Edd Sedgwick is a sound engineer and tour manager who normally works for the Vaccines, but with that group having long planned to take 2020 off, he was preparing to go on the road with Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien. Then, as the coronavirus crisis worsened, he got a call: “Put everything on hold for the rest of the year.” Sedgwick’s life emptied out. “The weirdest thing is knowing every day by its date or the day of the week – so you call a day ‘Monday’ instead of ‘Barcelona’ or ‘Milan’.”
You can apply Sedgwick’s experience across the live music industry: thousands of workers suddenly learned their working year had ended in March. Tre Stead, for example, is Frank Turner’s tour manager. She was in the last week of Turner’s European tour when the world began to fall apart. They plugged on until Donald Trump intervened, with three shows left. “We had three Americans on the crew, and then Trump did his travel ban.” Faced with the prospect of being stranded in Europe indefinitely, the Americans – with Turner’s blessing – flew home. “And that’s when Frank decided it was the end.”
The vast majority of road crew – a broad designation that includes tour managers, instrument technicians, sound engineers, lighting engineers, bus drivers, merchandise sellers and even caterers, plus those working in the other ancillary industries on which touring depends – are self-employed. They go out on tour and are paid for that tour by the artist. When there is no work, there is no money. Since March, those who are self-employed have had to rely on grants from the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS), savings, universal credit, or on getting other jobs. The luckier ones – who had set themselves up as limited companies, with themselves as directors – have been able to go on furlough, but times are beyond tough: there is an existential crisis in the road crew world.
Though the plight of musicians and venues has been widely publicised, the travails of the live industry’s backroom staff have been less noted. Hence last Tuesday’s Red Alert initiative, where venues across the country were floodlit red as part of the #WeMakeEvents campaign. The aim is to pressure the government to offer more support for the live events business, which was the first industry to close when Covid-19 arrived and is one of the last to reopen. In July, Boris Johnson announced gig venues could reopen with social distancing from 1 August, but reversed the decision with one day to go. Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has announced reopening can begin today, but with social distancing in place, it won’t be viable for many venues.
Those in the industry say the crisis will get worse without government help. It’s not just individuals but companies at risk, says Andy Lenthall, general manager of the Production Services Association. “Those are the companies that need to be there to serve the sector – if they fold, they will be left with big warehouses full of lights, or PA systems, owned by a bank.”
Top technicians are in Amazon fulfilment centres, or driving for AsdaAndy Lenthall
But it’s the individual tales that hit hardest. “We basically trawled the internet looking for temporary jobs for our members,” Lenthall says. “Our website has a Covid section with temporary vacancies, and some top technicians have got themselves into Amazon fulfilment centres, or driving for Asda. We had two members bump into each other in the same aisle in Tesco, stacking shelves on a night shift.”
Those are the lucky ones. For comparison, try 29-year-old lighting director Chris Yeomans, who was due to spend most of this year on the road with McFly, after finishing a tour with Mabel in March. “I’m back at my parents’ house,” he says. “The only income I have is universal credit, and the government grant for the self-employed.” Or Kirstie Hopper, a tour and merchandise manager, whose last tour was with Halsey. She too is back at home on universal credit. “I’d moved out of home several years ago,” she says. “Now I feel like I’m failing at life. I’m trying to remind myself it’s temporary.”
Others have turned their enforced idleness to productive use. Matt Cox, keyboards technician for the Chemical Brothers, has created a website for socially distanced musicians who are having equipment difficulties. Tre Stead has been working at Manchester’s Nightingale Hospital. “I started off doing the night shift in the catering department, from 8pm to 6am, which was pretty brutal. It’s made the time go quickly, but the problem is, being on crew isn’t something you can practise at home. If I go back to work next year – my next booked gig is in May 2021, but it’s not certain that will go ahead – I have to jump on that and know what to do after a year of not doing it.”
For American road crews, the situation is even harder, with the benefits system tougher and the need for health insurance to get medical treatment. Tiffany Hendren, for example, found herself caught in a perfect storm by Covid-19. She splits her work – part of the year on staff as a sound engineer for a group of venues in St Louis, Missouri; part of the year touring as a freelancer. “In the past I’ve had insurance through the job, but I have to work a certain number of hours for that employer every year to get it. Last year I fell short, so my insurance expired.”
That would be bad enough at the best of times, worse in a pandemic, and even worse if, like Hendren, you are asthmatic, suffer from chronic bronchitis and are prone to regular bouts of pneumonia. “That has made me incredibly paranoid about going outside. I’m going slightly mad.”
What worries everyone is whether they will have jobs to go back to, and if they do, whether they will be able to afford to return to them. “There are people saying, ‘I’m not up for this any more,’” says Ben Bowers, a guitar tech for Rival Sons. “I’ve spent a lot of time in the studio working on demos for other bands, and I think I’ll find it hard to return.” Every tech person I speak to reports friends who are leaving the business for good, and predicts a crew shortage next year.
Those who plan to return to the road know everything will be different, and harder. Major promoters have told me they expect consumer confidence in live music to be so low they will have to cut ticket prices, which will mean lower artist fees and thus either fewer crew or lower crew wages; crew members expect the return of live music to be accompanied by freelancers desperate for work undercutting each others’ rates. Edd Sedgwick notes that with supply companies – the ones who provide lights and PA and backline and so on – having had to make redundancies, “they won’t have the stock to set it all back up.” He mentions a tour bus company he uses, which right before Covid had invested in a fleet of brand new coaches. “Now they’re just sitting in a yard.” His conclusion is bleak: “The demand will be there, but I don’t think the resources will be there to support it.”
So spare a thought not just for musicians, but the people who make sure they can take to the stage. “This has been 10 years of building a career and making sacrifices,” Chris Yeomans says. “I’ve sacrificed relationships and friendships and now I’m sat at home playing PlayStation wondering what it was all for.”