FEATURE: Do You Level Best: After Some Sound Issues at High-Profile Gigs, Is This Something That Will Put Off Music Fans?




Do You Level Best


PHOTO CREDIT: @viennachanges/Unsplash 

After Some Sound Issues at High-Profile Gigs, Is This Something That Will Put Off Music Fans?


I realise that there are thousands of gigs…


 IN THIS PHOTO: Janet Jackson/PHOTO CREDIT: Jeff Kravitz

around the world every year and there are very few big sound problems! To be fair, I have only been to a couple of gigs where the sound quality has been pretty poor. I raise the question because, after watching a weekend of Glastonbury two much-hyped artists were let down by sound problems. The situation with Janet Jackson was a little odd. It seemed, for a lot of her set, she was miming but it is clear there were problems with head headset and live sound. Some of her songs were turned down and the whole set could have been a lot slicker and less maligned if there was better sound. I am not sure what happened in that case but it is obvious Jackson was not happy – even if she did keep her professional façade and did not lash out. The same cannot be said, to an extent, for Lauryn Hill. Her anticipated set was let down with some very obvious sound hitches. It seemed like, through her set, Hill was signalling to the sound technician and was pretty annoyed. It was upsetting to see these two great artists have to suffer through some sound struggles. I guess these things happen and you cannot have everything running smoothly at a festival like Glastonbury. It was understandable Jackson and Hill were not happy with the situation and, on social media, the backlash was pretty intense.

I caught most of Lauryn Hill’s set and it seemed like she recovered to an extent, but Jackson’s set was fraught with volume and clarity issues throughout. I tipped her as a potential headliner and was excited to watch her perform. Whilst she did fuse together some of her biggest hits without dropping a step, the fact we could not hear so much of that was being performed left a sour taste. I was watching the tweets come through and there was not a great deal of love for Jackson. It was not something she could have foreseen and I do wonder what would have been if the sound was perfect – would she have received a much warmer reception? It is debatable whether perfect sound would have transformed both sets from average to world-class because, for both performers, other criticisms were levied. I do feel like the fact they were both women – and there was not sure a severe sound issue for male performers – has created a rather nasty reaction on Twitter. I saw a post that highlighted gender imbalance and the need for more women on the bill. Some, reacting to Janet Jackson’s sound problems particularly, were using that as ammunition against the claim – why would we want more women performing when this sort of thing happens?! Again, one cannot blame the performers for the technical faults and it was very bad timing it happened at a world-wide event like Glastonbury.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Lauryn Hill/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Image

Both Lauryn Hill and Janet Jackson will keep touring and the sets at Glastonbury, in terms of the problems, will be forgotten. I am watching Kylie Minogue perform right now and, fortunately, she has no sound issues to deal with. Let’s hope the love she is getting means that, yes, we can start considering female artists as headliners. How can one resist Minogue and the sort of reception she is getting right now?! I can appreciate one cannot make everything go according to plan all of the time but so many fans of Jackson and Hill were left short-changed and disappointed. If you have saved and paid big money to see these artists particularly then one can appreciate their grievance when they have to watch a set blighted by sound problems. One can jump right to the joke that met news that Spice Girls fans complained of sound issues. Many were saying that, sure, the songs themselves are sound issues! It is a cruel jibe but, after this much-touted and built reunion, to have not one but two gigs fall flat because of sound problems seems a bit much. Again, if the Spice Girls have a lot more big gigs in the future, are people going to avoid going because they do not want to risk having a bad experience?! This report talked about the sound issues back in May:

Fans have complained of sound issues for the second time on the Spice Girls' reunion tour.

The pop group's performance on Monday evening at the Principality Stadium did not go down well with some attendees, who claimed they could not hear the music properly.

It comes after similar problems were reported during their opening concert at Dublin's Croke Park on Friday night.

After disgruntled fans who paid £96 for tickets vented their anger online, Mel B acknowledged the issues and said she hoped "the vocals and the sound will be much, much better".


 IN THIS PHOTO: The Spice Girls/PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Timms/PA Wire

Again, the Spice Girls have had plenty of gigs where they did not struggle with sound, but the fact that two massive gigs had to get criticism is a bit worrying. This BBC article, reacting to Spice Girls’ problems, theorised what might be behind the sound worries – and stated there are other acts who have had their share of bad luck:

But it's not just the Spice Girls who have suffered from sound issues this week.

The Strokes were beset by problems when they played their first UK show in four years at the All Points East festival in London on Saturday, with one fan comparing the gig to "underwater karaoke".

The audience was filmed chanting "turn it up" during their set, while another festival-goer complained: "If you want to replicate the experience of going to @allpointseastuk put your laptop volume on 50% and stand two rooms away".

Over the last few years, outdoor shows by Eminem, The Killers, Blur and Paul Simon have all been criticised for low volume and poor audibility.

So what's going wrong? We asked some of the industry's leading sound experts.

"With a huge pop band, quite often the most important thing is the set, it's the lights, it's the video, it's the choreography," he says.

"So even though we design speaker systems by computer - if we can't put our speakers in the right place because of video screens, or because of walkways, or the stage, it makes it harder".

It is understandable that a lot needs to be considered when dealing with a huge show. There are set and lighting decisions but one feels sound is top of the agenda. People are there to HEAR the acts play and, if some lights fail or there is a choreography issue, is it as damning and noticeable as sound issues? I do not think so. Other problems can be styled out and some might not notice but, with sound, everyone there is impacted.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Timms/PA Wire

The article goes into depth regarding logistics and how it is hard to figure out all the sound logistics – especially if artists are mobile and go in and out of the audience:

Allan, who's also a live sound specialist for technology company AVID, points out that the Spice Girls have a particular problem because they spend a large proportion of the show on walkways in the middle of the crowd - putting them in front of the speakers.

"And what happens if you have a microphone in front of a speaker? It feeds back. That's just basic physics.

"So that's the challenge in a show like that - the girls are in front of the speakers, they're dancing, they're not giving all of their attention to the singing.

"But it's an old roadie cliché: At the end of the day, nobody goes home humming the lights".

Do venues and the spaces artists are playing make a difference? In the case of Glastonbury, the sets were outdoors and they were physical. Janet Jackson and Lauryn Hill were both pretty energised and it is difficult, I guess, to nail sound when you have such a vast space. Stadiums and large venues, it seems, are naturally tricky customers:

Dublin's Croke Park and Cardiff's Principality Stadium, which were the first two stops on the Spice Girls' tour, "are notoriously horrible for sound", says stage designer Willie Williams, who is best known for his work with U2.

"They're not ideal on many levels, never mind sonically."

The problems with playing music in sports stadiums are well known, agrees Scott Willsallen, an Emmy Award-winning sound designer who has worked on multiple Olympic and Commonwealth Games ceremonies.

PHOTO CREDIT: @bantersnaps/Unsplash 

"In an auditorium that's built for amplified sound, most of the surfaces are pretty soft and fluffy, so any sound that's fired at them is absorbed; whereas a stadium is meant to reflect those sounds to make it more exciting for the crowd.

"The reverberation that helps make a sporting event really exciting makes a mess of the intelligibility of a concert."

There are ways around it, says Willsallen, who has even gone to the expense of hanging drapes around stadiums to absorb echoes and reverberations.

"It's an exercise that can be done - but in that touring world, where it's such a quick turnaround between venues, I imagine that's a tricky bit of economics".

Maybe weather also play a role. Did the high humidity make an impression on the sound regarding the uncomfortable Glastonbury sets? I think that a combination of events contributed but there was a lot of heat in the air. That said, other acts were fine so it is difficult analysing the wreckages. If you have loud crowds then the noise of the people can drown the sound and make life difficult for sound technicians. One might say that these are a few isolated incidents and, like plane crashes, there is magnification because of the number of people affected – even though these things happen extremely rarely. Maybe that is a bad analogy but you get what I mean: we are not talking about this every day of the year!


 PHOTO CREDIT: David Levene/The Guardian

It is not only the Spice Girls, Janet Jackson and Lauryn Hill who have recently had to deal with sound complaints. This article from The Guardian discusses sound problems at a recent Fleetwood Mac gig:

When Virginia Board found out her favourite band, Fleetwood Mac, were playing Wembley Stadium this month, she knew she had to be there. She was so keen that she was prepared to pay £680 for four tickets, and to travel from Bristol for what she hoped would “be a once-in-a-lifetime experience – something I’d remember forever”.

But what happened on the night left her in tears, and ultimately demanding her money back.

Board was just one of a number of unhappy punters – there were so many complaints about the sound quality on social media that several news outlets, including Metro and the Evening Standard, ran stories on the issue. Board says when support act the Pretenders started their set, it was clear there was a major problem.

“There was a lot of sound reverberation, echoes and just a jumble of instruments. I hoped it would improve when Fleetwood Mac came on, but it didn’t. It was awful and certainly not what you’d expect when you pay £170 for a ticket,” she says.

Alexis Petridis, the Guardian’s head rock and pop critic, said in his review of the gig that “the sound at Wembley ... tonight recreates the experience of trying to listen to Fleetwood Mac with your head submerged in a tureen of soup”. So it would appear something may have been amiss”.

PHOTO CREDIT: @thisisramiro/Unsplash 

What does one do when they have shelled out a lot of money to see a gig like this? Although complaints at these gigs are not necessarily widespread (most will grin and bear it), those who have been affected need to know their rights:

Consumer advice lawyers have told Money that concerts are no different to any other service and must be provided with “reasonable care and skill”, but promoters will often bat away claims in the hope that the consumer will give up.

Citizens Advice makes clear on its website that when it comes to events such as concerts and festivals, “you should complain if there’s a problem with the quality of the sound”. It says you should first contact the ticket seller or venue for a refund.

However, consumer law expert Jonathan Silverman from London law firm Laytons says his advice would be to bring a small claim against the promoter rather than the ticket seller.

“When you have paid to go to a concert, there is a reasonable expectation that you should be able to hear it. When you have paid £170 for a ticket, that expectation is even greater. If the promoter has failed to provide the concert it promised with reasonable care and skill, concertgoers have the right to be recompensed,” he says.

He advises claimants to produce as much “objective” evidence as they can, such as social media posts or press reviews. It would be up to the court to decide what proportion of the ticket price would be payable in compensation, he says”.

 PHOTO CREDIT: @purzlbaum/Unsplash

I have massive respect for sound technicians and know how hard they have to work. They have such a crucial role and they are often responsible for making sure these epic gigs sounds crisp and flawless – often to tens of thousands of people. I am anxious enough putting out blog posts without many mistakes but I know there are not thousands relying on me and, to be fair, nobody gives two sh*ts if I mess up! Venue organisers need to make sure the decibel level from performers is not too intense and there are reasons why gigs can sound bad. I know we live in a high-tech world where we can listen to perfect audio all of the time but there is a difference between a couple of glitches during a set and some pretty major sound problems. There was a lot of negative press after the gigs where the Spice Girls faced problems and, after Fleetwood Mac’s same nightmare, one got the feeling that lightning would not strike again so quickly! The fact there were two big sets at Glastonbury with sound problems might not seem big in the grand scale but it sort of piles on from these other gigs. That loop continues and I return to my point whether gig-goers will be put off after these experiences and whether the artists involved are bearing too much of the brunt (the hostility aimed at Janet Jackson was especially galling to see).

 PHOTO CREDIT: @josephtpearson/Unsplash

There is a line we need to draw between the expectations of fans and the scope of sound issues. Fans will react especially angrily to sound problems because they pay a lot of money, have to travel and are caught up in the heat and rabble of a gig. If you look at these sound-blighted gigs in hindsight then are they as bad as we assume at the time? Maybe not but there has this been this chain of bad luck affecting some huge gigs; where people have paid a lot of money so they are entitled to complain. I did stipulate how there are numerous facts that affect sound during a gig so one can never prevent all issues. The weather is always capricious and fans’ noise will cause some natural issues regarding audio clarity. I do think large venues and festivals need to look at the cases involving Janet Jackson and Fleetwood Mac and learn lessons from them. Are there ways to override sound issues, sort of like a back-up generator? Can we run more stringent tests on sound equipment and can venues be adapted so that fewer problems arise? I know there will be the odd gig where technical bloopers cause disappointment but one has to feel recent gigs have opened eyes. I would hate to go to a Fleetwood Mac gig or a Janet Jackson set and, after building up my excitement, struggle to hear what is being sung. It would taint my love of live music and that is not really fair on me or any other fan. Whilst solutions are hard and it might take time to examine what happened in the cases of the Spice Girls and Fleetwood Mac, I do think avoiding further cases is key. The artists and fans want perfect communication, harmony and connection and so, when the sound goes bad, that breaks the bond. I do not think most live music fans will be put off by some much-reported sound/gig troubles but it is clear that some…

PHOTO CREDIT: @kylewongs/Unsplash

HAVE already been put off and affected.