Dave Cousins

 Behind Winnipeg's Sound Art, Canada

There may be easier ways to earn a living, but Dave Cousins wouldn't trade his Sound Art Productions Inc. for anything else.

"All my employees (15 full time, 10 part time) feel the same way," says Cousins. "We are in this for the love of the job. There is nothing like the rush you get from doing a really good show."

Winnipeg-based Sound Art Productions is one of Canada's leading regional live sound specialists. With the demise of several local competitors, Sound Art stands almost alone in its size and reach. Last year was the best year the company has ever had and, in reaction to its growth and anticipation of continued growth, Sound Art is undergoing a million dollar expansion this year which will give it five times the space it currently occupies.

Cousins started Sound Art 14 years ago as a way to help pay his university costs. He began by recording demos for local bands in their basements.

"I was interested in acoustic engineering," he says, "but that course wasn't available at the University of Manitoba where I was an engineering student. I didn't want to leave Winnipeg but the prospects of becoming an electrical engineer were not inviting. I was enjoying the music more and doing more and more recordings. After I moved to live sound, I decided to leave university."

Cousins has built his reputation in the industry in the only way you can -- through the quality of his work. "The number of people in the industry is small," he comments, "so eventually you end up knowing everybody. If you are good, people will remember you. I impress upon my staff the importance of doing the best at every show. That is the only way to get another one. If you screw up just one show, people will remember."

At one time, Cousins himself spent much of the year touring with bands such as Streetheart and Orphan as the sound engineer. Now he sends technicians to look after the sound systems and make sure that the equipment is operating properly while he concentrates on the business end.

"With growth, administration becomes more and more important," he says. "This is a very capital intensive business involving millions of dollars and long term payback. Although I would rather be touring, I have to stay on top of the financial side. You need to develop business skills to stay alive."

These days, he is only in the field at festivals in the summer when all Sound Art's equipment is leased out.

The summer is the time when Sound Art does the major part of its business. Manitoba, Cousins notes, has "a zillion" music festivals in June, July and August and Sound Art staff barely have time to load and unload the equipment.

The rest of the year, Cousins says, it's a scramble to find work. The company looks to touring bands and stage performances to fill in the period. For example, the company has been supporting a touring company staging The Sound of Music throughout the United States over the last few months and there is talk of an Asian tour.

Why would an American theatre company look to a Winnipeg live sound supplier? Well, word of mouth is one factor.

The other may be the greater flexibility Sound Art has in continually updating its equipment as compared to larger American live sound specialists. "Clients want the latest equipment," Cousins points out. "Because of our smaller size, it is easier for us to turn over our inventory and stay cutting edge. Our inventory isn't as vast as many of our larger competitors."

While there has been little change in loudspeakers over the years, Cousins notes, the electronic side is moving ever more rapidly to digital architecture and automation. Within the next five years, he expects to see mixing consoles totally automated.

For technicians, that means a much higher learning curve, he says. "A lot of musicians used to be able to do sound based on their musical knowledge. Now, the sound engineer needs to have computer and electronics skills, too. There is a lot of reading involved to keep up-to-date. There are a 100 different devices in the average system. A good system technician has to be able to understand every piece and be able to explain it to the band's sound engineer who may be seeing the piece of equipment for the first time with the show about to begin."

Last year, Cousins ordered a number of new pieces of equipment in anticipation of the busy summer that it turned out to be. Unfortunately, many of the pieces were delivered late, leaving Sound Art staff to scramble to rent replacements for their customers. This year, Cousins and his crew are relaxed and ready for the summer. The equipment is in place and work has begun on their new 10,000 square-foot building.

The new building, which is scheduled for completion by the beginning of July, will give Sound Art the space to store all of its equipment, much of which is currently kept in semi-trailers.

Cousins is happy to have the additional space this year but he is well aware of his priorities. "Most of out money goes into equipment," he says. "That and our staff are what our customers are interested in."

Myron Love