At the start of 2020, SSE Audio and its sister companies, Wigwam, Capital Sound and BCS Audio (part of the Solotech Group) in the UK were preparing for another record-breaking year. Spring and summer tours were booked with artists ranging from Stormzy to Frankie Valli, with audiences totalling nearly four million people. In addition, over 60 festivals and outdoor events were booked for audiences totalling a further six million people – that was until the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.
Formed in 1976, SSE Audio has grown rapidly over the last decade, to become one of the largest sound rental contingents in the UK. It has helped to make the UK events production industry the force it is – an industry that contributed an estimated £4.5bn to the UK economy in 2019.
Every tour and event was subsequently cancelled and the sector has remained idle since. The majority of SSE Audio’s staff have been furloughed and while the UK Government’s Job Retention Scheme has been welcomed, it’s starting to be reduced, phasing out altogether by October.
“We operate from six sites in the UK and costs associated with these continue, including rent and business rates – while it seems we are ineligible for any support grants. We still have to keep our multi-million pound rental equipment inventory insured, while it remains idle. All remaining staff and managers who have not been furloughed, have taken a voluntary pay cut. Despite drastic measures to cut expenditure, a business like ours can’t simply turn the costs off,” explained SSE Audio Joint Managing Director, Spencer Beard.
He added: “With the continuing prospect of much reduced income, we have had to take steps to cut down the salary bill, which is why we have started to consult with our staff about redundancies. This is something we find extremely painful, given the underlying strength and success of the business, but to do nothing when there is little prospect of a return to previous levels of work any time soon, simply threatens our long term prospects.”
Managing Director for Sales and Systems Integration, Alex Penn commented: “Recently, the Government announced support for the nation’s cultural sector, aimed primarily at venues such as theatres. While this is very welcome, it doesn’t ease the pressure on businesses like ours. Without the return of audiences to tours, concerts and festivals at levels deemed viable by promoters, our income stream will not follow. We provide many of the UK’s leading summer festivals and these have all been lost. Our projections are based on these returning next summer, although that’s not certain.”
He furthered: “Aside from rental income, our other sources of income are from equipment sales and venue installations. These are both tied in firmly to the live events industry – music venues are unlikely to install new equipment for a considerable time after the pandemic, while their businesses recover. In fact the whole supply chain in one of the UK’s most successful industries is threatened.”
SSE Audio was founded by John and Heather Penn in 1976, as one of number of fledgling rental companies that emerged with the development of the UK music industry. It is a sector that has evolved from the margins of business to become central to the UK economy.
In recent years, SSE Audio has been recognised by its peers, voted Favourite Sound Company at the 2019 and 2020 at the TPi Awards, while John and Heather Penn were acknowledged for their Outstanding Contribution to the industry at TPi Awards in 2018.
SSE Audio Strategic Advisor, John Penn commented: “We have enjoyed unprecedented growth and success over the past decade, but even that does not protect us from the devastating impact on our industry from the COVID-19 pandemic. We have a highly skilled workforce that we are now forced to reduce in size. Looking back over my career I’ve never seen anything like this. Not so long ago at the London Olympics in 2012, the UK production industries were acknowledged for their global reach in that memorable opening ceremony. In 1985, when the call came out to support Live Aid, the industry responded, creating incredible memories as well as funding for famine [relief] in Africa. It’s now our industry that is looking to the Government for support.”