Why the British live music industry could be under threat from the smartphone in your pocket

Tuomo Tolonen | May 11, 2016


In the following article, I will  explain why the British live music industry — one of our leading sources  of cultural capital internationally — could be under threat from the  smartphones in our pockets:

The UK is internationally renowned not only for producing some of the  best musical artists in the world, but also for developing an  unrivalled live music industry that supports this creative wellspring,  together with the high-quality venues and events needed to support our  abundance of talent. Not only is this big business within the UK — just  look at the number of music festivals and live concerts that take place  every year — it's a serious draw for international tourism as well.  We've been in this game for decades and it shows: we're not talking  about bands of great stature like the Beatles playing in rundown Gaumont  cinemas with just a couple of Vox amps any more. Live music is a  serious matter in the UK these days.Tuomo Tolonen, Pro Audio Group Manager at Shure UK 

We have the knowledge, the techs and the kit to do it right, and our  world-class track record and production values speak for themselves.

But this vibrant industry is under threat, and from a surprisingly  innocuous source: the mobile phones in our pockets. Over the past ten  years, the UK government has been auctioning off ever greater parts of  the RF (radio frequency) spectrum for use by mobile phones and  wireless-enabled computers, to ensure that the mobile telecommunications  industry can keep pace with the insatiable consumer demand for wireless  access. If you're wondering what this has to do with music, it's simple  — mobile phones have increasingly been given the same radio frequencies  to work on as our wireless stage technology, including wireless  microphones, in-ear monitors and backstage communications. And without  access to uninterrupted, clear RF, these devices can't work reliably on  stage, night after night, as they need to if our live music industry is  to maintain the high production values it is renowned for.A couple of decades ago, this wasn't a problem. Most stage technology  in those days was cabled, with only a few key performers using wireless  kit at most. The mobile phone industry was in its infancy, and was  using a completely different part of the RF spectrum to operate. But as  live shows became more ambitious, production managers and set designers  increasingly came to rely on the freedom that wireless mics and  monitoring could offer performers, releasing them from the hindrance of  being permanently cabled. If you've ever seen a show where one of the  performers played while suspended on a wire high above the audience, or  where the lead singer crowd-surfed or mingled with their public while  continuing to perform, those performances were only possible because of  wireless stage technology. At the same time, mobile telecommunications  moved beyond simple cellphones with the introduction of the smartphone  and other wireless computers, and the on-going and ever-rising consumer  demand for fast RF-based internet access from handheld devices began in  earnest. This made the rights and licenses to use RF spectrum big  business in a way they never were before. Not coincidentally, over the  last decade we have seen large swathes of the RF spectrum in the UK  auctioned to the mobile sector, making the interference-free use of  wireless technology by the live music industry much more difficult and  unpredictable.Manufacturers of wireless technology, such as the company I work for,  Shure, have tried to keep pace with the changes, making devices  compatible with the new frequencies and designing kit that can operate  with more efficient use of RF, and in harsher environments. But yet  another set of government spectrum auctions is currently underway, and  once completed in 2020, our industry will have lost roughly 50 percent  of usable spectrum. This will make the operation of wireless microphones  and IEMs at some large events impossible due to the lack of sufficient  interference-free spectrum. Technological advances can make the best of  reduced RF availability, but eventually, there will be a limit. The UK  government was prevailed upon to find alternative RF spectrum that could  be used by the live, theatre and broadcast industries, but it remains  to be seen whether this block is actually usable and offers a viable  replacement for what has been lost.

What will happen next? 

If we're not careful, some of the fantastic, high-quality events and  live shows we're known for in this country could be under threat. The  changes aren't yet set in stone, though, and industry pressure groups  such as BEIRG (www.beirg.co.uk)  are doing their best. Nobody wants to denigrate the mobile phone  industry — who would want to be without their smartphone these days? —  but more key industry players emphasising the important contribution  professional wireless technology makes to the UK's economy and cultural  capital would help our industry's standing no end. If you feel you can  lend your voice to the cause, please get in touch. Alternatively,  to keep on top of the constantly changing spectrum landscape, please  consider attending one of our Shure Wireless Mastered training seminars.  To register, or to find out more, visit sai.shure.co.uk 

Tuomo Tolonen

Tuomo is the Pro Audio Group Manager at Shure UK. He has a great interest in all things RF and often is on-site at events to assist with RF co-ordination. In his spare time Tuomo still talks about RF and recently entered the Guinness Book of Records for talking about wireless for 72 hours straight. Being from Finland but having lived in Germany, the U.S. and now the U.K. Tuomo is an Arsenal and Bayern Munich fan, and switches his support throughout the season. In addition he is German during World Cups, Finnish during Winter Olympics, and English between June and September when the weather is good.