show: $577

In other words, this venue, which I think is doing well at controlling its costs and avoiding unneeded extravagance, starts every show in several hundred dollars of debt.

Let’s Have A Show

So, let’s say that three local bands book the room for a night. They decide to charge $10 at the door to keep the show accessible to as many fans as possible.

…and the turnout is pretty good! About 150 people show up, which creates a revenue figure of $1500. I don’t know about anybody else, but I don’t see that as too shabby. Here’s the thing, though: That $1500 is revenue, not profit. Profit is what’s left over after the expenses are deducted. Remember that it cost the venue $577 “just to show up.” What that means is that the raw profit for the show is $923, or just over 61% of what was taken in at the door.

You also have to remember that the person who is the venue operator is not the production human or the helper. As such, the venue operator hasn’t gotten paid yet.

If the venue operator is self-sacrificial, then they might just opt to take $100. In that case, each band would take home about $274.

If the operator wants to do things in equal shares, then the venue and each band would get $230.

If the argument is made that the venue and the bands each bore 50% of the risk of the show, then the venue would get about $461 and each band would be paid out $153 and change.

The Implications

The reality is that live music is a tough business for everybody. Even if the venue operator sacrifices themselves on the altar of getting the bands a few extra bucks, the per-band payout is hardly “2 million dollar tourbus” territory. In fact, there are some folks who, without knowledge of the sacrificial backend, would complain that they weren’t being respected as professional musicians. It’s understandable that they would have the complaint, because $274 doesn’t go very far when you split it (again) across multiple band members.

But the reality is that it isn’t an issue of respect. It’s an issue of economics.

The show outcome I concocted above was a pretty decent one. However, there are lots of shows with mediocre turnouts. Turnouts can be less than stellar for all kinds of reasons, and that leads to the particularly nasty problem of bands either not getting paid, or venues going under, or even both. For a $10/ admission show, our fictional venue has to have 58 people show up…for NOTHING MORE than to not be in debt that day.

And that’s if the bands get nothing at all for their trouble.

What’s more likely is that there’s something on the table for the bands. Maybe 50% of the ticket’s face value? Okay.

So, if 58 people show up on a $10 ticket, that means that the venue’s portion of the revenue is $290. In other words, the venue LOST $287 on doing the show. With an immediate 50% split, a combined draw of 116 people is what’s necessary for the room to stay out of debt that day.

That’s JUST to stay out of debt. The venue operator would get paid a whole $3 for that show.

…and remember that this is with print promotion factored in. Some folks are adamant that venues “should promote more,” and I can understand why that sentiment exists – but I can only be so sympathetic when the tough numbers roll in. That is, a venue operator has to ask the question: “What does promote more mean?” If it’s understood in terms of the print ad, then what if the promo effort is tripled to the equivalent of half a page in the local independent? That means that the cost for that show’s promo has risen to $351, and the venue’s revenue from the show now has to be $811 to not lose anything. With an immediate 50% split, a 200 seater selling $10 tickets has to be more than three-quarters full just to keep “above water” on the night.

(How many times have you seen a small-venue that’s below three-quarters full? Everybody’s experience is different, but I’ve seen that a lot. Even with people making special efforts at promotion and creating a show that’s an actual event, I’ve seen dismal turnouts. Dismal.)

Yes, the venue could try charging more, but it isn’t always clear how far up a ticket price can go before the cost actually ends up hurting more than helping. You can shoot yourself in the foot without even trying.

Yes, the venue could try selling concessions. However, if there’s no more room for “startup expenses,” and no more room in the space, then that’s not such an easy thing.

Yes, the venue could convert to being a bar, but the previous sentence also applies here – and it even applies more, because being a bar isn’t as trivial as selling cans of soda and bags of chips.

The uncomfortable reality is that it’s hard to get rockstar pay when the venue isn’t making rockstar pay for itself. There are some honest-to-goodness greedy-bastard venue operators out there, but there are plenty of upstanding folks who just don’t have the money to pay musicians for LearJet fuel (and the LearJet to consume it).

It’s not a lack of respect. It’s the economics of tough numbers.


Vocal Processors, And The Most Dangerous Knob On Them

If you were wondering, the most dangerous knob is the one that controls compression.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

Not every noiseperson is a fan of vocal processors.

(Vocal processors, if you didn’t know, are devices that are functionally similar to guitar multi-fx units – with the exception that they expect input to come from a vocal mic, and so include a microphone preamp.)

Vocal processors can be deceivingly powerful devices, and as such, can end up painting an audio-human into a corner that they can’t get out of. The other side of that coin is that they can allow you to intuitively dial up a sound that you like, without you having to translate your intuitive choices into technical language while at a gig.

What I mean by that last bit is this: Let’s say that you like a certain kind of delay effect on your voice. There’s a specific delay time that just seems perfect, a certain number of repeat echoes that feels exactly right, an exact wet/ dry mix that gives you goosebumps, and an effect tonality that works beautifully for you. With your own vocal processor, you can go into rehearsal and fiddle with the knobs for as long as it takes to get exactly that sound. Further, you don’t have to be fully acquainted with what all the settings mean in a scientific sense. You just try a bit more or less of this or that, and eventually…you arrive. If you then save that sound, and take that vocal processor to a gig, that very exact sound that you love comes with you.

Which is great, because otherwise you have to either go without FX, or (if you’re non-technical) maybe struggle a bit with the sound person. The following are some conversations that you might have.

You: Could I have both reverb and delay on my vocal?

FOH (Front Of House) Engineer: Ummm…we only have reverb.

You: Oh.

You: Gimme a TON of delay in the monitors.

Audio Human: Oh, sorry, my FX returns can only be sent to the main mix.

You: Aw, man…

You: Could I have a touch more mid in my voice?

[Your concept of “a touch more mid” might be +6 dB at 2000 Hz, with a 2-octave-wide filter. The sound-wrangler’s concept of “a touch more mid” might be +3 dB at 750 Hz, with a one-octave-wide filter. Further, you might not be able to put a number on what frequency you want, especially if what I just said sounds like gobbledygook. Heck, the audio human might not even be able to connect a precise number with what they’re doing.]

Sound Wrangler: How’s that?

You: That’s not quite right. Um…

[This one’s directly in line with my original example.]

You: Could I get some delay on my voice?

Audio Human: Sure!

[The audio human dials up their favorite vocal-delay sound.]

You: Actually, it’s more of a slap-delay.

[Your concept of slap-delay might be 50 ms of delay time. The audio-human’s concept of slap-delay might be 75 ms.]

Audio Human: How’s that?

You: That’s…better. It’s not quite it, though. Maybe if there was one less repeat?

[The audio-human’s delay processor doesn’t work in “repeats.” It works in the dB level of the signal that’s fed back into the processor. The audio-human takes a guess, and ends up with what sounds like half a repeat less.]

Audio Human: Is that better?

You: Yeah, but it’s still not quite there. Um…

Having your own vocal processor can spare you from all this. It also spares the engineer from having to manage when the FX should be “in” or bypassed. (This often isn’t a huge issue, but it can become one if you’re really specific about what you want to happen where.) There are real advantages to being self-contained.

There are negative sides, though, as I alluded to earlier. Having lots of power at your disposal feels good, but if you’re not well-acquainted with what that power is actually doing, you can easily sabotage yourself. And your band. And the engineer who’s trying to help you.

EQ Is A Pet Dog

The reason that I say that “EQ is a pet dog” is twofold.

1) EQ is often your friend. Most of the time, it’s fun to play with, and it “likes” to help you out.

2) In certain situations, an EQ setting that was nice and sweet can suddenly turn around and “bite” you. This isn’t because EQ is “a bad dog,” it’s because certain equalization tweaks in certain situations just don’t work acoustically.

What I’ve encountered on more than one occasion are vocal-unit EQ settings that are meant to either sound good in low-volume or studio contexts. I’ve also encountered vocal-unit EQ that seems to have been meant to correct a problem with the rehearsal PA…which then CAUSES a problem in a venue PA that doesn’t need that correction.

To be more specific, I’ve been in various situations where folks had a whole busload of top-end added to their vocal sound. High-frequency boosts often sound good on “bedroom” or “headphone” vocals. Things get nice and crisp. “Breathy.” Even “airy,” if I dare to say so. In a rehearsal situation, this can still work. The rehearsal PA might not be able to get loud enough for the singer to really hear themselves when everybody’s playing, especially if feedback can’t be easily corrected. However, the singer hears that nice, crisp vocal while everybody’s NOT playing, and remembers that sound even they get swamped.

Anyway.

The problem with having overly hyped high-end in a live vocal (especially with a louder band in a small room) is really multiple problems. First, it tends to focus your feedback issues into the often finicky and unpredictable zone of high-frequency material. If there’s a place where both positionally dependent and positionally independent frequency response for mics, monitors, and FOH speakers is likely to get “weird” and “peaky,” the high-frequency zone is that place. (What I mean by “positionally dependent” is that high-frequency response is pretty easy to focus into a defined area…and what THAT means is that you can be in a physical position where you have no HF feedback problems, and then move a couple of steps and make a quarter turn and SQUEEEEAAALLL!)

The second bugbear associated with cranked high-end is that, when the vocals are no longer isolated, the rest of the band can bleed into the vocal mic LIKE MAD. That HF boost that sounds so nice on vocals by themselves is now a cymbal and guitar-hash louder-ization device. If we get into a high-gain situation (which can happen even with relatively quiet bands), what we then end up doing is making the band sound even louder when compared to your voice. If the band started out a bit loud, we may just have gotten to the audience’s tipping point – especially since high-frequency information at “rock” volume can be downright painful. Further, we’re now spending electrical and acoustical headroom on what we don’t want (more of the band’s top end), instead of what we do want (your vocal’s critical range).

Now, I’m not saying that you can’t touch the EQ in your vocal processor, or that you shouldn’t use your favorite manufacturer preset. What I am saying, though, is that dramatic vocal-processor EQ can really wreck your day at the actual show. You might want to find a way to quickly get the EQ bypassed or “flattened,” if you can.

“Compression” Is The Most Dangerous Knob On That Thing

Now, why would I say that, especially after all my ranting about EQ?

Well, it’s like this.

An experienced audio tech with flexible EQ tools can probably “undo” enough of an unhelpful in-the-box equalization solution, given a bit of time. Compression, on the other hand, really can’t be fully “undone” in a practical sense in most situations. (Yes – there is a process called “companding” which involves compression and complementary expansion, but to make it work you have to have detailed knowledge of the compression parameters.) Like EQ, compression can contribute to feedback problems, but it does so in a “full bandwidth” sense that is also much more weird and hard to tame. It can also cause the “we’re making the band louder via the vocal mic” problem, but in a much more pronounced way. It can prevent the vocalist from actually getting loud enough to separate from the rest of the band – and it can even cause a vocalist to injure themselves.

Let’s pick all that apart by talking about what a compressor does.

A compressor’s purpose is to be an automatic fader that can react at least as quickly (if not a lot more quickly) as a human, and that can react just as consistently (if not a lot more consistently) as a human. When a signal exceeds a certain set-point, called the threshold, the automatic fader pulls the signal down based on the “ratio” parameter. When the signal falls back towards the threshold, the fader begins to return to its original gain setting. “Attack” is the speed that the fader reduces gain, and “release” is the speed that the fader returns to its original gain.

Now, how can an automatic fader cause problems?

If the compressor threshold is set too low, and the ratio is too high, the vocalist is effectively pulled WAY down whenever they try to deliver any real power. If I were to set a vocalist so that they were comfortably audible when the band was silent, but then pulled that same vocalist down 10 dB when the band was actually playing, the likely result with quite a few singers would be drowned vocals. This is effectively what happens with an over-aggressive compressor. The practical way for the tech to “fight back” is to add, say, 10 dB (or whatever) of gain on their end – which is fine, except that most small-venue live-sound contexts can’t really tolerate that kind of compensating gain boost. In my experience, small room sound tends to be run pretty close to the feedback point, say, 3-6 dB away from the “Zone of Weird Ringing and Other Annoyances.” When that’s the case, going up 10 dB puts you 4-7 dB INTO the “Zone.”

But the thing is, the experience of that trouble area is extra odd, because your degree of being in it varies. When the singer really goes for it, the processor’s compressor reduces the vocal mic’s gain, and your feedback problem disappears. When they back off a bit, though, the compressor releases, which means the gain goes back up, which means that the strange, phantom rings and feedback chirps come back. It’s not like an uncompressed situaton, where feedback builds at a consistent rate because the overall gain is also consistent. The feedback becomes the worst kind of problem – an intermittent one. Feedback and ringing that quickly comes and goes is the toughest kind to fight.

Beyond just that, there’s also the problem of bleed. If you have to add 10 dB of gain to a vocal-mic to battle against the compressor, then you’ve also added 10 dB of gain to whatever else the mic is hearing when the vocalist isn’t singing. Depending on the situation, this can lead to a very-markedly extra-loud band, with all kinds of unwanted FX applied, and maybe with ear-grating EQ across the whole mess. There’s also the added artistic issue of losing dynamic “swing” between vocal and instrumental passages. That is, the music is just LOUD, all the time, with no breaks. (An audience wears down very quickly under those conditions.) In the circumstance of a singer who’s not very strong when compared to the band, you can get the even more troublesome issue of the vocal’s intelligibility being wrecked by the bleed, even though the vocal is somewhat audible.

Last, there’s the rare-but-present monster of a vocalist hurting themselves. The beauty of a vocal processor is that the singer essentially hears what’s being presented to the audience. The ugliness behind the beauty is that this isn’t always a good thing. Especially in the contexts of rock and metal, vocal monitors are much less about sounding “hi-fi” and polished, and much more about “barking” at a volume and frequency range that has a fighting chance of telling the singer where they are. Even in non-rock situations, a vital part of the singer knowing where they are is knowing how much volume they’re producing when compared to the band. The most foolproof way for this to happen is for the monitors to “track” the vocalists dynamics on a 1:1 basis – if the singer sings 3 dB louder, the monitors get 3 dB louder.

When compression is put across the vocalist immediately after the vocal mic, the monitors suddenly fail to track their volume in a linear fashion. The singer sings with more power, but then the compressor kicks in and holds the monitor sound back. The vocalist, having lost the full volume advantage of their own voice plus the monitors, can feel that they’re too quiet. Thus, they try to sing louder to compensate. If this goes too far, the poor singer just might blow out their voice, and/ or be at risk for long-term health issues. An experienced vocalist with a great band can learn to hear, enjoy, and stop compensating for compression…but a green(er) singer in a pressure situation might not do so well.

(This is also why I advocate against inserting compression on a vocal when your monitor sends are post-insert.)

To be brutally honest, the best setting for a vocal-processor’s compressor is “bypass.” Exceptions can be made, but I think they have to be made on a venue-to-venue, show-to-show basis.

All of this might make it sound like I advocate against the vocal processor. That’s not true. I think they’re great for people in the same way that other powerful tools are great. It’s just that power tools can really hurt you if you’re not careful.


Five S Festival

If you want to put on a festival, put at least as much effort into the logistics as you do the actual show.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

It’s true that I’ve never put on a full festival by myself. I’ve been involved in a couple of small ones at some level, but I haven’t been the top dog. It’s only fair to say that.

On the other hand, though, I HAVE been the top dog at a small venue. That, and hearing about various festival problems, is what informs most of my opinions on what it means to do a festival well. While that might seem a bit odd to say, I think that experience running a “fixed” venue holds up in a festival setting – mostly because of these two, central ideas:

The stage production at a music venue is not, by itself, the most important part of the venue’s operation.

When you are putting on a festival, you are creating a temporary music venue.

I’m serious.

It’s not that the stage production isn’t important. It is important. Very important. Critically important. However, you can have a killer stage and still have a terrible venue. The trouble is that I think a lot of folks have this notion that, “All we have to do is make the show amazingly cool.”

Yes, the show does have to be amazingly cool, but that’s not enough – not by a longshot.

This reality is displayed in an entry I found at lolmythesis. At lolmythesis, academic works are boiled down to a single, humorous sentence. The entry I’m talking about is related to a Marketing thesis done for The University of Gloucestershire: “Don’t let your festival flood. People don’t like it all that much.”

The festival in question might have had great staging. It might have had great acts – but the organizers got a major piece of the logistics wrong, and that’s what stuck in people’s minds.

When it comes down to it, I think that creating a temporary, festival venue or a permanent venue both come down to “The Five S’s.” All five of these issues have to be addressed well, or people won’t be happy:

Safety, Security, Sanitation, Scheduling, Staging

Yes, staging is in there, but notice how it’s just one piece of the puzzle.

Safety

Nothing wrecks a festival like people having their property damaged, or becoming injured themselves. Festivals have even been places where folks – folks who were just out to see their favorite band – have been killed.

Not a good scene.

There are a lot of questions about safety that have to be asked and addressed. Here are just a few:

  • How are you going to properly supply and earth the power for both the stage and the attendees?
  • How are you going to ensure that your temporary structures are built correctly?
  • How will your temporary structures (especially the stage and roof) handle a severe weather event?
  • How are the temporary structures going to be secured so that they CAN ride out a severe weather event?
  • How are you going to monitor incoming weather in realtime?
  • How are you going to get everyone to safety in case of severe weather or other emergency? How long will it take?
  • Is the festival site, in and of itself, dangerous in heavy rain? Subject to dangerous heat and/ or cold? A bad place to be during an electrical storm?
  • If someone has a medical problem (and they will), how are they going to be cared for?

Security

In a lot of ways, security is a part of safety. In this case, the distinction arises from safety being protecting humans against threats from the natural and built-up environment, whereas security is protecting humans from each other.

Some of the possible issues are:

  • How are you going to demarcate and patrol the various external and internal perimeters at the festival?
  • How are you going to make sure that people who aren’t supposed to get in stay out?
  • How are you going to handle folks who are unintentionally causing trouble?
  • How are you going to handle folks who are willfully being jerks?
  • How are you going to prevent people from bringing dangerous items into the festival?
  • How are you going to ensure that your security personnel aren’t just a bunch of bullies with extra authority?
  • How are you going to set up and light various areas to discourage illegal drug use, drinking, assaults, and so on?

Sanitation

This point is easy to describe, but not necessarily easy to do well. Everybody at your festival is going to have to urinate, defecate, and toss out other forms of refuse. How are you going to ensure that they can do so easily, comfortably, and appropriately?

Also, when it’s all over, how are you going to deal with the inevitable litter and site impacts?

Scheduling

Here’s another point that seems simple, but is easy to screw up. It’s easy to screw up because the temptation to allocate as little time as possible to “boring” activities is very high. As an overall precaution, I recommend giving yourself a BIG time-buffer in which to execute everything – say, by allowing for everything to take 1.5 to 2 times longer than you think it should. Beyond that, you can consider:

  • How much time do you need to get the ENTIRE festival set up and ready?
  • How much time do you need to get the ENTIRE festival torn down and cleaned up?
  • When will event staff arrive and leave?
  • When will bands arrive and leave?
  • When will patrons arrive and leave?
  • How long will it take to handle onstage changeovers? (Hint: 15 minutes between bands probably isn’t long enough.)
  • How long will each band play?
  • When there is a weather/ safety/ technical/ transport delay, or a band goes over their allotted time, how are you going to manage the impact on the rest of the schedule? (This is going to happen. Be ready.)
  • How are you going to handle your production staff? Remember, they have to eat, pee, and poop, just like everyone else.
  • You are going to have a stage-manager and assistant stage-manager, separate from the audio and lighting techs, right? Right? (Hint: The answer should be in the affirmative.)

Staging

Like I said before, this bit really is important. Staging can also be the really fun part of the whole process, because it’s an area where artistic sense and creativity come to the front of the line. Again, though, you need to realize that focusing on staging and forgetting about the other considerations above is a recipe for “all sortsa badness.” Once all your other ducks are in a row, then you can dive into thinking about:

  • How much stage area do you think you need? How much do you actually need?
  • Does the stage remain fun to look at and be on when the sun is rising? How about when the sun is setting?
  • Can the bands get their gear-hauling vehicles close to the backstage area?
  • Is there enough backstage area for at least one band to get ready while another is playing?
  • How much PA do you think you need? How much do you actually need?
  • How will the PA be deployed to get proper coverage? (Using delay towers, rather than just being really loud, is a good thing to consider if you have to “throw” a long way.)
  • How will you deploy the PA so that people who want to get away from it actually can get away?
  • How much lighting gear do you think you need? How much do you actually need?
  • Are you ready to deal with the whole issue of the lighting rig being (probably) worthless while the sun is still up (if you’re outside)?
  • Where are you going to put FOH (Front Of House) control so that audio and lighting can do their jobs effectively?
  • How are you going to keep your FOH cable runs from being trampled/ cut/ tampered with/ otherwise messed up?

None of these lists of questions is complete, but I think they’re a good start. Do a good job in all five areas, and you’ve got a shot at a good festival. Cut corners, and…well…good luck with that. Hopefully you won’t be on the news for the wrong reasons.


The Pros and Cons of Decoupling

Separating gear into its components gives you more control, but it also creates more work.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Question: If I gave you a mic pre, a parametric equalizer, a couple of splitter cables, an output selector box, and three volume pots, what could you make?

Answer: A basic channel strip.

Think about it – for all intents and purposes, the items listed above are the basic components necessary to construct an audio chain that behaves like a channel found on a simple console. What made them seem different is that they were packaged as single items, instead of all being attached to a circuit board.

They were decoupled from one another. Unbundled. Unboxed.

Decoupling pro-audio components can give you a lot of powerful choices, but it isn’t appropriate for everyone or every situation.

What The Heck Am I Talking About?

When I talk about “coupled” or “bundled” audio products, I’m referring to a device that houses multiple functions in one enclosure. Each function could theoretically be performed by a separate device in its own enclosure, but for various reasons the devices have been combined. For example:

  • “Powered” speakers, which stick an amplifier (and often, a lot of very carefully tweaked processing) into the loudspeaker enclosure. This is in contrast to “passive” speakers, which require amplification and processing from external products.
  • “Multiway” loudspeakers are even an example of bundling. Some people are happy to run entirely separate enclosures (and amps, and processing) for subs, low-mids, high-mids, and high-end. Lots of other folks are happy to combine everything above the subwoofers into one cabinet.
  • “Monolithic” mixing consoles, which put audio circuitry and/ or processing in the same case as the controls. I’m unaware of any analog console which ISN’T essentially monolithic out of sheer necessity. Some digital consoles, on the other hand, have DSP brains that are at least physically independent of the control surface.
  • System controllers, AKA loudspeaker management systems, are devices which combine equalizers, crossovers, and dynamics processors (amongst other things) into a single unit.

Each of these products presents you, as the buyer, with a choice. Accept the bundle offered, or decline it and construct your own solution. So – why pick one route over the other?

Conservation Of Responsibility

I don’t know if this is the biggest factor to consider when you’re thinking about whether to use a coupled or decoupled setup, but it’s the most generalized description that I could easily think of:

In a coupled solution, the manufacturer bears most of the responsibility for an effective configuration. In a decoupled solution, the responsibility shifts to the operator.

One of the best examples of this is the powered or “active” speaker, especially when the unit is biamped or triamped. The manufacturer of the speaker is the one who has to pick an appropriate amplifier for each driver. Not only that, but they have to include appropriate crossover processing at a minimum. Often, advanced driver-protection, driver-to-driver time alignment, and corrective EQ are “baked in” to the total solution.

If, on the other hand, you choose to go with passive speakers, you have to choose which of these functions are worth implementing, which products you’ll use to fulfill them, how to connect those products, and how to configure each unit.

The upshot is that there’s “conservation of responsibility,” in that the obligation of deciding how to put everything together is always present. Who actually gets most of that obligation depends on how much is packaged in one box. This is also true for the audio knowledge required when using the product(s). Audio gear that’s been bundled can reduce the knowledge demands for whoever is actually doing a show with that gear. Unbundled gear usually requires a more knowledgeable operator for maximum success.

Weight and Volume

Whenever you choose a bundled or decoupled solution to an audio-gear need, it’s helpful to have an awareness of the weight/ volume tradeoff that can occur (it doesn’t always happen):

All things being equal, “coupled” gear reduces the space required for deployment and transport, at the cost of each unit becoming heavier. Decoupled gear makes for lighter individual units, at the cost of more space being required for the entire system.

It’s important to notice that the above starts with “all things being equal.” In many cases, all things are not equal. For instance, if you replace a whole stack of PA management gear with a single Driverack processor, the weight AND volume of PA management equipment goes down. This is because all things aren’t equal – all the physical components of each piece aren’t included, because the functions are replicated in software.

In the same way, a powered speaker may not actually be as heavy as the passive version plus an amplifier, because the manufacturer will probably choose an amplification unit that allows for less weight (not to mention one that doesn’t require a hefty rackmount chassis).

Cost And Risk

Choosing coupled versus decoupled solutions in pro-audio influences both how much money you pay for things, and how many eggs you have in one basket:

Because of various “economies,” coupled products can sometimes be less expensive than their decoupled counterparts.

Powered speakers are another excellent example of this phenomenon. By the time you add up the cost of amplifiers, processing, speaker cable, and racks, creating equivalent functionality with a passive speaker enclosure can be more expensive than just buying a decent, pre-packaged, active box. If cost is a big factor for a production, coupled products can be a big help.

Because of tight, inter-component integration and dependence, the failure of one part of a coupled product can deprive you of the functionality of ALL parts of the product.

An example of this can be found with a loudspeaker management unit. All of the functionality of the unit (EQ, crossover, dynamics, etc) is tied to one power supply and one front-panel control setup. If either one of those is damaged or fails, everything “in the box” becomes unusable. In a decoupled system, the death of the crossover doesn’t deprive you of the use of the EQ. Bundled gear allows for each individual product to do more, but if there’s a problem you may lose ALL of that “doing more” in an instant. It’s just a risk that you have to be aware of.

Control Issues

The final point I want to make is in regards to the overall command that you have over coupled vs. decoupled audio systems:

Using decoupled products provides you with greater system flexibility and control than using bundled units.

I do want to be careful to point out that the above is NOT a value judgement. Greater control and flexibility are not an advantage unless you actually want them and will benefit from them. For instance, I’ve chosen to use a “decoupled” console, where the I/O, processing, and control all have some amount of separation. As a result, I have a ton of control over how the console behaves. If I don’t like some part of it, I can swap that part without losing my investment in the other parts. On the flipside, though, my console is not industry standard, it’s difficult to just “pick up and use,” and I have to be personally invested in making the whole thing work.

In the end, I definitely encourage audio enthusiasts to go for decoupled systems where it makes sense for them. For folks who just want things to work without much hassle, bundled gear is a great choice. I happen to use both kinds of pro-audio equipment, because I have to pick my battles. It all seems to be working out, so far.


In Praise Of The Small Venue

Small venues are great because of their intimacy, their flexibility, the freedoms they offer, and the new music you can find there.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

The funny thing about this article is that I was going to write it as the lead-off piece for this site – and then I got sidetracked.

Anyway.

I think small venues are killer. Killer places to work, killer places to play, and killer places to check out music. Of course, that just my opinion.

I think I can justify that opinion, though. As I see it, small venues have innate strengths to be found in their smallness. Sure, large halls, “shed” gigs, sizable festivals, arenas, and stadium shows have strengths. Lots of strengths.

And strength.

As in, “brute force.”

In the end, though, your local bar, all-ages room, or mini-theater can do things in a way that only they can really do…because they’re small. Also, my suspicion is that most of us are going to spend a lot of time working in small venues. There are only a few Dave Rats and Evan Kirkendalls in the world, who work on big rigs almost all the time.

Please don’t get me wrong! The guys and gals running the big shows have a lot of wisdom for us, but at the same time, I think we should try to identify and appreciate the advantages that we “little giggers” enjoy on a daily basis. This isn’t sour grapes! I think big shows are amazing creations, and that they would be very rewarding to work on.

The point is to appreciate the great things about the context that you’re currently in. Like…

Intimacy

Intimacy has become an overused word in the music business. However, it has become a cliched buzzword precisely because it’s actually important. Intimacy is probably THE main trait of the small venue, and it works for pretty much everybody involved – musicians, techs, and concert-goers alike.

For the musician:

Intimacy means that your audience is just a few feet away. Audience members can actually be interacted with as individuals, instead of as a giant mass. You can take a break, step off stage, and make friends with people in the crowd, all with ease. (That’s how you build an audience, by the way: You make personal connections with people.)

An intimate show seems more personal, because it is – every word and note becomes potent, because there’s so much less inertia. Huge crowds are certainly fun, but if a big chunk of them aren’t on your side, you will probably only notice the hostility – the few people who love every second are invisible, swallowed up in the monster. At a small venue, the people who like you are much easier to hear, see, and connect with. They don’t get lost in the crowd, and because the crowd is small, it’s easier to “turn” a visible portion of the audience towards your favor (assuming you have the skill to do so.)

For the tech:

Small shows are great because communication with the folks on stage is (usually) much easier. You don’t have to have runners and comms. All you need is a talkback, and sometimes you don’t even need that. If something needs fixing on stage, you don’t have to discuss what it is with monitor world, and then get someone to do what’s needed. You just walk up there and deal with it.

When you work in close proximity to the artist, it’s easier to figure out what they need. It’s also much easier to get to know the artists as people, and become friends with them. This also makes it much easier to work with the artists, because knowing people helps you understand their needs and how you can fulfill them properly. If the artist is your friend, or at least known to you as an actual person, it’s a much shorter path to being on the same team.

Successful shows are all about teamwork, by the way.

The other great thing about an intimate show is that you can actually get to know the audience – you know, the OTHER people you’re there to serve throughout the night. In the same way as the talent, you can get to know the audience as actual people. You can make eye contact, and even talk to them. You can even become friends with them!

It’s not impossible to connect with audience members at a big gig, but I don’t think it’s as easy.

For the concertgoer:

For the folks in the crowd, intimate shows are great because all the seats are “expensive,” without actually costing an arm and a leg. Think about it: People pay insanely large sums to sit in the first few rows at big gigs, because that’s where you can actually see what the artist is doing in a direct way. I’m not saying that huge video walls aren’t cool, but they just aren’t the same as being able to see what the band is doing with your own two eyes. (Again, if it was the same, then there wouldn’t be a market for the first few rows.)

Then, there’s the whole “meet and greet” thing. At small shows, the chances are much higher that you can actually say hello to the players and shake hands. The chances are astronomically higher that you might even be able to have a real conversation, because fewer people are competing for the artist’s attention. Often, you can just walk up to the musicians with ease, because there’s no need for a bunch of security humans (and a barrier) 20 feet away from the downstage edge.

This also works for the folks who want to see how the production is done. Especially at bar gigs, people curious about how the lighting is rigged, or the PA is stacked, or how the console is set up, can usually go right up to the appropriate person and ask. They can walk over to the rig and take a gander. Again, the bigger show, the harder it gets to find out how it all comes together. It’s not impossible, of course, just more challenging.

Flexibility

Another great thing about small venues is that changes and problems don’t necessarily wreck a show, because there’s a greater ability to “flow” around the issues. If something needs to change in a hurry, it’s often easier for that to happen at a small show.

For the musician:

Flexibility means that if you want to change the order of a multi-act show, you can do it without a massive disruption. You can also change your set around, bring up guest musicians who will just take care of themselves (because they don’t necessarily have to get put into the PA), and generally make changes on the fly. The reason is because there’s so much less in the way of logistical choreography that has to happen. Sure, every change has an effect, but the number of people who have to coordinate for the change to happen is small.

For the tech:

Small-venue flexibility is great if you have limited resources. Not enough mic-lines? Chances are that extra amp on stage can carry things without your help (if the musicians are good). Need to change the lighting a bit? Well, since there are only a few instruments, you can just “grab and go.” Heck, you might even be able to reprogram most of the show in a few minutes. Need to change something about the PA? A small sound system is easy to reconfigure, if you have the tools, because the number of pieces involved is quite manageable. Again – the choreography required to make a change is minimal.

For the concertgoer:

Flexibility is great for concertgoers, because the show can go on even when problems crop up. Lose the whole PA for some reason? You’re pretty much screwed in a giant space. In a small venue, the opportunity for an amazing, all-acoustic rescue is still there. Did an act drop out suddenly? Putting in a replacement band isn’t a huge process.

(Very cool, spontaneous things can happen at big shows, too. It’s just not usually as easy. There are a lot more people involved, a lot more gear involved, a lot more logistical issues to work out…you get the picture.)

Freedom

Another wonderful something about small-venue shows, where the logistics are far more contained and the stakes aren’t astronomically high?

There’s so much more freedom to experiment.

For the musician:

If you want to try out your new songs, the ones you’re unsure about, you can. There’s less at stake than at a huge gig. Also, if you want to try out some totally weird amp configuration or exotic instrument, you don’t have to do a bunch of tech rehearsals. You can just try it, and if it doesn’t work, so what? You only lost, what, ten minutes? (Of course, you have to know when to abandon an experiment for the time being. Not everybody does.)

For the tech:

Because a lot of small-venue shows tend to be free of highly-specific tech-riders, the house crews can often experiment as far as their budgets will allow. If you don’t have a lot of BEs (band engineers) asking for specific console and processing setups, you can try your favorite configurations – or even opt for a “homebrew” digital mixer that would never be accepted on a normal rider. Want to use your favorite mics, the ones that don’t normally get asked for? No problem – very few acts will be requiring a certain transducer for any particular instrument or vocal. (Just make sure your favorite mic is actually a good choice for that application.) Want to try a new lighting fixture or two, maybe do something unconventional? Give it a shot! It’s unlikely that the acts will be bringing in an LD (lighting designer) who’s absolutely got to have all industry standard gear of a certain “grade.”

I should definitely mention that I think there’s an “uncanny valley” for experimental freedom. In the small-venue world, you can experiment because there are fewer people to please, and they are usually easier to please. The limitation is resources.

Then, there’s a vast middle-ground where people aren’t interested in pushing the boundaries, and just want what’s worked for them for however long. In the middle ground, you’re subject to the whims of bands, management, and tour crews who aren’t interested in your crazy notions, and who tend to be notably risk-averse.

After that, though, there’s the point where you “leave the valley.” That’s where you have the stature, trustworthiness, and resources of, say, Dave Rat, and can freely try all kinds of neat things again.

New Music

I’ve been known to say that “every huge, international act is a local band somewhere.” I say that because there’s sometimes a stigma attached to the term “local band,” as though bands that are just starting out and have a limited fanbase are somehow inferior.

It’s just not true. There are tons of acts that could eat [insert huge artist’s name here] for breakfast, and who just aren’t widely known for whatever reason. Besides, every huge act (that isn’t a “manufactured” group) started out playing in the bars and clubs. They had to grow into their big shoes. They had to start somewhere.

To me, the implications are clear: If you want to create new music, have a chance at hearing new music, work with people making new music, and just generally “be present for the creation,” small venue shows are the ones to look for. The sound isn’t always great, the number of lasers in the light show is small or zero, and the roar of the crowd isn’t as loud.

But the small venue is where a ton of really worthwhile things get their start.


Little Dogs and Subjective Risk

For some reason, large, well established audio companies (of all stripes) seem to fear risk and innovation.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

I got the pictures of those dogs at openclipart.org, by the way.

I used to have a contract gig where I wrote articles for Systems Contractor News and/ or AV Network. Every once in a while, I would end up writing a piece that didn’t quite fit the site. I decided to resurrect one of these articles to help jumpstart The Small Venue Survivalist.

So…

I have a confession to make: Established industry leaders tend to bore me. It’s not that they don’t make nifty things, or work on enviable projects. To be sure, I look at an ad for a well-engineered, newfangled thingamabob and start to desire it. I’m especially susceptible to whaddya-call-whos in the transducer category:

“Huh – I would love to get a bunch of those mics on stage to find out if they really do kill feedback problems.”

“Hmm – How cool would it be to put a couple of those super-loud powered boxes in the room and hear what it’s like to mix the whole show at just above their idling point?”

Yes, I do love toys, and a really cool toy is cool without regard to who made it. Here’s the thing, though…

I’m not excited when the “big dogs” do something moderately spiffy, because I expect them to do moderately spiffy things.

Or, at least incrementally spiffy things.

They have lots of money to spend on continual R&D, plus a sizable staff to do that R&D. As such, they’re always improving their offerings.

“Our new design features the super-expo-constant-conical-hybrid waveguide, for higher highs with less distortion and mind-blowingly constant directivity. Directivity so constant, it’s almost a law of nature! See us at booth…”

You can practically bank on them doing this. As much as I recognize that it’s a bit unfair to say it, these advances by the big players just seem unremarkable. It’s not that they’re standing on the shoulders of giants, because everybody is, but rather because they’re giants anyway. Climbing a mountain isn’t an earth shattering achievement when you’re half as tall as the mountain to start with.

Perhaps a more fair way of putting it is that achievements have a semi-objective, if hard to define, “remarkability.” An achievement isn’t diminished by the relative power and resources of the achiever, but the risk of that achievement certainly can be. My heart, therefore, belongs to the “little dogs” that do things that are risky for them.

You know what’s really ironic, though? It seems like a moderately risky endeavor for a little dog can be an unbearable risk for the leaders of the pack.

One possible way for this to work is between two loudspeaker builders. “Little Mutt” is a manufacturer of unconventional but high-performing boxes. For whatever reason, they’re designing and building loudspeakers that are very different from what most other people are building. It’s a risky proposition, especially when those unconventional designs can’t possibly be made at an “entry-level” price point. They’re not the most premium of all premium products, but they are quite a ways out of the league of a casual buyer. On the other side of the equation is “Big Woofers.” Everybody know them, and they have a ton of product lines. They can boast that their offerings are used in giant installs and gargantuan touring shows. They have products that range from downright affordable to “if you have to ask the price, you can’t possibly pay for it.” The R&D department at Big Woofers could probably achieve everything that Little Mutt has done in the space of a month. They might even do it a bit better.

Yet they don’t…why?

I have a theory. (Everybody who works with me has just started rolling their eyes. Whenever any “situation” occurs, or a conundrum crops up, it’s almost a sure bet that I will say, “I have a theory…”)

I could be completely wrong, but I think my notion is plausible. My theory is that a big dog, a pack leader, experiences a subjective level of risk that rises abruptly as they get farther out in front of the herd. What happens is that large, “crazy” leaps farther out in front of the rest of the leaders become harder and harder to justify. All kinds of things play into this, not the least of which is that Big Woofers might actually be owned by an even bigger dog, a dog that measures value not just by profit, but by profits this quarter.

This focus on short-term performance can get to the point that anything likely to lower that metric (at all, even for a short while) is seen as a “very bad idea.” With lots of new orders for already developed products, plus a very healthy installed base, trying something really different couldn’t realistically sink the company. The potential stifler, though, is that unless the new venture does enormously well, there’s a good chance (maybe even a certainty) that the short-term profits will go down. This represents a very high subjective risk, and so Big Woofers just keeps on making incremental improvements to what they’re already doing.

Okay – so what about Little Mutt, then?

Little Mutt, on the other hand, doesn’t need to lose a lot of sleep over short term profits. Since nobody’s looking over their shoulder, they only have to answer to their own needs. As long as they have enough cash on hand, they can keep doing wild and wacky things. If Little Mutt tries something, and isn’t quite as profitable as they might have wanted to be, it’s not nearly as big a deal.

Within reason, of course.

This, ultimately, is one of the reasons why I have a disproportionate love of the smaller players. The upstarts. The little company from the midwest that’s selling a new brand of microphones on Ebay. The guys from down south who build loudspeakers and have a small e-commerce site. It’s downright fun to see what they can come up with, even if it really isn’t any different from the industry standard. It’s satisfying to see them move up in the pack, because there’s a novelty to it. The ultimate exhilaration, though, comes when one of the little dogs does something off-the-wall, because you know they’re taking a big risk, shooting for the moon, and potentially changing how we look at the possible solutions to problems. The big dogs are in front, I know they’re in front, and they’re probably going to be just about as in front next year as this year. The little dog, though? He or she might just be ready to pass a bunch of other dogs. That’s unpredictable, and when it happens, it sure does charge you up.

Do the big dogs deserve their place?

Sure.

Probably.

Still, going off into a corner and finding a little dog doing something that’s neat on their scale (or even objectively nifty by any measurement) is something I find more personally rewarding.