The pandemic and return of live. Interview: Randy Hutson, CEO: Music Group, PRG

Randy Hutson, CEO Music Group: PRG, has spoken to Audio Media International about how the live music market in the US has been dealing with the pandemic and what needs to be done to ensure its safe return… 

How has the touring industry been affected in the US? Are different states and regions approaching live shows differently today?Touring has been greatly impacted throughout the US and the world. We are seeing smaller events and festivals, and, while they represent only a fraction of what the industry was doing before COVID, they are important steps toward the return of activity.

PRG has locations across the world, and, understandably, we see different responses. For example, in Australia, theatres are reopening and in Japan, the Olympics will go forward, even with restrictions. At our US locations, we’ve made a commitment to uphold CDC guidelines regardless of what state we are operating in. Our top priority is keeping our people safe.

Local governments will have the final say in allowing live events, which means that new touring routes may need to be created. Today’s productions are more challenging and costly due to the current environment of the pandemic.

How well do you think the country has handled the pandemic from a live events perspective?
The pandemic has unfortunately been politicised. From our perspective, the focus needs to be on delivering financial support. Within the music industry, the group most impacted has been the supporting people who rely on touring for their income: the technicians, roadies, the crew. Our people.

Through organisations like the Live Events Coalition, we continue to push for US Federal relief action for the still unemployed 12 million live events workers — that also includes planners, caterers, florists, talent, producers, technicians, engineers, suppliers, designers, venues — who are coming up on a year of economic crisis.

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How much has your business been hit by the pandemic?
Like most production companies, we’ve been greatly impacted by the pandemic. In this instance, our size and cross-market expertise has allowed us to be resilient. Since TV and film productions have been up and running, that branch of our company has rebounded strongly. In music, we’ve worked to sustain the connection between artists and fans with safe production solutions like extended reality and virtual production.

We’ve opened a global network of digital studios, sent out countless at-home kits for award show presenters, commentators, the NFL Draft — anything we could do to make events continue to safely happen, we were willing to figure out.

What measures has your company taken to offset its negative effects?
Our philosophy throughout has been to adapt. We’ve got an amazing group of creative problem solvers at our company who were able to anticipate market shifts and prepare our team for pivots. Given the operating climate, it’s amazing how many large-scale productions we’ve participated in.

For example, our scope at this year’s Super Bowl was even bigger than last year before the pandemic and, for the first time, we provided cameras and our proprietary 35LIVE! workflow that delivered a cinematic aesthetic to The Weeknd’s halftime performance.

Another great example of agility around the company: Early in the pandemic, the scenic branch of PRG manufactured face shields and our innovation team released our SmartXcan thermal scanners. As hard as this year has been, it’s also been so inspiring to see how resilient, passionate and innovative our team is.

What is your forecast for when live events may return to some semblance of normality?
We’re hearing optimistic news about the pace of vaccinations. If we can sustain this progress and there aren’t major setbacks, we’d hope to see a return to significant activity in Q3 or Q4. Full-scale worldwide touring may not be back to normal until Q1 of 2022.

The vaccine has to be administered and the ticket buyers have to have an economy that is stable enough to allow them the financial means to attend live events.

Are particular types of events better equipped to deal with the pandemic than others?
Nothing can truly replace the experience of a live event, but we’ve found successful solutions that ramp up engagement for all kinds of virtual ones. We work every day with talented producers and designers to create immersive and unique live music experiences during this time.

Offerings like our Virtual Crowd technology, developed with our partner Fireplay, have been successful in bringing a no-latency livestream where the artist and their fans can interact in real time. Last month, we put on a show from our Nashville Digital Studio with up-and-coming country singer Lindsay Ell. An LED screen displayed the faces of her fans, who watched the concert from their homes. Lindsay was able to talk to the fans and see their reactions to her performance. Those kinds of interactions are what artists tell us they miss the most. Metallica also used this technology last fall and received glowing reviews from virtual concertgoers.

Because they already live in a virtual world, the esports industry has been very successful in integrating music events during this time in a way that feels natural to their audience. Our Virtual Production Studio in Los Angeles has hosted a number of in-game concerts for Fortnite. Game players have the ability to view the concert from multiple vantage points, lighting effects go off inside the virtual space as well as within the studio space the concert is shot from.

Our clients at Far Right Entertainment worked with Epic Games to allow fans to interact with the concert experience through in-game boosts. It’s really exciting stuff that will continue after the pandemic because it’s custom-tailored to that audience.

How robust is the touring market in the US? Do you see most businesses being able to return after the pandemic, or will there be significant losses?
We’re already seeing artists doing the highly produced events for brands, because that is who can afford to pay the bills. Big companies should continue to invest in the arts, because it is good for their brand, good for artists who fit that category, and good for the crews and companies like us who more than anything want to work. But there also needs to be the ability for the independent artists to hit the road and get in front of their fans.

I’m sure there will be significant losses, but the industry and its people are resilient, and I’m confident they’ll come back. In our own case at PRG, we’re optimistic about what’s ahead. We’re a leaner, faster and more solutions-focused company than we were a year ago, and we have new offerings that aren’t only of value for the COVID era — they’ll be mainstays for the future of production. Throughout this extraordinary period of time, we never stopped. Now, we see where we’re going.


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