The next time you go to a festival and stand in front of a stage that looks like it’s been chopped off the back of an aircraft hangar, I want you to ask yourself the following questions: how did it get there?; was it there last week, and will it be there tomorrow?; who made sure that the sound that comes out of those colossal speakers is loud but not deafening?; how do the twinkly lights dangling from that truss always seem to kick in to life when the guitarist launches into his solo?; why are those men in three-quarter-length shorts and black T-shirts (for they are invariably men, mostly in three-quarter-lengths, and seldom out of black T-shirts) looking so miserable as they tinker with the dials on the amps?; why do the band always ask for “more vocals in the monitor”?
By contemplating all of these questions, you will be weighing in your hands the largely ignored roles of the tech and production crew: those shadowy, saintly figures who make live music happen. Most of us are so wrapped up in experiencing the thrill of live performance that we rarely spare a thought for these mechanics behind the world of live music. Spike Beecham knows more than most about the vagaries of working in the shadows of stacks and monitors, having worked as a stage or production manager on events all round the world for over a decade. His company, THE MUSIC CONSORTIUM, began by providing local crewing to Leeds Festival, and has since expanded to supplying technical event support services to all manner of festivals, exhibitions and venues across the globe. In a bid to find out a little more about the lot of the underappreciated techy, we asked Spike to debunk some of the myths and tell us why we all owe them a debt of gratitude.
What follows is a message from the great Henry Rollins to all you budding rock stars out there: “Listen to the stage manager and get on stage when they tell you to. No one has the time for your rock-star bullshit, none of the techs backstage care if you’re David Bowie or the milkman. When you act like a jerk, they are completely unimpressed with the infantile display that you might think comes with your dubious status. They were there hours before you building the stage and they will be there hours after you leave tearing it down. They should get your salary and you should get theirs.”
So hands up who actually knows what a stage manager or a tech does, or what any of the crew does, for that matter? Lighting technicians anyone? Riggers? You may be more familiar with our American friends’ catchall phrase, “roadies”, whilst we Brits prefer to use tags that better explain our role on the road: guitar tech, sound engineer and so on. The point I’m making is that, although there are enough column inches written about bands on tour to sink the Titanic on a monthly basis, very little seems to be known about the dark arts of the touring crew. Although they are spoken about in hushed tones and are known by mythic names whose origins stem from the great and mysterious land of rock and roll legend – Mugger, Digby, Polaris, Stanna, Shippo, Bamo, Stone, Nick the Hat (all genuine) to name a few – little is known about what they do during the day, just what they get up to after the trucks are packed up at night.
Traditionally, the best crew are half magician, half cynic, able to solve any technical issue with gaffer tape and a sharp knife while simultaneously shaking their heads and guffawing at the (more often than not) bombastic demands of a drunken vocalist who’s decided he wants to do a soundcheck, er… now. Today, the role of any member of a successful touring crew is one that sees them spanning the globe and combines hours of frenetic activity, in order to the get the gig up and running, with hours of waiting around doing nothing. That’s when the boredom sets in, the mischief starts and taking care of the gear becomes taking care of the “gear”.
To coin a phrase from Springsteen, this job was born in the USA in the 1960s, when the roadie was essentially part of the band and was respected by the fans; but that evolved and by the 70s the roadie became the person who got booed by the punters when they took the band offstage at the end of the show. These days, being a member of the backstage crew is a bit like being a social worker with a tool kit. If things go wrong on stage, you don’t mince about and make a big song and dance: egos must remain firmly in check when the act is on stage, so that they remain relaxed and able to perform. You fix the problem with the minimum amount of fuss and return to the shadows. The act may or may not be aware that there’s a problem, but either way will give you a certain amount of time and space to get the issue sorted. The guy who takes the band off the stage at the end of the show still has to put up with the odd bit of booing: I should know because more often than not that’ll be me, as I’m usually either the stage manager or the production manager – as the job of the person that takes the act off stage is now called. Once the act leaves the stage, as Rollins stated, we tear it all down, load it into trucks and move on.
In conclusion then, and for the record, if it wasn’t for the rest of the crew/technicians – whether they are operating on the stage, backstage or at front of house – I wouldn’t be able to get booed at all, because without that crew the act would never have been able to start the show in the first place. After reading this, you budding rock stars may still have no idea what these guys do, and to be honest that might be for the best, but show some respect, please. Because, although they may tread lightly and talk softly in your presence, just remember that, when they’re standing behind the amps in the dark, they all carry knives and the odd hammer… to fix things with, obviously.
For more information about the services that The Music Consortium offer, head to themusicconsortium.com.
Spike also writes a regular blog about some of the stories and experiences he encounters from his position side of stage. Head to themusicconsortium.tumblr.com to read more of these tales.