My name is Becky Pell and I am an anomaly. I’m a 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 engineer, you don’t see that very often’. Me: ‘No, there aren’t many of us’. Them: ‘Why is that?’ Well 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?
I love being a touring sound engineer. I’ve been in the business for 20 years, touring for 14, 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 wacky places in a month than most people will see in a lifetime, and I get to do it with a great bunch of people; there’s always someone to have a laugh with. I get a real buzz from that direct, minute-by-minute involvement in the live show when the lights go down and the audience go nuts. And I get to play with some really cool toys; I never did see why the boys should get all the best ones!
In the early days I got my fair share of sexist crap, 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! Most of it’s just banter and you can actually 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 undoubtedly 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!
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. Happily, I was so determined that it was a roadie life for me since I saw my first gig aged 12, that I just ploughed on and refused to be put off; in fact 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.
I sometimes see female crew who dress and behave quite ‘blokey’ – 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 and work hard and be ready for some very long days. But I’ve always worn make-up to work, and it’s fun to get stuck-in and grubby on the load-out one evening and then wear something a bit glam on a day off!
I think a common deterrent to this life for women is that there’s a fair amount of 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 slipped 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. It doesn’t hurt to put in a few sessions at the gym and build a bit of 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 at times! 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 the camaraderie, the sense of a job well done and the satisfaction of a hot (well, hopefully) shower and a cold beer with your touring family back on the bus at the end of the day. Yes that bus can get a bit stinky and so I often pimp it with scented candles to make it a bit more civilised. My male colleagues will then comment that it ‘smells of girls on here’ before admitting that it’s a definite improvement! In my experience they tend to enjoy having some women around – after all, it’s actually a pretty unbalanced and unnatural environment when it’s all guys.
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 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 let it be.
And damn it’s fun!