Geo Focus: France

It may be going through a relatively steady period, but the French market still presents plenty of challenges, Matt Fellows finds…

As a main player in global economics and industry, the sixth-largest economy in the world and one of the wealthiest nations in Europe, France appears to be enjoying, as one might expect, a stable and potentially lucrative spell. Despite the recent downturn in neighbouring countries, the French market presents pro-audio companies with a playing field quite unlike any other – one which, beyond its few difficulties, can prove to be richly rewarding.

Franck Surena, L-Acoustics’ sales manager for France, has a lot to say on the subject, believing that while the pro-audio climate in the region appears assuredly secure, it may not be a simple black and white affair, and does still present pitfalls for audio brands seeking to benefit from its prosperity.

“We’ve seen good stability in the market in France over the last few years,” he tells us. “This is mostly a good thing – especially when you consider the recent down years in many European markets – but it’s a situation that can be more or less favourable, depending on how a brand chooses to address the market. If you are willing to put in the time and effort, the current market can prove to be profitable and healthy, but if you cannot commit the resources and time to really get out there and support the clients, this market can prove less profitable.”

Also weighing in on the state of the country’s market is Jean-Philippe Blanchard, director and COO of Audiopole – French distributor of brands in the live, MI, installation and broadcast markets including beyerdynamic, Studer and Clear-Com. Blanchard’s statements appear to reinforce this image of a strong market, but one that is not without its challenges; he explains that, while showing promise, the current supply climate is feeling the burden of increasing online retail competition. 

“The overall current climate is not bad but the MI market especially is being hit by strong competition between local dealers and big shopping websites, which leads everybody to work with lower and lower margins. The coming of the big shopping websites has established the references in terms of pricing in the box shifting business.”

However, Blanchard believes this challenge can be overcome when brands vary their offering from that of their competitors: “This phenomena does not affect the business where the distributor or dealer has a real added value, especially in the installation and broadcast markets.” 

Ultimately, Surena believes that, while it has its ups and downs, the market finds itself in a well-rounded position that promotes strong business opportunity: “Overall, I feel that we are seeing a balance in France. While performing arts centres are dependent on government for funding, and we’ve seen a significant reduction in funding for new projects, there is always a demand to renew existing sound systems in the install market, or a demand for rental systems for big events. So overall there is an elasticity that contributes to creating an overall feeling of stability.” 

Government input

France presents a particular set of benefits and challenges to those dealing in the live and install sectors according to Surena, thanks in part to the government’s involvement in many of the country’s key venues.

“Many of the venues or public events are owned or part-owned by the government. This comes out of a government philosophy that culture should not be a money-making operation; rather, it should be available to the widest possible audience. This plays into the elasticity of the market – there may be a little less dynamism than in other countries, but it also contributes to a stability and a willingness to renew the technical systems of the venues, based on that commitment to culture.”

This helps to shape a distinct landscape in these sectors when compared to those in other countries. In particular, the live sector in France is a very mixed affair according to Surena, who tells us that economic success has in recent times been dependent on the size of venue, and this has in turn had a knock-on effect on the kind of equipment used by artists on their tours.

“I’ve seen good, dynamic growth in mid-range venues, with more and more of them looking to install high-end sound systems,” he notes. “This in turn means that many tours are travelling light, with just a console and microphones, using the house system. The bigger, 2,000-plus seat venues are not seeing this kind of evolution, since they tend to host a wide variety of events from touring bands to political conventions or corporate events. Since the needs vary, it’s easier for them to rent in systems that correspond to the event, leaving the venue empty of an installed sound solution.

“But for those mid-size venues, which have a lot more competition – both in attracting important artists and attracting a loyal audience – it’s a good business proposition to install a proper sound system. A mid-size venue can do a survey of the different rental PAs that have been used in their room over the last few years, assess which PA is the most rider-friendly, and choose to install that PA to attract bigger and better artistes.”

In addition, France is also under threat, like many other European countries, of ever-shrinking wireless spectrum, thanks to recent legislation changes.

“One of the main changes is the new legislation regarding the restriction of frequencies for wireless microphone and wireless talkback systems,” Blanchard remarks. “This will push the customers to turn to new solutions involving different frequencies and digital technologies.”

Overcoming obstacles

Looking to the future, the French pro audio market certainly looks to be moving from strength to strength, but where do those in the industry think it’s headed next?

“I think that the market is moving to solutions that cover the total sound reinforcement from design through to amplification and system management, and this is why we are seeing so much consolidation right now,” Surena puts forward.

Blanchard predicts a positive outlook, but again one overcast with difficulties: “The pro-audio market is very active and we can forecast good development in the following years, but the challenge is that you always get more features for less money. So at the end of the day the revenue is decreasing and on the other hand the demand for support before and after sale is still the same.”

Though the French market is fertile ground, the emerging theme put forward by industry figures is that differentiation is key; for brands to excel, it is imperative that they elevate themselves above their competitors and therefore above the challenges presented by the market.

“The solution is to offer real added value in terms of service and support and to be able to invoice for this service,” Blanchard explains. “This is easier to do in installation and broadcast markets than in MI.”

Audiopole aims to follow this philosophy into the coming years: “Our strategy is to develop our added value and to offer our customers a complete solution including the best products available on the market and a high-quality in-house service during the different phases of a project, including study, commissioning, putting into service, training and technical support.” 

Surena agrees, concluding: “Overall, our strategy is to offer systems that are easier, faster and more intuitive to design, deploy and manage. We’ve continually improved our electronics, redesigned boxes so that they are faster and easier to put in place, and of course, continually improved the sound quality of our systems. It’s this search for continual improvement that, I believe, will allow us to keep a leading position in the market.”