After speaking with Stewart Baxter about his work with the Independent Venue Week/Cato Academy ‘roadie school’ workshops, we thought it would be rude not to go down to one and see for ourselves
Full disclosure: although I am of course going to observe the Cato Academy workshop in my capacity as an impartial journalist, I am pretty jeffing excited about it. I’ve been around bands and the live music scene since I was a teenager; in the early 2000s in Reading seemingly everyone was in a band. In fact, most local musicians, at one point or another passed through just one band – Sylosis – who now have a pretty fixed line-up and are doing well for themselves in the international heavy metal scene. You have to kiss a lot of frogs and all that…. Speaking of which, my ex-boyfriend was a drummer and day manager/tour manager, and I actually owned my own drum kit for a brief spell at 16, so in short, I feel I know this world pretty well.
Our venue for the day is Village Underground in Shoreditch. I turn up on a nippy Saturday morning to find the place quite deserted – a quick call to IVW’s Dan Smith (aka ‘Smittens’) who is running the workshop today, and I realise I am at the wrong entrance. School girl error! I’m part of the crew now; we don’t arrive by the front door! “The room we are in today looks like it’s from the set of the second ‘Saw’ film”, Dan warns. Well, this IS my first roadie-o, but I know enough about backstage not to expect it to resemble the imminent arrival of Mariah Carey.
Our tutor for the day is Will Driscoll, a 26 year old production and stage manager and drum tech who has worked with Ella Eyre, Emeli Sande, Little Mix, The Vaccines and Hugh Laurie, to name a few.
When I arrive, Will is setting up his torture equip… I mean his AV rig; a video projector and powerpoint presentation run from his laptop – I’m getting in to the lingo already. As my fellow victims, I mean roadies arrive (ok I’ll quit with the Saw references now) Will is already displaying that integral stage-hand tenacity. In testing his projection, it’s clear that the overhead skylight is throwing too much light in to the room for the picture to be seen. If that were me being met with an uncurtainable window I would have admitted defeat immediately and mumbled some joke about how lucky we are to have such strong sunlight in at this time of year …. Will quips, “Sometimes I love the challenges of my job” and venue staff are dispatched to rustle up a large black swathe of material and a step ladder. Will and Dan then set about attempting to block out some of the light, and I notice a key weapon in the roadie arsenal is deployed for the first time: gaffer tape. If there’s anything I know about touring bands it is that everything is seemingly held together with gaffer tape; merch stands, the tour van, the bassist’s spinal cord… All through this plight Will is unflappable and cracking jokes; I can see how his personality must fit in well around highly strung musicians and those with ‘leader singer syndrome’.
As today’s attendees have been filtering in, I am proud to see that the majority are girls. In my experience, this industry is still male dominated, with women backstage falling foul of the ‘groupie’ tag, but this has seemingly shifted in the last ten years. Of course, it may be that girls are just more likely to put themselves forward for a course like this where you gain skills and connections in a more ‘formal’ setting; perhaps it is easier for boys to get in to the industry through the ground level networking? I can’t call it; maybe I’m being patronising, but it is encouraging to see so many girls interested in this career path.
The introduction ice breaker chats reveal the age range in the room as 16-24 and most already have some experience in the industry; some have or are studying related subjects at college and university and some play instruments, but all of them talk passionately about gigs they have been to and the music they love. It is to be expected, but it’s evident the first thing you need to work in this world is a passion for live music. This is drummed home in the Cato Academy video we are shown where guitar techs to production managers speak enthusiastically about their work – one is even close to tears recalling the specific moment every night on a tour when he feels the team has pulled it off. It’s hard to imagine an office based accounting clerk wistfully recalling in the same manner that magical moment they sent that invoice out last week… Of course, live production staff speak so emotively about their jobs because you have to put in a lot of graft to get there; the literal blood, sweat and tears. Chris Vaughan, tour production manager for Muse, highlights the kind of person that would do well in the industry, with traits including positivity, being a team player, a love of travelling and ‘doesn’t need a lot of sleep’. With lines from ‘Rock n Roll All Nite’ by the great band Kiss starting up in my head, Vaughan expresses satisfaction in his work because of its completeness – every tour is one ‘neat project’ of logistics and finances that can be closed off at the end. Well, apologies to aspiring accounting clerks, there is evidently a place for you in rock n roll after all. Raising awareness of this really is the point of the Cato course – there are 3 members in the band Muse, but 50 travelling hands and numerous local crews working on each tour. So who are they?
With the intro video over, Will begins to break all this down for us, explaining the various roles we’d expect to see on a large tour – but what is a large tour? Aha! He then breaks down the different types of tour, and different sizes of tour and we begin to see how all the various roles interlink and are needed. I find this fascinating, especially all the ancillary touring crew who complete tasks I’d never even thought of – such as the person who signposts backstage at a venue so the crew and band know where the catering area is, or the dressing rooms are, or to avoid anyone getting lost on their way to the stage, Spinal Tap style.
The group are then tasked with putting a ‘day in the life of a tour’ timeline together, where all the activities that make up one gig are presented to us in the wrong order and we have to methodically piece the process together; from what time various crew members need to arrive, to what equipment will be set up first, and – very importantly as my own stomach starts grumbling for lunch – when the breaks to hit up catering will occur.
After lunch, we get a taste of the more hands-on part of live production. Will is a drum tech, so naturally this is the instrument he has with him today. On the full course, all instruments and key pieces of equipment, such as microphones, are studied in-depth. Will talks us through the history of the drums – did you know the modern drum kit was born in New Orleans in the 1920s? We are also shown some examples of drum set-ups and we learn that on many tours there is a BYOB policy; Bring Your Own Breakables. As an unassembled drum kit understandably takes up a lot of space, drummers will sometimes use hired or venue provided drums, but will bring their own sticks, cymbals and snare. This is all making me feel very ‘coulda woulda shoulda’ as I think back to my old kit. She never sounded very good as I didn’t have her tuned and a few of the heads should have been reskinned; I ended up selling her to another ex who was a drummer. If I had my time again I would have cared more about making these changes and been more involved in how I wanted the kit to sound.
Then the really exciting bit happens, the room is challenged with putting together and dismantling a kit. I don’t get involved, though I have helped take apart a kit a few times, which you would not have thought after the cack-handed display I made of helping Will and Dan pack down the chairs after the session. I’m surprised by how apprehensive the group seems at this hands-on task, but then I realise that this route in to the industry is probably more likely to attract people who love music but are not first and foremost musicians, and a drum kit isn’t exactly something we’d expect to find in every home. Most of the people I know who have wound up working in live music production all started in bands and haven’t studied on a course such as the Cato Academy one. Both routes in seem equally as popular and successful, which is probably down to one of the key points I have taken away from today; success in the industry constitutes 50% skill and 50% personality. Will’s closing statement again picks up on this, and like a great gig, leaves on the perfect note:
“Your IQ is only responsible for determining about 20% of your chances of success. The other 80% is determined by your social and interpersonal skills and your emotional intelligence.”
Although the workshop has been peppered with hints at the expected road life debauchery, far from being ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’, this is more ‘sets, plugs and rock n roll’. Will stresses that bad reputations spread faster than good, and this industry is so weighted in reputation. You can’t have passport or visa issues; even if it’s just in one country you hold a previous criminal conviction which means you can’t enter, it may be that you won’t be booked for the entire tour.
Understandably a lot of the questions in the Q&A session at the end pick concern the repeated references to road crew workers as ‘running their own business’; you need to budget, plan ahead and save in order to manage the freelance lifestyle this industry demands. Today has succeeded in opening my eyes to how many different routes there are in to working in live music production. The focus has been on the touring stage crew side, but Will has made sure to mention that there are local venue staff and ‘office’ jobs for those not keen for a life on the road, and he has succeeded in showing how these roles are all important and fit together. One thing is for sure; I won’t be able to go to a gig again without wondering about all the behind-the-scenes hard graft that has had to happen before the doors are opened on us – the mere, beer-spilling punters.
For more information on Cato Academy courses, please visit http://catoacademy.co.uk/