At the outset of 2020, everything was swimming along pretty well in the world of professional live production, and then “it” happened – in breathtaking fashion, a pandemic was rapidly spreading around the globe and the almost-immediate reaction included a widespread closing down of the events industry, from big-time concert touring to small live clubs and everything in between. That was in March, and quickly left tens of thousands of production personnel around the world without anything to, well, produce.
Like a lot of professionals suddenly in limbo, Robert Flood, a Nashville-based live performance automation specialist for more than a decade who’s toured with artists such as Ariana Grande, Pearl Jam, and Carrie Underwood, shifted his focus in a new direction. He saw the ongoing transformation from in-person trade shows, conferences, product introductions, sales calls and meetings to the virtual realm and acted on the opportunity to bring much-needed higher production values to the rapidly growing online world.
“These days, it seems like everyone is in Zoom meetings and/or employing some form of virtual meeting platform for business and personal use,” Flood says. “Does the way we look and sound on these video calls matter? Of course it matters. The impression we make on video calls with our boss, co-workers, clients and peers can enhance or negate our in-person chemistry. So we’d better make our image and brand memorable in a good way.”
Taking The Plunge
To accomplish that goal, in short order he established a new venture called Executive Stream Solutions (ESS), where he and fellow out-of-work colleagues could bring their talents and experience in professional audio, lighting and video production to the virtual meeting platform under the mantra of “Look, Sound and Feel Amazing.”
Everyone on the team works from their current home base and travels to in-person projects as needed. Another key player on the ESS team is John Flood, Robert’s father, who brings 40 years of business management expertise in serving as the operation’s managing director, guiding the business side so that the tech/creative effort can proceed and flourish unabated.
That said, the company doesn’t have a “top down” command structure; rather, it’s much more collaborative in nature, one where every team member is identified as a partner. While each offers unique skillsets, the approach is a cooperative effort where talents merge to best fit the needs of each particular project.
According to ESS Partner Tom Evans, FOH sound engineer, production manager and tour manager for more than 20 years with clients that include Eagles, Don Henley, Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, Snow Patrol and many more, “Before Covid-19, no one expected to be delivering speeches, sales presentations or run board meetings virtually from their office, living room, or hotel room. Having managed hundreds of live productions, I understand the importance of visual and audio presentation. If you can’t hear someone clearly, then what they’re saying is lost. If you can’t see them clearly, then the personal connection is lost. What we’ve done is step up to provide a critical element for everyone who needs to impress in their online delivery.”
“The ESS road crew of installation technicians have always loved the creativity of creating audio and visual effects that connect with an audience” adds ESS partner Kandi Sepulveda, who’s toured with Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam, Madonna, Drake and Zac Brown Band. “Our unique team of professional technicians really like the idea of expanding our expertise now into the video conferencing world.”
It should also be noted that while ESS is a commercial endeavor, a major motivation is a mission to support the professional touring crew members who saw their livelihoods turned upside down due to the pandemic. One facet of this quest is dedicating 10 percent of net profits to The Clinic, the Niles, Michigan-based roadie advocacy group established last year by veteran production pros Courtney and Paul Klimson. Their mission is to “empower and heal roadies and their families by providing resources and services tailored to the struggles of the touring lifestyle.”
Navigating The Curve
In the runup to the launch, ESS extensively researched and tested all viable conference audio, video, lighting and camera products available to offer a range of cost-effective turnkey packages. Each package includes appropriate, adaptable and space-efficient components plus proprietary meeting control plugins, and virtual backgrounds for home/office or travel use that meet their quality standards.
“The learning curve has been incredibly steep,” Robert Flood notes. “It’s been challenging building on our expertise in the live performance world and now bringing this technology platform that continues to evolve, to a new business world that my production partners and I are not familiar with. I sometimes feel like an ‘imposter’ trying to fit in. Thankfully, with the help of my father and others who have lived in the business world, we’ve been able to tap into skills that I alone don’t have.”
At the same time, Evans points out there’s a symbiotic relationship between the live and virtual realms. “I would say that it feels like a natural continuation of what we do day in, day out in the touring world. We’re always faced with new problems and new solutions. Matching solutions to problems is just part of what we do. So, this is just solving problems in a slightly different area. And this has been very exciting learning a new perspective on the world. But it’s still using a lot of the same concepts that come naturally to us, the idea of putting on a show and making things look and sound as best as they can. Our mindset, whether helping performers on stage, or helping the person giving a virtual presentation, is to help them feel confident so they can give their best performance.
A lot of homework went into the process, with countless hours spent exhaustively testing different devices that form all-in-one options so customers don’t need to go through the hassle and effort of trying to do it themselves. The company has also developed proprietary Custom Programmed Meeting Controls designed to provide users with intuitive control so that they can focus on the message and optimum delivery of it rather than trying to manage the tech.
Customers can purchase and self-implement the tech packages with ESS providing strong customer support to remotely guide them through the install process for a fee. In addition, the team also provides complete design and installation services of systems, ranging from simple to highly complex.
“With new technology comes new opportunities,” says ESS partner and virtual event producer Andrew J. O’Keefe II. “Our turnkey packages are designed to empower everybody to create a more dynamic and engaging virtual experience in any context, even without any previous technical experience.”
Myra Kressner, ESS partner and business-to-business (B2B) marketing specialist, adds, “Every business has needed to adapt and find creative ways to tell their story, sell their products and create a connection using a virtual platform. It’s in everyone’s best interest to have a turnkey package, or even customized solutions, for people not trained in ‘virtual performance’ to help them deliver a professional and compelling video-virtual experience as easily and affordably as possible.”
According to a November 2020 survey by Statista, a company specializing in market and consumer data, roughly 16 percent of respondents stated that their companies will be diverting between 41 to 50 percent of their travel volume to videoconferencing in 2021. Meanwhile, about 25 percent of the survey sample said that their organizations will be replacing more than 50 percent of travels with virtual meetings.
It should be noted that ESS doesn’t provide video conferencing software, with so many platforms already so readily available (i.e., Skype, FaceTime, Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, GoToMeeting, Zoom, and so on.) Rather, the company’s packages consist of components to deliver optimum results using these platforms, working seamlessly with modern devices that include desktop and laptop computers, as well as portable devices ranging from tablets to smartphones.
The packages, available at the company website, are tailored to specific needs and objectives. For example, the more advanced Desktop Pro package includes two Elgato Key Light Air diffuse lights with wireless brightness and hue controls, a unidirectional gooseneck microphone, a Logitech C920 HD webcam, an Elgato Streamdeck that serves as an intuitive control center, and more. Meanwhile, the streamlined Portable Pro package includes a Lumecube video conference light, a unidirectional clip-on (lavalier) mic, a more compact Elgato Streamdeck Mini, and other components. (Go here to find out more about packages offered by ESS.)
“I’ve been producing media for about 15 years. When I first started streaming about five years ago, I realized how easy it was,” O’Keefe states. “From that point on, I’ve not been looking at it in terms of “what’s challenging about how to plug this in here” or “stream on that platform there”. Instead, what I’m most focused on now is how to use these tools within online spaces to make that connection more authentic and real.
“Frankly, I think anybody can do streaming, even with the smartphone,” he continues. “But I think most folks are nervous about how to do it. And the transformation of the whole video industry to a more prosumer-oriented market has made much wider access to all these media tools. We all know that 13-year-olds can train themselves and stream to thousands of viewers on Twitch. To be clear, our company is possible because of all this new amazing technology that allows us to get these small little boxes of lights and mics and things that didn’t exist five years ago, as ubiquitously and affordably as they are now.”
The Path Forward
While the status of when live productions will return in full continues to be uncertain, it’s a sure bet that they will come back in a big way at some point – and hopefully much sooner than later. Yet there’s no denying that a monumental shift has occurred in the world of production in light of the dramatic events of the past year.
Businesses of all types are reassessing how they operate, where they’re physically located as well as the location of their employees, and more. It all points to a sea of change where virtual may indeed permanently replace several facets that used to be done in person.
As John Flood points out, “The medical field is conducting virtual office visits, all levels of government and legislature are conducting virtual hearings, online learning is exploding, financial service companies are conducting virtual market reviews, just to name a few. We believe that every industry has a need for professional and scalable virtual meeting packages, and that will continue.
“We’re seeing the biggest interest from those who are client-facing, as they see the greatest need to impress. While in-house is important, it is less critical than those with an outward look. We’re gaining traction with financial planners, account managers, sales professionals and senior executives.”
Data backs up the idea that things will be different as we all move forward. For example, according to Global Workplace Analytics, 82 percent of U.S. office workers say they want to continue to work from home, at least weekly, when the pandemic is over, and further, 56 percent of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible (at least partially) with remote work. Meanwhile, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget estimates that a typical employer can save about $11,000 a year for every person who works remotely half of the time.
With that in mind, there’s room for other live production professionals to lend their talents to this world. As Robert Flood advises, “The first thing to do is understand your strengths, what are you good at and reach out to business professionals who need that skill. In this changing world, people need the skills you bring. Lean on others in your network, family, friends and acquaintances that can connect you with businesses in your community you may not even be aware of”
John Flood concludes, “There’s an obvious need for what we all have to offer. John F. Kennedy famously said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ With this mindset and different look, we believe we collectively can open up all kinds of opportunity, and there is no shortage of need.”
Find out more about Executive Stream Solutions at www.ESS.rocks.