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‘You are a business’: Ben Hammond explores being an FOH engineer on the road

FOH engineer and PSNEurope columnist Ben Hammond talks the stresses of being on the road a lot and why all engineers should consider themselves as a business rather than solely an employee

Ben Hammond

Lately, it seems like everything I read is all about the mental health of touring personnel, and people/companies offering support to people in our industry. This is a great step forward, especially with the organisations offering advice from experienced touring crew, active or retired, who understand exactly what goes on behind the scenes.

All of this got me thinking, and trying to pinpoint the biggest source of stress that comes with the job, which for me isn’t being away from family and friends; in time you become accustomed to this and develop your own way of coping with missing loved ones and being homesick. I think this is a skill that you develop and improve over time, just like the technical skills that you use day to day on tour.

Aside from the above, there are so many issues facing the freelance audio engineer. Choosing the right act and knowing which offer to take is often a stressful decision. The obvious starting point here is ‘who’? If you’re lucky enough to have multiple offers on the table, you need to be able to sit back and look into each artist to see what would benefit you most in the long run. It’s not always about the quick buck, or that big festival slot. It comes down to a few key points.

Management: Who’s in charge? Are they going to try to scrimp and use international crew on US tours,
for example? Who else do they manage? Do they have sway to get the act on to bigger and better things? What have they done for their other acts? This also goes for the band’s agent – do your homework and look into the team. If you’re going to commit your time to this act, you have to have faith in the team around them. This is your business, and you’re essentially taking yourself off the market for them.

And as simple as it may sound, what do you think of their music? Can you see how it would fit into the market? Can you see it being picked up by radio, etc? We are all in this because we are into music; if you think it’s crap, then chances are so will the majority of the general public. Trust your judgement here. And if it’s music you don’t understand, then ask some mates who do. The artists we work for have huge teams around them making decisions with them – managers, labels, PR, pluggers, publishers, lawyers, and not to mention other band members. As a freelancer you are totally on your own, so being as educated as you can in every business decision you make will be the key to your (hopeful) success and sanity.

Another big stress is balance. It’s a rare thing nowadays to get that 18 month/two-year solid cycle with a guarantee of income for the foreseeable future, so the majority of us are balancing a couple of different acts. Obviously, things will inevitably clash at some point, and you are going to need to ‘dep’ shows out to trusted colleagues who you know firstly, can do the job well, and secondly, will “keep the toilet seat warm” and not try steal the gig.

A big issue that often raises its head here is what I call band tunnel vision. Understandably, an act is completely caught up in their own world as their career understandably completely takes over their whole life. They are the act and they live it 24 hours a day. What this often does is make them look at their team as exactly that – THEIR team. While that in itself is a compliment, as it shows they see you as an integral part of the production, it does mean that they will often forget that you are, yourself, a business, and you work with other artists. Now, unless they are retaining you for the entire period (in which case to all intents and purposes you do become an employee of theirs, and less of a freelance technician) then your are free to take on shows with multiple artists.

Obviously, you must treat your bookings with caution and make sure to avoid clashes. However, sometimes this simply can’t be avoided. I was on a tour with one act, and that tour finished and went perfectly straight into another. All of a sudden, the act I was going into added some rehearsal dates before their tour which I couldn’t do. This resulted in me losing the gig, as I couldn’t make all the rehearsals, even though it was they who moved the goal posts last minute. An act may not take you if they are losing money, or will expect you to work for a reduced rate as it makes sense for their business. However, on the flip side, decisions that make financial sense for your business may not be seen like that from an artist/management point of view. Above all, always remember you are a business.