Despite their different zip codes, backgrounds and equipment preferences, every one of these six sound companies quickly jumped to the same ex-planation when asked about what makes them successful: It’s the people they hire.
“We invest in people,” Bobby Brantley says emphatically. “I say this again and again, you can have the best gear out there, but if you don’t have the right people behind the gear, you’re starting with one hand behind your back.”
“I think it’s the people we hire that help us stick out,” echoes Roy
Kircher of Austin’s Big House. “It’s as important as the gear.”
It’s hard to disagree — or argue with the success — of that. Yet obviously, the “people” part of the equation must start at the top. Selected by their peers, these six companies are honored as standouts in their region. They are:
Midwest: Great Lakes Audio
Northwest: Carlson Audio
Southwest: Big House Sound
Southeast: Brantley Sound Associates
Northeast: Firehouse Productions
Canada: Sound Arts
Out of all these honorees, one will receive the Parnelli Award for Hometown Hero in Orlando, Fla., at the gala award event on Nov. 16. The Parnelli is the industry’s highest honor for live event professionals. (For more information on the Parnellis and to make your reservation, go to www.parnelliawards.com.)
Great Lakes Sound
Bill Robison was installing small sound systems for bars and working with local bands when he founded Great Lakes Sound in 1985. Today, they have ten full-time employees and serve corporate, music, sporting, theatrical and festival clients. Their reach has expanded beyond the Midwest, and they’ve grown into a full-service company handling lighting needs as well.
“About a year and a half ago, we started focusing on the business end of things,” says Vice President Todd Mitchell. “Not only audio and light, but also staging and a store that sells equipment.”
Mitchell, who has been with the company since 1997, says that while they go as far as St. Louis and Phoenix, Toledo continues to be their biggest market, followed by the tri-state area that includes Michigan and Indiana. “We do a lot of nonprofit fundraisers, and as Toledo has a lot of big in-surance companies here, we handle many corporate events. Also we do about 90% of the larger festivals around here.”
At Great Lakes, they keep their eye on the ball: “We have a creative staff here and we just stay on top of things. We don’t focus on what other peo-ple are doing; we focus on what our markets need, what our customers want.” A solid foundation, a diversified customer base and a passion for what they do are all key to their success. Also, respect is important.
“We have a lot of good allies, and we try not to burn any bridges,” Mitchell says. “We try to maintain friendships with everyone in the area.”
The future entails Great Lakes making things better, bigger and maintaining the infrastructure of the organization. “We follow Bill’s business plan, which involves growing slowly and keeping up with trends.
“Bill is not a hands-off person. For example, he’s out driving a truck down to a job this morning!” Mitchell laughs. “He has a lot of passion about what he does.”
Two decades ago, Jonathan Myers worked for another sound company, which also employed Mark Carlson, and left it to follow his own road. He toured with bands, went back to school, and then was all set to start a sound company in Spokane, Wash. Meanwhile, Mark Carlson got wind of Myer’s idea. Carlson was already prepared to launch a similar company in Seattle, so the two decided to join forces.
“We spent virtually a year putting a business plan together and then officially launched the company in 1990,” says Carlson. “It started in a 10-foot by 18-foot garage, and the plan was to service the 3,000-seat-and-under market, which wasn’t being serviced at the time in Seattle. We achieved our goal rather quickly, and then business flourished.”
Today they have a 22,000-square-foot facility, and their gear and people have toured with clients all over the world. The core staff numbers under 15, with a tried-and-true list of freelancers topping 100. They handle everything from corporate to national touring acts. Recent clients include REM, Pearl Jam and Modest Mouse.
“I think our proudest achievement is that we’ve grown our market in and out of our region, and we’ve gained the trust of clients as we’ve grown,” Carlson reflects. “Picking up national tours, and gaining the respect of FOH engineers has been really rewarding.”
Like all artists, they make it look easy: “We know who pays the bills, and what we’re asked to do is often inconvenient. In fact, MOST often it’s inconvenient! [Laughs.] But early on I heard, ‘You can’t tell your clients what they want,’ and it’s something we take to heart.”
While they have toyed with opening offices elsewhere, including Portland and Las Vegas, they took a step back from that and came to the conclu-sion that their core business strategy still holds up — that serving their customers as they have in the past makes the most sense. “We’re sound guys,” Carlson shrugs. “We do events. So we’re happy where we’re at.”
Bobby Brantley was born into the business, a business his father built out of the garage. At the age of nine, he found himself being the cue card boy for Porter Wagoner, and from there he found himself pitching in with dad doing sound for many Billy Graham Crusades. By 1983, Brantley Sounds Associates (BSA) was incorporated. The next year, Bobby graduated from high school and went to college to study radio/TV. He hooked up with Amway and was suddenly doing 36 weeks a year in corporate shows; then he was on to the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.
Clients over the years have included Summer Lights of Nashville, Fair St. Louis, Ronnie Milsap, Tony Bennett, Amy Grant, Ray Charles, Tom Jones and many others, including Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to St. Louis. BMI, SESAC and ASCAP regularly turn to the company for its an-nual events. Brantley’s father passed away in 2000, and his mother was president of the company until he bought it outright in 2004. Since then, he’s continued to build and expand on the company’s good work.
Despite it all, he has a favorite: “You set a goal, and when you hit it, you feel like you succeeded,” he says. “Mine was to mix a show for James Taylor.” In 1996, he mixed Taylor’s performance with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.
Today, Brantley has 26 employees, plus 45 freelancers. They “don’t have all our eggs in one basket.” They equally handle corporate, touring and local clients like Vanderbilt University, which can use up 16 rigs of equipment when all of its colleges have commencement services.
Brantley’s future goal is not opening a new or even bigger office, but to “grow the business to the point that I can let it run itself.” To that end, he encourages everyone at Brantley to take ownership of the work: “Everyone here is a vital operations manager.” He gives credit to his upper man-agement team, too: “My posse is Operations Manager Dario Ceragioli and General Manager Keith Beck.”
Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada
Dave Cousins started what would become Sound Art out of his parent’s garage in 1981. “I was always the kid with the biggest stereo,” he says. After college, he recorded demos for bands and did some road work. When he made the leap into forming a company, three of his fellow sound en-gineers jumped in with him. “They are still with me 20 years later.
“We all did it because we had the same kind of passion,” he continues. “We all like music so much…and we went from having the loudest stereo in our room to the biggest one in a theater!” he laughs.
From Winnipeg, Sound Art has branched out with offices in Calgary, Toronto and, most recently, Las Vegas. Vancouver is penciled in for the Sound Art treatment in 2008. He has about 45 people working full time with another 20 added in the summer. They handle everything from small corporate work all the way up to international touring. “We’ve had systems around the world,” Cousins says. “Recently, we’ve worked with Jewel, Bryan Adams, Bare Naked Ladies, Dido and Sarah Mclaughlin.”
But only call on them if you just want sound.
“We’ve always been purely sound, and we’re kind of a dying breed. But we have some good partners, companies that are pure lighting. Anything that is not audio feels like work! Your heart is not in it.”
They handled the infamous post-SARS event at the Skydome in Toronto, where numerous acts played to 70,000 people. “There was a lot of gear in there! We had 24 delay clusters thrown around the place: That was probably the largest single gig we’ve done.”
Typically, he salutes his people when asked the reason for his success. “There’s a fair amount of ego in this business, and we try to avoid that,” Cousins says. “Going back and forth between the different areas of work is something we’re aware of. You get off a tour, and you need to be de-programmed. Suddenly there’s no catering — you have to get your lunch yourself!”
Big House Sound
Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of being in Austin knows great things happen on Sixth Street. You can add “Big House Sound” to that list.
Roy Kircher spent 10 years with Asleep at the Wheel, and Rod Nielsen had worked with national Christian acts and had a recording studio. “We met on Sixth Street, both mixing for bands down there, and got to know each other,” Nielsen explains. “Then we started talking about buying a system together.” Big House Sound was launched in 1992.
“For years we reinvested everything we made back into the company, expanding our inventory,” says Kircher. “We were gear junkies! [Laughs.] And that made us stick out in the Austin market because we always brought out the new technology and exceeded the standards of the other com-panies who weren’t reinvesting.”
Today, the company boasts an 18,000-square-foot warehouse it purchased five years ago. With 12 full-timers and 20 subcontractors, Big House Sound handles large-scale events, tours and Texas symphonies. Most recently, they were pushing faders for the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
Nielsen considers Austin’s 1999 New Year’s Eve celebration as one of
the company’s crowning achievements (memory jog — all the computers
were going to crash, and the world was going to end, remember?). Around
260,000 partiers showed up, and they provided the audio support for the
entire event. Kircher adds that they’ve also done a lot of state
inaugurals, which are also important. “We try to treat every event,
whatever the size, with the same amount of respect,” he says. “Of
course the big ones stick out, but the smaller corporate events require
as much effort as the big ones! You take pride in those as well.”
“We’re still extremely interested in this work and still willing to put in a lot of energy and keep up with the new equipment,” Nielsen says. “We’re always figuring out how the new gear sounds — not just read about it in press releases.”
Next up is a little more focus on the touring industry, which the company has dabbled in, but not explored completely. They are currently eqing for Blues Traveler.
New York, NY
Bryan Olson started behind the controls as a monitor engineer. He mixed for Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears and The Cure, among others. He also worked for other sound companies when he stared building his own monitor packages.
“I was always looking for the perfect sound wedge,” Olson tells. “I never came across anything I was entirely satisfied with, so I decided to start experimenting in the wood shop. After making a lot of different-shaped boxes and trying every driver available at the time, I finally came up with and started using what is known today as the F-12 and F-15. With these proprietary boxes, for years we specialized only in monitor systems.”
Firehouse officially was founded in 1994, and today it is a large-format, full-service sound company. “Not only do we have a fairly large P.A. in-ventory, we also have a full-scale communication and RF division.” Recent projects include Live Earth, CBS Fashion Rocks, Broadway on Broad-way, 911 Memorial, among others. “Currently, we are gearing up for the VH1 Hip Hop Honors, BET Awards, and the Latin Video Music Awards,” he adds.And then there’s the touring: Nine Inch Nails, High School Musical, Interpol, Hall & Oates and Crowded House are among the current acts Fire-house is taking care of, and currently “The crew is hard at work getting Hannah Montana out the door.”
His philosophy is simple: “Always plan ahead to avoid disappointment!”