2/20/05

I recently received an email from a friend who also
works in the touring business that put an idea in my head. He was
informing me about a job position that had been filled by someone who
he admired and that he was a fan of his work. For a moment I had an
idea of a poll of backline techs about backline techs and who they
thought were the best guys or gals in their departments. I mean after
all, there are other people who we work with who are voted on and
receive awards each year from various trade magazines and associations.
Even the buildings we work in get prizes (though few of them deserve
them on merits we would bestow upon them).

For those of you who do not know what a backline tech is, it’s someone
who is responsible for the set up, maintenance and performance support
of musical instruments and equipment. This can be drums and cymbals,
guitars and amps, pianos, organs, keyboards and computers, horns,
percussion and all the other goodies you see the musicians play.

Every day before the show these things are unloaded from the truck or
bus, set up and tested. There are strings and heads to change, things
to be polished and made pretty and items to repair and replace. During
the show, the techs will tune guitars and deliver guitars, deliver
drinks, towels and tempos, relay information to the sound people for
the musicians and other personal details. Some may play parts from the
side of the stage. They will also try to repair or replace anything
that fails during the show so that it can continue.

It became clearer that such a poll would be nearly impossible, as a
consensus could never really happen. There are more than a few reasons
why I think this.

In starting this essay, I used an outliner to organize these reasons
and the list became huge. It starts off as a basic subjective/objective
argument and becomes slightly self-obsessive in how important any one
tech can be in an organization.


(OK, time for a disclaimer: though I’ve made my living with a number of
job titles in the music business, I have spent most of my time as a
backline tech. I am talking about me and others like me, so I am
slightly biased. They say write about what you know, so… )

To begin, I believe that any data collected would be skewed and
inaccurate. I know who I know; my friends and co-workers know who they
know. Though it is a small business, we would most likely never get a
clear sample of who’s working now, who was good then and who is going
to be great in the future.

Also, because this is a live art form and we tend to not be anywhere
for longer than 20 hours, it’s hard to judge overall performance unless
you are on tour with the person you are rating. This might be fine for
guitar techs (who often roam in twos or threes), there is rarely more
than one drum or key tech unless they are with a support act or double
bill.

I have had the experience of being on a seven man and eight man
backline crew. I have been one man responsible for a seven-piece band.
More often it’s three or four people doing a couple of jobs. When I’ve
worked on larger tours I’ve been able to see other techs work up close
for a longer period of time and get a fair assessment of their value. I
have also gotten a sense of others when there is more than one band on
the show. This is not always a guarantee as sometimes you are too busy
to watch someone else work. There is also the case of when they are
working, it is the only time you have to chill out away from the noise
and hoopla.

I spent my early years on the jazz circuit. I then
moved into a series of singer/songwriter type acts. I hardly knew
anyone in the hard rock/ heavy metal or country circles (though I do now). There are
people who I have heard of for twenty years and have never met. As
small as the business is, there are always good people who we don’t
know. This would certainly lead to difficulty in pronouncing someone “best”anything.

Having friends you have worked with over time or on
a regular basis may be a plus or a minus. They may have a fair
assessment of you; they may overlook some of your more glaring
shortcomings; they may disrespect you because you took their bunk on
the bus. I have also found that people in the same category place value
on you for different reasons, not always positive. Perhaps you are the
perfect substitute because they know you’re not good enough to knock
them out of that job if they ever want it back.

As time passes (quickly it seems), our job skills
and requirements change. It is really important for us to stay educated
in the latest gear and its applications. Some “old school” skills are
still needed but we don’t want to be left behind. With a dependence on
computers for composition and performance, key techs especially have to
read a lot. You might be asked if you can tune a grand piano, run Pro
Tools sequencing software and re-string a djembe on a gig. Others just
know everything about Hammond organs; they get to do organ gigs. With
some younger acts it might be more important if you can drink a lot of
beer, hack a PlayStation 2 game console and get a quote the singer
made at last night’s show into the drummer’s Bluetooth phone after
sound check.

This of course brings us to the musicians. They are a special breed and
each kind is a unique sub-category. This is why the job of a backline
tech is often not coveted by others on the road because you have to
deal with “them”. Many backline techs are or were musicians at some
point. This is not always the case but it is prevalent.

First and foremost, most musicians HATE looking like idiots on stage
when their gear doesn’t work. They want to have someone they can trust
to have their back when things go wrong. Some musicians are very hands
on and know what every knob and button does. Others couldn’t care less;
it’s the tech’s problem and if it goes wrong, guess who is to blame.
The psychological element of being a backline tech is huge; gaining and
keeping the confidence of a performer can often be a majority of the
skill a tech brings into his job. How much of that is BS and how much
isn’t usually gets figured out after the first major equipment failure.

This is a point I hate to bring up but have to because it is a reality.
There are those who use their techs as a focus for everything that goes
wrong, real or imagined. They may be to blame for errors that the
musician made during the show himself. They may just ask for something
wrong so they can be mean. A musician may just spin a perfectly
good tech into a tizzy until he doesn’t know which end is up. These
techs might just be punching bags or doormats. They may also be
compensated for this as you can’t teach an old dog new tricks and
management knows it. They are not fun jobs but they do get filled (and
filled often).

There are as many different kinds of guitar tech gigs as there are
guitarists. From those who are obsessed with every detail in set up,
tone, battery voltage and piece of equipment, they often require a tech
that is solely focused on the one person and his every need. There are
also times when a tech is responsible for multiple musicians and must
prioritize every change and move. Some techs find themselves with gigs
where the appearance of the instrument, the gum and the drinks are more
important than anything going on musically during the show. The trick
is finding the right guy (or gal) for each job.

There is also the “buddy” factor. There are people who have come up
with a band who are more friends than techs and have the job because
it’s more important for the musician to have a pal than proper backup.
Often management doesn’t mind because the musician is babysat and the
friend can be paid with low fees and free beer. They can learn to be
good techs; they can also end up being managers or people to avoid when
getting off the bus in the morning.

One thing to consider is a dislike of change by musicians. You might
think that if someone has had a job for twenty-three years, they are
really good at what they do. It might just be that the musician doesn’t
want to go through training someone new to be his bitch.

One huge factor is money; who can they afford or are they willing to
pay for? Everyone wants that guy who made those great sounds on that
album in the 70’s but will they pay the price? Often the band loses
their budget as time goes by and has to settle for someone who costs
less. It works both ways; a tech might not to take a pay cut to work
with someone unless he has to.

Then there are the extended tenure techs. Some techs have been
with their artists so long they have more power than the tour or
production manager. Impossible you say? They have the ear of the artist
and can make things show up and go away with equal power. They can
affect schedules, travel arrangements, and staffing decisions. They
make friends and make enemies. They are all set as long as the musician
keep working. They can be really good at what they do but might not
make the cut because of history and the single minded-ness they
displayed.

I’ve heard other members of the road crew (sound, lights, production)
argue that backline isn’t part of the crew; they are just a
sub-division of the band. I think I’ve touched upon this in previous
essays, so I won’t delve into it here. For me it’s a tricky blend of
single focus on your job and an acceptance of the big picture of all
the elements that it takes to put on a good show. How does the backline
tech fit into the crew? Is he a team player or a primadonna? Does he create
more problems for production than solve them? Do his “special needs”
create more work for the production manager or other crewmembers?

With some backline techs, their fees can put constraints on the budget
for other crew people. You might not get hired if your price is too
high (that might not be a bad thing… )

It’s so subtle sometimes… do you get the big picture without
overstepping your job description? Do you keep focus on your own
job without spending energy on everyone else’s?

Crew chemistry is a big deal because it is so rarely complete. You work
and live together, often without enough space to turn around or put
your shoes on. Someone you love with all your heart can get on your
nerves in an environment like that. Is the crew having fun while they
are doing their job and after? Are you part of that fun or destroying
it?

People change on the road over time as well. They can stay too long and
just be miserable. Someone who was a great, fun hard working friend can
become a soul sucking vampire who you dream of leaving at a truck stop.

I was going to write a paragraph or two on relationships with
management. These can be important but I don’t think this is the time
to discuss it. Besides, they were not going to vote anyway

It’s taken me nearly 2000 words to get to the point of this little
exercise… this is not unusual in my writing world. Good people know
what they are capable of and do it. They either find a niche or
continue to adapt to meet their clients needs. As they get older, they
become less flexible (as do their bodies) and are better fitting their
known qualities into the appropriate jobs. One man guys, multi-taskers,
floaters, vibe guys, gear heads… they all have a place. For good
production and tour managers it is the art of putting their assessment
of the tech with the right musician. Sometimes it even works.

There are a number of great techs that I have learned from and continue
to learn from. They seem more human and less untouchable each time I
see them. They bring decades of experience with them each day into
every building, the ability to create a consistent environment and the
skills to solve nearly every problem. They have made it possible for
generations of performers to play for millions of people and make it
look flawless. I wish there was an award for these guys as I could give
many of them away. But for now, just know that there is someone out of
sight who has made it his career to not be seen. That during a show is
a sign of success. That and no one throwing anything at them or yelling.