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“I’ve Got A Tip For Ya Right Here…”

Let me start by saying that I’m certainly not a writer.. I’m a sound guy. With that being said, I’m also a sound guy with passion for his job, and passion for the live music industry that thankfully pays our bills, puts a roof over our heads, and puts food in our, and our families stomaches.

A long time ago, this profession found me.  I was 21 years old, I wasn’t looking for it, and I barely knew it existed. I was a high school dropout, (dumbest decision I have ever made, and I eventually got my diploma) I never went to college, and still never have.  I wasn’t a struggling musician, I didn’t even have delusions of grandeur of becoming a musician. But I did have a love, and a passion for music.

I started off on monitors, in little bars learning a trade that I didn’t have a clue would become my career. I wasn’t making anything—literally nothing. I worked a full-time job at a casino slinging money around, and moonlighted on a monitor console “working” for a tiny two-person sound company, myself, and the owner/sound guy.

Why I stuck with it can only be explained by saying, I knew I had something. I was being taught how to live for the rest of my life, but had no idea. I had finally found a place within an industry that I had such a passion for since as long as I could remember, and I wasn’t about to give that up.

Fast-forward a bit, and I start my career within the casino entertainment industry. My sound company boss—we’ll call him Yoda, because that’s what I called him—recommended me for the sound engineer job at the casino we both worked at. And finally, I was behind the FOH console. I had graduated from monitors, I was a Jedi Master…  Or was I?  Turns out, one does not simply rise to masterhood by going from monitor world, to FOH, especially at a casino in the middle of Nowhere, Minnesota. But I was honing my craft, working with some of the best musicians this country had to offer on the casino lounge circuit.

I spent about a year in that position until my new boss (We’ll call him Pig Vomit…. Thank you Howard Stern…  Hey Now!) decided that I couldn’t be molded in his own image, so he had to get rid of me. The reason given to me?  “You can’t use a compressor on a subgroup for multiple vocals.”  D’oh Kay… Needless to say, he’s no longer a sound engineer, nor the boss of sound engineers, and rightfully so.

I was about 24 years old, and out of the business that I loved so much. And in the middle of Nowhere, Minnesota, there aren’t a lot of options for sound guys. So I bopped around the casino for a while, slinging more money. I worked at a gas station for a while, and fulfilled a childhood dream of becoming a firefighter, which I did voluntarily. Until this crazy business we’re in found me again.

I vowed never to go back to the casino for work, unless the sound engineer job opened up somehow, and Pig Vomit was no longer employed there. As fate would have it, that exact scenario happened. I was 28 years old, and back. This is when it hit me square on the forehead.. “This is your future, dummy.”  I had no choice but to embrace it. I was a casino lounge sound guy, and I was OK with that. Instead of hoping and dreaming for bigger and better acts, and tours (not that I would immediately turn it down if offered to me, I would give it serious consideration), I decided that I would work my ass off to become the best damn casino lounge sound guy this country had to offer. Now was I a Jedi Master?  Not yet, Padawan…

Fast-forward to my mid-30’s, and off to the blistering heat I went. Some may liken it to Tatooine, but most call it Southern Nevada. We actually only have one sun here. Trust me, I’ve checked. Some days it’s still hard to believe.

When you choose the casino industry for a career path like I did, you want to go where the work is.  And when you grow up in Minnesota, you want to go where the warmth is, and the ice and snow aren’t. Seemed like a no-brainier so I made the move, minus the galactic scruffy-looking nerf herder, and a Wookie co-pilot, to continue with my chosen profession, in my chosen venue. It’s here I continue to work on my craft, in order to reach that pinnacle of Jedi Master.

That is until I came to the realization that maybe we will always be Padawan learners in this business. Save for maybe my two biggest influences/heroes (Yes, sound guys have heroes that aren’t on stage) Brad Madix, and Big Mick Hughes.  I was actually going to be Brad Madix for Halloween last year, Hawaiian shirt, and beat up old Red Sox hat?  Check!!  Anyway, I’m getting off track.

2011-03-27_Brad-Madix big_mick_hughes_leo_and_1100-lfc

     MY HEROES…

The technology changes almost daily, and we’re forced to learn those technologies as they fall into our laps. Much like a musician that has to learn new music, and new techniques to keep up with this band, or that band.. This genre, and that genre. Which finally brings me around to the ultimate moral of this article, musicians need to tip the sound engineer….(Odd segue much?)

If you work in a casino or club setting where the band gets tipped, feel free to print out the rest of this and leave it someplace the band leader is sure to see it. Maybe taped to his or her stage wedge. Or stapled to the bass player’s forehead. Your choice.

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Us sound engineers know that you musicians have been honing your craft and talent for years and years to be where you’re at… So have we. 

We know that you’re up there playing in front of a crowd of people who are seemingly hanging on your every note…  So are we.

But think of this…  While you need to worry about your guitar, your bass, your drum set, etc…  We’re worrying about all of them, at the same time. A good friend once told me that mixing a band is like riding a bike… A bike that’s on fire, with a seat full of nails, riding down the side of the Grand Canyon, while calculating quantum physics. And sometimes it’s true.

We have to process things as fast as you have to process a Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar solo, so the crowd doesn’t miss a note that you’re playing. I take my job very seriously, as seriously as you take your performance. Because as far as I’m concerned, I’m performing right along with you.

I’m the guy that gets to the venue hours before you do, and sometimes stays hours after you leave and go to the bar. I’m the guy that has to listen to “Mustang Sally” on a nightly basis, and not mute the board. I’m the guy in the corner that has to tell people, “I’m not sure where they’re playing next, you’ll have to talk to them,”

My job is MY art, and my reputation is on the line every time WE take the stage. No, I’m not looking for the limelight, I don’t want it. I just want to be viewed as an integral part of the show. I want to feel like you care that I’m there. Yes, the accolades are nice, the shout-outs from the stage are wonderful. But when you’re in a setting where tips are allowed, and in fact encouraged…  Throw your engineer a bone.

Because we’re working just as hard as you are, if not more at times. When I see a four-piece band divvying up the tip jar at the end of the night, and I see multiple $20’s and $10’s..  I feel like it’s only fair that you throw the fifth Beatle a $5 or more.

Do I need that $5 or $10 or $20?  Nope, I sure don’t. I make a living, and a pretty good one at that. It truly is the principal of it. Does the cocktail waitress tip her bartender out at the end of the night?  Absolutely, because she wouldn’t have made any money had it not been for the bartender providing the drinks to keep her customers happy. Same thing here.

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OK, this part doesn’t have to go on the bass player’s forehead.

To be quite honest, I never really thought about it much until the leader of a band tipped me $40 for a weeks worth of work.  I politely declined, and said “Oh, that’s not necessary, I was just doing my job.”  He responded with “Oh, I always budget an extra amount for the sound guy, and you were fantastic.”  It really got me thinking about it, a lot!  And then shortly after, the leader of another band handed me a $20, and I politely declined again. His response was a very confident… “You ALWAYS tip your sound guy.”  I thought to myself, “You do?”  Well, sure you do. (Some of y’all may know this guy…)

Bands are making tips on top of their contracted amount because the crowd appreciates them, and the music they’re playing. And some of those musicians just fully understand that they wouldn’t get those tips if the crowd couldn’t hear them, and they wouldn’t get the positive response from the crowd if the sound heard out front was less than desirable.

See…  I don’t ever toot my own horn, it’s the Minnesotan in me, humbleness is in our DNA, it’s taught to us before the ABC’s are. But I’m good at what I do, sometimes better than the band that’s playing on my stage. But you would never know that, because I give each and every band I mix 110%, no matter what I think of them.

One of the first things I ever learned in this business was “You can’t polish a turd,” and that may be true..  But I’ll tell you this right now, over my 16 years in this business, I’ve had some shiny turds on my stage. Because no matter the talent level of the band, I try to make them sound as good as the last, and better than the next. Because that’s who I am, and that’s what I do.

The band on stage is only as good as the sound guy, and if I’m working my ass off to make them shine like Lucy in the Sky, I expect them to take notice… So does that make me a Jedi Master?  Maybe…  But I’m still learning new things every day, and I have no intention on stopping my education. We’ll call it an applied PH.D… Yes, a doctorate of sound, without college and the hangovers… Well, some hangovers. But, such is life. Such is this industry…

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Neil McVey

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