The Return of the Roadie and the Roar of the Industry

Sound technician lights technicians control music show concert

I was in the middle of writing a blog post on a different topic altogether when I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal that immediately captured my attention. Published Monday, March 29, the piece is titled, “As Concerts Prepare to Return From Pandemic Lockdown, Roadies Have Moved On.”

I was curious to read on — being intimately involved with the live events and live entertainment industries — although I was not completely surprised by what the headline implied. Considering how the live sectors have been, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent for over a year, one would assume that many road crew professionals and technicians have found other work. But as I read through the article, it dawned on me that there are some even more significant implications for an industry looking to recover — and instead finds itself up against a dwindling workforce.

You can read the article in full, but the gist highlights the fact that many “roadies” (which can encompass stagehands, audio, video and lighting technicians, riggers, travel crews and many others) have had to find jobs in other industries to make ends meet. Often these new jobs have been stable, nine-to-five jobs with benefits and come with more time at home and with family. Basically — the exact opposite of a roadie’s life working gigs and tours out on the road. Many of these former stagehands have come to enjoy the predictability and stability of their new jobs and have hung up their concert T-shirts for good.

Aside from the obvious downside of talent growing smaller by the day, the other major consequence is that many industry veterans (who usually teach the younger hands on the job and provide an apprenticeship of sorts) are no longer going to be out there to share their knowledge, talents and tricks of the trade. While principles can be learned, there isn’t exactly a school or institute teaching a curriculum in roadie-ing. The mentorship of more experienced hands is an essential part of the touring crew industry.

I came across this article on my Facebook feed (yes, I still look at it now and then), as it was shared on a Facebook Page geared explicitly toward roadies, stagehands, techs and the like. After reading the article, I looked back at the post and noticed that along with the article link, it also posed a question:

“How many of our family have moved on PERMANENTLY from our line of work? How many are just getting by until our skills are needed again?”

There were just under 100 comments. I decided to dive in and read what the people in the trenches (or at least the people that used to be in the trenches) had to say. I was pretty taken aback, to say the least.

Without actually counting, I estimate that 35-40% of the respondents commented that they had left the roadie life for good. That’s a very substantial number to be lost. Obviously, my unscientific methodology is in no way is indicative of what the actual number may be. Still, considering the interviews in the article along with the real-life admissions of these now differently employed technicians, there’s a good chance that a considerable percentage of the skilled stage workers have left the industry for good (as an aside, quite a number of respondents commented that they had taken positions with AV integration and installation firms, which is no surprise, considering the skill sets they bring). The vast majority of those who responded that they have left for good gave reasons that are not surprising — more home and family time, more stability with a traditional job, and a less physically demanding lifestyle. Interestingly, and also not surprisingly, many also lamented that working in an industry where they were deemed “unessential” by the government (for the better part of a year or more) left them feeling that a career change could provide better protection in the future.

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The ramifications of a decreased labor pool are potentially huge for this struggling industry. With the start of a recovery in sight and the hopes of an upcoming summer concert season, touring companies and their clients are most certainly raring to go. Industry stakeholders regularly refer to the inevitability of the industry “roaring back with a vengeance.” We keep hearing that audiences want to attend shows, artists want to get back on stage and venues are prepping to be filled, once again, with (vaccinated) people and are ready to be brimming with energy. The enthusiasm is exciting and contagious! But there’s one problem — all of these shows and events will need the skilled labor force that existed pre-pandemic to get them off the ground and out on the road. If there aren’t enough workers available, then the expected “roar” of the industry recovery may turn out to be a meager “meow” for a good bit longer.

Most predictions say that the live events and entertainment industries will start coming back tepidly in the summer of 2021 and then much stronger in the fall. Indeed, I, too, anticipated this would be the trajectory of the recovery. But if touring companies, event management firms, conference centers, and venues have difficulty finding the workers they need to handle all of the contracts that come their way, the comeback may need a little more time to ramp back up. There may be shows and events that are ready to come back but need to wait due to a lack of labor available to bring them to life.

Time will tell how much of an impact this pandemic will have actually had on the overall numbers of the roadie and stagehand community. But I believe there may be an opportunity here to both entice those who have left to come back and attract new talent to the field. The stagehand work-life balance will always require certain compromises that may not be found in other (more traditional) jobs. It comes with the territory (and to some, it is part of the lifestyle appeal). But now might be the perfect time for industry leaders to reflect and see if there are ways to incorporate changes to the jobs in other areas that can offer more stability and security and, most importantly, make workers feel more valued and essential.

For now, let’s hope there are enough veteran live event professionals left out there, along with new talent ready to jump in to bring about the “roar” everyone is waiting for. I, for one, can’t wait!