On The Road Again - A Modern Understanding of Road Crews
I’m sure that you’ve heard the term “roadie” before. For many people, the term is reminiscent of the golden age of rock music in the 1970s and 80s, a time dominated by grandiose hairstyles, wailing guitar solos, and a never-ending party scene. Others may recall elaborate sound and light systems, like the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound, which road crews spent countless hours setting up and tearing down.
To an average concert-goer, the stereotypical roadie might be someone who is simply along for the party, and who might happen to set up a few speaker cabinets before stumbling off to the bar. However, modern touring acts have found this old-school stigma of sex, drugs, and rock n roll to be more harmful than helpful. Citing the huge costs of concert production, supplying a constant party atmosphere, and even bills for hotel damage, major touring acts began to realize the lavish unsustainability of it all. The acts that wished to stay relevant (and financially solvent) had to change with the times, leading to a slightly tamer and quieter scene for most touring bands and the members of their road crews.
I am a crew member for the classic rock band 38 Special. While in years past, they may have have traveled with a crew of dozens of people and several semi trucks and tour buses to support their tour, the modern tour is much smaller and more sensible. A five man road crew plus a bus driver is all we need to support the tour, and we only have one bus for the entire band and crew! The pressure on the crew is slightly higher when there are so few members, but we all work together as a well-oiled machine to ensure that the concert runs smoothly. I am the monitor engineer, meaning that I mix for the band during the show, ensuring that they can hear themselves and the other band members. Most of my mixes are wireless through radio transmitters (sometimes a pain to configure in radio-permeated areas like large cities) into belt packs with in-ear monitors. We also carry additional old-school monitor wedges to supplement the wireless mixes.
In addition to mixing, I help tech the keyboard and wire a good portion of the stage set during the day, and I trigger fog machines during the show. I was trained professionally in live sound at the Blackbird Academy in Nashville and spent several months interning at Blackbird Studio, then I spent a year doing professional A/V installations at a major sound company. Still, most of my colleagues have far more qualifications than I do, showing truly what it takes to work your way onto a successful road crew. Compared to the lackadaisical “roadie” culture of decades past, modern concert technicians are a whole different breed.
Truth be told, the only consistent thing in the live sound industry is change. Especially when it comes to concert technicians, the jobs have become much more professional in nature. Today, terms like “roadie” are being phased out, and even begin to seem slightly derogatory in nature. The “roadies” of old have been replaced with professional titles like “engineer” and “technician”. Modern road crews are virtually required to have college-level training in their fields to understand and operate today’s complex sound and lighting systems. Individual technicians often perform many different jobs to help make tours more compact and financially sustainable. The “roadie” title has changed drastically -- what was once an excuse to party and travel with rock stars has now become a viable career option for serious professionals.
Clearly, the concert industry today is not the same as it was thirty years ago. Classic 70s and 80s bands that continue to tour are gems in this day and age because they have found a way to keep the party spirit of that era alive, while adjusting to changing industry dynamics. Although they may have downsized their crews and concert productions, many classic bands continue to tour regularly, and I urge you to go out and support them to help keep the musical dreams alive. Many uncertainties lie ahead as the old archetype of rock n roll meets the new, but one thing is certain: when the live sound industry has evolved from the inside out, is it fair to refer to today’s expert concert technicians as “roadies”?