I must say that I am frequently stunned by how little thought seems to go into the selection of sound engineers and production crew at clubs, bars, and music halls. I see venues spend so much time and money trying to make their businesses as successful as possible. They carefully scrutinize their bartenders, servers, cooks, and cleaning crew. They train and supervise their service staff and make sure everything is being done as expected. Many venues have cameras that surround the bar to make sure the bartender is not stealing money or giving away too many drinks. Every night someone is responsible for running the sales report, cleaning the bar and kitchen areas. Someone is tasked with ordering the replacement alcohol and food to make sure there is always something for the customers.
Then for whatever reason, there is a completely different situation for the production team. Imagine, if you will, that you are a venue owner or manager. You have spent countless hours working in and on your business with the intention being to accumulate a solid customer base through the delivery of your product and services. You select the best mood lighting and paint colors and various other interior design elements. You create a menu that you believe will bring in and maintain your customer base. You have done everything you can to ensure the success of your establishment. Now imagine that you hire a group of bartenders and servers and give them complete and total free rein. They are allowed to function in any way they want. Coming into work with a bad attitude? No problem. Failing to treat the customers with respect? No problem. Coming in late? Fine with you! Serving inferior food and drinks? That’s ok. Letting people abuse and break glasses and dishes? No big deal.
I am assuming most would agree that the aforementioned scenario would be a foolish way to operate any kind of business. That however, is precisely what I see when it comes to the way many venues run the live entertainment portion of their business. Their production and booking teams so frequently lack the talent, skill, and professionalism required to put on great events. Further, very often production crews don’t even understand the vision and process for how a live event should be prepared for and executed.
So let’s look at one of the potential causes of sub-par production staff at venues.
Let’s start with another analogy.
Imagine that you have chosen to open a restaurant/bar that will feature live music. You decide that you want to have a certain food theme. Perhaps you decide that you are going to do Italian/American cuisine. With the help of your friends and newly hired staff, you choose the food items that will be on the menu. So far so good. Then the opening day comes where for the first time you will be hosting customers at your new establishment. You prepared for this day by spending time and money to promote this opening event. People start to show up. Perfect! Before long the restaurant is full and orders are coming into the kitchen. Everything is great! Then, after a while, as people begin to finish eating and getting up to leave you notice half-full plates left on the tables. You go back to the kitchen and realize that there is a lot of uneaten food. You think to yourself that maybe your portions are too big. As each day comes and goes you find that instead of having the number of reservations and customers growing, it is shrinking. Within a month or so the restaurant is fairly empty most of the time.
With this realization, you begin to ask questions of your servers and people who you know that have been to the restaurant. After some discussion, you find out that people just don’t think the food is very good. Upon asking one of your good friends why they have not returned for dinner they answer your question with a question. They ask “Well, what do you think of the food that you are serving? Do you think it is good Italian cuisine?” You think for a second and then you respond by saying, “ Well you know it seems pretty good to me but I don’t actually eat a lot of Italian food or go to many Italian restaurants”. Your friend looks at you somewhat stunned and asks the obvious question. “If you don’t understand what good Italian food tastes like then how do you know if the food you are serving is good or bad?” Your response might be, Well the food seemed fine to me”. Here you are a month or two into the opening of this new restaurant and no-one told you that the food was not good. They simply stopped coming back. The food was not terrible, it was simply not enjoyable enough for them to choose to come back and spend money and time at your establishment. There are many restaurant options for customers and they are always going to choose the ones that they most enjoy going to.
The very same thing happens with live music at many venues. The owner of the venue decides they want to offer live music. They hire a production person. Often they hire someone who knows someone else with whom they are both friends. It’s the whole “Hey I know a guy” type of situation. During the interview, this “production person” spouts off some big words and talks about all the bands they have worked with. Then before you know it there might be a new improperly designed sound system in the venue and the shows begin to happen. The owner has attended many concerts but they have no idea how to evaluate the production staff. They don’t know what is required to put on high-quality events. They don’t understand the pitfalls of advancing and producing shows. Often the venue puts on the first group of shows and there is a decent crowd. Then before long, the crowds start to diminish. Perhaps the quality of bands that you are attracting begins to diminish as well. Or perhaps the quality of the clientele starts to diminish. For some reason, that great band that you hosted last month is now telling you that they are booked and that they can’t come to play again at your venue for dates you are suggesting.
Have you ever been to a venue that regularly offers performances from amazing bands, who always seem to be in a good mood when they are playing there, where the venue always has great sound, where nothing is too obnoxious or too loud, where every show is just right, pleasant and enjoyable? You can be sure that if you are at a place that offers this experience regularly that the owner or management very likely understand what great sound is, how to prepare for and run a high-quality show and as a result know exactly what they were looking for and the value of a great production person. They didn’t just look for that person who could pull off a show and was willing to work cheap. Instead, they have a vision and understand that the sound engineer can be as important as the chef or bartender. They understand that the production crew not only sets the stage but also sets the mood for the show. As I have mentioned in my past blog posts, there are very important elements to preparing for a concert. Most of those elements are the same whether it’s a little bar show with an audience of 40 or a music festival with thousands of concert-goers.
One thing to consider about compensation for engineers at clubs and halls.
I don’t know about you but I have been to many shows where the sound was so bad, or so loud, where there was feedback or some element of the music that was almost unbearable because of bad processing or a bad mix, that I just simply could not stay for the whole event. I have experienced this at little pubs with local bands as well as at our area’s biggest rock clubs with smaller national acts that use the venue’s house engineer. I have even experienced woeful sound with outside production companies that I have hired to do some of my bigger events along with my production company where they run one stage and we run others. As far as I can tell, it pretty much always comes down to the same few issues. 1. Lack of knowledge by the engineer 2. Lack of preparation by the engineer or 3. Lack of caring and professionalism of the engineer. I don’t want to understate how much of a difference bands can make in the sound of an event with proper preparation but even an ill prepared band can have a mix and volume that is not offensive to the audience when there is a good, prepared, respectful engineer at the console.
With this in mind, I think it’s worth considering how much of a difference the production crew can make not only in the quality of the show but also in the amount of revenue that is generated from the show. How many more drinks would have to be sold to justify paying your sound engineer an extra $50? Why do I use the amount $50? We have done a good amount of research and found that a $50 increase in compensation for club and music hall sound engineers will typically buy you a substantially more experienced and capable production professional. If you are currently only paying $100 then bumping it to $150 will definitely get you a better engineer. If you are currently paying $150 then bumping it to $200 will start to get you a truly professional engineer who you should be able to expect to spend decent time advancing, preparing and running your events. When you go from $200 to $250 that is the threshold where you can get some serious veteran live sound engineers with substantial resumes.
If you pay more, you can and should expect more. I’ve been to concerts where the sound was so pleasantly immersive that I just wanted to hang out all night. If just 10 people decide to stay for an extra hour at your venue then it is probably safe to say that paying your engineer an extra $50 would be worth it. How about the impact on the venue’s bottom line when it becomes known for great-sounding shows all the time? More people will attend more often. That must certainly make your engineer worth an extra $50 per show. How about when you have that fun, outgoing engineer who is full of personality. The engineer who knows most of the regulars that come to your venue. The engineer who the customers are proud to know and who the bands look forward to working with? Surely that engineer must be making an impact on the bottom line that is worth an extra $50 per show.
Let me finish with two final thoughts.
When my company, The Denis Entertainment Group (DEG) gets contracted to set venues up and create new production teams, we find that the key to successfully putting a great crew together is clearly conveying to the team what exactly is expected of them and precisely how to know if they are doing a good job. You might think this would be obvious but we have found that it is not at all. When we are contracted by venues the first question I ask the management is “What do you need and expect from your production crew and how will they know if they are doing a good job?” This question is usually met with silence. Once again, going back to one of the analogies I used earlier in this article, you would never let your chef or cook come to work with no idea of what their goal is and how to evaluate if they are successfully performing their duties. The same goes for your cleaning crew. Everyone needs to know exactly what is expected and how to evaluate if they are doing well. Venue management must clearly define the responsibilities of the production crew and they must make sure that the production crew and everyone else who works for the venue understands the vision and mission. If you do not know how to define these things then I suggest doing some research or call a company like DEG to help you out.
One final issue.
How many jobs can you name where the employee/contractor is allowed to consume alcohol when they are working? The only thing worse than having an engineer that lacks knowledge and preparation is having a drunk engineer or an engineer who is under the influence of some sort of substance when they are working. I have a strict no-drinking policy for all of my engineers. If we are working then we are not consuming any substances that could cloud our judgment or present us as unprofessional. Too often I see venues that get away with paying their production crew less than they should because they let them drink for free. Think about that for a second. Imagine having an engineer who is willing to work for less so that they can get buzzed or drunk while working your event. That is the antithesis of what this whole article is about. Venues need to do themselves and the entire music business a favor and stop letting this happen.
Let’s hold our production people to a high standard. Let’s pay them what they are worth. Let’s raise the bar for the venue production crew. Let’s put on better shows. Let’s treat the music business like a business. Let’s all find success together. If you learn the ins and outs of putting on a high-quality professional show then you will know how to train your production people. If you chose not to learn these things then you will never have control over the live performance part of your business.
Here is to better, smoother, more rewarding and epic shows.
Read more from Stan Denis here.