This year’s AES Show in New York saw a number of welcome changes.
The AES Show returned this year to New York City, after one of its biennial peregrinations to Los Angeles (and semi-regular side trips to San Francisco), where the studio landscape has been further disrupted, with the recent loss of MSR Studios and a few other longstanding studio brands, and with Avatar Studios just two months earlier having been subsumed by the Berklee College of Music. There are still a few big names left, including Electric Lady Studios, Germano Studios, and Jungle City. But they sit atop a weird whack-a-mole landscape in which facilities try to stay one step ahead of developers and gentrifiers, looking for space in a place where there’s less and less of it every day. However, it was also clear that this year’s show represented a significant shift in its arc, one that augurs well for the future.
For the first time, AES partnered with another trade show, the NAB Show New York. It’s a useful cross-pollination with another audio-centric vertical and a smart move that creates strategic alliances, as AES’s core of music production continues to Balkanise and diffuse from studios to spare bedrooms to laptops and smartphones. NAB is the face of broadcast technology in the US, and broadcast audio is robust and protean, lately undergoing a series of evolutionary changes that have kept it sharp and relevant, such as the recently completed ATSC 3.0 set of standards, which certified immersive, object-based audio as part of the fabric of media infrastructure.
Broadcast is a place where audio is being challenged, in a good way, every day. It’s also an excellent match with the AES’s traditional emphasis on academia and theory.
AES also put diversity front and centre this year. The Diversity Town Hall event had a panel featuring some of the more accomplished women in pro audio, including Leslie Ann Jones, a four-time Grammy winner who was a staff engineer at Capitol Studios from 1987 to 1997 before taking her current post as Director of Music Recording and Scoring with Skywalker Sound, and Terri Winston, Executive Director of the Women’s Audio Mission (WAM), recording engineer, music producer, and tenured professor and director of the Sound Recording Arts Degree Program at the City College of San Francisco.
The discussion, led by Leslie Gaston-Bird, the first African-American to serve on the AES Board of Governors, focused more on gender than race. Both are strewn with cultural land mines at the moment — race relations have been strained by a seemingly never-ending string of racially lopsided police shootings, and irritated by newly aggressive Confederate symbolism, and the news is a rogue’s gallery of powerful media-industry males fired over sexual harassment charges. So the Diversity & Inclusion panel and committee were making their debut in a context of considerable volatility.
Gender seemed to offer the best footing. As it turns out, the AES have made attempts to quantify their gender make-up over the years, but that effort has been hampered by the fact that most respondents to their surveys opt out of reporting their gender. A 2000 survey estimated that five percent of those working in pro audio were female; a 2016 canvass found seven percent of their members were women. The future may be better balanced, though still hardly equitable: an article in The Atlantic magazine, which was widely cited during the panel, reported that 15 to 20 percent of current students in engineering classes at Berklee College are women, while male students regularly outnumber female students 5 to 1 at the Recording Engineers Institute in New York, and that the University of Colorado’s Recording Arts Program reported seeing 45 female applicants compared to 170 male applicants.
The answers that this committee are seeking will depend on it asking the right questions: does the gender ratio in pro audio need to reflect that of the society it functions in? To what extent are women being systematically excluded from engineering and production roles, versus choosing, or not, to participate? A bias against women in certain media sectors is well documented — they’ve been notoriously hounded online by trolls in the video game industry, and literally the week of the AES Show over 200 women in the animation business signed an open letter to all the major animation studios, including Disney, Sony and Cartoon Network, demanding industry leaders take measures to end sexual harassment in that workplace. The issue extends to many careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) industries: women are represented in lower numbers than in the general population.
On the other hand, how much of this is baked into the larger culture? As one female technologist told The Guardian earlier this year, “Society doesn’t see technical women enough so it’s assumed that they don’t exist and ‘technology isn’t something women do.’” And good luck arguing about DNA. But to the Leslie-Ann Joneses, Piper Paynes, Emily Lazars and Terri Winstons of the world of pro audio, and the thousands (yes, thousands) of other women who’ve already made this business a better place (including Vickie Fabry and Tay Hoyle, engineers I worked with for much of my studio career), thank you. I hope the D&I committee makes a positive difference.
One other major change in the AES Show structure is that it will take place again in New York next year, again co-located with the New York NAB Show. Its detours to San Francisco are almost certainly over, and specific visits to Los Angeles may be fewer and further between, though that may be ameliorated by the announcement that AES will also have a significant presence at the Winter NAMM Show in January, something I’ve been advocating for years. Suburban Anaheim is a far cry from the hipster paradise of downtown LA, but it’s a pairing that will reinvigorate the former’s sense of mission and enhance the latter’s broadening constituency. In a time when the lines between audio and video, producer and musician, engineer and creative have blurred to the point of invisibility, AES’s willingness to collaborate augurs well for pro audio’s future. It’s good to have friends.