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‘There are no noise restrictions!’: behind the scenes at live events training college Backstage Academy

Wakefield-based college Backstage Academy promises to train the next generation of live industry professionals. Tara Lepore paid them a visit to see how it’s equipping students for one of the fastest-growing sectors of the audio industry…

The live music industry is booming, and large-scale events across Europe generate millions for the economy each year. But with the closure of many small music venues across the UK, where are the next cohort of live professionals being trained? Sound isn’t something that can be taught in the classroom in six weeks, as Backstage Academy’s managing director Glen Rowe tells PSNEurope during a visit to the Wakefield college on a sunny October day. Rowe claims the Academy is different to traditional redbrick universities, offering a first-class degree with practical experience, and a core focus on live production.

I’m in Production Park, a conglomerate of live event businesses near Wakefield, and the home of Backstage Academy. The West Yorkshire site has good links to London – it takes less than three hours for PSNEurope to travel from London. Backstage Academy students throng in and out of the popular Rockpool Cafe in the heart of this bustling business park as I arrive, a charming addition to the site headed up by chief caterer Pete Bailey, who has previously served as personal chef for bands such as Kasabian and Metallica.

The Academy is the brainchild of Adrian Brooks, who, in 2009, often found that many trainees or apprentices working at Production Park businesses were leaving the teams to join tours overseas. Brooks has a background in event production – coming up with the original blueprint for aluminium truss staging but ‘forgetting to patent it’ – and now heads up truss manufacturer Litestructures, staging specialist company LS-Live and serves as chairman for Backstage Academy. Brooks followed through with his vision of offering an educational arm at the business park in 2011, as he wanted to train people on the job and offer them opportunities that would keep them working at Production Park businesses. Partnering with the University of Bolton in 2011 to offer three accredited BA degrees meant that this was a viable option. The link with the university also means that students can access normal student loans and funding, and are not having to overcome the financial obstacles that a private training course might bring up.

The Academy offers three BA degrees: Live Event Production, Live Visual Design and Production, and Stage Management. Rowe says students are in five days a week, but his biggest problem is “stopping students from leaving to go and do a job.” However, he also stresses the importance of high attendance for students: “There’s nothing you can revise here, so you’ve got to be committed. This is factory-floor learning. We’re building huge tours, and the students’ environment is wrapped around that.”

Learning on the job

During PSNEurope’s visit, it’s clear that huge tours are being built onsite, and students are encouraged to get involved. There is a huge focus on employability: around 90% of students at Backstage Academy secure employment before graduating, and this is testament to the work experience placements on offer throughout the three-year degrees. Business development manager Sara Gleadhall says “this is a place where some of the biggest stage productions are made onsite – and these young people are able to train among it all”.

At 300,000 sq ft, the creative space ‘all under one roof’ has made touring and stage sets for Jessie J, The Killers and Muse (of whom MD Rowe has served as tour director for the past 16 years). Walking through the buildings onsite, you find huge sets in the making, and an impressive rehearsal arena where artists and crew rehearse entire sets before embarking on world tours. The 35x42m studio has a 128 tonne roof capacity from its 18.2m high rigging beams and four loading bays, meaning it can accommodate almost any large-scale production – and it does regularly.

“Production Park is a destination,” continues Rowe. “It’s Pinewood Studios for the live events industry – that’s what we’re building here. We have lots of trucking companies, lighting companies and sound companies all wanting to move onto the site – so in 10 years’ time, this will become the place where everything in rock ‘n’ roll and live events happens, because we’ve got the space to grow. And there are no noise restrictions!”

Expansion into sound

Plans to extend the Academy on 10 acres of land should be completed for September 2019, to accommodate more students and allow the college to facilitate extra courses – including a dedicated sound degree.

At present, a specialist sound module on the Live Event Production BA introduces students eager to pursue audio to a range of manufacturers’ products and equipment, as well as bringing in pro audio experts to talk about the industry.

One of these manufacturers is d&b audiotechnik, which has supported the Academy from its early days, giving talks on its products and showing students the software it uses to design line arrays. Shure officially joined as a partner in April this year, and has held two masterclasses for the Live Event Production students since. Shure applications engineer Tom Coleman delivered a masterclass on audio networking in April, and a second masterclass focusing on the set up of wireless transmitters took place a month later.

Rowe says: “Sound is something very close to my heart. You can’t learn sound in six weeks. It takes a long time and it’s really good that our partners say that they can see what we’re doing. What seems to have happened recently is that the live events industry has seen that we’re relevant. Our partners have leant us kit, and, more importantly, their support with this. d&b and Shure putting their name next to us gives us the seal of approval that the industry get what we’re doing, and that they believe in it.”

Rowe has spent 16 years as tour director for Muse, a band who “take everything seriously when it comes to tours”. He says: “My reason for pushing [Backstage Academy] to another level is because these young bands need young people. I constantly get asked to go out on the road with younger bands and I think, What are they going to talk to me about? They need young crew for young bands, but they also need mentors to help them along their way.”

Backstage Academy students have already gone on to do big things in the live events industry, including projects for bands such as Rammstein and Coldplay.

Recent graduate James Haywood worked on the Milan leg of Muse’s tour last summer, and Harry Heathfield, who graduated from the Live Event Production BA in 2014, now leads the automation department for Brilliant Stages (a Production Park business). For current students, one of the biggest placements on offer is at Ibiza Rocks: 15 students from the Academy take part in an internship each summer to work on one of the stages at the festival. Other festivals where students regularly get work experience include Glastonbury, Radio 1’s Big Weekend and BPM SFX.

Doing things differently

Where this institution differs from other sound colleges – and what could be said is its unique selling point – is its dedicated focus on all things live, compared to other colleges which are often centred on studio skills.

“For our sound engineer students, it’s really important that they get as much hands-on experience with everything as they can. Whether it’s working at one of our businesses [at Production Park], or working front of house at a live music night at a local pub, they’ve got to do everything,” adds Rowe.

Staff at Backstage Academy encourage students to diversify their skills and learn about all aspects of the live event industry, rather than specialising in something quite niche early on in their career.

“Everyone wants to be a sound engineer,” Rowe adds, “but people forget there are other things you need to know about too. What about system techs? You speak to PA companies and they say, Oh, we’ve got more sound engineers than I could shake a stick at, but, I need crew.”

As the future of the recording side of the music industry faces problems, the live industry is now bigger than ever. UK Music’s Measuring Music report revealed that live music’s contribution to the UK economy grew 36% from 2012 to 2015, so a specialist school promising to ‘train the next live industry professionals’ is surely good news for companies within the sector looking for fresh talent.

“The connections are amazing,” adds Rowe. “Our students are connected to everybody in the Park and they can learn different skills from different companies. Then, in six months, they can phone these people up any time and ask them questions. This industry is very, very, very competitive, and we’re teaching the students the importance of resilience.”