BEN HAMMOND: Getting ahead

While writing my next article, I was inspired to go off on a tangent about another subject, and so decided to write a short piece about it.

There’s a great group on Facebook called UK Touring Crew. It’s used by a lot of UK based crew for advice/help/advertising etc… and is proving to be a really useful resource for many people.

Somebody posted about how to get started as a touring FOH engineer, and it made me think that it is a very blurry path with no real set way. In my own experience I worked in recording studios from the age of 16, and was convinced that that was the career path I wanted to take. I had a bit of a head start as I was playing in what at the time was a mildly successful local band, so spent a lot of time in recording studios and took enough of an interest in it that I was offered a job.

Over time I learnt by assisting on sessions until I deemed myself knowledgeable enough to scrape through my own session, which went surprisingly well. Because of my local z-list fame I had found with my band, I had a healthy list of people wanting to record with me, which helped me progress no end. After seven years of working in various local studios – ending up in a long stint at Chairworks Studios – it was apparent that as a studio engineer at the level I was at, it was getting more and more difficult to make a good living. On top of this, the studio brought in an outside company to manage things, which brought in its own engineers and made it almost impossible for anyone from outside to book the studios.

At the same time this was happening, a good friend of mine, who was a local engineer, took the tech manager’s job at Fibbers – my local venue – and offered me some shifts mixing local bands. I ended up working in-house there for a year or so, and it was while I was working at Fibbers that I was offered my first touring job. I say job in the loosest of terms as there was no money involved! The local band had signed a small record deal, and had started to tour and were quickly gaining a good reputation. As an in-house sound engineer, I saw the way to progress was to land a touring job. Although the band could only afford PDs, I saw this a good opportunity to ‘speculate to accumulate’, so I took them up on their offer and hit the road.

While we are here I think an important point to touch on is that the band at the time had no money, and would have not been in any position to take any crew out had I not agreed to go for the experience, therefore it was not undercutting or taking work away from others. The subject of going out for free seems to stir up some angry reactions, which is understandable, but I’m all for it in the right circumstances. Coming from a small village up North where nothing much musical happens, with no PA companies, or anything other then one small local venue, this is the path that worked for me. I would have loved to have worked for an SAE, SSE, STS, or an Adlib, but it wasn’t possible for me at the time.

No one wants to hire engineers with no experience, so how do you get the experience? I chose to build myself with this particular band, and stuck with them. Very quickly, as they became more successful, wages were introduced, and the more their guarantees went up, the more the wages did, and in a relatively short time it was turning into a good living.

The upshot of touring at this level, is a lot of the bands we toured with did not have crew and would see the advantage of doing so, and nearly every tour I did I was offered a nice double-up rate to look after other bands on the tour, which very quickly widened my client base. I’m not in any way saying the way to do it is to go out for nothing, but for the short time I did this it helped me get into the seemingly impenetrable club of the touring sound engineer. The moment that bands start to come to you, then you have to settle on a realistic wage that makes it worthwhile for you, but is doable for a touring band of that size, who are most likely working on a business model of breaking even at best. This is a potential minefield as of course you want the work, but you have to stick to your guns.

No one wants to be hired simply because they are cheap; you should be there because you make your band sound great night after night. Also, for the most part (and I say for the most part as there are a small minority who don’t adhere to this), crew stick to an unspoken minimum that they will work for, and you do not want to be known as the guy who is undercutting his fellow engineers – this will certainly not help you to get future work!

Money aside, this industry is based just as much on reputation and first impressions as your FOH sound. You may make your band sound amazing, but people have to spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week with you on a bus – this takes a certain amount of adapting to, and adopting a very selfless way of living. As a naturally miserable and selfish man I have to remind myself of this daily! Show an interest in everything, as you really never stop learning, ever! I have had the good fortune to have toured underneath some of the best in the business, and now have the pleasure of calling these people my friends.

I think the main thing that I have always stuck to is trust your judgement. You are a fan of music, the same as anyone else is – if you think a band has got what it takes then don’t be afraid to stick with them. Obviously there is much more then just the music – management, label, PR, band attitude etc… but don’t miss out on the possible ‘next big thing’ to pursue that ‘big band.’ You could already be working for them. I’m currently writing channel lists for some of the biggest shows I’ve ever done, and it’s with a band I started with years ago in a knackered LDV, playing to no one!

As I said earlier, this is in no way ‘my guide to making it’, it’s just an insight into how I got to where I am now. I’m in no way at the top of my game, I still have so many career goals and aspirations. I just hope this can go a little way to helping anyone who is looking into joining us in the amazing industry.

Good luck, and be nice to me when my band is supporting yours!


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