Living the Dream

BY ROBERT SCOVILL

You’re standing in total darkness. Suddenly you hear a huge crowd start cheering wildly. A band starts
playing but, oddly, they sound very distant and far away. A spotlight bursts on to you in intense, blinding white light. In an attempt to shelter your eyes you look down only to realize … you’re naked … and … none of your gear is set up. You squint through the light only to realize that everyone, including the band, is staring at you … and … they have their phones out … and … they’re typing. Suddenly, the phone in your pocket starts vibrating incessantly with social media alerts. Startled, you jerk straight up in bed, sweating … panting. “Oh thank God, it was only a dream.”

Yes, it’s the modern day version of the “roadie dream”. Which is of course actually a PTSD-inducing nightmare that seems to inch closer and closer to reality with every passing event for today’s live audio mixers.

If you’re in the world of Pro Audio, regardless of what level you work, then you’re well aware of the recent audio mishaps at some very high visibility shows. These incidents are now a part of the national conversation. The recent snafus on New Year’s Eve with Mariah Carey, the well-documented events of the last two Grammys with very high-profile artists and even a headline-grabbing, click-generating incident involving a confrontation between a volatile Presidential candidate and a podium mic have all captured the attention and imagination of John Q. Public.

Well, you might scoff at this, but if you’re wondering how this is going to go moving forward, look no further than how modern media responds to anything that happens which is deemed significant by those covering it. Let’s say, for example, there is a carjacking and it gets national attention by national news. Did you ever notice that once that happens, news organizations at the local level all of sudden and seemingly coincidentally start reporting stories of local carjackings? It’s easy to spot this news “trend” if you’re touring and in a different city each day.

At the national level, before long you start seeing experts being called in discuss the rise in frequency of carjackings and their impact on society; crime trends, law enforcement, neighborhood safety, illegal immigrant cause and effect, what can car manufacturers do to better protect drivers, “Is the failure of the family responsible for the explosion of carjacking incidents?” And on and on the media grist mill churns. Sound familiar?

Well, the seeds of the “LIVE SOUND: AN INDUSTRY IN CRISIS” narrative have already been planted and are sprouting roots. Within 24 hours of the Grammy broadcast and the Metallica mishap, Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich, the band’s appointed spokesperson was already on a late night talk show talking about the incident and attempting some brand triage. On this night the show also, “coincidentally”, included a Broadway star who was asked by the host, “so you guys do Broadway shows live right? So do sound problems happen for you guys too?” To which the performer immediately responded “Oh yes, ALL of the time” and then proceeded to describe in detail a litany of incidents. CRINGE … no, make that DOUBLE CRINGE … “Oh Lord, take me now”. Turn the crank on the media grist mill, here we go.

I was amazed (and shouldn’t be anymore really) at how quickly I saw SCNO (S-o C-alled N-ews O-ganizations) — see what I did right there? — flood my social feeds with click-gobbling headlines. Here’s a sample of some actual headlines.

Metallica Unplugged Right After Line Check

Grammy’s Sound Crew Forget To Turn On James Hetfield’s Mic

2017 Grammy’s Disaster; We Have The Inside Story”

Grammy’s Production Insider Tells All 

Stage Hand to Blame for Ruining Grammys For Metallica Fans

Our Industry Expert Explains The Grammy’s Debacle

Grammy’s Producer Apologizes to Metallica

Ad.Effing.Nauseum.

And of course in the social media era we all have to suffer through mind-numbing, oversimplified rhetoric delivered by people (some in our own industry) who line up to posture and proclaim that they’re certain they know exactly what happened and how they would have prevented it.

  • “Man, you’d think at that level, they would have locking connectors on the cables”
  • “Are you telling me no one thought to tape that cable down?”
  • “Boy, you’d think they would put that input box in a place where NO ONE would even come close to it, let alone a dancer”
  • “You’d think they would have instant redundancy for these things wouldn’t you?”
  • “It’s 2017 can’t they design a mic that never fails?”
  • “They should just go wireless for everything”
  • “They need to just simplify things and go back to the way it used to be”

Ad.Effing.Nauseum.

Cause you know … An audio cable had never gotten accidentally unplugged before February 12th 2017. (That said, you can bet every artist and mixing engineer for the foreseeable future will be double, triple, quadruple checking that lead vocal mic connection before that artist ever steps up to that mic.)

One of the posts actually made me giggle though (uncomfortably) because it rang of some truth. “Does anybody remember the days when a mic didn’t work and the next day everyone had already forgotten about it?”

Well, safe to say that world is LONG gone in 2017.

At this years Winter NAMM show I was given the honor of delivering the keynote address for their inaugural Live Sound Expo. One of the topics I was asked to cover was tour preparation in the modern era of live sound. And while I covered cloud collaboration with my crew and lots of other administrative topics, one of the questions I posed and topics that I covered was a big surprise for many in attendance. So let me take this opportunity to ask the same question here.

“As a concert sound mixer, do you have a social media strategy?”

(There were a LOT of puzzled looks around the room as I’ll bet there are on a big percentage of the folks reading this. But once you let it sink in, it becomes pretty obvious that this has big implications for the future of our industry not to mention what it could actually mean for YOU as an audio mercenary going forward.)

In the run up to the Internet era and now the age of social media I have actually written on this topic a couple of times and have also addressed it at seminars and panel sessions. The crux of the conversation is this; when things go “pare shaped” at a show how will you respond, not in the moment, but after the moment?

Live sound has a long and rich history of planning for the unforeseen during a show. But what I’m asking about is how you will react after the incident, not during. How will you react when confronted with negative public opinion of your work? Why? Because I assure you, no matter what your skill level, there will be someone at EVERY show that has that negative opinion and will want to share it with anyone who will listen. How are you going to respond to that criticism? Do you have a plan? Have you thought this through? What if the artist or manager confronts you with the person’s public criticism in hand? Is your plan to get on the bus, have a few drinks and check Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and then drop a few alcohol inspired posts or responses?

There was a time when “that guy” with the negative view of your work might make their way to the FOH position and let their feelings be known. You would respond in any way you saw fit and then it would be over. Today it’s much more likely they will go to your artist’s fan site and post it there, where they will in turn recruit others to join them in their displeasure and post accordingly. In 2017 and beyond, mainstream media might even use it as a headline.

So once they do just that, that’s when things get very interesting and you have some choices to make.

Do you identify yourself and engage them online? If so, do you do so publicly or privately? If publicly, have you done so with the blessings of the artist you work for? Here’s why I ask, because believe it or not, the moment you post, if you identify yourself and your role and then respond, the fan does not hear YOU responding, they hear the artist. Nope, at that moment you are an agent of the artist and representing their brand not yours. You likely won’t even be recognized by name, you’ll just be known as “insert-star’s-name-here’s sound guy told me so and so and he was a total jerk”

Once that takes place, your bad review has just gone next level. A search of your artist’s name and/or the incident on Google etc. now shows up in the list of found items as “stars name … total jerk”.

Phone rings …

FOH Mixer: “Hello”

Bands Manager: “Hey how’s it going out there”

FOH Mixer: “Good”

Morgan Freeman: “Things were not good”

Here’s another example; what do you do if there’s actual liability involved in a show incident? Maybe a lot of people asking for their ticket price back, a failed show where insurance gets involved with big money on the line, or heaven forbid where there is injury or death?

If you go social … you’re now on the record as a representative of the artist and the event. I know we now live in a world of “alternate facts” where you can simply deny that you said something that you’re actually on record as saying … But I’m just saying …

Phone rings …

FOH Mixer: “Hello”

Bands Manager: “Hey I heard what happened last night. I’m just checking, are you okay? Yes? Great. Do you have a lawyer?”

Morgan Freeman: “He didn’t have a lawyer”

Think I’m being over reactionary? Consider something that actually happened recently. Do all of my sound brethren and sisters out there recall the podium mic incident with Donald Trump where he proclaimed that the sound man should be fired or the sound company shouldn’t get paid? All because of handling noise in a podium mic that the next leader of the free world couldn’t stop futzing with.

This could have been any of us sitting behind the console my friends … I’m deadly serious here. I read a lot of ACSE’s (A-rm C-hair S-ound E-gineers) chiming in on social media after this happened who posted with an awful lot of faux bravado.

Just for a second, TRY and put yourself in the mixer’s shoes and ask yourself some very real and pointed questions given the situation.

  • How tempted would you have been to mute the mic after being called out?
  • If you had muted the mic and a riot ensued, maybe with injuries or death, do you think you could’ve been held accountable?
  • Do you think your employer could have been held accountable?
  • Do you think you would have had a job the next day?
  • Do you think you would have had a job next year?
  • How tempted would you have been to address the issue in social media after the incident?
  • How many times do you think the mixer for this event was approached by main stream media outlets for commentary?
  • How much pressure do you think the mixer endured from the opposition to comment on the candidate’s behavior?
  • Would you be prepared to speak on camera without your emotions influencing your words after being called out like that?
  • Would you be prepared to speak on camera with the same gravitas that you showed on social media?

Still think you got the skill and the stones to handle “a couple of podium mics”?

Yeah, I thought so …

In the spirit of some much needed levity, I’m amazed that Southwest Airlines has yet to leverage a “Wanna Get Away?” commercial out of any of these incidents. If they do, you’ll then know that professional audio has fully arrived in the public consciousness. When that happens, an SNL skit can’t be far behind as sure as there would be a rapidly produced episode of “Roadies” to follow, all in an effort to reflect real life headlines just like producers and writers used to do on the show “Law and Order”.

Whatever happens you can bet that, while humorous, none of it will be flattering to our profession. Yep, we’ll no longer be the cool guys behind the scenes, we’ll be the road crew equivalent of Spinal Tap. Ugggggg … again … “Lord take me now.”

And ya know what? It won’t change at least one irrefutable truth. (do not confuse an “irrefutable truth” with an “alternate fact.”)

Folks, if you’re listening, nothing we do in life is 100% certain. So it logically follows that nothing we do in live entertainment and live concert production is 100% certain either. Nothing. No matter how much talent, experience and money you put behind an effort, nothing is fool proof or failure proof. Nothing. It’s all simply measuring and mitigating degrees of risk. And ya know what? Believe it or not, that’s exactly what you should LOVE about live events. I know I do. Be they drag racing, or live concerts, the fact that it all may go sideways at any moment IS the juice. There’s certainly no excitement in perfectly scripted, predetermined, calculated to nth degree, rinse, lather repeat moments day after day, night after night. None.

That said, what we don’t want to see is our favorite racecar driver die in a fiery crash any more than we want to see our favorite artist suffer public embarrassment because of something we’ve done or not done. But we love it when they’re willing and able to take us along for the ride, right to edge and survive it, especially so when everything is on the line. Exactly like James Hetfield did on Grammy night. When he recognized that his mic was not working, he simply moved in on Lady Gaga and they shared her microphone and simply carried on. And in the process they both showed what touring and performing in front of millions of people for most of their lives had built into them; pure effing professional instincts. Compare James’ actions to Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Eve incident. Yep, I’ll leave it right there.

As has been said many times, “Incidents like these don’t build character, they reveal it.”

Sports is at its best when the outcome of the contest is not predetermined. Music, when it’s at its best, is exactly the same. It’s at its best when it’s live and the execution of the performance is on the shoulders of the artist and in the hands of a professional staff to deliver it, not resting entirely on some unreliable playback technology or even a single mic cable. That’s when real stars are given an opportunity to shine and they often do just that when it’s all on the line. Want an example? Rewind your DVR of the 2016 Grammys, watch it and then fast forward to the 2017 Grammys, and ask yourself “What would Adele do?”

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About the author

Robert Scovill

Robert is a 30 year veteran of live sound and 6 time TEC / 2 time Parnelli Award winner for Sound Reinforcement Engineer of the Year. He serves as Senior Market Specialist for live sound products for Avid and regularly works as Concert Sound Mixer and Live Recordist for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.

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