Columnists / Ella Marshall

Life as a roadie

By ella marshall, Wednesday Dec 6, 2017

I’ve just spent 18 days working on a live music arena tour, stopping at 12 cities across the length and breadth of the UK and living as the only female and the youngest on a 16-bunk tour bus.

Living, breathing and sweating the touring industry for what is a relatively short amount of time in comparison to the often month-long slogs across continents that ‘roadies’ usually undertake, I learnt a lot.

It occurred to me as I observed crowds, rather than the band, from side of stage, that often gig goers are totally unaware of the sheer effort and skill that is necessary to put a show together.

We have eyes only for those parading the stage, and yet a glance behind you will often open up a whole other world of craftsmanship as that is where the front of house sound and lighting engineers make the magic happen with a huge array of sliders and buttons and systems.

If you squint behind the stage sets, often you will glimpse a tech dressed in black, taking care of the instruments and – totally out of sight – there is always a production team and a promoter ensuring that the gig happens.

I took some time to interview a few of the skilled people I met on this tour to demystify what life is really like as a roadie:

How did you end up in your current role?
The drum tech: “I was playback tech for ages and then a drummer I’ve known for years needed a tech. I think it was him that suggested it actually…It can be not ‘what you know’ but ‘who you know’ in the music industry but in order to know those people you have to know something in the first place – so it’s a bit of both…A lot of it is luck – right place right time- and being free to commit to an artist and do a tour. It’s not all about who you know but you do need that break of knowing the right person to get you a gig in the first place. Once you’ve been given that opportunity, you can make it happen for yourself.”

The monitor engineer: “I’ve been in bands since I was in high school and I always had an interest in the technical jobs. I did a nine-month full intensive school and got a diploma in audio engineering. I wanted to work in a studio but I actually started in a venue and then ended up being adopted by touring bands. I moved to England (from Italy) because it’s the biggest music industry in Europe. England exports rock ‘n’ roll and Italy exports pizza and mozzarella. The bands there sing in Italian so the industry there is self-contained; the bands will just tour Italy.”

The front of house engineer: “I did a degree in architecture and I hated every minute of it. In the third year, I was working in a practice drawing factory sheds and listening to my cassette Walkman. I realised that the music I was listening to was more important to me than the factory sheds I was drawing. I decided that when I finished my degree, I would try and get a job in a studio because often I would read all the sleeve notes on albums and think how cool it must be to be one of those people in that studio when that music was made. So when I finished my degree, I asked some studios for jobs but most of them wouldn’t let me through the front door. Eventually I did a course – three months on a year course – and when I went round the studios again, I had enough experience that one of them said yes. But I was doing a lot of work for nothing because that was the only way to get in. So I did studio sound for six or seven years and then I started doing live sound because some of the bands asked if I wanted to go on tour with them. Live sound and studio sound are two very different things. If you’re working with a good band in the studio then it’s great but if you’re working with a bad band it can be monotonous and boring. Touring is fun but you have to deal with being away from home.”

In Bristol, it seems our live music venues are constantly under threat from residential developments, do you think the live music industry as a whole is suffering?

The drum tech: “Live music is still the strongest part of the the music industry. That’s where the artists make the most money due to streaming and record sales being down. So it’s always going to exist. People are always going to want to see their favourite artists performing.”

The front of house engineer: “I think the live music industry will always survive. When clubs are closing because people are knocking down buildings and putting up residential properties, yeah, that’s wrong because there needs to be a level of smaller venue where bands learn their craft. There is a need for those venues. If someone moves into a district where there has been a venue for years and years and they come in and start complaining about the noise then that’s wrong. You knew that was there. Hyde Park used to be a festival that was 80,000-capacity over 10 nights and then one year because there were 130 complaints over the summer complaining about the noise and amount of people there, the council reduced it to 60,000-capacity and only eight nights there. So 120,000 people now can’t go to Hyde Park to watch the bands that they want to see because 130 people complained and over those 10 nights, it was probably the same 13 people complaining each night.”

I’m one of four women on this tour out of a crew of about 40. Why do you think the industry is so male dominated and are you noticing more women entering the touring industry?

The drum tech: “It shouldn’t be but it is very male dominated. People assume that women wouldn’t be able to do this job due to the physical side of it.”

The front of house engineer: “Yes and no. There has always been women around and I’ve always known female engineers. But I think that women have to work harder just to achieve the same level of respect that guys get because there are a lot of guys on tour who are really shit at their job. So if a guy messes up it’s just like ‘oh it’s so and so’ but if a girl messes up then it’s because she’s a girl and there is that different attitude. It’s definitely changing and getting better.”

In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion around masculinity and the impact this has on male mental health. Do you think this manifests itself in touring in any way?

The drum tech: “I’ve not really come across it. It can be very stressful. Doing this job, missing people at home, being away from home and you get put on the road with people for x amount of time that you have to get on with to make sure your job works. I’ve seen people pushed to their limit of being stressed out and being like, ‘I want to go home, put me on the next flight home’. It depends on who you are touring with. I’ve been on gigs that are really supportive and I’ve been on ones that offer nothing.”

The front of house engineer: “Well you have to be very thick skinned because a lot of people will take the piss out of you. Nobody will really ever tell you that you’re any good. On one of the first tours I ever did, I was told that if people start being nice to you, it’s because you’re about to get fired. So people tend to put up a lot of defence mechanisms and there’s a lot of masculinity and bravado.”

What is the best and worst thing about being on the road?

The monitor engineer: “The best thing about my job is travelling, but everyone would say that. I think that being with a lot of people for a short amount of time, you learn straight away who you click with and you create strong relationships. Although, being on tour is kind of a false environment. When the tour is over, it’s really difficult to meet up with the same people. The worst thing is probably that it’s difficult to build a social life at home.”

The front of house engineer: “Doing a big sold-out show or the main stage of a festival or something like that, that’s the best bit. Mixing in front of 60,000 people, that’s a real buzz. The worst part of it is being away from home.”

Is the ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ perception of touring really true to life?

The monitor engineer: “It depends. I don’t party much or do drugs. If you want it to be true then it can be true. I’ve ended up in tours where everyone is partying and I’m the only one not.”

The drum tech: “What my mates think I do is so different to what it actually is. It is actually really fucking boring a lot of the time and there is lots of sitting around waiting. You might get the perk of a party every now and then but a lot of it is just packing and unpacking trucks. Everyone is interested in the idea that you can get bang on fucking coke every week and rat arsed every night. And sure you can do that for the first couple of days of the tour but then you remember that you have to get up at eight every morning.”

………….

The night before each ‘day off’ or ‘travel day’ is a roadie Friday. This means more socialising and late nights (or early mornings) on the bus. A day off is usually a day sleeping in a hotel, perhaps catching up with loved ones over FaceTime.

The people I met and worked alongside during my short sprint on tour would probably describe themselves as grumpy old men hardened by a life on the road but I witnessed camaraderie unlike any other working environment and an overwhelming amount of unappreciated hard work.

Spare a thought for the roadies next time you’re up close and personal with your favourite band.

Ella Marshall is currently on a gap year between school and university. She is the founder of the Freedom of Mind festival and a former Member of the UK Youth Parliament for Bristol. This is the second in her new fortnightly column for Bristol24/7.

Ella Marshall

Read more: ‘We’re all nasty women’

Related articles