Live-sound employment is now more competitive than ever, so how can you stand out from the crowd? We asked some of the leading teachers and employers in the industry for their advice.
As a live-sound engineer, the question I am most asked, and the one I hate to try and answer, is: “How do I get a foot in the door?” It’s many years since I started in the business. At school, I had an idea I wanted to be a sound engineer, but received no useful responses from my careers advice teacher: it was up to me to investigate the options, and the only obvious career path for me at the time was the BBC. I duly applied to join as a trainee and was invited up to London for an interview, finding myself at the impressive and daunting marble-columned façade of Bush House. I immediately turned around and went to BHS to buy a smarter tie.
Unfortunately, I was ill-prepared and, despite getting through the first interview, my lack of A-level physics curtailed my BBC career. Undeterred, I continued playing in bands and engineering with my own small PA system, before I finally started working for a local sound company. After many years, I had a reasonable amount of experience and started getting my own gigs and touring full time. It was a long, hard slog: a mixture of apprenticeship with equipment rental and operator company Tiger Hire, and finding things out for myself.
For many of my contemporaries, this is a familiar route: playing in a band, hanging around the local sound company or music venue, helping out and gradually getting more and more involved. So what has changed since my day? I decided to ask around for a few opinions, and to find out how best to get that important first break.
As it happens, I was due to take my son to a gig at a local open-air venue, where the sound was being provided by a local sound company, P&L, with mixing desks being provided by Liverpool’s Adlib. These two companies in many ways represent the extremes of the sound rental business: P&L operate a small family-run lighting, sound and disco equipment business on the East coast, while Adlib are now a major company in the touring and installation market, employing over 80 people at their base in Speke, near Liverpool. I took the opportunity to talk to the bosses of both companies, Phil Laycock from P&L, and Andy Dockerty, MD of Adlib Audio Ltd, to find out more.
Education is now a major presence in the music business, with many universities, colleges and schools offering a variety of related degrees, so I decided to also get some opinions from my old mentor from Tiger Hire, Jim Parsons, who is now a course leader at Plymouth’s DBS Music, as well as the forthright Darryn De La Soul from London’s Alchemea, a popular training ground for a lot of up-and-coming young engineers. She also runs a company called SoulSound, a sound-engineer agency through which events organisers can hire engineers, and which helps young engineers gain employment and advance their careers. To balance the North/South divide, I also spoke to David Anderson, whom I first met at Newcastle college and who now teaches in Gateshead.
For a student perspective, I took advantage of bumping into Richy Nicholson, who was looking after things for Adlib, and local lad Mike Hanson, who has recently graduated and, after much searching, has just found his first job in audio. This is only a small-cross section of the industry, but I was keen to poll them all for their thoughts.
I first asked the educators how they prepared their students for future employment. All had a slightly different slant that was in some ways reflective of the area of teaching they were involved. As Darryn put it, “The subject of live sound is, by its nature, neither particularly academic nor set in stone. Every situation is different and the skills that are really required to be successful are adaptability, and the means to make the best of a bad job and still put on a show with half a microphone and three bits of gaffer tape. So while we at Alchemea do our fair share of classroom teaching, we also get students out into the real world, getting experience at real gigs.”
Jim from DBS Music adds: “If you start by designing a course that has useful, up-to-date and relevant subjects in the curriculum, you need to find a way to deliver the subject in an interesting way, and of course to assess the depth of understanding that the student has gained. So it all follows from a good understanding of the industry and what types of competencies are required.”
All courses are not equal, though, and Dave was keen to dispel any thoughts that a short, easy media course was always a good option. “Foundation degree/HND and BA students have a realistic approach to applying and achieving employment within the industry. However, expecting a Level 3 National Diploma student to work straight after their course is very unrealistic. Although some Level 3 students can go directly into employment, they are almost always mature students with employment history. Level 4, 5 and 6 students tend to have made a conscious effort and financial commitment to gain a place in the industry.”
Jim adds: “If you have two candidates for the post and one has a formal qualification but in other respects they are equal, then the academic skills of self-organisation, criticism and analysis should make the degree student a more rounded and capable candidate.”
There are several ‘sound engineering and media’ type courses around at the moment, but several people I spoke to recommended doing a more traditional degree, such as physics or engineering. I have to agree: I now wish I had spent more time studying acoustics and physics, which now occupy more of my time than I would ever have considered when I was at school.
I asked Andy what route, from his industry perspective, he would recommend: “The area of the industry that we describe as ‘live production’ unfortunately does not recognise most of the qualifications out there,” he said. “The theatre sector, however, does, as most of the courses originate from that area.”
But what could be done to help those already in courses? “In a nutshell, better advice given to youngsters before leaving school, and a bit more understanding of this industry from career advisers. We at Adlib have managed, over a period of years, to convince the colleges that we were the specialists in the creative field, and to please leave us to teach that”
But is there an educational route that he would recommend? “We firmly believe that a day release course as an electrical engineer provides a far better foundation for any sound engineer and lighting designer, and it also provides two choices in life. If, at the end of the apprenticeship, they don’t make the grade as a sound or lighting person, at least they have a qualification that means they can go out and earn a living — not something that is likely with a theatre studies qualification.”
I knew that Adlib had always been very pro-active in recruiting young people into the industry. I have worked with many of their trainees at various gigs around Liverpool, and many of them, like Richy Nicholson, have now moved up the ladder and are respected engineers in their own right. I asked Richy about his start.
“I was hoping to get into the business to actually play in bands. I was brought up playing music from an early age and loved it. At the age of 18, I was offered the opportunity to work in the warehouse of an audio company and tag along to various gigs to learn what the live industry actually involved. At the time, I was able to work alongside playing in the band that I’d been in through school, but eventually, as I progressed, I became too busy and had to choose between the two.”
I also asked him what training he’d had prior to starting at Adlib. “I studied music and science until I was 18, up to A-levels. The school I was in purchased a PA system, and that was generally left with myself and some other students to operate for the various ambitious theatre or panto shows they put on each year.”
So how did working at Adlib help? “I was able to learn from many of the engineers at the time. Anything from learning about the amplifiers and cabling systems that I was checking or cleaning, to how the various speakers we owned actually worked together. If it wasn’t for the open and helpful nature of the staff at Adlib, and their willingness to educate the younger staff, I’d never have learned everything I think I know at the minute! I genuinely believe that what companies like Adlib are doing with younger up-and-coming engineers is the way forward to securing a future. If there were some higher-education courses that could offer a better mix of practical experience with real technical knowledge, I think that would be of great benefit.”
It’s important to note that employers like Adlib tend to train staff to fill numerous roles, which will usually encompass all aspects of the job, from the bottom up. They tend not to be looking specifically for great engineers, rather good all-rounders with a broad set of skills. The combination of working in the industry to learn some of those skills while going to college part time seems to me like a good way forward, then. So is such a system available?
David Anderson has been running university courses with strong industry ties for many years, and is quite outspoken on the relevance of university courses to the industry. “I saw my course as a guided first year in the industry, as opposed to just the last year of college, and it has seen some very successful graduates. Unfortunately, one of the reasons I left my former college was the lowering of academic standards and a reduction in the practical bias, creating a booklet-based course.
“Places like Alchemea and SAE have great industry respect due to their low student numbers and high teaching quality. They are independent and are capable of expansion and re-investment, yet retain the quality. This is the model the industry should push colleges towards. Education seems to currently operate a sausage-factory mentality with little regard to the future vocational options for its specialist graduates.”
I thought this was a harsh comment, but then I have also witnessed courses that seem to have been designed just to attract students, with little attention to content. So how does Darryn see things from her perspective at Alchemea? ”Firstly, we never, ever lie to the students about what their career prospects are. Even before they sign up for the course, I make sure they are aware that they will be starting at the bottom of the ladder, and earning a pittance for the first year or more of their careers.
“Managing expectations is important, and it also means that prospective students can make informed decisions about whether they are going in the right direction. Anyone who goes into live sound for the money is likely to be sorely disappointed.
“Secondly, we get our students out on real gigs, both big and small, working alongside older engineers. Not only does this build their confidence and experience, but it also gets them networking and meeting the people they need to meet in order to build a career. Over the past few years of running a live-sound diploma, I have found that young engineers still need a couple of older guys to take them under their wing, and give them opportunities they would not have been able to find on their own. Just like in the old days.”
Jim at DBS Music adds: “One thing that we are trying is the idea of accelerated, fast-track courses, which mean students save time and money and get out into the marketplace sooner. We also have outside ‘real-world’ gig experiences for our students, because understanding how the classroom theory relates to the hard graft and tough time schedules of commercial shows is an essential component of the learning process”
Obviously there’s a benefit in training for businesses as well as colleges, but as Andy Dockerty says, there is very little even companies the size of AdLib can do, due to the financial cost of taking on trainees.
“The industry is under-resourced, and most businesses are busy looking after themselves, but I believe that businesses could potentially offer more work experience opportunities to young people prior to them leaving school. This should be initiated by the schools, via government. The colleges are also businesses, and attracting young people onto glamorous music-tech-based courses is quite easy for them. They need the time and resources from local government to be able to present the truth and research the industry more. If they act today, it will still take them two years, minimum, to do anything, obviously putting them two years behind… Work-based training is the answer.”
Phil backed this up: “We are only a small company with just three full-time staff and six regular freelancers. We just don’t have the resources to train people on a full- or even part-time basis. However, if someone does show an interest they can come and get a bit of experience on a voluntary basis.
“I look for a few different things in potential employees. They have to be keen and interested in the business, and equally they have to be punctual and reliable, and turn up looking presentable. We are a small company and a lot of our work is seasonal, so we can’t maintain a large staff, but freelancers still need to represent the company in the right way, and that means working hard and having a good attitude. If the government were to help then we would love to be able to offer more help to students, but until then it just isn’t viable.”
It seems there’s still lots to be done to provide proper training and education that will lead into employment in the industry. What can people do themselves to try to get experience and eventual employment? I pressed everyone for a few home truths. “Be aware of the industry you are coming into, and if you are not 100 percent committed, go and do something else,” says Andy. “The youngsters who succeed generally know they want to do this before leaving school — those who are introduced to it as a glamorous option tend to move into other areas — so be focused, show passion and desire. Try to work as early as possible with local venues or rental companies. Experience in this industry, as it currently stands, outweighs the average qualifications.”
Darryn is even more forthright: “Say ‘yes’ to every opportunity that comes your way. Work for free if you have to; you never know who you might meet at that voluntary gig. Watching Cash In The Attic is no way to get your phone to ring. There are various venues where you can volunteer to engineer (try your local jazz club, for example), which keeps your hand in, keeps you meeting people and puts your energy out into the world. The more energy you put into finding work, the more likely you are to find it. Simple, I know, but so many people make the mistake of not making an effort. Like with all aspects of life, the more you put in, the more you get out.
“Have a good Internet presence. Privatise your Facebook photos of drunk nights out, and present a more professional self. Join LinkedIn. Get a professional email address: Hotmail is for kids and inevitably ends up with you spamming everyone in your address book, so switch to something more professional. Buy your own name as a domain. It’s cheap enough and looks better on a business card. Have attractive business cards made and always have them to hand. If someone takes your number on their phone, they’re likely to forget your name by morning, and then you’re just one of the many numbers on their phone that they have no idea who they are.
“Impress people. Volunteer to do the shitty jobs: the guy you’re trying to impress will really appreciate it. Make them remember you as someone they’d actually like to work with again. Always be prepared to work at the last minute. Much work that goes to young ‘uns goes to them because all the more experienced guys are unavailable. Whatever you’re doing, if they need someone on the other side of town in the next half hour, say ‘yes’ and get there as fast as you possibly can. Never be snobby about what work you take: club nights might be long and a touch on the boring side, but they pay the rent. You have to take the bad gigs with the good, especially when you’re starting out.”
Jim adds: “Collaborate, network and keep up to date with new developments. Be keen, take every opportunity that you are offered and be flexible in what you are prepared to do.”
As an example of youthful keenness, I was recently introduced to a local 24-year-old engineer who politely pestered me for advice, work and help. In many ways, Mike Hanson exemplified a lot of the right ways to get into the business, so I quizzed him on his background.
“I chose music technology as an extra subject at sixth form college, as I initially wanted to be an architect,” Mike told me. “I was going to drop music technology after the first year, but I enjoyed the lessons so much that I decided to alter my career path and follow the music-tech route into university instead. At Hull University, I chose to do Creative Music Technology, and I thoroughly enjoyed the course, as there was so much variety between the modules. I covered different areas of expertise, such as live sound, studio production, radio and songwriting, and I ended up achieving a BA Hons.
“At university, I did feel I learned a lot in the various areas that music tech covers, especially in live sound. However, there was a lack of advice on how to further your career after university, and there were no schemes to give you work experience at professional venues, studios or radio stations — you were left to fend for yourself once the course had finished. But then a couple of positions became available at a local venue, the Spa Theatre, which were advertised online.” Luckily, Mike got the job thanks to a good interview and, I am sure, the strength of his personality, as well as his academic grounding. “It was the first opportunity I had working in the industry, three years after I had completed university. I am now working at the Spa as a lighting and sound engineer, playing guitar in local rock band Lazlo, and am in the process of setting up a local recording studio called Skarthi Studios.
“In terms of experience of live sound, I first started playing in bands from the age of 14 at local venues. I would always get involved in setting up all the gear, the mics, the amps, and so on, and spoke to the engineers to gather more information on how to achieve a better sound. If you feel this is an area you want to study and make a career out of, choose the appropriate courses and try to do volunteer work in a venue, studio or radio station. If I had a chance to go back to being 16 or 18, I think I would have done more volunteer work, as it gives you a taste of how the industry really works.”
Richy adds: ”If you are switched on and enthusiastic about learning and working hard, you have every chance of making it in this industry. And although it’s very important, in my eyes, to get hands-on experience if you really want to learn how to mix bands or set up PA systems, it’s equally important in this day and age to know the physics and electronics behind that. If you’re able to get both of these things, whether from a college or an audio company, then you’re very lucky!”
Andy adds: “Students are not generally taught how to work, so after intensive health and safety talks, and making sure mobile phones stay in pockets, they are quickly taught that if they believe this is a glamour industry, they should leave straight away. Our preparation is usually to find students who are genuinely interested and have an understanding of what they are entering into. We try not to take just any youngster who may think ‘I’ll give it a go’.”
Jim pointed out that one of the most common misconceptions in the industry is that the only jobs in live sound are for sound engineers. “There are a lot of jobs and roles within the industry, and most new students do not understand this. It’s not surprising, really, as being a radio technician, mains power specialist or a distributed speech system installer are a bit specialised. I always have to point out to students that the more areas they get experience and competence in, the more useful and employable they will be. Legendary engineer Pete ‘Skan’ Howard once asked during an interview: ‘Can you drive a truck and do you have a passport?’ Not quite the questions that the prospective FOH engineer at Wembley Arena will be expecting!”
This is very true. In my career, the ability to fill many roles has been crucial in keeping me working and paying the rent. I myself have worked in many roles, as FOH sound engineer, monitor engineer, system technician, and even, on one tour, selling T- shirts!
So is it a business you want to get into? Are the years of struggle and working for little or no wages worth it? From my perspective, I still look forward to work every day, and that is not something that most people can say! I still get excited by working with new bands, and every show is different. I travel internationally, meeting interesting and inspiring people.
I do get fed up with being away from home, I miss my family, I hate the logistics of getting from A to B, the flights and the early starts. As Andy puts it: “This is the most sociable unsociable business you could possibly be in.” But I also love doing shows all over the world, and do feel truly privileged to do my job. I firmly believe that if you have the aptitude and are willing to work hard, you will succeed in this industry. Ability is soon recognised and you can rise through the ranks, like Richy, to become one of the country’s top engineers relatively quickly.