Priorities

Sound engineers love nothing more than thinking they know best, and an innate part of that is having some strong opinions on equipment, and none more contentious than those on loudspeaker systems.  Come on, let’s face it, we all do it, endlessly talking b******s about this attribute and that feature.  Let’s also face this; there is not much gear around at the top of the tree that’s not good, and it all comes down to semantics – unless of course we’re talking about something so obviously radical and game-changing as Martin Audio's MLA, in which case there is no discussion to be had, it knocks everything else into a cocked hat.  End of conversation.

 

But every now and again, something happens that pulls us up short, makes us realise that our contribution to the big picture is pretty insignificant, and perhaps realigns our approach to pretty much everything, let alone the next gig.

 

I’m talking here about seriously important things like people, relationships and the importance of prioritising others that are affected directly by the often vacuous and self-indulgent business to which we have chosen to dedicate out lives.

 

In June of 2013, I and many others lost a great friend to what appears to have been a sudden, unexpected heart-attack.  He was (I think) 50 years old.  Steve Watson was a giant amongst sound engineers.  Immensely capable, respected and liked across the board, he was always solid, reliable, amusing, eccentric and generally amenable.  His experience was truly deep, having been involved in a huge variety of craziness from avant-garde performance art to all four 2012 Ceremonies.  Nothing bothered him, nothing would wind him up, nothing presented anything more than a problem to be solved by application of common sense and the right equipment.

 

Steve rarely spoke about his family.  In the twenty or so years in which I have known him, he had always lived in or around Frome in Somerset.  He had two kids, now in the latter stages of their teens, with Glenda, a touring caterer, from which he was separated.  Following his death, I met them all at Glastonbury, when they came to see a short tribute to Steve which was respectably shown on the Pyramid Stage screens in the Saturday afternoon.  I felt a sense of bewilderment from the kids, of detachment, of not really grasping the enormity of the situation that they were now facing life without their dad.  Glenda, I think, felt deep sadness at what had happened but also resignation, and perhaps a little touch of inevitability.  Steve seemed like he had a cast-iron constitution, and lived life to the full, but he could never be described as being lean and healthy.

 

In the past two years, two other close friends have shuffled off their mortal coils – the irrepressible Jock Bain, who sadly committed suicide and of course Martin Audio’s very own human dynamo Rob Lingfield, who finally succumbed to cancer after giving it everything he had to fight it.

 

What all three have in common is the fact they all put work first, and in Steve and Jock’s case to the extent that everything else came a poor second – it was work for work’s sake.  They lived and breathed it, gave it their all and if they weren’t working were restless and unfulfilled.  I think it’s something that many of my contemporaries do without ever stopping to think of the consequences, and without ever stopping to ask themselves “why, and what for?”  Rob managed to find a balance of sorts, although he had rough ride on the way to getting there.

 

I think that there are two simple kinds of answer to “why, and what for?” but one’s right and one’s wrong.  Unfortunately, it seems that most seem to opt for the wrong one as the implications of the right one are often too painful.  If one were to ask a group of people in the production industry what drives them, I wager that those under the age of thirty five would say something like “because I love music”, or “because I get to travel a lot and have a great time with my mates” or something similar.  Those more mature ones might say something along the lines of “got to keep working”, or “because you’re only as good as your last gig”.  Very few, some, but not many, will give an answer that alludes to making a living to support a home and a family – a reason that most ‘normal’ people would appreciate.

 

The fact is that there is a great deal of ephemeral satisfaction to be had, but what are the real long-term benefits of being a perpetual jobbing soundie?  Steve Watson was a great engineer, but in his mind he was only ever as good as his last gig, a fact that he understood and as a consequence he rarely seemed to stop working.  He was yet another victim to the fear that if he doesn’t do it, somebody else will.  Every freelancer knows that feeling, very few have the courage to believe in themselves sufficiently to stand back occasionally and focus on loved ones, home, friends outside of the industry.

 

We all sign up to unwritten loyalty agreements, casual contracts that rely on the good nature of those being ‘contracted’ to be there at the whim of the artist or production company, hopeful that a small amount of reflected glory might bounce off us and shine brightly in the eyes of others.  It may well do for a short while, but there will come a time when reflected glory doesn’t cut it anymore for those left at home to deal with ‘normal’ life – running a home, raising kids.  Certainly there is a place for those who prefer to escape the trappings of family and relationships, commitment and sharing.  However it pays for us all to take an occasional look at ourselves and take stock of our situations and how our involvement in the ‘music biz’ can affect the ones we love – the ‘biz’ that takes no prisoners, that strives to promote the new, promote the ego.

 

I guess what I’m really saying here is stop, look at yourself, take a break.  It’s only a gig.  It’s only another load-in, another rehearsal.  You can take a holiday, you can be ill, you can get another job if the situation requires, because you’re good enough to have got the one you’ve just had to leave in the first place.

 

We can bang on all we like about the gear, and no doubt that having the right gear, (like an MLA system for instance!), makes us sound good, really good.  But in the end it’s all about the people, and without the people the gear is nothing.  If we put all our energies into trying to make everybody love us by working until we drop, in the end we just hurt ourselves and those that love us.  I know, because I’ve been there.  Unlike Steve, I came through it, possibly wiser for the experience.

 

Life’s too short.  We only get one chance.  Work isn’t everything.

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