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Backing the band

Sector Focus
8 May 2018
As the live music industry continues to grow, with ever more festivals and stadium shows, specialists in supplying backline – the gear artistes use on stage – have been in a race to keep up with technological advances, not to mention musical trends, diversifying into other services along the way.  Tom Pakinkis reports

 

While the live music business continues to experience rude health, so too do the businesses providing touring artistes with a wide range of backline for those who don’t have their own or need duplicate sets, or events such as multi-act festivals where some artistes share the same gear.

Suppliers are seeing and meeting increased demand for stock, keeping tabs on the latest tech and fulfilling a renewed fondness for retro gear.

Based in Glasgow, ESP Music Rentals provides backline, instruments and DJ equipment, supplying most of Scotland’s festivals, TV stations, promoters and venues, according to the company.

ESP boasts a diverse client base, ranging from Stormzy to composer Max Richter, and has recently hired out to Sting, Kenny Rogers, Lukas Nelson, Shaggy and UB40.

Other clients in the past year include The Beach Boys, Chic and Sister Sledge.

“Business is good right now,” says ESP director Raymond Wilson. “We always start the year off with the successful Celtic Connections festival here in Glasgow, which runs from mid-January to early February.

“We have also supplied backline to performance company Curious Seed for their production of Teenage Trilogy at [arts space] Tramway and DJ equipment for a month at a pop-up venue for the Glasgow launch of Sailor Jerry rum.

“Our move to bigger premises this time last year has allowed us to increase our hire stock and in turn, meet increasing demand for backline and DJ equipment.”

Wilson says that a recent ‘80s revival has seen more requests for vintage backline. “We even had a couple of requests for a double tape deck player recently.”

But, on the other hand, keeping up with the latest technology to meet the demands of DJs is another challenge in itself.

“The vast range of keyboard models available can affect business, for example,” says Wilson. “However, over the years we have built good relationships with other backline companies around the UK, so we are able to sub hire from each other should the need arise.”

Looking to the future, Wilson hopes that live music will continue to bloom and, more practically speaking, that equipment such as amps and cabs will get smaller and lighter.

As for the immediate future, Wilson says, “We could do with increasing our staff to keep up with demand.”

John Henry’s was founded in 1976 and provides a wide range of audio, staging and backline rentals – “everything from baby grand pianos to vintage valve amplifiers,” says rental manager Jason Putter.

Some of the highlights from the year so far include the Queen’s birthday party at the Royal Albert Hall (cap. 5,200), the Hall’s own 100th celebration, the Country To Country Festival at The O2 (21,000) in March and the BRIT Awards.

As far as artistes are concerned, John Henry’s has an impressive client list, including Ed Sheeran, Foo Fighters, Craig David, Sam Smith, Liam Gallagher and Justin Timberlake.

“This is our busiest year yet and long may it continue,” says Putter. “The biggest challenge for us is always keeping up with workload. It’s relentless, but we thrive in the busy periods.

“We are also launching a new website and a new software platform to run our order and stock management, which are massive projects for the business to undertake.

“These projects certainly present big challenges and an aeon of planning and work is going into making them happen.”

Putter also points to constant advancements in tech as far as equipment is concerned.

“We pride ourselves on being the first to stock the latest and best with constant investment into new offerings,” he says. “For example, we have just invested in a Yamaha CL5 72-channel digital console and SD 11 digital console for our audio department, as well as a Yamaha C3X and a Yamaha N3X Avant Grande for our backline department.”

An increase in the number of festivals happening around the country has also meant greater demand for various items of backline and often full sets.

“Yes there are a lot more requests to deal with and it can be a bit of a challenge in terms of getting transport to some of the more remote locations,” says Putter. “But, all in all, the effect is quite positive. The more the merrier.”

He explains that John Henry’s stock grows slowly alongside demand, and each new addition to a supplier’s catalogue of equipment must be properly thought through.

“John [Henry] has a principle whereby, if we get asked for a bit of equipment that we don’t have on two occasions, then we will look into buying it. That’s the protocol and we also like to react quickly.”

 

Wide range

Brighton-based Ooosh Tours offers backline equipment along with a host of other services such as rehearsal rooms, splitter vans and PA hire.

When asked about the kind of clients that Ooosh has provided for recently, director and founder Jon Wood says, “I suppose the headline this year is being the main backline supplier for The Great Escape festival.

“We’re supplying 25 stages of full backline and logistics, plus it’s Brighton Festival for the whole month. Add to that all the usual tours and rehearsal clients and May is always a busy month for us.

“It’s obviously advantageous that we can offer a wide range of services, so when one area might be traditionally a bit quieter, another area might be a bit busier,” he adds.

When Wood is considering current and future challenges to the sector, he actually brings things back to the artiste’s themselves, suggesting that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for new bands to get a foothold in the business.

“Some budgets seem to be tighter than ever and I see a lot of great freelance crew that would usually be out on tour, seemingly having less demand,” he says.

“We have some cheaper splitter vans – like VW Transporters that will still hold a band, backline and merch, but use half the fuel of an LWB Sprinter – and some smaller band gear that can go out for less, but still some people can’t make it work, which is a shame.”

“It’s relentless, but we thrive in the busy periods”

Jason Putter

Military planning

Cato Music has recently provided support to artistes such as Phil Collins, Bastille, Richard Ashcroft, Jamiroquai and Kylie, and will at the start of June, be providing 17 stages of full backline to multi-venue urban festival Camden Rocks in north London.

“It’s like planning a military operation,” says backline manager Phil Manly-Reeves.

Manly-Reeves says that the biggest challenge is keeping up with client demand. “No matter how much new gear we buy, we always seem to need more,” he says.

“We offer everything you’d expect from a backline rental service, from rehearsals, gigs, festivals and tours to video and film shoots. Our comprehensive inventory and friendly staff will see you through, and we also have some lovely specialist items including a rather nice 240v Hammond B3 organ as used by The Who.

“We have had some nice advances with personal IEM [in ear monitor] systems, notably the Allen & Heath QU SB,” he adds. “And we’ve become one of the UK’s first stockists of the revolutionary Shure Axient Digital Microphone system.”

Manly-Reeves also says that amp modellers are getting more popular among artistes but, apart from keeping up with technological evolution, the most important thing is maintaining service.

“We’ve always looked after our clients with the same amount of enthusiasm and expertise,” he says.

Looking to the future, Manly-Reeves doesn’t see his sector undergoing a revolution any time soon, but new tech will improve elements of business. “I think it will fundamentally stay the same,” he says. “Maybe with the implementation of online tracking we can make sure we get the gear back on time.”

 

Festival focus

STS Touring Productions supplies backline for tours, festivals and one-off events with recent clients having included Gregory Porter, Nile Rodgers & Chic, The Waterboys, Black Veil Brides and Ian Anderson.

“Business is strong and the diary is full,” according to the company’s Pete

Dutton, with upcoming projects including Download (105,000) and Common People (30,000), and multi-venue events Live At Leeds and Liverpool Sound City.

“Client demands are still as they have been over the past few years,” says Dutton.

“Top-end tours and festivals want equipment supplied as per their spec, hence investment in backline stocks continue year-on-year.

“Keyboards are the major investment – new models come out regularly and have to be purchased,” he says. “For instance, we have over 30 Yamaha Motif keyboards and the whole line has been discontinued. The new Montage has taken its place and we’ve have to keep up-to-date with a purchase of up to 10 of those.

“The main challenge is keeping on top of buying new equipment and having enough stock to service two or three festivals at any one time. This could mean providing up to 90 separate backlines.”

Apart from keyboards, Dutton says that technological advances in equipment don’t affect the STS business too much – “most artistes want older, classic amplifiers, so the stock types remain constant.”

STS is currently opening a branch in Leipzig, Germany, to service tours starting and finishing in Germany.

“We are stocking that up as we go along,” says Dutton. “At the moment, the European Jethro Tull Tour has taken some stock from [the Leipzig branch]. I would like to see us build that side of the business up further as we approach Brexit. I feel that some stock placed in Germany could be beneficial.”

“It’s like planning a military operation”

Phil Manly-Reeves

Closer relationships

Established by Peter Webber in 1976, Peter Webber Hire has provided backline hire and tour support to acts such as Bob Marley, AC/DC, Missy Elliot, Fugees and Fun Lovin’ Criminals.

The company also works on major events such as the series of concerts at London’s Somerset House and Glastonbury, where it looks after the Rabbit Hole stage.

Last year the company, which is now run by Webber’s son Ben Webber, moved from London to Brighton, and had a change of focus.

“Instead of just hiring out the equipment, we increasingly go on tour with bands running the backline and transport, and even band transport and crewing. It’s more of a one-stop-shop,” he says.

“We like looking after people in a personal way and making sure the equipment is working, as well as the diversity of being on tour. You get to build those relationships with bands and some ask us to provide backline equipment every time they come back.”

Recent Peter Webber Hire clients receiving equipment include The Wailers, De La Soul and Common Kings, with the company focusing increasingly on the reggae market for its services.

“It’s come full-circle, as my dad used to supply to all the reggae artistes when they came to the UK,” explains Webber.

“We also have ideas about opening up a rehearsal studio locally with a venue we already have a connection with.”

 

 

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