Feature Story

From Dark Ages to Digital: A Family’s Journey in Live Sound

Clair Global is once again transforming the live music experience, this time for digital-age fans

Like any CIO, Matt Clair hates network downtime.

But in his case, customer feedback comes in especially loud and fast — from top artists like U2, Jay-Z, and Justin Timberlake and hordes of high-energy fans at arenas and music festivals.

For Clair, the CIO of Clair Global, that means ensuring an unforgettable experience of sound, lights, convenience, and connectivity. All of which depends more than ever before on digital technologies.

“The fiber-optic backbone is really making its way into the live touring space,” Clair said. “Downtime is definitely not tolerated and usually will end in you not being asked back.”

Of course, hundreds of the biggest stars in music have asked Clair Global back, again and again. That’s because the company’s commitment to performers and fans is built into their DNA — literally.

Matt and his brother Shaun, the VP of sales, are third-generation Clairs. With their father, CEO Troy Clair, they continue a family tradition that dates back more than 50 years, to the dark ages of live sound. A time when primitive public address systems were pushed far past their limits, concerts were often unruly and chaotic, and singers struggled to hear themselves over the din of screaming teenagers.

At least, that is, until the first generation of Clair brothers, Roy and Gene, stepped in. With their help, bands like the Four Seasons, Cream, and Blood, Sweat, and Tears soon enjoyed far better sound. And fans rejoiced in a much more positive concert experience.

Along the way, the Clairs pioneered many of the technologies that today’s performers and fans  take for granted. That includes multitrack live mixing consoles, onstage sound monitors, hanging speaker arrays, and the very notion of a dedicated team of sound engineers traveling with a band — all perfected in the crucible of high-pressure rock tours.

“When everything got started,” Matt Clair said, “the idea of building and traveling with the sound systems was something new. How do you package it to go on a truck, and come off again, to be able to follow these bands around?”

A Family Tradition for Innovation Goes Digital

Today, that same culture of rapid innovation continues at Clair Global. It’s a vast operation that combines live concert and festival production on multiple continents with a manufacturing operation that creates state-of-the-art sound gear, broadcast equipment, and fixed installations. The company’s sprawling Lititz, Pa., campus even includes a full-scale stage where performers like Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Metallica hone their touring shows.

For all of their own breakthroughs, Roy and Gene Clair could scarcely have imagined the fast- paced changes of the digital age. But their tradition of ruggedness and portability extends to the company’s networking equipment. Working closely with Cisco, Clair Global has adopted digital infrastructures, Wi-Fi networks, and collaboration solutions that withstand the harshest conditions and most demanding in-concert challenges.

“The audio is only as good as how it’s being transported [digitally],” Clair said. “So the infrastructure has to be just bullet proof. Going on and off the trucks, you’re in sub-zero temperatures and then you’re in Coachella where you’re hitting over 100 degrees.”

More and more, that infrastructure is critical to nearly every aspect of Clair’s operations, so bandwidth, speed, agility, and ease of use are critical.

“On the touring side, the control and transport of audio is moving into the digital world,” Clair continued. “Things are being virtualized, so you have [digital] plug-ins for sound processing, more automation and software and robotics. But also in ways to be aiming and designing the audio systems, even before you get into the venue, to give you a head start.”

Supporting major acts like Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, and Keith Urban — or vast festivals like Coachella and Desert Trip — requires a mix of world-class technologies and highly trained, fast-thinking teams ready for just about anything.

“That’s one of the things we’ve learned from live touring that we’ve been able to put into networks,” Matt Clair said, “you need redundancy, and you need to be accounting for things that normally don’t happen, even if there’s a remote possibility of it happening.”

Learning the Business, from Landscaping to LAN Networks

Matt and Shaun prepared for their current positions by learning the ropes in every aspect of the business. That began around age ten, helping with mulching and landscaping, Matt joked.

“Between then and college years, we’ve gone between all of the different departments,” he added. “After that, Shaun did a world tour with Sting, whereas I did some Elton John shows and focused on festivals. Then I got into the operational side of the company for about eight years, before moving on to the IT networking side.”

It’s the kind of varied, real-world experience that many CIOs would envy, especially as IT seeks a closer alignment with customers and the business needs. That’s certainly true at Clair Global, where the company’s digital operations can extend far beyond sound, into video and all kinds of other fan experiences.

“At festivals,” Clair said, “we’re providing the backbone for point of sale, ticketing, food and beverage, merchandise. Sometimes you’re adding in fan connectivity. Then you’ll have, on top of all that, festival operations, medical, and safety, running on the back of that.”

Extending the sense of connection to the fans is an increasingly important aspect of the concert experience, especially as the competition from at-home entertainment rises. A concert or festival must be an experience that can’t simply can’t be recreated in the home.

“The live experience is still unique,” Clair said. “You have the crowd mentality, you have the energy that’s coming off the stage. Those things are just very difficult to replicate at home without going to some of these events.”

Nevertheless, today’s concertgoers expect a highly personalized and seamless experience. Unlike in the old days, however, each has the equivalent of a supercomputer in their hands, opening all sorts of possibilities (with help from high-density Wi-Fi networks).

“A lot of artists are engaging fans before the tour or as they’re following along,” Clair said, “and then they’ll have us come in and support connectivity on push notifications for specific areas [in the crowd] for their fan club, or VIP packages.”

Beyond that, he added, “It’s cashless payments, and things like location analytics, wayfinding, applications to know where your food and beverage is, how to get around, where the next stage is that you want to see.”

Just as the original Clair brothers were always looking to the next innovation in live sound, so do the current generation in the digital era.

Matt and his teams are exploring augmented reality and immersive, mixed 3D reality; “hearable” technologies to provide a perfect sound mix to every seat in the house; and digital solutions that synch an artist’s actions to lights or video (to name a few technologies under review).

“More and more, proximity or location monitoring type technologies are really going to allow these artists to be more spontaneous and run the show on their own,” Clair said. “Whether it’s Bono, or the Edge hitting a guitar chord, it can cue video systems or lighting systems. You can do some pretty powerful things with that.”

No matter where the technology goes, Clair insists that he and his family will stay true to their motto: “To boldly advance the concert experience.”

And whether a Rolling Stones tour in the 1970s, or an electronic music festival in the 2030s, the commitment to rock-solid reliability will no doubt remain the same. Along with a constant search for innovative technologies and ideas.

“Nothing we do is stagnant, because people don’t want to come see a stagnant entertainment,” Clair concluded. “We feel it’s going to continue to change and grow, for years to come.”