When winter turns to spring the international club industry turns to Italy, making its pilgrimage to the Rimini Trade Fair for the SIB show--the premier event for lighting, sound, and scenic equipment for the after-dark market. SIB 98, to be held March 29-April 1, marks the last year the show will be held yearly, as it switches to a biannual schedule and resumes in the year 2000. On the eve of the transition, Lighting Dimensions spoke to key Italian players about shifts and trends in the disco capital of the world.

Founding partner Gabriele Giorgi of lighting, effects, and controller manufacturer SGM Electronica sees a change in the buying patterns of Italian club owners. "Technically advanced lighting was once considered a vital ingredient for discos, but now it's become an accessory," he says. "Money's being spent on other things, such as furnishings and fittings, so although we've maintained our overall share of the Italian market, club sales have dropped."

The firm's Italian sales manager, Marco Bartolini, says, "There's a tendency to buy less expensive products, but I'd say this is more the case with the disco bars, which are sprouting up all over the place and taking some of the clientele away from clubs. Light rigs in disco bars aren't as important as they are in clubs, so their owners tend to install cheaper hardware." He adds that "the slump in the disco market is also due to the large number of venues featuring Latin American music, which is all the rage recently; intelligent lighting isn't of primary importance there either. The result is that club attendance has dropped, so owners are investing less."

These days, Bartolini says light rigs are only changed when they become inoperable, not because club owners are rushing out to buy the latest toys, as in years past. "We've seen endless variations on the scanner theme for several years now, but the basic product has remained the same. The market has quieted down: Discos aren't the big draw they once were, and a lot are trendy venues, where you get 24 strobes per square meter, some UV lighting thrown in, and pile-driver sound pressure levels. Fortunately, we're making inroads on the live market with dedicated fixtures and control desks."

In contrast, Clay Paky sales manager Renato Ferrari says there's plenty of life left in the club sector: "1997 was a positive year for us, as far as discos were concerned," Ferrari says. "We've dedicated a lot of our research and development to precisely that market--in fact, one of the new products we'll be launching at SIB is particularly suited to club use."

Ferrari says that although everybody else seems to differ, the disco lighting market is not in recession in Italy. "Everybody knows that the clubs themselves are going through a difficult period," he says. "But this means that club owners have become more cautious. Those who take the plunge are more shrewd with their spending. Once bitten, twice shy--now, whether clubs are in crisis or not, owners are more prudent, demanding, and professional. Those who opted for quality products in the past, on the other hand, are reaping the benefits of that decision now."

Although Clay Paky hasn't put equipment into many brand-new venues recently, it considers venues like the 30-plus-year-old Quien Sabe to be new installations. Until recently, the hall, which features both ballroom dancing and disco nights (quite a common combination in Italy's larger nightspots), has only used traditional lighting. "Its management recently decided to offer something new to attract clientele," Ferrari says. "It chose to invest hundreds of millions of lire in a cutting-edge light rig and sound system--we put in no less than 35 Mini Scan HPEs and 20 Tiger HMI 575 units."

Ferrari adds that more than 70% of Italian clubs don't have scanners yet. "They're using traditional lighting, so the market's still there for intelligent lighting. The ideal combination is old-style effects, like our Astroraggi, which we originally released 30 years ago, and new hardware; the important thing is to know how and when to use each, or both, for the right atmosphere."

Technologically, "as far as discos are concerned, nothing's as good as a scanner," Ferrari concludes. "If you get a DJ spinning sounds at 200 beats per minute, that's the only type of instrument able to keep up with the beat; there's no alternative. There's an increase in moving-head fixtures in other fields--we'll be launching a small moving-head unit at SIB 98--but they won't replace the scanners."

Sangalli Tecnologie per lo Spettacolo is one of Italy's leading installers. Founder Dario Sangalli says, "I've noticed for some time that lighting and effects shows involving club clients are no longer sufficient to pull in or keep the crowds, no matter how spectacular they are. Up to six or seven years ago, club owners would come up to manufacturers' booths at trade expos and say 'I like this, that's nice, I'll take three or four of these,' and bought lots of scanners or other types of luminaires. This is no longer the case; fixtures today are costlier, and once you buy them you need someone with the ability and the experience to operate them. You can't just put a kid behind a controller." Sangalli Tecnologie advises clients to buy lighting based on their clubs' musical formats, "not just stick up 20 scanners and say 'OK, the lighting's taken care of.' "

To attract more club business, Mario Radice, managing director of Martin Professional Italy, says the company has tried leasing and rentals in that market. "Although the end user obviously has to meet certain financial requisites to qualify, there are definite advantages all around; products are paid for immediately, or clients can pay over a longer period, with the same kind of after-sales assistance they've always had. Clubs that are only open seasonally like rentals so that they can get a rig that suits them exactly, year after year, with the latest instruments." Radice says Martin's moving-head fixtures, like the MAC 500s and 600s installed at the Kings River Club in Jesolo, are making inroads in the market, "but we're hard-pressed to keep up with club demand, as the majority are destined for other markets, like concerts and theatre."

FAL's lighting and effects products are nowadays mostly destined for overseas markets, says technical director Omar Bertani. "Other countries are much more congenial and, if you will, professional," he says. "Payments are a headache and there are other problems, particularly in southern Italy. Plus, club light operators able to make the most of the equipment, like the moving-head units we see the trend toward, are few and far between; some clubs never even try any of the variations or new ideas we rack our brains trying to come up with." FAL does maintain scanner installations at Desenzano's Fura and Rimini's Altro Mondo Studios, which is one of Italy's first maxi-discos, dating back to the 60s.

Top club designer Beppe Riboli has recently hit trade press headlines in Italy thanks to groundbreaking venues such as Fura and Taotec, where the use of video projections is key. At Fura, the circular video screen hanging over the dance floor sometimes replaces the lighting; after projections, the screen folds away and scanners camouflaged as robots and alien creatures are lowered down on elevators from the roof for the light show. "It's a very theatrical idea, and also allows the look of the club to be changed constantly according to the images projected on the screen," Riboli says. "What I have against scanners is that although they can project dozens of images with their gobos, operators insist on using them on the crowd on the dance floor. All you can see are the beams; the designs are indistinguishable. Scanners definitely were the thing in clubs in the 80s, but I think they are destined to be replaced by moving-head instruments, as they cost less to build, are more reliable, and can be moved 360 degrees. They are the future."

Riboli, who is designing a worldwide chain of venues called Cream (the first opening in Sydney this October), concludes, "Although trade members probably notice the difference between the effects created by different makes of scanners, clubbers definitely do not. Why should owners decide to spend far more for one type of scanner when the difference in price is justified by extra functions, which 99.9% of his clients won't even notice?" The designer, who predicts an increase in the use of spectacular video projection in Italian clubs, says that "the role video/light ops play is increasingly important, and they should be more like theatre directors, with clubs as their sets, deciding when to change the look of the entire venue according to the atmosphere required."

Contributing editor Mike Clark is an Italian-based Scots journalist who can be contacted at mclark@rimini.com.