Lady Roadie at Large

in LD at Large

Illustration by Andy AuTouring Life on the Tech Crew (When You Don't Look Like The Other Boys...)

My name is Becky Pell, and I am an anomaly. I’m a live sound engineer, and I’m a woman. It’s an unusual combination, but I’m rarely conscious of it until someone points it out. Usually the conversation goes something like: “Wow, a female monitor engineer, you don’t see that very often.” Me: “No, there aren’t many of us.” Them: “Why is that?” Well, here I have to confess ignorance; as I am one, I’m kind of the wrong person to ask! Why are we the unicorns of the touring world? And what’s life like as a woman on the road?

Veteran of the Road

I love what I do. I’ve been in the business for 20 years, touring for 15, and I think it’s the best job in the world. I feel enormously proud and privileged to have made it in this industry. I work with my first love, music. I see more weird and crazy places in a month than most people get to see in a lifetime, and I do it with a great bunch of people. There’s always someone to have a laugh with, and the camaraderie of a happily bonded crew is something very special. I get a real rush from that direct, in-the-moment involvement in the live show when the lights go down and the audience goes nuts, and I find it incredibly fulfilling to give artists and bands a great audio environment so that they can relax and do their job of putting on a killer performance for the fans. I love the adrenaline that comes with knowing you get one shot at this — there’s no going back and doing it again like you can in a recording studio. Plus, I get to play with some seriously cool toys; I never did see why boys should get all the best ones!

In the early days, I got my fair share of sexist nonsense, but it’s no use being the type who runs off to a tribunal at the first sign of trouble. If I got legal on everyone who’d ever made a crack (“Are you lost? Kitchen’s that way, love,” etc., etc.) I’d be in court for the next 500 years! Besides, the vast majority of it is just banter, and you can have a lot of fun with it; the key is learning to give as good as you get. Not having a massive chip on your shoulder about being a woman certainly helps. We teach people how to treat us, and if you just get on with your job and don’t make a big deal of it, other people will soon follow suit. Once people realized I was serious about making a go of it and didn’t want — in fact, actively discouraged — any special treatment, I was quickly accepted into the fold. And I was so determined that I wanted to be a sound engineer since I went to my first gig at age 12 that I just plowed on and refused to be put off; in fact any voices of dissent simply drove me harder. One day it would be ME with my hands on that monitor desk, in arenas and stadiums, and the more anyone told me that I’d never do it, the more I thought, “just watch me.” I worked really hard and, sure enough, I got there.

There were a couple of unpleasant incidents when I was new, but they were few and far between, and there was no way I was going to let people like that beat me. (I can’t deny it was satisfying when, having earned my stripes as a fully-fledged engineer, I ran into the creep who told me “You’ll never make it in this business unless you learn to open your legs!” He was a charmer, that one….) Generally, though, most roadie guys are good, sensible people who have been kind, helpful and supportive and treated me as one of their own.

Brains, Brawn and Egos

A common deterrent to this life for women seems to be the lifting and heavy physical work involved. That’s a shame, because it’s technique as much as strength, and it’s common sense to get a few people around heavy stuff anyway. There are no prizes for prolapsed discs! I’ve seen plenty of local crew guys twice my size who don’t know how to stack a flight case or get something up a ramp (and I’ve bruised a few egos when I’ve stepped in….), so it’s really not all about brute force. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to put in a few sessions at the gym and build some strength, but it’s absolutely not an issue once you get the hang of it.

There’s also a perception that it’s a very macho environment — all farting and swearing and getting dirty — and, let’s be honest, that’s exactly how it is a lot of the time! There’s nothing glamorous about pulling muddy cables up after a festival, so you can’t be all dainty about that side of it. But there’s also the joy of being part of a team, the sense of a job well done and the satisfaction of a well-earned cold beer with your tour family on the bus at the end of the day. Yes, that bus can get pretty ripe, and I often pimp it with scented candles to make it more civilized. The guys usually then comment that it “smells of girls on here” before admitting that it’s a definite improvement! In my experience, they enjoy having some women around — after all, it’s actually a pretty unbalanced and unnatural environment when it’s all men.

I sometimes see female crew who dress and behave in quite a masculine way — and hey, if that’s your vibe then cool, every woman to herself. But it’s a myth that to succeed as a woman on the technical crew you have to sacrifice your femininity. Yes, you need to dress appropriately, pull your weight, work hard and be ready for some very long days. Sometimes you need to develop a thick skin when people are tired and tempers get frayed. But all of that applies no matter what you’ve got down your pants! Appearance-wise, it’s better not to have your girl-stuff on display all over the place because it can attract the wrong kind of attention, but I’ve always worn a bit of makeup to work — honestly, if someone thinks that mascara affects my ability to mix monitors, then it says more about them than it does about me!

So if you are, or know, a young woman who’s interested in live show production but is put off by stereotypes and misconceptions, then I hope you, or they, will reconsider. It is hard work and long days; you do have to work your way up and be prepared to get your hands dirty; and it’s really not glamorous at all most of the time. But I honestly believe that being a woman in this business is as much of a problem as you decide to let it be.

And man it’s fun!

Becky Pell, a freelance monitor engineer, is currently traveling internationally with one of her clients. But you can keep up with her at www.rocknrollyogi.com.