A look behind-the-scenes at succeeding in the live event business. This article originally appeared in the September 2014 edition of Live Sound International.
A light summer rain was falling as I entered the grounds of the Buckle-Up Festival, a three-day, six-stage country music event in mid July held on the banks of the Ohio River in the Sawyer Point region of downtown Cincinnati.
It’s a beautiful setting for this first-ever festival, and also served as the site of the Bunbury Music Festival the week prior that featured a variety of rock performances.
My first goal was locating Grant Cambridge, the managing director of Event Enterprises, which serves as the production company for both festivals. Eventually we both arrived behind the Main Stage front of house position, covered by a tent intended to provide shade from the summer sun but now serving a vital role in warding off the steady drizzle.
Making A Go
Upon graduating from Ohio University in Athens in 2003 with degrees in audio production and music, Cambridge started working free-lance audio gigs in the Cincinnati area, where he’d grown up. The work began to come more steadily, so he bought out a small local recording studio, essentially for the live gear that included a small PA and a couple of mixers.
A steady affiliation with the MidPoint Music Festival, an indie music event held annually in late September, led to strong ties with festival organizer Bill Donabedian, who’s gone on to found Bunbury and now Buckle Up festivals. “It goes to show the value of business relationships,” Cambridge notes. “And even though Bill eventually sold the MidPoint festival, we’re still a vendor for them as well.”
He continued with a “day job” to supplement his income through 2009, eventually reaching a point where he could see making a go of working sound full time. It came down to having acquired consistent repeatable business combined with enough new prospects to make it a realistic pursuit. He marks January 1, 2010 as the official start of his full-time venture, christening it Event Enterprises.
Next came the process of building the business while still staying busy enough (and liquid enough financially) to pay the bills. Acquiring additional inventory was essential to the plan of becoming a full-service audio (as well as backline and lighting) provider and rental house, but he resisted the urge to go on a gear splurge, taking a more calculated approach.
“Believe it or not, the recession actually kind of helped our business,” he says. “Some folks were getting in over their heads on gear, so I kept my eyes open for opportunities.”
For example, a church that had overextended itself led to the “right price” for a barely used compact main system comprised of NEXO GEO S8 line arrays, CD12 cardioid subwoofers and NX Series processors. And he smiles while recalling driving a box truck roundtrip to Nashville the day after Thanksgiving to pick up NEXO Alpha E full-range boxes as well as some processors.
By 2012, Event Enterprises occupied a small shop and began adding staff, as well as working with a host of free-lancers, to keep up with a growing client base.
The Cincinnati market for production is showing growth, Cambridge notes, with a steady increase in festivals and street fairs offering live entertainment that requires production. The Major League Baseball All-Star game (and all of the festivities that surround it) is coming to the city next year.
There’s also a strong arts community with world-class symphony, ballet and opera, several theaters that host a steady schedule of live performances, and a new casino in the city along with several others within an hour of downtown.
Despite the optimistic outlook, Cambridge stresses careful planning. “As a business owner, I’m looking at how to make more from our existing inventory, and every decision to add inventory must be carefully considered.
What to spend, how much to spend, what it’s going to mean over the long-term—these factors have to be analyzed,” he says, adding that his father, an engineer with a great head for numbers, has been exceptional in mentoring him on the power of the spreadsheet to carefully track costs such as depreciation and taxes.
It’s perhaps a bit of a different future than he imagined when coming out of college with two degrees but just a single (required) economics class under his belt.
Yet the delicate dance between plying the audio trade and being informed on matters of commerce is essential for those seeking to also run the business.
“We’re in a simple supply and demand industry,” he states. “That’s what drives the decisions. The goal is to have every band and every engineer show up for every gig, look over what you’re supplying, and say “Great. We’ll sound good today.”
NEXO and Yamaha Commercial Audio have proven to fit very well into this vision, he adds. “They’re extremely supportive and very available, and we really appreciate it. You can easily reach informed people on the phone, even on their cell phones at odd hours, when you have a question or a need. They’re really strong on training, and have even helped us in reconfiguring our amp/processing racks for different systems and scenarios.”
He also shares an anecdote about a time when a couple of processors malfunctioned the day before a gig, with the company shipping replacements overnight with no questions asked except a follow-up inquiring if the situation was back on track. “There are some other factors in play with Yamaha and NEXO, such as rider-friendliness, and the gear is very affordable in terms of what you’re getting for your money,” he says. “This type of 1-2-3 punch is what has gotten and held our attention.”
Walking The Grounds
Cambridge points to Yamaha consoles as fitting very well within his company’s worldview. “It’s exactly what you need. Solid, reliable, a load of functionality in a package that most folks are familiar with, and of course, great sound quality. Also efficient to pack, and kind to the budget.”
Event Enterprises has invested in Yamaha M7 and LS9 digital consoles, and continues to see a great return of them, and is now looking to the future with the CL and the new QL Series. In fact, every stage at both Buckle-Up and Bunbury had a Yamaha board for house and monitor mixing, accompanied by Rio stage boxes.
Cambridge notes, a bit wistfully, that he hasn’t had a chance to mix on one of the new QL consoles yet due to being occupied with management duties. “But the feedback from all of the engineers who’ve used the QL consoles here is that they’re digging them,” he adds. “The similarities and consistency with the other Yamaha consoles is great, while having the new effects packages and other advantages means more tools in a friendly, familiar package.”
Despite the misting rain that continued to fall (it thankfully ceased toward evening), we visited each stage to experience the various systems and take in several performances. The Amphitheatre Stage, sunken into a “concrete bowl,” was outfitted with the aforementioned Alpha E loudspeakers, and while they’re an “older” technology, they can still get it done.
Moving along, the Lawn Stage was flanked by the (also aforementioned) GEO S8 arrays, groundstacked on the wings next to the CD12 cardioid subs, while the performances on the humble Acoustic Stage were appropriately amplified with a couple of EAW KF Series loudspeakers. The River Stage, literally on the north bank of the Ohio River, presented another concrete bowl setting, with JBL VerTec arrays subcontracted from a local vendor flying left and right.
We next stopped by front of house at the Bud Light Stage, chatting with Nicholas Radina, who was providing mixes on a Yamaha QL5, feeding a PA with 10 NEXO GEO S12 modules per side, flown, with eight NEXO RS18 “Ray Gun” subwoofers placed equidistantly on the deck in front of the stage.
All loudspeakers were driven by NXAMP (4 x 4) DSP/amplifiers. Another QL5 was posted stage right for monitors, with both consoles networked with Rio stage boxes.
“The new Yamaha QL5 is a joy to use,” Radina tells me. “A marked improvement in overall sound quality, and I also enjoy the premium effects and additional rack spaces and wonderful routing over the Dante network. Custom fader layers make visiting band engineers feel right at home. Well done, Yamaha.”
In February of this year, Cambridge began talking with John Mills, VP of Morris Light and Sound in Nashville, about the NEXO STM system in general, and more specifically, about the possibility of supplying an STM rig to serve the Main Stage at both Buckle Up and Bunbury. Morris had added a large-scale STM system last year and deployed it for Kenny Chesney’s North American tour.
“I wanted to do some ‘detective work’ on the system in a real working environment, see it up close—how it packs and comes off of a truck, how it goes together—all of the things you don’t get to see if you just go to a show,” Cambridge explains. “Morris is a known entity and I was quite confident the system would sound great, so I was also looking to network, define a partner to work with from a gear standpoint as well as learn from their considerable expertise.”
Those conversations came to fruition, with the Nashville company delivering an STM rig, S118 subs, and NXAMPs for both festivals. Specifically, main left and right arrays were made up of a dozen M46 main modules mated with B112 bass modules.
The system concept enables building line arrays that scale up or down depending on the application, and in addition to the main and bass modules, the S118 subbass module, sharing the same footprint as the other two, can also be utilized in arrays.
Mills was also on hand to serve as system engineer, demonstrating assembly, answering questions, and performing final tuning. “I saw how easily John and the crew were able to get it dialed in,” Cambridge says. “That was impressive, as well as how far it could throw and how it sounds.”
Yamaha CL5 consoles were posted at front of house and monitors, networked with Rio stage boxes. Other consoles could be easily swapped in when requested by certain artists and engineers, and there was also an analog snake as a back-up.
“Several guest engineers have tracked me down just to tell me how great it all sounds,” he says. “With the STM rig, I really like the modularity, the way the individual modules can be scaled for any situation—big, small, unusual—whatever the gig calls for.
“There are a lot of efficiencies there. It’s very organized and packaged well. For a company like mine, this could be quite valuable, where every day presents a different type of gig. The flexibility is very attractive to a business of our type.”
I received the final word from John Mills: “The team at Event Enterprises are an amazing group. Grant’s a pleasure to work with, and as ever-changing as the details of a festival go, he’s always on top of finding an answer for us. He and his team are all very professional and work extremely hard.”
By Keith Clark, Editor in Chief of ProSoundWeb and Live Sound
International. This article originally appeared in the September
2014 edition of Live Sound International (pdf) (direct link)