01.09.06

A tale of two contractors

AUTHOR: Inavate

By nature a cynical idealist, for more than 30 years, Walter Mirauer has been involved in the design, manufacture and marketing of professional audio equipment. For the last 15 of them however, he has concentrated on writing about it. In his spare time, Walter has spectacularly saved a doomed local pub from oblivion and, at 60, is learning to play the piano.

The backdrop of northern commerce was painted in bold, broad strokes by John Braine in 'Room At The Top', but detailed, dimensionalised, and wryly satirised in the '80's TV series 'Brass'. Ever since those immortal episodes, I cannot help but to notice a hint of Bradley Hardacre in every Yorkshire businessman I meet. The twin subjects of this feature both hail from God's Own County, and the similarities don't stop there, consider; one, Richard Lockyer, runs a company called The Sound Business, while the other, Miles Marsden, fronts a business called The Music Company. Both outfits are long-established installation contractors. Both trade on a nationwide and international basis. Both are meticulous in their approach to the job or, as we would say in Yorkshire, bordering on obsessive about it. Raised within a culture where it truly matters where you buy your fish and chips, imagine just how seriously these guys take their life's work. Lest you think I jest, a glance at their corporate and personal CV's, at lists of their many achievements would quickly tell you that, when it comes to professional audio and vision installations and related services, these are serious players. With so much in common, and based less than 20 miles from each other, it is perhaps surprising that, commercially, their paths seldom cross. Let me speed you through their individual operations and backgrounds, examining the divergence before remarrying them in ultimate unison. Lockyer first.

The main thrust of Richard Lockyer's business today, and its specialism, is the provision of business music and the systems which deliver it, mostly for retailers, from high street to back street, from boutiques and bistros to Michelin starred eateries. It wasn't always like this. It is around thirty years since Richard gave up his day job as a British Telecom engineer, and his evening job as a mobile DJ and, as they say, turned professional. He called his company Audio Visual Systems, perhaps by so doing, hoping to place a foothold in both camps, but despite this ploy, it was the audio side of the business which yielded most of the work, a pattern which continued well into the 1990's, reflected by a change of name to The Sound Workshop.

During the first twenty years, Richard's companies became principal players in the specialised fields of bingo and the fitting and kitting of sound and lighting systems for cruise liners. In those early years, things like zoning mixers, fire alarm interfaces, voice evacuation systems, automatic and switchable prioritisation, sound-light interfaces that actually worked and many of the goodies we take for granted today simply didn't exist as off-the shelf options; they had to be built, often from scratch, and so the contractor's role as interface between the customer's needs and wishes and the technological possibilities was crucial.
Today some would say that this particular aspect of a contractor's role has become less important. Neither Richard, nor I suspect, Miles would agree with this. It is now precisely because there are so very many options that the skill of the contractor in interpreting and delivering the client's brief remains paramount. Both would accept the received wisdom that there's more than one way to skin a cat, but both would also likely add that, for all that, there is only one right way. This is not ego, it is expertise. It is worth money because it saves money and it helps to make money too. Sharp retailers know this, and there are few sharper, especially in their practices, than high street fashion chains. Theirs is a cut-throat business. I suspect that, beyond very basic style and look issues, they do not much care about the actual sound equipment used in their stores, but that they do care very much about the music being played and its contribution to the overall in-store ambience. This all suits Richard very nicely since he is the
U.K. distributor for Alcas, Europe's largest business music provider. Alcas, in turn is the European agent for Muzak, which is now light years away from the elevator and departure lounge wallpaper music of yesteryear which endowed the brand with pejorative status. Through Alcas, the Music Business' customers can access more than a million tracks (digital, natch) via four different types (and several differently featured models) of delivery vehicle, including ADSL and satellite. The music might be worldwide, ubiquitous even, but cultural differences are still important. As Richard points out, "Alcas supply the music to most of the bars in Amsterdam (they are based in Naarden, so it's their home turf), and a lot of them have touch screens for the customers to select their own programme choices. In England, we tend to hide the players away, and we seem not to want the staff, customers, or anyone else to have access to choice."
Let me share another Lockyer observation with you. "Harvey Nichols probably comes closer to epitomising upmarket, sophisticated retailing in Britain than just about anyone, yet, if you walk around their Manchester store, you'll hear all sorts of music being played, a lot of it garbage of the staff's choosing, dished up by ghetto blasters, and different in almost every concession or area. It doesn't make sense, does it?"
Paul Smith and Miles Marsden's operation, T.M.C., started life as First Audio during the discotheque and theme bar boom of the 1980's, essentially functioning as the technical, pro-audio wing of the then-burgeoning First Leisure Corporation. Although that relationship persists to this day with various dismembered limbs of that corporation, Paul and Miles decided early on that they needed to establish a more independent identity and created The Music Company. The current abbreviation to
T.M.C. reflects the broader scope and ambition of the business as it is today. T.M.C. incorporates a sales operation, hire and vision segments in addition to its role as a major installation contractor. Like Richard Lockyer, the partners pride themselves on their ability to bring into being optimum realisations of their clients' briefs. Customers are buying know-how as well as equipment, and the products offered and chosen have been rigorously vetted to ensure not only peak performance-for-price, but also reliability and durability.

This is particularly important to T.M.C. because they employ their own direct labour across all areas of their operation, including service. They are probably too modest to say this, but I'm not and I can, and I think it is fair to say that theirs is a company where service is not a department but an ethos. Living, as they and many of their clients do, at the cutting edge of the entertainment technology business often involves them in cooperative product development projects with manufacturers. T.M.C has a rolling 3-year contract with Leeds City Council for its outdoor concert events and has pioneered the use of many newly-introduced high performance products. Closer to home, they have recently completed a 15 x 8m giant LED screen for Bradford City Council, which involved the design and construction of a custom all-weather lightweight aluminium housing. Having established themselves as the leading force in high-tech dance floor venues, the expansion into themed bars and other entertainment based outlets was a natural progression, and this has been reflected by their hire activities too, with product launches, major conferences and theatrical touring events providing dynamic growth. As Miles points out, "It is when it gets bigger than a Bose-on-a-stick function that we have a strong shout. But, it is sometimes frustrating that we don't have sufficient, direct contact with the client to be able to offer them the best possibilities and results." This is quite different from the situation in contract installations where they are accustomed, almost as a matter of course, to work closely with clients, architects and fellow professionals. This is all quite understandable. Many, if not most hire clients will not be familiar with the latest products, what they cost and what they can do. Especially large, multinational corporates will look for a one-stop total events management package, a turnkey solution, and this leaves the audio and vision specialist working with a middleman. This, as well as the increasingly multi-media nature of the entertainment industry as a whole, is what has driven Paul and Miles to extend and expand the range and scope of their activities. The hallmark of their activities is surely attention to detail. This makes a minor anomaly on their website all the more amusing. If you turn to their list of case studies (impressive and wide-ranging as it is), your eye might very well be caught by the section on the touring stage show, The Vagina Monologues. The pictorial reference to this reads, (bottom middle). Shouldn't that be (front bottom)?

As I write this, Pioneer have just announced the forthcoming launch of a cutting edge product, one with many applications, the DVJ-1000 DVD/CD player. Over the next few weeks leading up to the PLASA show in London, 10th-13th September, there will be several other important innovations. Contractors like these will be able to pick out for you the benefits, rather than leave you to wade through lists of often meaningless features. When it comes to the successful application of entertainment technology, whether its music for business or the business of music, the expert contractor holds the key.