Imagine working in a job where you are in a minority of only 5% of the workforce; a job that demands physical strength, thick skin and relentless determination; a job that is born from passion and is rewarding beyond words. The job I am talking about is backstage in the live music industry, and the 5% minority are women.
So who are these women, and why are they so rare?
What does it take to become a successful female sound engineer or lighting technician?
Women in this industry feel pressure to work harder and smarter than their male peers, especially when new to the job. Strength of character and thick skin develop quickly when dealing with people (mostly men) who want to see you do an outstanding show before they will take you seriously. Discrimination aside, of all the women I have spoken to or read about, there is one common opinion that stands out. Gender is less of an issue when the job is done well.
Kathy Sander was one of the few ground-breaking women working as a live sound engineer in the 1970s. She began her career aged 18, touring with Elton John’s Yellow Brick Road Tour in 1974. Other impressive gigs include a Queen tour in South America and being in charge of the United States half of Live Aid in 1985. Kathy worked for the Clair Bros Sound company from 1976 to 1989 as one of the first women in a man’s field. During the 1970s no other production companies employed female roadies, but Clair Bros knew they had found a gem when they employed Kathy. Roy Clair says of her attitude towards the job: “Kathy was one of the most conscientious employees that worked for Clair Bros. (She) made the industry realise that gender was not an issue and that people were the only thing that mattered.”
Being a successful woman backstage can attract unwelcome attention as Marlin Saraiva, a Canadian-based live sound engineer/house technician, shares in an interview in 2004: “When I was just starting out, I overheard somebody say that I was just in it to hang out with the bands, and it shocked me. I became very conservative after that. I adopted this personality of becoming a tough girl. I think it happens to a lot of women who get into jobs that aren’t necessarily viewed as female dominated … To gain respect, you have to be professional. You overcompensate.”
Sue Rogers, previously a studio engineer for Prince, and now an associate professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, describes working backstage as, “a renegade profession…an outlaw profession…you have to have a lot of swagger. A lot of swagger. If you don’t, you won’t be successful.” Sue continues to describe the industry as, “very intensive, very competitive, all-consuming.” She believes that women who want to succeed in this industry must sacrifice other fundamentally female roles, such as being a mother.
The next generation of women behind the scenes are optimistic in their approach to working in a predominantly male profession. Hope Stuemke is in the formative years of her live sound engineer career and has recently toured with the Fleetwood Mac sound crew. Hope understands the struggle that women face in this industry and believes attitudes are changing. “When people see that you know what you are doing, you’re a hard worker, and you’re smart, man or woman, you get respect on the road.”
I have recently discussed the topic with two London based women, both of whom work as freelancers at London’s Southbank Centre (SBC). Eleonora Romano works as a freelance sound engineer, touring all over the world as well as working regularly at the SBC, and Roslyn (Roz) Malyon is a London based freelance Theatre Technician, and is also an experienced touring technician.
Eleonora grew up in Italy and started going to gigs when she was just thirteen years old. “Live music has always been my main interest but I never felt the urge to be a musician. Instead, I wanted to get involved in the making of it, contributing to achieve a good sound for both the artist and the audience.” Eleonora managed her own radio programme in Italy, and decided to move to London because of the opportunities for women working in this field. “I do believe that in (the UK) women have a chance to do jobs that they would not even consider if they lived elsewhere.”
When asked about any discriminatory experiences, Eleonora recounted a time in the United States, working at a festival that claims to be a celebration of women. “Apart from the fact that it was entirely run by men, I just happened to be the only female visiting engineer on the main stage. When it was my turn to be on stage I was welcomed with verbal abuse by a very big stage manager in front of his crew and some members of the band I was touring with.” The same stage manager tried to quietly apologise to Eleonora later on, blaming his behaviour on his stressful schedule, “needless to say that I rejected his apology!” These experiences are thankfully rare for Eleonora and she firmly believes that the most important element in her line of work is being competent. “Every single time a show I am working on is successful for both the artist and the audience, I get my personal reward.” Her advice to other women interested in the music industry is to “grow a thick skin and have a real passion for it.”
When Roz’s dreams of being a professional dancer were shattered when she broke an elbow while studying performing arts at university, she turned her attention to the workings behind the stage and found a new passion. With encouragement from the head technician at her university, she learned skills that would later cement her career, such as followspot skills, rigging, focusing and how to program the lighting console.
One of Roz’s most rewarding experiences is being on tour. “It always surprised the crew when two girls rocked up in a van, but we always received a fantastic response from local crew and I’m sure that’s because we were competent and enthusiastic about the show!”
Roz feels very lucky to work in the technical theatre industry, “I consider all my colleagues to be my equal, and like myself, a team player. Different people have their own strengths and weaknesses and diversity allows a team to provide the best possible service to a client! The upshot; girls are better at some things, boys are better at others. It should be about the best person for the job, regardless of gender!”
It is clear that the successful women working behind the stage of the live music industry do their job because they love it. It is a calling, a lifestyle that many would describe as “living the dream”. Attitudes towards women in this industry continue to improve and there are increasing opportunities for women to study and work in a career backstage. Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato, Front of House sound engineer for 24 years and co-founder of social support network Soundgirls.org, encourages more women to follow their dreams, “I want more women to know they don’t have to settle for traditional careers and you don’t have to be a man to work in live sound. If you have a passion for music and the drive to succeed then anything is possible.”