The live events industry can be hard to navigate. There isn’t a defined career pathway or educational framework that one needs to follow, no qualification that is necessary or will guarantee you a rewarding job once you have it. It can feel even more confusing if you’re a freelancer. You don’t have a boss to guide you or promotion options to pursue within a company. You are the only one who is responsible for your training and progression. When you then take into account the… creative and organic nature of live events and the current industry-wide shortage of experienced technicians caused (mainly) by the pandemic, it is quite common for people to be offered roles that don’t exactly match their skill set. Whether it’s an ad for a dream job that lists a bunch of skills or experience that you don’t have, or you’re getting offers of work that involves equipment that you’ve never touched, you may feel that there is a gap between your current skills and what potential clients are expecting of you. What should you do? The phrase “fake it ‘till you make it!” gets thrown about a lot, but is it really the solution? It is something I have struggled with throughout my whole career and I’m sorry to say I still don’t have the answer, but here are some things to consider so you can form your own conclusions.
Unfortunately, we’re a bit special
There are endless articles out there about whether you should fake it until you make it, but it is almost all aimed at employees in corporate jobs. There are definitely lessons to be learned from these sources, but there are a few things about our sector that mean the advice is not entirely applicable to us.
First of all, the proportion of workers in our field who are freelance is much higher than most. We have to advocate for ourselves and convince potential clients that we are a good choice and that our experience puts us in good stead to do the job well. This can be challenging when there isn’t an “industry standard” qualification and everyone’s experience history is unique. It is much easier to fire freelancers than employees, or simply not call them again if their work isn’t up to scratch. We are also up against untold numbers of other freelancers for each job, and in the absence of formalised, transparent hiring practises, it can be hard not to take hiring decisions personally. Paranoia and bitchiness about who gets what role can take hold in freelancer circles, similar to when there’s an opportunity for promotion in office-based sitcoms. All I can say is try to avoid questioning why this job went to that person, because it can eat you up inside, and trying to find logic, where there may be none, will drive you crazy.
Most jobs in live events, especially touring, are quite short in the grand scheme of things. Even if you land a role on a two-year global tour, that’s not much compared to potentially spending decades working for the same firm. This means we go through the stress of job hunting much more often than most people. There is also much less of an incentive for clients to invest in our professional growth or even put as much effort into recruitment as they would for a full-time position.
Lastly, our job is much more immediate than “normal” jobs. Of course, we can, and should, study and practise our craft as much as possible on our own time, but there is a lot that we can’t help but learn through experience. You can only deal with a quiet, unpredictable singer when you’re faced with one. You only find out what word clock slipping can sound like when you hear it (I’ve often thought that an audio library of what things sound like while being affected by different technical issues would be incredibly useful. If anyone has assembled one please let me know). Your live mixing will improve more with the experience of real musicians in real, crowded rooms than with any amount of practising with a multitrack. So if you are faking it until you make it and come up against something beyond your capacity, you will have to deal with that in real-time, potentially in front of thousands of booing fans and an angry client.
Keeping up with the fakers
In an ideal world, we would never have to fake it. Everyone would be offered jobs according to their abilities and everyone would be given opportunities to grow and progress along the way. Wouldn’t that be nice? Unfortunately, that is rarely how it works. If you have an employer or client who takes an active role in your professional development, please recognise them for the rare gem that they are. That’s not to say that everyone else is evil, it’s just that most companies are swamped with work and they don’t have the time or resources to dedicate to training, appraisals, mentoring, etc. At the end of the day, if you’re a freelancer, that responsibility lies squarely with you anyway.
I used to turn down jobs if I wasn’t 100% comfortable with every piece of equipment that I would need to use. I would tell them that they should choose someone else, for the good of the gig. However, it took me far too long to realise that more often than not, they didn’t find someone better, they just found someone who had the chutzpah to say yes and give it a go. Those people did a good enough job most of the time to get away with it, and so kept getting offered more opportunities. I dread to think how much putting the gig’s success before my own career has held me back, particularly because the gig probably would have succeeded anyway.
This brings me to the difficult part: none of us would have to fake anything if no one else did. We would all get exactly the level of jobs we deserved. However, there are all sorts of people in this industry, and as I just alluded to, the way things work favours people who are full of… chutzpah. It’s understandable: if you’re a busy booker who has a lot on their plate, finding a freelancer who has reassuring confidence about them and says they can do anything you ask them to is a godsend. If you’re an event organiser who’s worried because there’s been a technical difficulty, someone who uses a few select pieces of jargon but tells you it’ll all be fine shortly is exactly the kind of person you want. Never mind whether the difficulty was caused by that person in the first place; you don’t have the time or specialist knowledge to find that out, you just want your gig to happen. People like to say that chutzpah-ers get found out and don’t last in the industry, but in my experience that isn’t true, and in fact, the opposite can be the case. It can be frustrating to have to work with these people and watch their careers skyrocket, but I still don’t think you should join them if you can’t beat them. We’re all on our own journey, comparing yourself to others is a recipe for misery. The road might be longer if you don’t take the “chutzpah” shortcut, but you learn much more and can be truly confident in your own competence as you progress.
To fake or not to fake?
It’s a bit of a catch-22 that knowing when to turn something down and when to go for it comes with experience. Experience that you might need to fake a little bit to get in the first place. Now that I’m older I’ve seen more of how the industry works: I know that no one knows everything about everything. New equipment and software updates come out all the time, and you get used to reading manuals or chatting to friends who have used it to get up to speed (on that note, if any manufacturers are reading this, can you please stop replacing your PDF manuals with endless video tutorials. They are useful as supporting material, but you can’t search for a keyword in a half-hour-long video and scan through the relevant paragraph on your phone while the client isn’t looking. Or even just browse it during a slow conference). You get used to the equipment list fundamentally changing at the last minute, so whether you’ve used a certain desk before might suddenly become irrelevant anyway. You see so many people being thrown in at the deep end that you start to wonder whether there is any type of baptism that isn’t of fire. So once you see that perfection isn’t always necessary, and once you become more certain of your own abilities, it is easier to make that judgment call.
Further, it is easier to have a frank conversation with the booker when you’re more established. I still flag gaps in my knowledge with my clients. Sometimes they’re happy for me to read the manual or spend extra time in the warehouse to fill those gaps, sometimes they have a more suitable candidate for that role that they go with instead. I’m lucky enough that I don’t need to take every single gig I’m offered, and admitting to my lack of experience in certain areas doesn’t affect my long-term relationship with my clients. In fact, they usually appreciate my honesty and trust my self-assessed competence in other roles more.
So what can you do if you aren’t that experienced yet? It’s a decision you have to make yourself, but I would suggest the following:
- Do not outright lie, especially not in writing. Never put anything on your resumé or a job application that is verifiably false. You are very likely to be found out and might lose that job as well as future opportunities with that client. You will also get a reputation for being a bull****er.
- Do not misrepresent your competence with electricity or hanging anything from a height. You can cause a huge amount of damage, and in the worst case you could end up in prison for manslaughter, or dead. It is definitely not worth it.
- Work on your skills! Concentrate on “making it” as much as you can so you spend as little time as possible faking it.
- Focus on what you do know. Again, this becomes easier with experience, but you will start to recognise patterns in workflows and how a few underlying principles relate to everything we do. For example, once you’ve used three or four types of desks you’ll understand what they have in common, and will probably know enough to do a simple show on any desk. If you understand signal flow you can troubleshoot most situations, and at least rule out common issues like air gaps or bad cable.
- What would someone with chutzpah do? I had to really force myself to accept gigs that were outside my comfort zone when I was younger. What helped me was imagining what an arrogant, annoying person with the same skill set as me would say. If they would take it, I’d make sure to say yes so it didn’t go to someone like that, even though they were only theoretical.
- Think of it as a “stretch” role. Having a growth mindset, where you know you can learn and improve, and see it as a fun challenge, is one of the best things you can do for your career and your mental well-being. Of course, don’t accept jobs where you would be totally in over your head, but if you know the required skills are just a bit beyond your current comfort zone, push yourself to take it on and learn as much as you can from it. This is especially recommended if you know that there is someone else on the team who is happy to help you learn.
Some day we will all be able, to be honest about our abilities and even our insecurities with everyone, and everyone will get exactly the jobs they can handle and deserve. Until then, a little bit of “faking,” insofar as you’re coming across as confident and reassuring while taking on new, reasonable, challenges, can do wonders for your career. If you know that it’s just a little bit of a stretch for you, and you are competent in the basics, some chutzpah can get you closer to the point where you won’t need to fake it because you will have genuinely made it.