A pro audio roundtable recapping the 2021 festival season

Following a short albeit busy festival season, TPi gathers members of the pro audio industry with representatives from SSE Audio, Wigwam [both part of the Solotech UK Group], DiGiCo and Shure to look back at summer 2021 and the lessons learned on the road to recovery.

Back in early 2021, it seemed unlikely we’d see any outdoor events at all, either in the UK, Europe, or the US. Indeed, many festivals – the UK in particular – began to drop off the calendar due to the ever-moving goalposts of COVID-19 lockdowns. However, with the various test events, from Sefton Park to Download Pilot, the reality of a 2021 season suddenly became plausible.

What followed was an incredibly busy and frantic few months as crew and organisers alike attempted to replicate 2019’s level of productivity in a year when suppliers were struggling to amass crew and gear. Having come out the other side – slightly sleep deprived but otherwise unscathed – we spoke to some of those who were on the front line.

Starting our conversation was Wigwam Hire Manager, Tom Bush and SSE Audio Senior Hire Manager, Dan Bennett. Representing two companies under the Solotech umbrella, they provided a vivid account of the 2021 festival season. Bush began describing the challenges of getting the right kit as the demand went from nought to 60 almost overnight.

“We worked on the Download Pilot, one of the first events to return, and there was real camaraderie amongst everyone involved,” reminisced Bennett. “However, by the end of the summer, everyone throughout the supply chain was struggling to meet expectations and there wasn’t one person who wasn’t up against it.”

Although both Solotech representatives  quick to comment on how pleased they were for the business, they were keen to outline why the last few months were so difficult. “Crew!” stated Bennett plainly, citing the biggest issue he’s faced during this time. “We were still crewing the August bank holiday festivals a week before the show,” he pointed out.

COVID-19 only added to the difficulties. “We had one of the crew prior to a show contracted COVID,” Bennett recalled. “Crewing is so specific, it’s not just a case of dropping in a replacement. If you lose one person, you need to re-organise the whole team to ensure the best people are working in the right position.”

Despite the issues and more than a few sleepless nights, Bennett and Bush pointed out some silver linings to the summer – specifically some of the fresh young talent they discovered. “We had to kick over a few stones to find the right people – especially when it came to the August bank holiday – and we discovered some real gems,” enthused Bennett. “There have been two new recruits who we’ve now brought into the Redditch office off the back of the hard work they put in during the summer festival season.”

Despite picking up a few new upstarts, both Bennett and Bush see this as merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the skills gap emerging in the industry. “You have those at the beginning of their career that have already committed to a university course, and you have some of the older people who might not be able to get another job, but then those in the middle, with transferable skills, have been able to pick up new jobs in this time,” Bennett explained.

He stressed the need for a fast track of training and that the “old-school traditions of bringing someone just to make the tea then one day finally get a shot at a gig will not be fast enough to fill the gap.”

At the other end of the supply chain and sitting in on the call was DiGiCo General Manager, Austin Freshwater and Shure Artist and Entertainment Relations, Jack Drury. “We anticipated that the festival suppliers were going to be under a lot of pressure,” Freshwater began. “We had expected everyone to be a little more forgiving, whereas what we found was that it quickly turned into a mentality of I need it tomorrow.”

He went on to outlined one of the biggest issues that he came across during this time was clients’ reluctance to commit. “We tried the best we could to get ahead of the curve, but while we had the festival season in the UK drumming up, we were also seeing increased demand in America and Russia. All the while with the increased demand, we were also faced with all the issues with the supply chain that has been affecting all manufacturers,” he pointed out. “

The only thing we could do as manufacturers was to put as much stuff in the warehouse as possible,” interjected Drury, explaining the impossible situation the Shure team found themselves in. “Lot of our stock depleted very quickly with the return of festivals and the theatre market. We also began to see a change with production for artists coming directly to us when we usually deal with suppliers such as Solotech directly.”

Drury explained that one of the upsides to this busy period was that he didn’t think Shure had ever been this close to its end users. “We’ve always done a lot with big suppliers, but throughout the pandemic, we made a big drive on training and to be as present as possible, so that when events returned, we’d be able to aid end users in any issues they were facing and deal with problems quickly,” he said. “This festival season showcased the resilience of the industry,” added Freshwater. “I don’t know if anyone could have predicted quite how hard this season was going to be but, despite everything, we pulled it off!”

TPi then asked the inevitable question of what touring was going to look like for the latter part of the year and if any lessons had been taken from the festival runs. “In many ways, we are in a similar boat as we were in festival season in that until we get confirmation, it’s a bit of a gamble and one that’s sadly being felt most by the crew,” explained Bush. “It’s still a risk for someone to commit to a tour when the reality is, you’re on a bus, a new venue each day, with COVID-19 still being a part of the reality. Not to mention, productions must have a plan to replace people if someone gets ill. That said, although touring is not where we would want it to be, we have a bit more structure in place now.”

Bennett was also happy with the roster of clients Solotech had on its books already. “I think we’ve got the lion’s share of work out there, which is a positive message.” He also explained that due to the pragmatism of the Solotech group, the various arms of the business have seen an increase in dry hire demand. “A great deal of small and medium-sized companies are coming to us to hire speakers, desks and cabling as our mentality has been if it’s on the shelf, we might as well make sure it’s being used,” Bennett acknowledged. Festival season also saw Wigwam and SSE Audio both really step up their hygiene and sterilisation practices.

“Microphones should have always been cleaner than they were,” highlights Bennett. “One thing that is almost standard now is UVC cleaners and sprays. Throughout festival season, we’ve adopted a great cleaning protocol to keep artists and crew safe – something that Solotech footed the bill for but will certainly be rolled out on a range of tours and live event productions in the future.”

This article originally appeared in issue #266 of TPi, which you can read here.