Live End (Part 2)
National Music Day
Part 2: Mike Lethby prepares for National Music Day.
Mike Lethby solicits advice from a past master of outdoor events, stage manager of the Glastonbury Festival, Pete Brotzman of Britannia Row Productions.
In last month's Live End production checklist we outlined the essentials of organising and promoting your very own local music/entertainments festival, under the auspices of National Music Day.
To reiterate, NMD is a 36-hour celebration of music across the weekend of June 26/27. It's a golden opportunity for every band in the land to boldly go and seek new audiences, with a modicum of inspiration, nous and the backing of top promoter Harvey Goldsmith's promotional machine (he chairs the organisers' committee). NMD, a non-profit making body, aims to encourage active musical participation throughout Britain and to raise funds to help achieve that goal. (The NMD office number is (Contact Details).) For the second part of our NMD series, we concentrate on an unsung yet crucial role in live sound — that of the stage manager, and how s/he interacts with bands, PA suppliers and sound engineers.
Talking about festivals (as we are), this is the person you need to talk to first. S/he is responsible for ensuring a multitude of bands are efficiently organised and scheduled and keeping their respective management happy, making sure everyone's hardware requirements are satisfied and marshalling whatever helpers are available to keep a smooth flow of equipment changeovers between acts.
To glean the hard facts, I talked to a man who knows festival stage management as well as anyone in the business. Pete Brotzman has been stage manager at the Glastonbury Festival for four years. The PA hire company for whom he is otherwise warehouse and equipment manager, London-based Britannia Row Productions, has supplied Glastonbury's sound (with Turbosound PA systems) for over a decade.
Pete's observations on the essentials of stage management are illuminated by his experiences of the real thing at Glastonbury. He also has some useful tips to pass on about setting up audio systems for a multi-band event where time is of the essence and soundchecks may be non-existent.
One final thought: if you do stage your own event on National Music Day, I'd love to hear from you about it - your letters will be welcome. Good luck!
So what precisely does the stage manager's job entail?
Pete: "The way I look at it is that it's basically to make sure that the event runs very smoothly on the day; that your bands are all happy and well looked-after; and that if there's a curfew time, that's properly dealt with as well — ie. you finish when you're supposed to finish!"
So is it your lucky job to make sure bands don't over-run and keep changeovers punctual?
Pete: "Yeah! The important thing is, in the beginning, to make sure that you're not setting yourself too much of a task. In the early stages you have to look at how many bands are on, how long their sets are, and how much setting-up time each one needs.
"If you add all those figures up you'll quickly find out whether you've got enough time during the day, given the environment that you'll be working in.
"You've then got to look at how much time you've got available 'in your back pocket', as it were — especially if there's a curfew — so that you're not in a situation where over-running or running late earlier on in the day will have a knock-on effect. The worst situation is where you end up having to cut down bands' playing times or not being able to give them encores, which are an essential part of an audience responding to the entertainment. It's very important to get all that planned out properly in the first place."
In other words, don't overbook the day?
Pete: "Exactly. Inexperienced promoters do try and over-book, thinking they're doing it for the right reasons — to give the audience better value for money — but what happens is that someone runs late and bands have to give up their encores and be rushed on and off stage."
If that kind of situation does arise, how do you handle it, diplomatically speaking?
Pete: "What's really important is not to spring anything on anybody — you need to keep up a really good dialogue with the bands or their management/production teams prior to them going on, so that they're fully aware of what the situation is in advance. The worst thing is not talking to anybody and then, after they've finished their regular set, telling them they can't do any more. They should be given the choice to maybe cut a song out of the set in order to be able to play an encore for the audience.
"That's all in the planning stages. The next thing is to look at all the bands' equipment requirements — if you're dealing with professional musicians you'll be given a technical rider with their contract. I send off a stage plan to every single band asking them for information about their backline, mic input charts and stage positioning — plus any other special requirements.
"Once that comes back I wade through it, work out what backline and instruments (if any) need to be hired in and contact the relevant hire companies. It'll also tell us how many risers they need. Again, it's a matter of contacting people early — like if you have to go back to a band and say, 'look, I can't get hold of item A, will item B do instead?' Over the three days of the Glastonbury Festival, I'd say about 25% of the bands need us to hire in all or parts of their backline for them.
"The band's technical information will also get passed to the PA company, so they can arrange for the necessary mics and stage boxes to be available on the day.
"It's the PA company's responsibility to mike up the bands and do a line-check for each band's setup during changeovers. Or, even better, during the previous band's set if you have enough space backstage to pre-rig equipment; what we do is to prepare backline on rolling risers, so that we can just roll one band's stuff out of the way and roll the next lot straight on and plug it in. Fortunately, they made the Glastonbury backstage area bigger a few years ago by building an extension to the floor on the back of the pyramid — where the bar area used to be — so now there's room to do stuff like that."
One of the problems with a festival is that individual bands don't get to do a soundcheck. I asked Pete what tips he could offer to help deal with that situation?
Pete: "It's important from the sound company's point of view, with a multi-band event, that the major inputs for each band — drums, vocals, guitars, keyboards, bass — are all in set channels on the desk and remain on those channels throughout the day. So that a kick drum channel, for example, is always a kick drum channel — that means the basic EQ and gain has been set up for each instrument. That way it's a lot easier for someone to walk straight onto a board without a soundcheck and have the basic setup already waiting there." [The same technique can be used to simplify the monitor console setup.]
Let's talk a bit about the dark and mysterious subject of 'mains power'.
Pete: "At Glastonbury, power for the backline is supplied by the PA company using mobile generators. Both types of power are available on stage — 120 volt (for American bands' equipment) and 240 volt (for European gear).
"We arrange it with power distribution outlets on either side of the stage, which can be pulled out of the way during changeovers so that the risers don't roll over the cables. Sometimes you have to move power with a riser, because there are instruments that have been pre-programmed — samplers and sequencers, mainly — and which need to remain powered up."
The whole issue of mains power is a complex one once you get to the level of distributed supplies and 3-phase sources. But naturally, without the right kind of power — and the right amount — you won't have an event at all! At the local level, the best advice can be summed up as: get advice from the professionals, which in the case of an outdoor event will almost certainly mean the generator hire company and their own qualified electricians.
Pete adds: "From the safety point of view, it's good working practice to have the backline power on the same phase as the monitor and front-of-house control systems. Not everyone does it, but we feel it's a good idea.
"The important thing is to consult your generator company on your precise needs. That's influenced by whether or not you're providing stage lighting, in which case I'd recommend one 'gennie' for sound and another for lights — that way you reduce the risk of noise or buzzes getting into your system. In fact, that's rarer these days because equipment has got so much better.
"The generator for your PA can handle the backline as well. But the best thing is to tell the gennie company exactly what gear you'll be using, so they can advise you on getting the right size of generator. You may not realise it but problems do arise when people book bigger generators than they actually need, because the thing is effectively idling, ticking over — it can coke up and just stop running.
"Another vital ingredient is ensuring that the generator is correctly grounded, but again, this is the responsibility of the generator supplier. The single most important thing about mains power is that you have someone dealing with it who's experienced and qualified on a professional level. Sound engineers may be experts when it comes to their own field — audio — but they're often very inexperienced when it comes to electricity."
Talking about safety, what about the effects of that familiar feature of the traditional British summer — driving rain on stage?
Pete: "You're all going to get wet! Ah... For a start, all our power distributors have got RCDs (Residual Current Devices) on them which trip the power in a fraction of a second if anything goes wrong, ie. if there's leakage or shorts through water joining two connections together. RCDs will protect life, which is what it's all about."
You obviously don't want your power cutting out during a performance, though — so how do you avoid the situation arising in the first place?
Pete: "You're never going to be able to stop driving rain coming in to the front of a stage. But obviously having a good roof helps, and having covered PA wings helps. If the weather gets really bad, it's up to the stage manager to make a decision at the time about whether it's safe for the show to continue. If he feels that it's life-threatening in any way, the show has to stop. And that does happen occasionally."
Feature by Mike Lethby
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