Roadies: Unlikely Survivors in the Music Business

Roadies’ elevation to ‘concert technicians’—the term many practitioners favor—is reshaping their culture
For today’s roadies, sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll are out; efficiency, tech skills, and professionalism are in, as musicians take to the road more often to make money

Neil Shah 03/19/15 WSJ.com

The shakeout that is rattling the music business is turning up some unlikely survivors: roadies, the black-clad backstage grunts of live shows.

“I know musicians who play on the road who make less money than the tech guys I know,” says Jimmy Davis, the stage manager for country singer Hank Williams Jr.

Roadies’ elevation to “concert technicians”—the term many practitioners favor—is reshaping their culture. Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll are out; efficiency, tech skills and professionalism are in. “We’re the Marines of the music business,” says Tom Weber, who got his start filling in for an absent roadie at a Kiss show 40 years ago.
.
Now 57 years old, Mr. Weber is one of many roadies who have converted a one-off gig into a career. In a good year, Mr. Weber, who lives in Kentucky, earns about $200,000—a princely sum for a nonprofessional job. He is in demand, with high-profile artists such as the Cult’s Billy Duffy balking at touring without him.

Mr. Weber has maintained guitars for Van Halen, Poison and Nine Inch Nails as well as country stars Reba McEntire and Lyle Lovett. Before each show he restrings nearly every guitar and says he has “never had an artist break a string on stage.”

One typical roadie job—sound engineering technician—pays $57,000 a year, on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (The figure doesn’t take into account the legion of roadies who are self-employed.) Surveys by the Berklee College of Music say a “front of house” live-sound engineer—the person who controls what concertgoers hear—earns at least $60,000 a year, and can top $120,000. Road managers can earn $125,000 or more. Tour coordinators? $175,000.
Speakeasy: A Day in the Life of a Roadie

The ascent of the concert technician reflects a seismic shift in the economics of the music industry. As concerts and festivals increasingly become a vital source of profits, cultural “middlemen”—label executives, talent scouts and other traditional tastemakers—are losing clout, experts say. Technical middlemen—artist managers, concert promoters, festival organizers, and social-media promoters, as well as DJs and roadies who mix sound at shows—are gaining it.

That makes bands increasingly reliant on live performances to make money, spurring demand for stage hands, instrument techs, sound mixers, lighting specialists and tour managers. The physical labor needed to erect elaborate, high-tech stages has spared most roadies. Their jobs can’t be moved to China or be done by a robot—at least not yet.

“Employment opportunities in the live-music industry have never been better,” says Gary Bongiovanni, the editor of Pollstar, a trade publication. “While record-company jobs have nearly disappeared, road- and tech-production-crew gigs continue to grow.”

It’s hard to pinpoint how many people work in the music industry because many of them toil in ancillary areas, such as promotion or transportation, that support artists. Federal surveys don’t track the industry’s scores of part-timers and freelancers.

The North American concert industry was valued at $6.2 billion in 2014, Pollstar estimates, up from $1.4 billion in 1994. Multiday festivals such as Coachella, Bonnaroo and Sasquatch! are flourishing, generating jobs to handle setup, security and operations.

Two years ago, Gavin Rossdale, a singer and guitarist in the rock band Bush, hired Mr. Weber for a gig. Before working with Mr. Rossdale, who is married to singer Gwen Stefani, Mr. Weber spent a week reading a 201-page manual for the Fractal Audio Axe-FX II, a complex guitar-effects system Mr. Rossdale wanted to use. To learn the ins and outs of the $2,300 system, Mr. Weber eventually bought one of his own.

“You have to know your stuff,” says Dick Adams, 69, a production manager for Metallica, Pearl Jam and Heart. A big part of the job is keeping up on the latest toys for musicians, he says. “You have to do a lot of reading.”

Despite the enduring caricature of roadies as tattooed guys with beer bellies in heavy-metal T-shirts, today’s concert hands often resemble computer geeks—and many of them are women.

“There are a lot of women in all kinds of positions—not just wardrobe and catering,” says Meg MacRae, 44, a tour manager and production coordinator who has worked with Bon Jovi and Neil Young. On a recent arena-size tour, she counted eight women among 60 crew members.

Ms. MacRae’s main job is putting out fires that inevitably erupt as her crews adapt to different venues. In between 18-hour days, she relaxes with yoga. Her only regret about her career: She and her longtime boyfriend haven’t had children. “I chose to marry the road,” she says.

The occasional brushes with celebrity and other flashes of glamour aside, working concerts isn’t for everyone. The job means extensive travel, which can be hard on relationships, and it often exacts a physical toll, including hearing loss. The flow of assignments can be irregular and the hours long and unpredictable. Roadies often earn a flat fee for a day’s work, whether it runs for four hours or 14.

Glen Rowe of Cato Music Ltd., a U.K.-based tour-production company that handles shows for bands such as Haim and Bastille, estimates that on a typical, arena-size tour, the average wage for crew members is around $450 a day. Entry-level crew members can earn around $200 to $275, Mr. Rowe says, though with experience, that can climb to as high as $1,500 a day.

Concert workers today are more likely to be foodies than junkies, says T.J. Hoffmann, a onetime roadie for Agnostic Front and Skid Row. He is making a documentary about “America’s last blue-collar army,” as he calls his colleagues. Crew members on a European tour don’t spend their days off “drinking and doing drugs,” the 45-year-old Mr. Hoffmann says. “They’re going to the Louvre.”

Harley Zinker, who just wrapped up work on three Interpol concerts in Mexico, says, “I don’t think we drink or do nearly as many drugs as people in finance do.” He started working two decades ago in New York City clubs. Nowadays, Mr. Zinker, 45, handles sound for performances by the Killers, the Strokes and others. He earns enough to take six weeks off between tours and put a chunk of money away for retirement. “It’s a very viable career,” Mr. Zinker says.

Longtime roadie Harley Zinker got his start working sound in New York City clubs like Brownies two decades ago. Now his resumé includes the Strokes and the Killers.

Mr. Zinker is what’s known as a ‘front-of-house’ engineer. While pay depends on the person—their experience, what bands they work for, how big the shows are—some ‘front-of-house’ engineers can make upwards of $120,000 a year, according to the Berklee College of Music.

It’s the job of Mr. Zinker to finalize the position of the band’s drum microphones.

As the band does a sound check, a local stage hand works on video projectors while Mark Powell, bottom right, adjusts lights and Harley Zinker, top left, adjusts sound.

There are more women roadies than in the 1970s and 1980s. Christina Moon, Interpol’s monitor engineer, is in charge of the sound that band members hear in their in-ear monitors during a performance. Ms. Moon, 40, also works for Death Cab for Cutie, Cat Power and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Perhaps the most visible roadies for audience members are instrument techs, since they sometimes briefly appear on stage. Here, Shawn Lobb tunes guitars ahead of the March 10 show.

Interpol performs. The band’s lighting is handled by production designer Mark Powell, who favors ’moody side and back light’ and ‘heavily-saturated monochromatic color palettes,’ he says.

Roadies and local workers begin the process of setting up the stage — lights, sound, video, instruments — for an Interpol concert at Auditorio Banamex in Monterrey, Mexico, on March 10.

Roadies and local workers begin the process of setting up the stage — lights, sound, video, instruments — for an Interpol concert at Auditorio Banamex in Monterrey, Mexico, on March 10. Adam Wiseman for The Wall Street Journal

Two local stage hands position a sound-mixing console for the opening band. Adam Wiseman for The Wall Street Journal

Longtime roadie Harley Zinker got his start working sound in New York City clubs like Brownies two decades ago. Now his resumé includes the Strokes and the Killers. Adam Wiseman for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Zinker is what’s known as a ‘front-of-house’ engineer. While pay depends on the person—their experience, what bands they work for, how big the shows are—some ‘front-of-house’ engineers can make upwards of $120,000 a year, according to the Berklee College of Music. Adam Wiseman for The Wall Street Journal

It’s the job of Mr. Zinker to finalize the position of the band’s drum microphones. Adam Wiseman for The Wall Street Journal

As the band does a sound check, a local stage hand works on video projectors while Mark Powell, bottom right, adjusts lights and Harley Zinker, top left, adjusts sound. Adam Wiseman for The Wall Street Journal

There are more women roadies than in the 1970s and 1980s. Christina Moon, Interpol’s monitor engineer, is in charge of the sound that band members hear in their in-ear monitors during a performance. Ms. Moon, 40, also works for Death Cab for Cutie, Cat Power and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Adam Wiseman for The Wall Street Journal

Perhaps the most visible roadies for audience members are instrument techs, since they sometimes briefly appear on stage. Here, Shawn Lobb tunes guitars ahead of the March 10 show. Adam Wiseman for The Wall Street Journal

Interpol performs. The band’s lighting is handled by production designer Mark Powell, who favors ’moody side and back light’ and ‘heavily-saturated monochromatic color palettes,’ he says. Adam Wiseman for The Wall Street Journal
.
Like many freelance or “gig economy” workers, less-experienced concert techs have little bargaining power over pay. Employers—sometimes musical acts, but more often production companies—hold the cards when negotiating contracts.

Wages tend to rise only when a roadie jumps to the next level by getting on a bigger tour, says Adam Zendel, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto who is writing his dissertation on roadies’ working conditions.

Few roadie jobs require formal credentials, so candidates with limited skills or experience can apply. That translates into a wide potential labor pool, he says, holding down wages for newcomers or roadies with scant experience.

Mr. Zendel, 28, paid his way through college in Canada by working as a freelance sound technician for shows by artists such as electronic-music star Skrillex and the metal band Cannibal Corpse. He was paid $300 a day working gigs for 100 fans or 10,000, he says, and after a while, he burned out.

But once a roadie gains a foothold in the industry and establishes a network, one gig often leads to another. Moving up to bigger tours from smaller ones is commonplace, concert workers say. And roadies routinely refer friends to potential employers when they can’t take gigs themselves. “It’s very incestuous,” Mr. Zinker says. On Crewspace, an invitation-only website, roadies land jobs, swap tips and share war stories.

After years on tour, some roadies take part-time jobs in construction or special-events production to smooth out their work schedule and travel less.

Mr. Davis, the stage manager for Hank Williams Jr., makes a little more than half his annual salary working for LogiCom, an entertainment and event-production company based in Nashville, Tenn. All told, Mr. Davis, who is 53 and lives in Alabama, brings home almost six figures a year. “It’s very good money,” he says.

In recent months, Mr. Weber, the guitar tech, has been on the road with Lyle Lovett, who tours with just two acoustics—simplifying Mr. Weber’s job. By evening’s end, if everything goes as planned, no one even notices what Mr. Weber has done.

But that doesn’t mean Mr. Weber leaves anything to chance. He restrings backup guitars, always has a contingency plan and maintains a professional demeanor.

When handing a guitar to Mr. Lovett, he says, it’s “Good evening, sir,” not “Hey, dude.”

How to Become a Roadie »

Eager for a behind-the-scenes view of concerts—over and over? If wanderlust strikes and backstage beckons, here’s some advice for breaking into life on the road. Although many roadies credit their careers to luck and serendipity, today there are a number of instruction options.

Christina Moon is in charge of the sound that band members hear in their earpieces during performances. She earned a music degree and worked in clubs before heading out on tour. Ms. Moon has worked for artists including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Death Cab for Cutie and Cat Power.

For newcomers, schools such as Full Sail University in Orlando, Fla., offer sound-production courses. Alabama resident Nick Bryant, who plays drums and wants to be a drum technician, starts classes at Full Sail in August.

For the moment, Mr. Bryant, 20, is working at Zaxby’s, a fast-casual chain restaurant. Much of his family has worked in nearby chicken-processing plants. Going to Full Sail will mean taking on debt, Mr. Bryant says, but after seeing his parents struggle in their jobs, he wants something different. “I want to be happy doing what I’m doing, no matter how much money I’m making,” he says.

Glen Rowe of the U.K.’s Cato Music Ltd. launched a training course last year in London—perhaps the world’s first “roadie school.” He wants to open locations in Los Angeles, Nashville and New York. Roughly half of Cato’s students—who each pay about $2,500 for the 11-week course—have been women.

Mollie MacGregor, a 20-year-old from Cardiff, Wales, took Cato’s course last year. In a guitar-maintenance workshop, Ms. MacGregor and 10 or so other students were put in pairs, given a guitar, tuner and strings, and taught how to tune and string guitars. Among the course’s written materials is a 12-page glossary of “roadie lingo” defining everything from “book of lies” (the tour itinerary) and “gig foot” (the condition of “having bits of tape stuck to your shoe”) to “Ohm’s law” (the “relationship between voltage, current and resistance”).

As in many fields, experience and contacts are critical to getting more concert work—and higher pay. Roadies must network constantly to snag jobs and fellow workers are often the best source of new gigs.

Advertisements

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: