backline

What Is Backline and How Do You Make a Stage Plot?

What is the backline and how do you make a stage plot? In today’s lesson, I’ll define the backline, tell you how to create a stage plot, and discuss what goes into the contract rider for the backline your group needs for a gig or concert. You will learn to determine your group’s needs and to communicate this to your producer, client, or rental company. We will also briefly examine the backline rental business, and how to get work as a crew member for backline rental companies.

Some areas we will explore in regards to backline:

  1. What is a backline and why do you need it
  2. How to determine your group’s backline needs
  3. How to create a professional stage plot
  4. What goes into the contract rider for backline
  5. What you need to know about the backline rental business

You may have heard the term backline thrown about and wondered what is a backline? Possibly, you were asked to provide a stage plot and a contract rider to stipulate your band’s backline needs to a Concert or Festival Promoter, venue, or Booking Agent. If you weren’t sure exactly what to do, or how to do it, this article is for you. I’ll take you through all the components of the backline, as the term is commonly used, and explain how you can make a professional-looking rider and stage plot. Knowledge is power and armed with the knowledge of your group’s backline needs, and how to communicate those needs to others, you will be better prepared to give a great performance.

What Is a Backline and Why Do You Need It?

Like some of you, I was perplexed the first time I heard all these terms. The meaning of the word backline in the concert industry is actually quite simple: it’s everything you need in the way of gear to put on a show, except for the P.A. system and monitors. This includes amplifiers, keyboards, drums, stands, outboard rack gear, and sometimes even the stage risers. What you actually need is dependent on the kind of group you have, the instrumentation, musical style(s) you play, and the demands of the particular gig or concert, such as the size of the stage and hall. It might also depend on the budget of the Promoter, or availability of certain equipment at a location.

In the most general terms, when describing the backline you should create a list, to include the following:

  1. Guitar amplifier(s)
  2. Bass amplifier
  3. Keyboards
  4. Keyboard amplifiers and/or sound mixer
  5. Drumset
  6. Miscellaneous, such as amp stands, risers, guitar stands, etc.

JS Hatch Earth Day 7

Image courtesy of Andy Bergsten.

In addition to the general description of gear needed, the backline list should include specifications (i.e. specs) for all pieces of equipment, such as make and model, speaker size and power handling capacity, drum sizes, plus any other details specific to each piece of equipment. All of your backline specs will ultimately go into the contract rider, which I’ll explain below. You need this complete list to communicate to Promoters and Stage Crews all equipment for the stage your group will need in order to put on a performance.

There are times where you might bring all your own gear, such as to a local small gig. But for the bigger shows, and especially when you must travel to perform at some far-off destination, you will likely not be carrying all your gear with you. In this case, it’s crucial that you communicate all your equipment needs in advance to the venue or sponsoring organization. This way they can have everything you need ready so that you can just walk out on stage and play (usually after a brief soundcheck conducted earlier).

Pro tip: take pictures of all your group’s gear on stage when you are set up for a gig, then you can refer to the pictures later if there are any discrepancies in the list of gear. Be sure to take pictures from all angles, especially of the back, as this can show how the amplifiers are connected to speakers and power sources.

How to Determine Your Group’s Backline Needs

One way to start might be to ask each performer in your group to give you their individual equipment specifications in the form of a list. For some players, it might just be one item, such as a guitar amp. In any case, at a minimum, they need to give you the brand and model, plus any details about the amplifier that might be important, such as speaker type, power (expressed in watts), number of channels, years of manufacture, and so on. It would also be wise to have them include a second choice, in case the specified model is not available. Some players also have a “do not use” list; these would be common brands or models they would not find acceptable. Here is an example, for an electric bassist:

  • Amplifiers needed: Two Ampeg SVT (models from 1968-1976 only) tube bass head
  • If not available: Gallien Kruger 1001 RB or 400 RB solid state amplifier
  • Do Not Use: SWR, Eden, Aguilar or any hybrid (tube preamp, solid state power amp)
  • Speakers: 8X10” cabinet, prefer Celestion or Eminence drivers, Two 4X10” cabs also fine, but they must be 8 Ohms each
  • All connecting cables: AC power, ¼ inch or speakon cables, extra ¼ patch cord
  • Rack mount tuner with outboard AC power power conditioner, parametric or graphic EQ (equalizer), and compressor (optional), plus connecting cables and power strip
  • Guitar stands (2)

The drummer might have a longer list, with all drum sizes noted, types of hardware (pedals and stands), and the all-important drummer’s rug. It’s best to have each player give you their needs in writing, so you can then assemble it all into the backline rider for the contract and draw your stage plot showing where everything should be placed. The more musicians you have in your group, the longer the list will be.

Pro tip: take pictures of all your group’s gear on stage when you are set up for a gig, then you can refer to the pictures later if there are any discrepancies in the list of gear. Be sure to take pictures from all angles, especially of the back, as this can show how the amplifiers are connected to speakers and power sources. You can also use these photos when creating your stage plot.

How to Create a Professional Stage Plot

The stage plot is a detailed drawing of the stage showing the placement of all the backline gear, plus microphone and monitor placement. Monitors are necessary so that the performers can hear each other and themselves. Depending on the size of the stage, you might have a separate monitor for each musician, or in a smaller hall, just a frontline monitor for vocals and side fills (speakers placed on either side of the stage in the wings, pointing inwards) for the other musicians.

The stage plot is usually oriented showing the front of the stage at the bottom of the page, which should be in landscape orientation (lengthwise from right to left). This way, looking at the stage plot can give a facsimile of what the audience will see, though pictured from above. Note that stage right will now be on the left side of the page and stage left will be on the right side. The back of the stage will be at the top.

You can draw your stage plot neatly by hand. You don’t need to be a visual or graphic artist to draw your plot, but try to do it as neatly as possible. Make sure to show the placement of every piece of gear, plus microphones for vocalists, music stands, risers (if any), and where the performers will stand. Label everything you draw. You could also show hanging curtains or scrims. You might consider using some CAD (Computer Assisted Design) software; there are free programs available online if you search for them.

Here is an example of what a stage plot could look like, from one of my recent concerts:

Shanghai Stage Plot

This example is very basic but functional. You might choose to include more labels or indicate different monitor mixes for each individual. The instructions for monitors could also be included in the contract rider.

You can draw your stage plot neatly by hand. You don’t need to be a visual or graphic artist to draw your plot, but try to do it as neatly as possible. Make sure to show the placement of every piece of gear, plus microphones for vocalists, music stands, risers (if any), and where the performers will stand.

What Goes Into the Contract Rider for Backline

The contract rider is simply a list of all the backline gear required for the performance. As mentioned above, the list should be as specific as possible, with brand, model, specifications, sizes, etc. for all items included. The rider can also contain the stage plot drawing. It’s important to note on the contract itself that the rider is attached, and also the exact number of pages. Most contract riders for backline will take up between one and three pages. There can be additional information in the rider, for example about dressing rooms, catering, travel, and lodging, but these are not considered a part of the backline rider.

If possible, it’s a good idea to speak directly with the venue, client, Promoter, or Booking Agent about all the items in the rider. You want to be certain that the counterparty understands what the band will need in order to perform, and that the rider items are non-negotiable. They should also confirm verbally with you that they understand the backline needs. The worst-case scenario is when you show up to play a show and none of the equipment you requested is there because the rider was completely ignored. Believe it or not, this does actually happen. I’ve seen firsthand where artists on a bill were unable to perform because the right equipment had not been ordered. When it’s an artist at the top of the bill, this will invariably lead to conflict. The audience could become unruly, request immediate refunds for their tickets, or worse. Lawsuits could entail. Of course, nobody ever wants to find themselves in such a situation, but unfortunately, it happens more frequently than you might expect, and there’s always plenty of blame to go around.

Here is an example of what a contract rider could look like, from one of my recent concerts:

Shanghai Equipment Rider

What You Need to Know About the Backline Rental Business

If you are aware that a backline rental service will be hired to provide your gear for a show, I recommend you try to communicate directly with them about the backline you need. There is a specialization in the music products and services industry for backline providers, and every region or country will have businesses that provide rentals to Concert Promoters, bands, and venues. A good place to find such vendors is in the Pollstar directory. (Pollstar.com is a publication and website that caters to the music and concerts industry.) Most of the backline companies are prepared to rent gear for everything from small private gigs to large concerts and stadium acts. They also cater to party planners, event organizers, and even schools and colleges.

JS BMI amps 5

Image courtesy of Andy Bergsten.

If you are fascinated and enthralled with everything about music gear, like I am, you might enjoy working for such a company. There is always a need for “gearheads” to roadie the gear, set up, run, and tear down, and you get to hang around backstage before, during, and after the concerts, which is an added perk. If you want to learn more about working with backline gear, you can begin to gather information from various publications aimed at musicians, from manufacturers’ websites, online blogs, and forums, and by hanging around music stores talking to other musicians, Sales Representatives, and even the Regional Manufacturer’s Representatives who often pass through. Get to know all you can about music equipment. Research the backline companies in your area and reach out directly to see if they have openings. Getting in at entry-level is possible for anyone with a passion for music and music gear, and it’s a great way to build out your network of contacts and gain specialized knowledge of concert operations.

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