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Tom Petty, VENUE Technology and The Future of The Concert Experience

Only published comments... Aug 24 2010, 11:26 PM by Robert Scovill


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Life today under the big top …


As you readers may or may not be aware, this summer has been a particularly tough one for artists who have attempted to go out on tour and sell a lot of tickets. I’m extremely fortunate to be out on a tour where ticket sales are very strong especially in contrast to the tours that are not selling well and are dramatically downscaling their productions or in some cases closing down their tours completely.


So this kind of got me thinking – always dangerous as you’ve learned from previous blogs, but not to worry!. A few weeks back, I had my two boys out on tour with me and as I shared my time with them I caught myself pondering their experience – “I wonder what they are really thinking about all of this? How are they actually processing what they see and hear while out here. Do they get it? Or is it me that doesn’t actually get it?”



I wonder what he’s thinking right about now?


It got me really grinding on the future of not only the music business, but the concert industry as a whole. How will my kids experience live music concerts when they’re older? Will it even be appetizing or meaningful to them? What will promoters and artist be able to offer them that will entice them to participate in the concert experience? Will the fact that the music they love will simply be performed “live” be enough to get them pay up for a ticket? In the corporate world we give the concept the heady title of a “value add” … i.e. what will be the “hook” be to get them to see value in going to a concert as opposed to something else?


Consider that the movie theater industry has come through a similarly challenging period where they as an industry had to answer the question “with video, DVD rental and cable TV, how do we entice people to actually want to come to a movie theater?”  While I had the boys out, we had a day off in downtown Kansas City and not far from our hotel was completely renovated old movie theater. While it retained the vintage theater facade, probably established in the heyday of movie going in the 40s and 50s, it was a completely modernized experience on the inside. It offered a huge array of food and drink options; smoothies of ANY variety and flavor, not just popcorn and candy but a complete dinner menu and a beer selection to rival your best brew pub. Inside the theater; cutting edge surround audio with incredibly plush, reserved seating, complete with individual subwoofers attached to each seat for the “max-bass” experience. If all of that was not enough, the movie we watched was in 3D. In the end, all of these are “value adds” meant to make the experience better than sitting at home and watching it on DVD or TV and make you feel okay about plopping down your hard earned money to experience it.  


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The modern movie going experience; plush reserved seating and 3D glasses!


So now, compare that to the current concert experience. Where are we going go for our value adds for the future concert experience? Well, given that our little part of the world focuses on the technical aspects, let’s take a look at some of the “value-adds” that have been put in place over the years to elevate the concert experience.


Let’s just talk “production hooks”. I’ll admit it, I’m old enough to remember a time in the mid 70s when I heard an advertisement on the radio for an upcoming concert that; with great excitement, pronounced “the sound system will be flown from the ceiling to ensure that every seat experiences the highest fidelity sound”. Wow! I gotta go hear that! Is anybody shelling out money because the sound systems are flown from the ceiling anymore? How about when moving lights became all the rage in the 80s during the first Genesis tour incorporating Vari-lites. I paid to see it, it was incredibly impressive! Anybody really excited about seeing moving lights anymore? (Not to come off like a stick in the mud, but I might actually pay to go see a big show that boasted “no moving lights – par cans only”). And then there’s video! Man think about the impact that video has had on the concert experience. Set aside video as a creative element for a moment and let’s talk just IMAG, can you imagine going to a shed style venue, or any concert for that matter these days, that did not offer video support of the show for the people sitting very far from the stage? There would be a riot!


Caution! Caution! A topic digression is about to take place!


Speaking of the shed experience, what is up with the current state of support PA systems for the customers seated on the lawn in these venues? As you may or may not be aware, more often than not there is an additional PA system installed in these venues that is responsible for supporting the main PA system provided by the artist. “Mr. & Mrs. concert fan, the quality of your audio experience on the lawn is dependant on the quality and care of this system provided by your local venue.” I have never in my career seen such a poor presentation of technology and lack of competent personnel to handle these systems, as I have witnessed this summer while touring the sheds with Tom. Of course, the irony being that in many cases, more people are seated on the lawn than the reserved seating under the roof. As I was politely told by one of the lawn faithful this summer, “dude the party is on the lawn”


Venue owners; (Not VENUE owners) if you’re listening, PLEASE dedicate some resources to upgrading and maintaining these systems. The fans will thank you and they might even come to the shows a little more often. Don’t believe me? Here is an excerpt from a post on a popular live sound chat site regarding the lawn experience during the current Petty tour. “I have to say, I needed that show to sound good. I have been to so many big shows that were very disappointing sound-wise. I swore off big sheds a LONG time ago … The mix was just so right for TP, and the venue … There seemed to be studio like separation in the mix, but yet it all blended just right.”



The modern day “shed” style venue 


Dare I suggest that good sound quality might just turn out to be a “value add”? It certainly seems to have added value to this person’s experience. If by chance his experience were to go totally viral on the web could it actually drive ticket sales? If someone reading it was on the fence about going to a big show, but discovered via the post that it was a great sounding show, might that sway them to plop down their cash? Could a bad concert experience and a subsequent post be just as damming?


We take audio very seriously in Tom Petty land for every show and I’m shocked at how many local venue techs have told us that rarely does a visiting engineer even go out to listen to the lawn during the day to evaluate it let alone adjust it. It’s kind of like we say at Avid regarding the world of VENUE technology “great sound quality is not a feature it comes with every console.”  It should come with every show too … But I digress …


Alert! The topic digression has ended! We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.


So what might the next big production hook be? Can today’s technology help to add value to the concert going experience and not only draw people in to the “big show” but keep them coming back? What will be our industry’s “Technicolor” or “THX” or “3D”? Will the manufacturers drive the next technological development or will the production companies and creative entities drive it? More importantly will the artist, and in the end the consumer, be willing to pay more money for it? What is keeping fans away from shows today? Is it the quality of the music presentation or the lack of new and interesting production elements? Are all shows starting to look and sound alike? Are there simply too many shows attempting to go out on tour and not enough concert fans to support that number of shows? Or is it just simply down to ticket prices finally hitting some sort of wall?


I’m of the mindset that it’s not as simple as just blaming high ticket prices and put it down to artist or promoter greed; although given some of the ticket prices of seen lately, it certainly has to be at least a contributor. For example, I’ve seen one multi-act stadium tour with a top ticket price of $895.00! Are you kidding me? With artist revenues from CD sales way down, the artists are certainly within their rights to look for revenue from other sources such as concert tickets and merchandising. But can that kind of ticket price be good for the industry as a whole? I don’t know the answer to that for certain, but what I will submit to you here is, that the dramatic growth in the size of the touring production might be as big of a contributor to the ticket price escalation as greed. If you consider the shear quantity and quality of the technology combined with the personnel that comes with it for even a relatively modest tour such as Tom Petty, I’m shocked that ticket prices are not even higher. In Tom’s case it’s a testimonial to his loyalty to his fans along with the fact that he’s been an advocate for keeping prices under control for his entire career. I think his fans are in many ways rewarding him for it this summer. From my perspective, and his fan’s apparently, his “value add” appears to be quality and consistency and at a pretty appetizing ticket price.



7-8 trucks is considered a moderate tour size in 2010


So as you can see, this whole concept of the future of live concerts has me spinning. Gosh, it just dawned on me … I hope live music doesn’t end up where movie production is heading right now with the live music the equivalent of computer generated actors performing on virtual sets. I actually had a conversation the other day with an industry professional who was trying fervently to convince me that even though the animations that we see on screen are computer generated, the animation is created directly from the actor’s movements right down to facial expression, so the animations ARE the actors. And because we see them in the digitally created, lavish backgrounds and sets, we believe the sets are real too. Really? … let me repeat … REALLY?



Really? …


Well, I actually hope I’m long gone from this world by the time we get to the point of having musicians dressed up in infrared suits, connected to computers that animate them playing their instruments so that we can insert them into digitally created stage set. Wow! Think of it, maybe then they could even do the gig against a green screen in their lavish homes, while a 3D rendering of each band member is transmitted to a distant arena full of people. Or worse yet, maybe you would just be able to watch the band members in your own green screen room at your home, pick the band members and place them in which ever venue you wanted to be in for the show!  Whoa! You might even be able create your own super-group (you guys remember those don’t you?) and even choose their wardrobe and what instruments the play! (starting to sound familiar?) Okay, okay, I know … I lost my virtual head for a second. But wait … we would never let that kind of thing actually happen … right? That will NEVER happen right? … anyone … anyone … Bueller?


Uh oh … wait a second … my boys would LOVE that actually …




This is Robert Scovill reporting from the final frontier, boldly going where no man dare go before …



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About Robert Scovill

I am a 30 year veteran of live sound and 6 time TEC Award winner for Sound Reinforcement Engineer. I serve as Senior Market Specialist for live sound for Avid and am currently mixing front of house sound for the 2010 Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers North American Tour.

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