The following interview, in edited form, appeared in the July 2004 issue of the British Pro Audio magazine, Audio Pro. Britannia Row is, arguably, the most successful PA hire company in the UK. The interview, notable for many reasons, included a definite first. It took place on the banks of the River Thames in the heart of London and was briefly interrupted when a basking seal was spotted, sunning itself on the mudflats!
 

INTERVIEW: BRIAN GRANT & MIKE LOWE - DIRECTORS OF BRITTANIA ROW.

As every student of Sherlock Holmes knows, the power of observation is all - but to put it to good use, you have to understand what it is you're looking at. Take Britannia Row's Wandsworth warehouse. To anyone with a taste for gear, the five bob tour, as Brit Row's MD Bryan Grant calls it, is like being a six year old let loose in Hamleys. Racks of effects to the right of you, Turbosound Flashlights to the left, miles of cables with uncountable cores, yards of recumbent EV X-Lines - it's a gearfest. But if that's what impresses you, I suggest you're looking at the wrong thing.

Closer to the heart of what makes Britannia Row the institution that it has become (arguably the UK's most prestigious sound hire company) are the small knots of (mostly) young men, standing round talking gear and hotels and gigs and generally giving every sign that they are of that exclusive tribe of music business technical gypsies. Possibly with recent history in mind, it reminds me of nothing so much as air crew pre and post-sortie. There's a lot of laughter, mutual ribbing and yet a very clear sense that when the business needs to get done - get done it will. Am I stretching a point if I suggest that sixty years ago, many of these young men would have been flying Spitfires? They're people who crave excitement and who don't wish to drive a desk for a living - well, not unless it has two hundred knobs on it.

Later, sitting with Brit Row's MD Bryan Grant and his partner, financial director, Mike Lowe, I suggest to them that their business isn't really about gear at all - that, like most of the rest of the music industry, what it's really about is people and music. Bryan Grant agrees.

'Definitely - yes. The equipment's just the tools for the job. It's how you go about it, how you put it together that makes it work. Anyone can buy the gear.'

And as Mike Lowe adds: 'If all of the touring companies tomorrow started just renting equipment, people couldn't work, artists couldn't perform. It's not about renting equipment. So when a production manager says to me "I can rent this cheaper down the road", he definitely hasn't got the plot.'

With 10 or 12 tours and festivals currently on the go, it's putting it all together that is the knack. Buying the right equipment, yes. Maintaining it in good order, certainly. But the sheer logistics of keeping the Brit Row show on the road are mind-boggling. On the day I visit, in early July, the whiteboard in the organising office is crammed with gigs, ranging from prestige tours like the current Robbie Williams European extravaganza, to a Channel Four pop gig for kids, being held on an East Anglian beach that coming Sunday. In between is just about every conceivable kind of gig you'd hire a sound company for - each with its own crew, its own gear and its own transport. It looks like a planner's nightmare and must call for the kind of logistics that usually accompany the invasion of a small country (there's that military analogy again).

While most businesses are dependent on the quality of their staffs for keeping them afloat, the sound hire business is unusual in that almost all of the staff it employs are freelance - this July some 60 of them with Brit Row alone. They are backed by central core of twenty full-time staff who undertake everything from the usual office and accounting functions, to gear maintenance - something the company takes very seriously, even down to having its own spray booth so that enclosures can be kept as good-looking as its growing number of corporate clients demand. Recently, for example, Brit Row provided the sound at a promotional gig for Audi at the Le Mans 24 hour race, with Jamiroquai doing the musical honours. You don't supply tatty-looking boxes for an event like that.

As for staff, one or two bad gigs would seriously dent a reputation, so how does Brit Row know who's around and, of them, who's any good? When I was being shown round the office, the company's indispensable den-mother, Bev Smedley, was trying to track down an engineer for a forthcoming gig, telling Bryan Grant whom she'd found, that he was great at his job (a known quantity being vital, as is later confirmed) and when he was available.

Messrs Grant and Lowe say Ms. Smedley she is a vital element in their team, particularly as the Rock and Roll gypsies who make up the floating crews are recruited from all over the world and have been known to be in sudden need of places to eat and sleep, not to mention, no doubt, suffering all the usual crises which need sympathetic and expert counselling. As Bryan Grant quips: 'What's the difference between a homeless person and a sound man? A laminate.'

So how do they know who from the dozens of self-proclaimed freelance sound people on the market is any good? And how do they get on with them?

'It's a very interesting situation, says Bryan Grant. 'Someone can be an employee of ours today, but tomorrow he can be an employer - and then he becomes a client, because these guys sometimes work directly for bands or have their own projects and then they'll hire us to provide the kit. It's a very intrusting relationship - not at all the usual employer/employee kind.

'And putting a crew together for a project like the Party in the Park, the other week, or the Harry Potter book launch at the Royal Albert Hall, is like casting for a movie. Again, within the crew, you'll get a guy who was crew boss last week, who this week is doing the cables, it's a fascinating interaction of people and we all, Bev especially, have to be aware of that when we're putting a team together. We had at least 17 people at the Party in the Park, for example, and those 17 people have to be able to interact. Somebody may be very good at his job but if he can't share a bus with other people, or can't work under high pressure, like at a festival - especially a recorded festival like Glastonbury - he's no use.'

So how can you tell?

'Referrals,' say Messrs Grant and Lowe, simultaneously.

'We'd never put anybody out unless we were really sure. If we have someone new we'll say, ok, here's a strong five man crew, let's put this guy in as a sixth member and see how he gets on,' Mike Lowe confirms.

Even before someone is out on the road for Brit Row, he is likely to spend time in the warehouse first, just to see how he gets on with everyone else.

As for permanent staff, I ask how they recruit and the answer is, increasingly, from colleges where youngsters are taking sound and engineering courses. Does that mean the days of learning on the job are over? And, if they are, isn't that a slight cause for an old rocker's regret?

'It is essential that people have the skills,' says Bryan Grant. 'But we still try to judge people on their merits and some of our top guys are people who I imagine would not have done that well in school, because the academic way of teaching wouldn't have suited them. We still try to preserve that element because, yeah, none of us, including most of the kids who get into his business, do it as a career first and foremost - not in the established sense.'

'We do leave room for people,' insists Mike Lowe. ' In fact one of our top people, who's very technical now, came through despite really not wanting to go to audio school - you have to leave that room. But there's simply not enough people who come through in the traditional way - the old days of learning down the pub with your musician mates - those opportunities are so few now that not enough people can come through that way to satisfy the demand.'

So what is it that they feel gives Brit Row the edge? After all, aren't essentially the same crews working for any and everyone?

'Well, to start with, we don't employ everyone who works with everybody else,' says Mike Lowe. 'We draw from a very defined pool. That pool changes, people join it and people leave it because they move to another country or whatever, but the core of it is a group of approved freelances. as Bryan said earlier, it's like casting for movie.'

Getting the right personnel together is a key to making the whole operation work. Clashing egos and drama queens are the province of the artists, who don't need that kind of thing from the people they've hired to do the sound.

'It's almost more important on a small tour,' says Mike Lowe. 'If you've got a small touring crew - three audio guys doing a theatre-sized tour for weeks and weeks on end, they all have to get on with everybody - it's very important.'

You couldn't run a company like Britannia Row unless you had a lifetime's experience under your belt. As Messrs Lowe and Grant point out, anyone with a big enough wallet can buy the gear, but where would they know how to find the work? Where would they recruit their crews? How would they know the million and one wrinkles you need successfully to roll a tour through Poland in the middle of winter, or handle the sound for the Queen's Jubilee celebrations, which the company undertook last year? That sort of work requires huge experience, which is what Bryan Grant and Mike Lowe have in spades.

As most Audio Pro readers will know, the company itself was one of Pink Floyd's offsprings, born in 1975 when the band's need for what were, then, huge, high quality sound systems led it to plough its own money into what was probably the world's first quad system and which, in true Floyd style, it then decided to hire out when the band wasn't on tour. It wasn't the first band to have done this - but it was the biggest and best system of its day and came with one of the best teams. Part of the outfit was Bryan Grant, who had already made his name in the sound business with the hire company IES in the early 1970s, and who had started touring with Floyd in the same decade.

'In 1975, they'd just finished a Pink Floyd tour in the USA and started up Britannia Row, in Britannia Row, Islington' he says. 'At the start, all of the Floyd owned it, until 1981, when Dave and Nick bought-out Roger and Rick. Then Robbie Williams - Robbie Williams senior that is - the original - and I bought Dave and Nick out, in '84. I'd joined Britannia Row in '79, having been off doing things on my own before that.

'Mike and I had been involved together back in IES days, when he'd been the production manager for ELP.'

ELP, of course, was another British band from the 1970s, notorious for going out on tour heavily armed, so both partners had the best possible grounding in big rigs, demanding schedules and top quality sound.

'Yes, but when you think back to the systems we were using... ' says Mike Lowe. 'IES was the first company that you could hire from for tours of that scale. I remember our last tour before we started hiring from IES, doing Madison Square Garden with a system that was certainly no bigger than the install at the Shepherd's Bush Empire. It was physically bigger, but not power-wise.'

'Mike had been running Turbosound rentals,' adds Bryan Grant. 'And joined Samuelsons in about '84, then joining Brit Row in '87. We got on well and eventually Mike and I bought Robbie out in '91.'

For readers who enjoy figures, Britannia Row's turnover last year was nudging three million pounds, Mike Lowe reveals, while this year they expect to move that up to around 3.3 or 3.4 million. To say they have been busy would be a serious understatement.

Which raises the question of how the hire business in recent years has changed - and a misconception I may not be alone in having formed about its seasonal nature. To an outside observer, recently it has begun to look as is the era of the touring band had (at least temporarily) waned, and that the industry had clustered to fewer, larger festivals - spearheaded in the UK by Glastonbury (for which Brit Row again handled the main stage this year) but with many others strung across Europe. If that was the way the business had gone, what do sound companies do in the winter - hibernate?

But apparently, it's not like that at all. At least, not for Brit Row, says Mike Lowe.

'Last year we did 49 per cent of our turnover in our first six months - which runs to the end of July - and 51 per cent in the second six months. Maybe if you're reliant solely on touring it may be seasonable but over the last few years we've packed a lot of other things around touring,'

'I think there are probably companies that specialise in that summer festival work,' adds Mr. Grant. 'They may be quieter in winter.'

Brit Row's approach has been to develop new sources of work and it has carved out a tremendous slice of corporate and TV work which, while it may not sound like traditional Rock and Roll sound business, pays the wages and can be just as demanding from an audio point of view. How had they developed that?

'I'm not going to tell you that!' says Bryan Grant. 'They'll all be at it!'

'I think it's because we had a desire to do it,' says Mike Lowe. 'It's a question of paying attention to those shows and trying to understand the clients' needs - tailoring ourselves towards that sort of market.'

Is it such a different world that they need to use a different style of crew to undertake it?

'No, not at all,' says Brian Grant. 'It's a question of educating crews on what's needed in different markets. Some crews just aren't capable of it, but in the main, the intelligent audio person will realise that audio is audio. Some things you do for love - some you do for money.'

I make a mental note of that phrase and it recurs like a leitmotif throughout the interview. It's a balance you can't help but feel that Messrs Lowe and Grant have not only learned to strike, but to enjoy.

'It is mostly entertainment-based work, after all,' adds Mr. Lowe. 'If we were in the conference market, then ok, there you do have a reasonably different culture there, but we're not doing that.'

From their position at the apex of the market, can the dynamic duo discern any industry trends at the moment?

'It's obviously on the move again,' says Mike Lowe. 'For a while now, a significant chunk of popular entertainment has been children's pantomime - not the lion's share, but a significant chunk, plus boy and girl bands and I think, at last, that seems to be on the wane.'

Is that necessarily good for Brit Row and other sound companies?

'Spiritually, I think it is,' says Bryan Grant. It's a different world. Doing audio for eight year olds who are screaming their heads off is business, but that's all it is - business.'

So there's still love in it for them?

'Oh, god, yeah! There's good new bands coming through and some of the older ones are coming back too. We had a great Spring - Peter Gabriel was out, Neil Young, Whitesnake... and it's really nice for me to go and see people like James Taylor. I took my 23 year old daughter to some of his gigs and said to her, whether she is into the genre or not, come and see a great performer at work and she understood - she got it. I think that's why kids are picking up guitars again - with any cultural cycle it comes from the street and kids get bored, we all get bored, with being force-fed shite or marshmallows. How many marshmallows can you eat before you get tired? You want something substantial, something with meaning and that's what kids are doing.'

'Don't forget, music isn't the only compensation for us.' adds Mike Lowe. 'There's audio too and there are logistics - those kinds of challenges. There's enough to keep us getting up in the morning.'

It's not just musical fashions that are volatile. The recent collapse of promoters AAA, meant a clutch of lost Summer gigs for Brit Row, which had been booked to handle sound at the company's Hyde Park concerts. How do you cope with sudden cancellations like this when you have gear allocated and crews booked?

'Luckily, we have so much on that all it really did was relieve the pressure a little,' says Mike Lowe. 'We lost about five gigs so it didn't hurt that much and it's just a shame that the people involved in the company had it happen to them.'

'They're nice people,' adds Bryan Grant. 'They'll come back.'

How cut-throat is the hire business at present? Rumours are always afoot that there are savage rate wars, but the Brit Row boys aren't so sure.

'There's not really a great deal of it going on' Mike Lowe feels. 'Of course it happens now and again - you get some nutty stuff that goes on, but mostly you find all the quotes are within a reasonable range if, say, three or four people are bidding.'

'We're the worst rate cutters in the world,' laughs Bryan Grant. 'If we win a tour it's always because we cut our rates - everybody accuses everybody else in this business but it's commodity broking to an extent. If there's something you really want and if you have a reason to discount, you'll do it. If you discount everything to the point where you're losing money then you ain't going to be round for very long to go on doing it, are you?'

And so, of course, to gear. For manufacturers, Brit Row is a prize catch and what they do is studied closely throughout the entire music industry. Recent years have seen what once looked like a tremendously close relationship with Turbosound look as if it might be weakening - first with the purchase of V-DOSC, then with the addition of EV's X-Line. So are they still as close to Turbosound as they were?

'I think, inevitably, no,' admits Mike Lowe. 'But there's nothing sinister in that. Obviously we've broadened the systems that we run. Turbosound haven't produced much for our end of the business for a while, though I think they're working on that now. But the TQ440 and 425 boxes have really worked well for us in that smaller, corporate market, so there's still dialogue there.'

But they haven't come up with a line array - is that the point?

'No, they haven't, agrees Bryan Grant. 'Though as Mike says, what they have come up with is ironic really, because Turbosound never historically produced a good wedge, until we got together with them and they came out with the 450 and 420 which are great - probably the best wedges on the planet right now. So they've come up with some really great products on the monitoring side. I guess that's part of their strategy and I guess they are working on a flagship, but perhaps the priority isn't as great as it was in the past?'

So what about this line array business? It's hard not to detect a curl of the lip when the term is used in some quarters of the industry - with the implication being that line array makes more commercial than pure audio sense. Now that they have been running line arrays for some while, and given the impression many had that Britannia Row wasn't that keen on line array at the outset, what is the verdict? Forced to play Desert Island Rigs - which gives the better sound?

'I think we certainly needed to see what it was about,' says Mike Lowe. 'We looked at V-DOSC in the early 90s and we were very impressed with them. But we'd just made a big investment in Flashlight at that point and we really didn't have the room to indulge. We also had been mainstreaming on a very different type of technology and we were aware that the customers were getting interested in line array...'

'It's really not that smart when you've got a big inventory of Flashlight to be saying to everybody that you're planning to get rid of it and go into something else, is it?' Bryan Grant interjects. 'We spent two years intensively checking it out and then we decided on two and we do believe they are the best line arrays.'

But is that the point - that they're the best line arrays? What about if I said give me the best sound you can possibly produce - would they offer me a line array?

'The very best line array systems, are very good,' says Mike Lowe. 'Yes, they have their downsides, but so do the very best of other types of systems. Whatever you pick for a given job, and it's not always our call, any system will be the best compromise for that time and there are things that line array can do that no other type of system can. For example, line array has great throw. We can do venues with line array without delays where we wouldn't dream of doing that with a conventional system. And with a well set-up V-DOSC system, you can walk the whole horseshoe at balcony level around the venue and you'll get a very even sound - so as a sound engineer you can feel very confident. But you cannot do that with even the best High Q systems.

'I've heard people in the High Q camp say nobody does that - nobody moves around at a gig and that if they're at one point their ears will compensate, which is true. But there is one person who tends to walk around at a venue and that's the guy with the chequebook!'

If the Brit Row team is happy with its two line array systems, it is equally enthused by another major purchase, its Yamaha PM1D digital consoles. The company has three now, so presumably it's happy with them?

'We're very, very happy - it's a great sounding console,' says Mike Lowe.

So does that mean they are now confirmed on a digital path?

'Yes, absolutely.' And are they testing anything smaller than the PM1Ds which might eventually replace their store of Midas analogue desks?

'Yes, all the time. We've been buying Yamaha DM200s, we bought another last week, in fact and they've been working out really well, too. They handle corporate work, support bands, theatre work, they're doing really well.'

Are they looking at any British, desks?

'Yes, Digico,' says Bryan Grant. ' I think that's going to be a really great desk. I think Bob Doyle has a really great product.'

'We've got four of them out on the road with Robbie Williams and this is our really in-depth look at Digico,' adds Mike Lowe. Wasn't that a major tour to trust to a relatively new product?

'Well Dave Bracey, Robbie's engineer, is very committed to Digico, and he was the driving force, which is good for us as it's given us the opportunity to try stretching them.

'I think the most exciting things at the moment for us are the PM1Ds and the Digicos. They really are the beginning of something that's very much going to revolutionise a lot of things over the next few years.'

Bryan Grant is equally enthusiastic. 'It's just the speed of the whole thing. Many projects that we do, they throw a curve ball at you "we need another 10 channels". With an analogue board you've run out and even if you've got the channels, you find you suddenly need some compression and you haven't got it, but with a digital console it's all there. We've been in a situation when we've done the Brits some years where we've had eight consoles at either end of the multicore - 16 consoles in all. Last year we did it and we had two consoles at either end - four PM1Ds and it did the whole show. We probably could have done it with two, but we're a little old fashioned like that. Think about that in money terms - you've got half a million pounds' worth of consoles at either end of the multicore, and probably another hundred grand of outboard, as opposed to four hundred grand. Its a big difference.'

But, in the end, for all that, as enthusiasts, the gear is fun to use and argue about the respective merits of, what makes Brit row tick is the people. As Bryan Grant says:

'Any fool can go out and buy equipment - I wouldn't advise it, but they could. Will that make you a good company? But who puts it together? It's the people, it's the packaging, it's how you string all this incredibly complex product together - this thing made out of thousands of components, both human and equipment. It's a very complex thing and we've been doing it a long time. As I've said before, we're smart enough to have survived and dumb enough still to be doing it and it takes time to build that team up. You asked about us moving into the corporate market - that didn't just happen overnight,. It takes time, you build it slowly and gradually. Anyone who comes into the business thinking they can do it all overnight would be wrong.'

And one thing Britannia Row most certainly isn't is an overnight success. It's built on pillars buried deep down in British live sound history.

Ends.

2005 Gary Cooper