Stance on Substance
I have to come clean: I don’t drink, smoke or use any kind of drugs. It’s not a health issue or a religious persuasion, it was simply a personal choice, made back in my teenage years. I don’t mind being the designated driver and I never take an issue with people enjoying whatever they want to experiment with. But being of constantly sober constitution gives me an opportunity to ponder on what it means to be a working cog in the rock’n’roll industry with its notoriously bad reputation of substance abuse. It is my strong belief that if you want to be considered an audio professional (or a professional in any field for that matter), there is no place for any type of substance abuse while you are working. Let me explain why.
The Entertainment Business
It is quite easy to get lost in the maze of pitfalls our work can bring along. Riders with demands for free drinks, watching people in the audience enjoying themselves, maybe even the act you are working for promotes the “party atmosphere” as a part of their image. And to this day my friends think that when we go to a gig, we go out and enjoy the concert, since they have never experienced what we do. So they simply fill in the gaps with images from cheesy movies about rock’n’roll stars. What they all fail to understand is that in the entertainment business, the “entertainment” part is for the audience and the “business” part is for the people who make the show happen - with sound people being very much in the latter category. Instead of joining the audience members with a cold beer in your hand, remember that your work is not done until the show is over and all gear is taken care of. So maybe opt out for the cold water instead, so you can help your artist and the crew stay on point and safe.
Drinking With My Friend or My Boss?
When you are hired to do sound for an act, a venue or a PA provider, you enter an employment relationship. This particular detail can sometimes be overlooked because you're working with friends. Maybe you've been working for particular band or company for years now and you have become really close with the artist or the rental company owner. When you meet up to go on a gig, it doesn’t feel like you are going to work, it just feels like hanging out with mates - which is great and absolutely how it should feel. After all, the friendships you create are the best part of not only what we do, but life in general. But there should be no doubt in your mind that if you get paid for your services at the end of the day, the people in the van or on the bus are also your employers. So it is always good to know who are the people that sign your paychecks and act accordingly.
You are Not Representing Just Yourself
I have been privileged to have worked with some really wonderful artists who have entrusted me with their sound. Some of them demand that I wear their official apparel, usually T-shirts with the band logo or some other branding they provide. The moment you put on those clothes, you become a part of the artist’s brand name. And all actions of an act’s crew get directly attributed to the act. No one has time or the energy to isolate a certain team member when they talk later on about the event. Rarely you will hear “John is an amazing artist with a great crew, but that one sound guy was disrespecting his employer by showing up drunk and ruining the show.” It is much more likely that the thought will go “John and his crew are shit.” So you have just smeared the good name of an artist and the rest of his crew by being unprofessional. Well, guess what, John is going to be fed up with you soon, and might fire you. Rightfully so, I might add, because your actions had a direct effect on the image of John’s brand. Always keep in mind that whenever you are hired by someone, your attitude and actions are directly connected to the public image of people who gave you the job.
I had a conversation with a colleague of mine who is a part of the audio crew for one of the most known circus acts in the world. We were talking about what happens if something goes wrong on stage during the show. His response to that was: “Everybody has to stay put.” Coming from the world of mostly rock shows that was quite surprising to me. In my world, when something goes wrong, we try to fix it as soon as possible so that the show can go on. But not in his house: “We have heavy set pieces and all kinds of gear being moved around in the dark all the time. If you move to a spot you have no business moving to, something might hit you.” He hastened to add that they had a crew member lose his life for not following those rules, so you are literally risking your life if you are not on top of your game every show. I know these seem like extreme conditions, but when you think about it, modern stage productions are very intricate beasts. Sets being moved around, pyro blasting off, blinding lights, moments of complete darkness - all potentially extremely dangerous situations. Being anything else but completely focused in these situations can result in someone paying the ultimate price. Need I underline here that this world of peril has no leniency for intoxicated individuals? It is bad enough that we have to work sometimes with little to no sleep, so why risk even a slither more than you have to? When all is said and done, you are responsible for getting home safely and do all you can so your crew can do the same.
How reliable do you think your ears are if you are not running at a 100% mental capacity? I am truly curious about that one, because I have witnessed my fair share of sound engineers who did a great job during sound check, went for dinner and then returned, how shall I put this, at less than full capacity. During the show all hell broke loose, but it went straight over their heads. Either they were “feeling the vibe” and just went overboard with overall volume of the show, or got stuck on one minute detail of the sonic image while cues were missed, solos unheard, feedback ignored and monitoring requests denied. However, in almost all of these instances, when the show ended, they were on cloud nine, claiming this was their best mixing ever. I even heard some engineers state that they mix better after a few drinks (or something else), which I guess directly corresponds to the fact that even if their work is sloppy, they are not able to realise that. My point of view is clear - when you are mixing, you are juggling hundreds of parameters at any given moment. It demands every nuance of concentration and dedication on your part to support your act and make sure you are helping out your own career as well. Anything that takes away even the slightest bit of that focus will affect your work, and it is never for the better.
Enjoying what you do is the best way to ensure you will do it well for years to come. Our work can be grueling and you absolutely deserve to unwind and party with your friends and crew members. Just keep in mind that there is a time and place for everything. Working as an audio professional while (ab)using any intoxicating substances will not only affect your health and safety, but also your career options and trajectory. Besides, there are not a lot of things that give you more of a rush than those few seconds before the show starts and the high you get after mixing a great show- it is all the addiction I need.