How To Become a Roadie
Andy Reynolds, touring professional and author of Roadie, Inc: How to Gain and Keep a Career in the Live Music Business says, “Roadie is the generic term for anybody who works on a concert. Traditionally, in the public’s eyes, a Roadie is the guy on stage, the guy in the black t-shirt, long hair and sleeves. But we don’t like to call ourselves Roadies; we like ‘Event Technicians’ or ‘Production Technicians’ and [then to have it] broken down into job descriptions such as Guitar Tech, Lighting Engineer, Sound Engineer, Front of House, Monitors and all those kinds of things. So, anybody who tours with a touring concert production could be called a Roadie but we tend to be called by our actual job on the road.
A typical day on the road for a touring concert professional would depend a lot on what size of venue the band is playing in that evening, so everything from bars, clubs, theatres, arenas, to stadiums dictate the actual time you start. Let’s take the example of a club show, a 700 to 1,000 capacity venue. The band’s equipment will be loaded in at a certain time, depending on how big the gig is. Then the PA and lights and stage may have to be loaded in before. Now at the club level, you would assume the stage, PA, and the lights are already in house so no one has to load lights and stuff in, so we’d probably load in the backline (which is the band’s equipment) at maybe one o’clock or two o’clock in the afternoon. Those Guitar Techs or Keyboard Techs would set the band’s backline up and the band’s Front of House Engineer and Monitor Engineer will set up all the microphones, make sure everything’s plugged into the consoles, front of house and monitors. It’s a slow process: a couple of hours of setting everything up, plugging it all in, making sure it’s working, line checking it (which is a technical term for making sure that everything is going to where it needs to be). All this is done in readiness for the band’s soundcheck. The band’s soundcheck you would want to be occurring around three o’clock in the afternoon. That would give the band an hour to run through a couple of songs, just so they can set levels for the Front of House Engineer and the Monitor Engineer. At the same time, if there’s a Lighting Engineer, she will be programming the lights so all the lights will be focused on all the elements on stage, depending on how big the stage is. She will be programming the lights to pick up various scenes and various parts of the stage to make it look pretty.
There may be opening bands so then they’ll get the chance to sound check. All this work is up until doors (which is the time at which the audience is let into the venue) and at club level, we’re probably talking 7:00 or 7:30. Everything has to be finished by doors. Once the doors are open the Stage Manager will oversee times, making sure the first opening band goes up on time, the second opening band goes up on time. Then, between the opening bands and the main band, you’ll have a period called changeover where the previous bands’ equipment is taken off and the headlining act’s is put on. It’s re-line checked just to make sure it’s all still working. This all takes place in front of the audience but you don’t really notice it because it’s all done on headphones and hand signals. When everybody’s ready to go, the band go on stage.
So obviously at that point, the Front of House Engineer is working; she’s mixing the sound for the audience. The Monitor Engineer is mixing sound for the band on stage. Guitar Techs will be looking out for the guitars, tuning guitars; the guitarist may use a different guitar just for one song, so maybe hand him that guitar for that song and so on and so forth. When the band finishes, the stage crew will pack down the backline equipment. The Monitor Engineer and the FOH Engineer will help with that. Remember, they haven’t got a PA or lights or anything like that to load in or load out so they’ll probably dig in and help with the backline techs. Everything goes back in the truck or the van or the semi or whatever and it’s on to the next show.”
Most members of a band’s Road Crew started out touring with bands they personally knew and who needed assistance on the road. Others got their start working as Stagehands at a live music venue before landing a tour job. “Now after that, there’s really no career trajectory,” Reynolds advises. “You could be working for U2 for one year, then when U2 aren’t touring anymore, it doesn’t really matter. You still need work and you could go back down to working with a baby band again.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Obviously, they won’t pay you as much as U2 would, but you can’t say, ‘Well, I need to work with this band now,’ because if there’s no work for that level of band you ain’t go no work. It’s a difficult one to sustain. It’s just maximizing the time you’re on the road and making sure you save your money.”
Education & Training
“You definitely need some type of sound training or appreciation of sound,” Reynolds says. “Yes, you can go into being a Lighting Engineer but admittedly the majority of the work is going to have to do with the actual sound — the front of house or monitor — and/or the backline. The things that make noise. If you understand sound, you’ll be able to communicate with your band as well, more easily. For instance, the bands on stage have their own personal monitor speakers and may have some issues or challenges with what the sound sounds like coming out of those monitor speakers. If you’re trained in sound or have an understanding of sound, you can talk in frequencies, you can talk in musical terms and technical terms. Then you’re going to be able to do a better job. The musician is going to be able to correspond with you better.” This training can be gained through a program at a production school.
Experience & Skills
On-the-job experience in the live music industry is essential for members of the Road Crew. In terms of the skills required for touring professionals, Reynolds says, “Basically you are a communication and problem solver. You were hired so that things don’t go wrong. Musicians can set up their own equipment; they’re more than capable. But Road Crew are there to make sure things don’t go wrong and if they do go wrong, [to] fix them, and if they can’t figure it out, find out how to fix them. So it’s just like being a Plumber. You don’t call a Plumber because you want to give a Plumber a job, you call a Plumber because you’ve got a plumbing problem. It’s the same with Road Crew.”
Roadies work long hours and are on the road with the band and other Road Crew members for extended periods of time, so an important personality trait is the ability to get along with others. Reynolds suggests the ideal Road Crew member would be “someone who’s fairly selfless, someone who can adapt easily to different situations, a team player. You have to be a good communicator and passionate about music.”
“Roadies are freelance,” Reynolds says, which means their schedules vary based on work availability. “They work for themselves and just like Plumbers, they get work through referrals, social media, and previous clients. So depending on how well known they are, how good their network is and a certain amount of hustle, you can be on the road for, I would say, nine months out of twelve. If you’re working for a band that’s on what we call a campaign (when they’ve got an album out and it’s all being plotted round), you could be on the road for two years, working on that one album, touring all around the world. There would be significant breaks within that time.
The way the touring season is structured is that obviously during summer, especially in Europe, you have festival season which is all weekends. So midweek is either spent traveling to or back from festivals and then January through March/April, September through December is usually for venue touring. Days off are good for the band themselves, especially Singers. To do four — perhaps five shows — in a row, then have a day off. That day off will usually be travel. It’s expensive to keep bands on the road. If you’re not actually playing a show that night then the band doesn’t make any money. Days off cost money, so travel days are usually combined with days off to give Singers a rest.”
“There is still work out there,” Reynolds says, despite the evolving landscape of the music industry. “Touring has changed significantly and it’s more based on special events in Europe (and now in America) with the festival season. It’s expensive to tour, with recording income declining, and support for that from the record companies declining. Bands’ income from live [music] is more vital to them and therefore the opportunities to go out and play live have to be vetted very carefully to make sure they’re [at] maximum income. Bands are supporting themselves and the crew they hire, but that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of work out there.
In the beginning, it’s a matter of just getting some training and knowing lots of bands. Bands hire crew. Management kind of get involved, but it’s up to the band, basically. They’ve got to be on tour with people, so it’s [through] recommendations. Build up your network. You need to find people who are in bands and just offer to work with them, usually for free, but soon enough, with a good network or through working as a Stagehand at a local club or whatever you will meet people and you’ll go off. I know loads and loads of Road Crew people who have done exactly that. Working in a club, just doing a really good job, some band comes through town and go, ‘Hey, you’re really good and our Front of House Engineer just quit’ and you’re off. It really is that simple. It’s a simple process, it’s not easy.”
Since Road Crew are freelance workers, they determine their own rates. “There’s usually a daily rate and it goes into a monthly rate if you’re working with a mid-level act,” Reynolds says. “It’s negotiable. There’s no set fee, there’s no union to set guidelines. My recommendation is always to think about the minimum wage in the country or state where you live. A rock ’n’ roll day is ten hours. [Take] minimum wage times ten hours then put a bit on top if you’ve had some training, [if] you’ve been to technical school or university or if you’ve got some experience. If your state minimum wage is $8 and you work ten hours, that’s $80 you can charge. Then add another $10 or $20 if you’ve passed a degree or had some kind of training, as well. That gives people a yardstick to go by in terms of negotiating a wage with you.
At the top end, chaps who work with Foo Fighters and U2 and all those kind of people will be earning $350, $400 a day, [and] $2,500 to $3,000 a week.”
Unions, Groups & Associations
Reynolds suggests aspiring Roadies check out the resources available on “my website, livemusicbusiness.com. I also have an online course, Five Steps to a Roadie Job. There’s lots of good stuff out there. It basically all says the same thing. If you speak to people in the industry who say, ‘You can’t learn it, you just do it,’ that’s true to a certain extent but it’s good to know how a gig works [and] what the typical day is, so you don’t look like a complete numpty. There’s a lot of stuff on my site which is designed to help people enter the industry. It doesn’t tell you what to do when you’re a Roadie, it tells you how to get there.”
- “Understand how the live music business works, who does what, the relationship between Booking Agents, Promoters, and where you fit into it. That directly affects your work and it affects your pay.
- Once you understand how the live music business works, yes, get some training or read up on what would be required of a Roadie. If you’re a guitar player you know how to string guitars, you know how to reset bridges, and you know how to rewire pickups. That type of stuff is vital. Remember, a band onstage just needs someone to have an overall view of their equipment and to make sure it’s all happening.
- Get to know local talent. All the bands, all the people you were in college with, all the people you hang around with in rehearsal rooms, all the people at venues you go to, someone somewhere may be playing out-of-town and even out-of-state and that’s the perfect opportunity for you to say, ‘Hey, can I tag along? I’ll tune your guitars. I’ll load the truck. I’ll take care of everything. I’ll sell merchandise. That’s the deal. I’ll do it for some beers or whatever.’ And just keep following up on local bands, local DJs, whatever it is, to make sure you are in their mind when they think ‘I’m going to do this show and I need say, Charlie, to do this show.’ You have to make yourself indispensable.
- If you don’t have any technical skills, there are two ways into it. One, selling merch for bands. Merch is a huge lifeline for touring bands, especially at baby band level. Someone needs to be on it full-time. It’s a big job. It’s a perfect opportunity. You can get into touring. You’re maybe just doing it for a percentage of what they make on the merchandise, so obviously the more you sell, the more money you make but also you can then observe how the touring day works when you’re actually out there. When you have some downtime — which you do when you’re selling merch — make yourself indispensable. Volunteer to do stuff. Just keep being there. Don’t go back to the hotel or sleep in the van. Just graft like there’s no tomorrow and people will recognize that and know that you’re good and you’ll take that next step up. The other step is to sign on as a Stagehand or local crew at a venue. In the States a lot of venues are unionized. IATSE is the union and you can apply for that or work at a non-unionized venue. It’s low-paid, it’s minimum wage grunt work, unloading and loading trucks. But if you’re good at it and you get recognized, you’ll be asked to stay on during the day and you’ll get to know crew and you can then progress to being full-time, paid Tech. It’s a definite career path; I know loads of people who’ve done that, just worked as Stagehands and got picked up because they worked really hard and understood the industry they were in.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“You have to know bands. You have to know DJs. You have to know the people who want help. I keep saying this, but being a ‘Roadie’ isn’t a regular job. It’s like being a Plumber. I don’t need to give a Plumber a job. I want a Plumber to come and fix something for me. It’s the same with Road Crew. If a band really needs something, if you see some dude struggling to load his laptop and his Ableton’s crashing every three seconds and you know everything about Ableton, boom, you’re in there. That’s it. You’ve got to know loads and loads of bands, loads of talent. So if you’re in college, it’s ideal if you go to lots of gigs and you know lots of local bands; just keep in there and keep saying, ‘I can help you. Let’s work something out where I can help you.’
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Not understanding the industry they’re in. Not understanding how the revenue flow works, which affects them. Not knowing how the touring cycles work. The classic example is someone moaning about the management not paying them. Managers don’t pay the bills. The band pays the bills. It’s the band’s money. You have to make sure you know who you are being paid by. Understand the music business. Understand the revenue flows.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“I suppose not asking about the revenue flows. If they get an offer of some work, not asking ‘Who am I invoicing? What are the terms? Do you want a contract off me or just an agreement?’ Try to set that professional level.
It’s not a job. People ask, ‘Well, how do I get a job as a Roadie?’ You don’t. You get a career. You create your own freelance business as a Roadie. Bands don’t advertise for Road Crew.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“When I started I had no idea how it worked, how it’s not the Manager’s money, it’s the band’s money. The band’s money comes from the revenue from live, and used to come from recording revenue. Once you understand that, once you understand the economic pressure bands have playing live, you understand why tours get announced then canceled. You understand that if we do this show, yes, everyone’s going to have to take a pay cut. It’s either we work for less or we don’t get any money at all. I just had no comprehension about [it] when I started and it caused me problems. It caused me real cash flow problems because I couldn’t understand why it was taking so long to get paid, for instance.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Extra Credit: The Beatles or Rolling Stones?
Andy Reynolds is a veteran concert Tour Manager and touring Audio Engineer. He has worked with some of the biggest names in music, including Whitney Houston, U2, Foo Fighters, Pavement, Nightmares on Wax, and the White Stripes. He is the author of several books, including Roadie, Inc: How to Gain and Keep a Career in the Live Music Business.