What's a roadie?
Technically, anyone who is on the travelling crew for a stage
can be called a roadie, but it generally refers to stagehands and
technicians for musical acts. "Roadie" isn't a job; it refers to a person who does one or more of a collection of diverse jobs, from stage techs to the instrument techs, to lighting and sound engineers and riggers.
Most roadies get their start either by working with a small band which
grows or, more likely, they join a theatre group, work for small venues and concert halls or for the companies which provide production equipment.
Here's a chance to learn all about stages and lighting, and possibly sound. While usually volunteer work, it gives you the chance to learn from others who are happy to teach you. You'll do crap work at first, like sweeping and hauling cable, but you'll learn, usually from people rather eager to teach you.
You can usually find them in the Yellow Pages under "Theatrical Supplies". It doesn't hurt to call and ask if they're hiring. People leave all the time and they have to train someone else. There may be job ads in the local newspapers or music stores -- the kind which sell instruments, not CDs. Again, you'll do crappy work at first, and most of your outside jobs will be "industrials", such as talent shows and promotions in shopping malls.
You generally get in at the ground level, getting a job more or less as a laborer hauling heavy cases and equipment racks from the truck to the stage and then back a few hours later. Any place with a capacity over 250 will need laborers to work for the incoming bands. The pay is crap and the work is hard, but you learn the basics.
Every city has lighting, sound and staging equipment companies.
Again, you try to get the job and have to be prepared to do a lot of
crap work at first. After some time, you'll go out to local venues as
assistant, where you'll do lots more crappy work at first. Dragging 300 feet of 0000 ("four-aught") copper cable weighing a pound a foot through a muddy field in the rain sucks. Voice of experience.
It's through this that you learn about the equipment used, the
terminology, and how it all comes together. You also prove yourself.
Sometimes the Tour Manager (TM) of the group or larger company you're supporting will
notice and either give you a card or make you an offer on the spot.
Forget lights and stage! I want to be the sound man!
Being a sound man is like being a goalie. Do your job perfectly and everyone else gets the credit; screw up once and take all of the blame.
The primary way into sound is working for a local venue such as a bar
that has live music. How you get the first jobs and learn the sound
board and rack is a good question. If you're interested in the work,
you go to shows, hang out at the sound board and watch what the sound man is doing. You befriend bands and help them in a studio or home studio. You go to a large music store, examine the boards and rack equipment and find out what all the knobs do.
There's not much difference between a 12-channel, 24-channel or
48-channel mixing board. Each main column has the same controls. It's a Beowulf cluster of inputs with limited controls. The larger boards have two to eight additional sliders in a submix section, where you group the outputs of the individual channels before sending out the final stereo mix, two more faders.
So you got a gig with a big band
If you're interested in the work, stay away from the band. Fanboys are
neither appreciated nor tolerated. No matter how scummy you look and
crappy the job, you're expected to be professional, and that comes down
to three rules:
Following rules one and two can lead to advancement. Violating rule
three guarantees you'll be looking for work elsewhere and paying for
your own ticket to get back there.
- Do the work you've been assigned
- Don't ever stand around; help someone else or ask for more work.
- Don't fuck with the talent.
People in the business know each other. If you get a bad rep with one
company, consider a new field of work because it's unlikely that anyone at that level or higher will ever take you on again.
If someone in the band starts talking to you, be polite but
brief. If he asks you to do something, go straight to your boss
or tour manager and tell him. Maybe you should do it, maybe you shouldn't. The talent have huge egos, fed by their producers, but they
have no authority.
I almost lost my job because Donnie Wahlberg wanted to talk to me about motorcycles and wanted to buy mine out from under me. I was on the New Kids tour (laugh if you want -- it was a cushy job and you needed experience and personal recommendations to get it). We were in Indianapolis for two days on and two days off. I lived in Cincinnati, our next stop, and after most of my work was done I got the OK to take a few hours off. I got a ride home, picked up my 1973 BMW R70 and rode back to Indy. Some guy in the arena area on a rice-burning crotch rocket pulled up and started talking bikes with me. At some point I said he looked familiar. I asked if he was one of the New Kids. He rolled his eyes and said, "Yeah".
"Cool. My name's BadDoggie. Nice to meet you. So anyway, the crankshaft..."
And we chatted some more. He seemed rather glad to just to talk to someone about motorcycles and other unimportant crap. After a while, he went off, I pulled up to the doors and went back in to finish up some work on the lighting. I was talking to my boss when the New Kids' Tour Manager came by, pointed at me and screamed, "This fucker is fired! Now! I want him the fuck out of here now! He was bothering the talent!"
As he was yelling, Donnie and a couple others were walking by and I
called out his name. Donnie came over, addressed me by name and I asked him to tell his TM that he talked to me. Donnie stood up for me (Thanks, Donnie!) and started chewing out his TM, saying he could talk to who he wanted and if the TM had any real power, should make me give him my bike.
I was saved, but I still caught a lot of grief from my boss, who told me what I already knew: stay away from the talent! Far, far away. Had Donnie not walked by in the hall, that could well have been the end of my time, and it was my next tour that was the great one
Roadies and jobs in a typical large venue:
When I did stadium concerts, we generally had the following on each team
2 (the memory's a bit rusty, so this isn't exact):
This isn't everything, but it's close enough.
Steel dogs: 55
Specialised riggers: 12
Truss spotlight operators: 6
House spotlight operators: 6
Sound: 3 (Front of house + assistant and monitors)
Lighting: 2 (Director and Assistant [LD and ALD])
Screens, scrims, SFX: 3
Instrument techs: 6
Road, tour, general management: 6
Local help: 60-150
How do you think the stage with those 100-foot towers got into the
stadium? These are built out of scaffolding steel in one of two
The second method is more common. There'll be one man on each vertical
and every two or three levels will have a passer supplying four to nine verticals. All wear climbing belts but the guys on the points have nothing to tie off to once the level is finished off and it's time to put on another vert. The verts, transoms and horizontal pipes are all about 2m long. They're heavy and unwieldy.
- A crew of about 10 move around a lot and slowly get it built.
- A crew of 50-60 take positions and get a tower done in a day.
After the towers are up, "head steel" (big I-beam girders) has to be
put on and chained down to a crossmember near the bottom to stabilise the structure. This is done by very experienced riggers who have no place to grab on or to tie off while hopping around 30-40m (100-120ft) in the air.
Steel work is hard work and the people doing it are called dogs
for more than one reason. They're not just looked down upon by many; if you're in the pack (so to speak) and are seen as a shirker, you'll
learn many facets of "miserable" before you're fired and your pay is docked. Travel is usually in chartered buses: not tour buses like bands get. Think "Greyhound". You're too tired to notice when it's a travel night anyway. Hotels are the cheap ones and it's two to a room.
Experience: preferred for point, required for top; beginners accepted
Requirements: Strength and stamina, bonus points for balance.
Pay: Not the worst, but not great for 16-hour-days or more
Chick factor (CF): 1.3 (you're on tour, the guys around you
are probably scummier and uglier, and the band doesn't even arrive for
two days. CF=1.4 if you're wearing the tour laminate [the plastic-covered pass]). However, CF
becomes 2-3 if you have a couple nights in the same stadium because then you're probably off for a day. And you have a laminate.
A special group who generally recognise "their own" pretty easily,
riggers are the ones in the climbing belts who aren't necessarily up
there with the steel dogs. They're absolutely necessary for smaller
venues, since lighting -- and often sound -- has to hang from the
ceiling. There are only so many embedded hooks in the ceiling or
non-structural, load-bearing girders available from which the the
riggers can hang the chain motors used to hold up the lighting truss
and speaker stacks.
Rigging takes a lot of experience and it's not only quite dangerous,
it's a job with extremely high responsibility. One incorrectly hung
"basket" or incorrectly specified (or worn) cable and the entire
truss can come down, like when the truss collapsed on the Christina Aguilera/Justin Timberlake Truss show in Atlantic City in August, 2003, although this may have been due to a stress failure in the truss segments. Rigging requires good spatial sense and some practical geometrical skills. Riggers often work for the venue itself, with one or two travelling lower to middle class with the really large tours and doubling as higher responsibility stage hands.
Requirements: balance, specialised knowledge
Pay: Good. Specialisation has its benefits.
Travel: 50-seat buses.
Chick factor: 1.4 (you're on tour, the guys around you are
probably scummier and uglier.) CF=1.5 if you're clean and wearing the
tour laminate. CF=.01 if you've picked up an animal name as your
Stagehands include the "humpers" (people who get to push or carry heavy things from point A to point B), set and stage builders, carpenters, truck packers/unpackers and all of the general work. They're some of the first to the venue in the morning to unpack the trucks and they're the last ones working.
Most stagehands are hired locally for single venues, even on the
smaller tours. They work for the venue and do what they're told. This is where most non-technical roadies get their start -- the best are often asked to come along if someone needs to be replaced. This is how I got on a KISS tour.
They get some food, water/juice/soda and go home at 2a.m. Usually.
Truck packers are especially important. They've done their time humping equipment and are responsible for the proper loading and unloading of the truck(s). When a tour goes out, consideration is given to how much space will be needed, and there is always a way to maximise the space usage, cramming twice as much equipment in as one would be able if it was done haphazardly. They travel with the tour and may ride with the truck driver. When the trucks are empty, they'll often work on stage set-up.
Experience: entry-level to very experienced
Requirements: Stamina, Strength, Ability to follow orders
Pay: A little better than in fast food, but you're there for the experience, and you may also get a T-shirt out of it.
Chick factor: 1.1-3.0 -- Often close contact. The local crew can sometimes manage to get a hanger-on who wasn't able to get
backstage. The travelers have learned where and when. Leaving the venue grounds with her (unless you're in town and off the next day) is a Bad Idea
TM. Looking good helps, but if you're not sweaty and dirty, you've probably been shirking and will soon be going home permanently.
If you can build a guitar with your bare hands in an unlit room in half an hour out of raw materials, you might be able to consider becoming an instrument tech. Generally, guitarists (all types) and drummers in larger bands have techs whose sole purposes is to keep the instruments working throughout the show. It may sound simple, but it's incredibly important not to interrupt the flow of a show. Try to replace a string and re-tune the guitar in 30 seconds. When the guitar is in someone else's hands. And plugged in.
The techs must always have the next guitar tuned and ready for the
player, and have to get it plugged in and set without popping the amps.
Techs travel in style when the concert's big enough. On large tours
often in the same 4-person sleeper bus as the instrument player, with
whom they work closely. For smaller bands, they may double as
stagehands and travel in the truck or van with the equipment.
Experience: Very experienced, usually personal friend of
Requirements: Skills and expertise with the instrument
Pay: Usually good.
Chick factor: 3.0-4.0 -- Direct access to the musicians,
rarely get dirty, free soon after the show. Well, not quite free, but
they can get trusted stagehands to do a lot of the crappier work.
Truss and house spots:
Truss spots are disappearing as the Vari*Lamps and similar, fully-controlled remote spotlights are becoming more common. These are guys
who sit in the lighting truss above the stage itself with a safety belt holding them in their chairs. They hit the performers with a spotlight from above and behind, giving that extra highlighting and halo effect to the performers. They double as low-end stagehands.
House spotlights (HMIs, Sooper Troopers) are run by more experienced
stagehands and often led by one of the travelling stagehands. While the LD or ALD tell various spotlights what to do and where to go, they
normally talk back only through the "leader" to keep chatter down on
the intercom system. A little skill with carbon arc lamps is only rarely required; almost every spotlight now uses sealed-beam lamps.
Experience: Not much.
Requirements: Can you follow directions exactly for two hours?
Pay: Same as stagehand, but better work.
Chick factor: 2.0-3.0 -- Often directly in the audience,
although very busy after show. You have no passes to hand out and
probably only have a single-show worker's badge yourself.
Sound Engineers and Lighting Directors:
Experience required, and lots of it. Sound experience comes from
with any band who'll let you. Lighting experience is usually had from
working in theatres. There's a lot of specialised knowledge in these
roles and a lot of hard work, and there are equal rewards.
Experience: Very experienced.
Requirements: Much skill and experience
Pay: Very good for larger bands.
Chick factor: 3.0-5.0 -- Normally clean and have direct
access to the audience, although busy after show. Can usually get
one-night passes from the TM.
Pyrotechnics, Lasers, other specialised roles:
Same as with Sound and Lighting.
That's most of the jobs and the majority of the work. It's a job for
the young: the long hours and humping heavy packs and racks ain't for
50-year-olds. The majority of over-35s in the business are specialists, and most of them are single.
The jobs have their ups and downs. You travel, but usually in a bus.
The pay's not bad, but you work hard and long for it. You can meet some interesting people, but they usually live in a village 40 miles outside of God's country. You'll hear bad shows and eat awful food -- deli tray again. You'll get stupid-drunk on a night off as everyone congregates in a small-town bar with the intent of drinking the place dry (and sometimes succeeding). You'll constantly be exhausted.
And as soon as you're home, you'll have stories to tell for years that
everyone seems to want to hear again and again, no detail too small. And not just the ones about sex. You also might sign on for another tour.
* * * * *
There are a couple good books I came across while editing this story:
Roadie: A True Story (at least the parts I remember) by Karl Kuenning, who I think I remember working with. Lots of excerpts on the site free for reading. I strongly recommend A Day in the Life.
Rocky Harrison's Rock the Roadie. I never worked with him.
And a general resource, Roadie.net, also from Karl.
Disclaimer: This article has been written from memory, for which roadies are not necessarily renowned. It's been more than 10 years since I was on tour and two since I touched a mixing board.
1 The "great one" being a very famous, prestigious, multi-continent stadium tour from whence I moved from steel dog to top-level stagehand and from Greyhound to tour bus (4 people per, with fridge, shower and video games.
2 For stadium tours which play at least two different cities a week, there are at least two stage and three steel teams.