In 1996 my mother and father sat me down for a chat. I’d received my exam results and had to face facts: they were pretty rubbish. My career adviser, on learning that I played in a prominent local band, advised that I pursue an occupation in office block purification, or maybe a career in mobile communication consulting.
Whatever lay ahead of me, in the eyes of others, was not going to be in academia or even following my dream. Dreams are too vague, intangible and hard to achieve. Why on earth would you advise someone to follow a dream? I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and it had nothing to do with getting up on a stage, prancing around like someone put hot coals in my shoes. I wanted to exchange the spotlight for the warm, cream glow of desklights shrouded in the shadows towards the back of the room. This, for me, is where the excitement happens. So, it’s with the rather acidic taste of irony that I look back at what I have achieved since.
With declining record sales, the live music industry has been hailed as the supposed saviour of music. If this is the case, why have so many festivals had to close their doors this year and tours seem a little few and far between? Those of you that read my last article probably realise I like festivals as much as I like having my hand trapped in a car door, plugins, and going shopping with my ex-girlfriend. In fact, I prefer sitting outside the dressing room playing a game where you have to launch a livid seagull at some hostage-taking hogs. I’m not that bothered about festivals as such, but it’s a good indication of exactly how buoyant our precious industry is. But while we wait for the world’s economy to realign itself, we should think about what we are teaching next year’s hopefuls.
There are now so many educational establishment offering ‘live sound engineer’ courses. Each year churning out more students with a piece of paper that says ‘qualified sound engineer’ on it. Some of these students have been told that the live industry is now so busy that there aren’t enough engineers to go round; there is pretty much a guaranteed job at the end of it. All you have to do is this tiny little course, at the cost of a few thousand pounds, then off you go into your dream job – the adventurous world of touring. They are being sold a lie. Well, maybe not a lie, but a definite half-truth.
Ecomonics has finally caught up with the old road dogs and the need to make and save as much money as possible has never been so great – all to the detriment of the ticket-buying audience. If an artiste can only earn a living from gigging, then they’ll want to save as much money as possible, and the first thing to save is on crew costs. They’ll just get someone who can drive, tour manage, do backline and sound, all for the cost of a packet of dry roasted and half a lager. Where can they get these people from? College! Eager students who perhaps don’t know any better.
Also, another thing I like more than an awkward silence, is walking into a venue where the in-house sound guy, who has been there since Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, will welcome you with a grunt. The look on his face tells you you’ve ruined his day just because he has to work for a living. I’d prefer to deal with a student with barely any experience than deal with these arseholes. So, while on the one hand there may be opportunities for these newly-qualified students to get a foot in the so-called door, we must be cautious of exploitation.
What about the employers? They want the experience, but students don’t have the experience, so where do they get it? Students also carry the stigma of assumed arrogance. Of course, there can be a presumption that a certificate will bypass box-pushing and cable-coiling and land the FOH job with Radiohead. Maybe we should manage expectations a little more and help understand what roles make up the sound industry. If I ask my students who wants to be a monitor engineer, system tech or system designer, I’d be lucky to get one or two hands go up. If I ask who wants to be a FOH engineer, they all put their hands up. Why is this such a popular role? After all, it’s probably the least important one of the aforementioned jobs.
How can we help the industry lead the education of its future practitioners? What is the difference between one certificate and another? There are so many people, all with their own ideas, writing courses, how is an employer to decide? Colleges teach the headline-grabbing subjects, and we see pictures in the prospectus of eight students gathered round a man tweaking a knob on a console. Great! All these consoles will be obsolete in no time, technology is only technology, after all, out-of-date as soon as the next idea comes along.
There is a huge need for education: it’s the only way to future-proof our industry, but maybe a more uniform, industry-recognised qualification is required. We need to look more into the science and electronics, less into specific console use. Once that is understood, we can then look into the creativity behind mixing. It’s like telling a painter to paint without the knowledge behind mixing colours.
It’s not rock ‘n’ roll - it’s just physics!