Friday, January 27, 2017

Where Did the Audience Go?

In the last month, I’ve participated in two conversations about how difficult it is to find and maintain an audience: one with a bookstore owner who has struggled to find an audience for and participants in his store’s monthly “open mic” and the other with an “acoustic musician” who believes the US is no longer supportive of “good” live music. The one thing both of these men have in common is that they are unwilling to give up their addiction to their sound systems and unnecessary/excessive volume. I’ve written about this before, in “Killing Music Loudly,” and I’ll probably beat this horse again. However, these two conversations reminded me of an incident from 40 years ago that stuck with me because of its relevance to my own live musical history.

When Wirebender Audio was in its prime, there were two of us: Dan and me. Dan’s special interest was loudspeaker cabinet design. Between our dissatisfaction with commercially available speaker systems of the time (1976-1982) and his fascination with recent developments in loudspeaker and speaker cabinet theory, our company deviated from just being a user and vendor into system design and sales. Over a period of a couple years, Dan made one great sound system after another. We were on a Biamp craze, amplification and mixer-wise (Remember the Biamp 1642 and the TC-120 and TC-225’s? They needed a lot of mechanical engineering and some component replacement,for reliability, but they were well designed for their price-point.) and some of those systems were just huge audiophile rigs. Dan was particular enamored with front-loaded, non-horn, non-vented systems, which are notoriously inefficient, but very high-fidelity. Likewise, our systems were some of the cleanest, quickest sound systems I’ve yet experienced. Repeatedly, after Dan would wrap up a system and take it out the band he’d be working with would buy the whole system and he’d have to start over. Not a bad problem to have as a systems designer. Eventually, he built what became his “ultimate” system, using everything he’d learned in every area of system design. On a budget, I like to think a lot of what Dan ended up with resembles much of the Meyer Sound system designs.

Coincidentally, we were recording a power-pop band that he really liked and when their record was finished he did a few shows with the band at local Lincoln, NE clubs to showcase their music. In one of the more upscale clubs in town, Dan met his Waterloo. During the first set, when he’d dialed in everything beautifully and the band was cooking, the bartender kept coming back to the FOH position and telling Dan to “make it louder.” It was pretty loud in the first place, being an early 80’s rock band with the usual collection of Fender, Marshall, and Orange amps on the stage, but the bartender insisted it wasn’t loud enough. Dan brought it up incrementally, but knowing the limits of his system and trying to stick with his quality sound concept he didn’t bring it up nearly loud enough for the bartender.

During a break, the bartender and owner ganged up on Dan and explained their philosophy with words something like this, “When the music sounds good, the crowd is a bunch of music lovers. They don’t drink or tip much and we don’t make any money. Crank it up, drive those cheap bastards out and make room for the drunks. They don’t care what it sounds like, as long as it’s loud, and they’ll drink until they drop.” Dan did push the system a little harder, the music got crappier, the audience morphed into brainless drunks, and the night went on.

Afterwards, Dan lost interest in live music speaker system design. After a few really great non-rock gigs with the University of Minnesota orchestra and a couple of outdoor musical performances, he sold that last system and told me he’d had enough of what we were doing. He didn’t like the commercials we were making most of our money doing and he’d lost interest in sound system design and live sound engineering. We packed up the company, after selling the last 100 of our “Musician’s Preamp” product and finishing the recordings we’d committed to, and went our separate ways. Dan became a tech school electronics instructor and stayed as far from popular music as possible for the rest of his life. I moved to Omaha, built a small production studio for a friend and went to work for a company that owned Aarakis Systems, building broadcast consoles and A/V switching systems. A year later, I was in California working for QSC Audio Products, doing live sound for a 9-piece horn band, and hustling Wirebender as a backline supplier, studio equipment and electronic musical instrument repair service, and contract audio and industrial electronics design service.

The lesson learned that would, today, apply to those two conversations that inspired this trip down Memory Lane is that the problem may be that you have both misidentified your audience. The bookstore isn’t trying to attract drunks and the acoustic musician isn’t trying to appeal to people who shout “Freebird” at every pause in the music. However, the quality of your sound system is exactly aimed at that audience. The bookstore, for example, isn’t large enough to warrant a sound system at all. Most of the people who used to attend the bookstore’s open mic have been punished enough by kids who imagine that more volume hides imperfections. They’ve decided that suffering through the loud awful stuff for the occasional loud decent stuff isn’t worth the effort. The acoustic musician isn’t acoustic at all. I’ve check out his YouTube performances and he is always surrounded by at least two stage wedges and he’s highly electrified. Yeah, he plays a beat up hipster’s acoustic guitar, but it’s plugged-in and so is he. With those monitor demands, the FOH has to be painfully loud for any bandwidth to exist out front. Again, he’s misunderstanding his target audience. He imagines himself to be a weird combination of Leo Kottke and Eric Clapton, but he’s neither and the audience he is best suited for would be more Kottke and no Clapton. Volume is the enemy of both of these guys, but they don’t know it, won’t accept it, and it will continue to defeat their objectives until they figure it out.

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Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.