Lessons from being a roadie early in my career

While I was still studying I became a roadie. I think it was after responding to an ad in the music industry section of the street press magazine the Drum Media (Is street press still a thing?). It seemed perfect for a uni student with a bit of music and audio production knowledge: mostly night work and flexibility around Uni commitments.

The first thing I discovered was it was bloody hard work. HIIT is a big fitness fad and I think being a roadie was a similar concept. Work as hard as you can for as long as you can. Some shifts were just 3 hours because you couldn’t possibly do another minute.  The majority of the work was unloading or packing (bump-ins/bump-outs) trucks of heavy equipment as quickly as possible.

The shows varied greatly. I had some shifts where I was shovelling dirt for 6 hours- to turn a stadium into a dirt-bike stunt show. There were lots of big concerts- whoever was touring that year. Even more Christian rock shows, I discovered that Hillsong was almost single handedly keeping the local live production industry going.  There were TV shows- particularly when they did specials outside of their normal studio location. Sporting events- halftime shows and side stages. Awards- MTV Music awards was a highlight as I got to go to the after party- at 19 I thought that was pretty cool. Then the boring stuff: corporate gigs and conferences. I vividly remember almost walking out on a job where I had to setup LG fridges at a white-goods trade show.

But I stuck with it for 12 months, doing bump outs during the week- from midnight to 6am. And bump ins when I could get them on weekends or days I had no classes. Half the time not caring or knowing what the show was. Towards the end I was doing what I signed up for. The “one, two, two, two” on stage and backline setup. That means plugging in guitar amps, patching fold-back monitors and putting mics on drums.  Playing drums to an empty stadium with a huge PA system was an amazing feeling. I also got to stick around for the performance and provide whatever assistance was needed. Another highlight was helping dancers onto stage at a Beyoncé concert as they couldn’t walk up the perforated metal stairs in high heels.

I hung up my backstage lanyard when I physically couldn’t do it anymore. I needed sleep and to focus on finishing my degree. Occasionally, I think back to that intensive year of roadie work- and reflect on how it has helped me to get where I am. These are my top lessons learnt from my roadie days.

Stop talking and get shit done.

To start with an empty stadium- sometimes just a day before the concert- and to have it production ready for an audience of 80,000 people is an overwhelming team effort. From the first truck arriving in the loading dock to the last cable patched at the lighting desk- it is managed with military precision. There is a clear hierarchy but with little micro-management. Everyone knows their role and their set of tasks. But the lighting director is more than happy to get his or her hands dirty on any task that needs doing.  I think part of the reason it can run so smoothly is the goal is clear: we need a stage, with lighting, video and audio before the band gets here for sound check- and well before the patrons turn up. There is nothing more motivating than standing in an empty stadium knowing how much needs to get done between now and showtime- so no time to do anything but work. And if you see a task that needs doing- do it.

How I use this today:

I am very much a doer. I can’t stand talk, noise and unnecessary meetings. The lighting truck has arrived and we have a stadium to set up. Let's get to work.  I always have that sense of urgency. And I feel I prioritise this way too. Big stuff first (lighting rig) small stuff later (patching the control cable to each light). There is always so much work that needs doing- find the thing that has the biggest impact until all the big impact items are done- then you have time for small things.  And don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty no matter what your role is. Your role defines what you are responsible for- not what tasks you should or shouldn’t do. Align your business goals and do whatever it takes to get there.

A phrase I use constantly is “showstoppers”. Do we have any showstoppers?  What are the likely showstoppers for day one launch? These are the big issues- that deserve my time. If there are small issues but the show can still go on- then let’s proceed.  The show must go on.  

Not one of my gigs but a familiar sight. Time lapse of setting up a Muse stadium show.

Physical work feels good.

It was the first and only physical job I’ve had. I did not use a computer once. I even kept two wrenches on my belt. There is such a sense of achievement from doing physical work. You get all the good stuff your brain releases from exercise (see my last article)- but also starting with an empty floor and ending up with a stage in a single shift is satisfying. Building something from scratch and seeing results so quickly feels great.

How I use this today.

I’m still hooked on physical activity- but my job now is mostly thinking, writing and talking. So simple things like having a pull up bar next to my desk allows me to stay active at work.

I still like to build things from scratch and this is exactly what our project team does. New UX for projects, new features for our products. But I have to wait 6 weeks- not 6 hours for that sense of achievement. Even if it’s not directly at work- you should always be building something new. Have a project, complete it, feel great, repeat. I’m pretty sure that's the secret to happiness. No need for religion or anything like that- just complete plenty of projects.

There is more to life than work.

I started to notice that being a roadie was all-encompassing and it was hard to fit anything else into your life (including my uni work at the time). If you are working all night and sleeping most of the day your only connection to other people- is other roadies and production crew members. There is no outside world. On long running shows- you are literary sleeping on stacked up road cases or if you are lucky and know someone- the back of a van.

Some programmers like to brag about doing all nighters. Let me tell you no one works harder than a production crew on tour- they only work all nighters. But in both cases this is not healthy. Many product crew members turned to drugs to help them continue with this- uppers so they can do the work- downers to get to sleep at weird hours. I know some programmers that do the same thing.  

How I use this today.

Working that hard- for that long will result in poor work and is simply unhealthy. Programmers seem to have a hard time with this.  They don’t realise that everyone would rather that they take twice as long and factor in sleep. I can guarantee the code produced at 4am is going to have issues- and they’ll spend more time chasing bugs than if they just had a break and came back to it the next day. And then there is the ripple effect of the other tasks they were meant to do the day after an all nighter. So never boast about doing an all nighter to me- I will just think you have poor time management skills and no respect for your own work.

A job that requires thinking (most of them)- requires a lot of head space. Rest, sleep, exercise and doing more than just work. This gives your subconscious a chance to sort and clear your brain’s cache. This is why you have your best ideas in the shower (it use to be on the toilet but mobile phones have killed that thinking time).   You should never get to the point that you are working so hard that you turn to drugs to keep you going. It will all catch up to you sooner or later.

My time as a roadie was brief and I was mostly bolting truss together and unloading trucks. But with the power of hindsight I feel the job helped shape who I am today. Particularly my work ethic and sense or urgency to be ready by show time. It has come full circle as a few of the venues I use to work at are now clients- so I’m still backstage from time to time, always interested in what they are bumping in and out.