So you’ve wanted to be a sound engineer since you were a little kid. You studied hard in school, slaved away as an enthusiastic, overworked and underpaid intern, and no matter what the setbacks, you remained determined to succeed. In such a competitive industry, you’d think you’d need to be focused on nothing but sound, but what happens when your dream gets derailed? It’s easy to believe that pure grit is enough to get to the top and stay there, but there are so many factors that can throw your best-laid plans out the window. The earlier you put contingencies in place, the softer the blow will be if something does go wrong. Believe me; I’ve been there.
Firstly, I can’t stress enough how important insurance is. It seems so expensive when you’re starting out, and you’re barely earning enough to pay the bills, but do not treat it as optional. The world of live sound is a high-pressure, fast-paced, physical environment and accidents happen. Your number one priority should be public liability insurance. This won’t keep you out of jail if you are criminally negligent, but it helps if you get sued. Even if you didn’t do anything wrong, could you afford to prove it in court? Plus, any company worth their salt won’t hire a freelancer without it. Most unions and professional bodies can offer PLI for their members at a discounted rate, just make sure whatever policy you get covers you for all eventualities. If you are employed, check that your boss has you covered, don’t just presume.
Next is injury and illness insurance. Unfortunately it is extremely difficult to carry on working if you aren’t in full health. Even if you live in a country with good social security, there can be a long, frustrating application process which can leave you without any income for months, especially if you’re a freelancer. It can also be tough to show that you are unwell enough to qualify. For example, if you break your leg, you can’t load in gear or tip a desk, but as long as your hearing is intact, the person in the social security office may not see why you can’t work. Get a good injury and illness insurance policy from a provider that understands the nature of your job. It’s tempting to skip the illness part when you’re young, thinking it’s so unlikely to affect you, but you should seriously consider it.
I was 28 when I got ill. I went from being absolutely fine to having to leave work halfway through a load in within a week. It turned out that I had gastroesophageal reflux disease, which is the term for severe, chronic heartburn. It doesn’t sound serious, but I got unbearable stabbing pains in my stomach any time I tried to lift anything. If left untreated it can lead to oesophageal cancer. It took 18 months to get the message through to my doctor that taking an antacid here and there and avoiding lifting wasn’t an option for me, get referred to a specialist, get officially diagnosed, have surgery and recover. If I had known that it would take so long, I would have taken a break from sound and done something else, but it felt like everything might get fixed at the next appointment. Of course, I didn’t have illness cover. I was 28! I stubbornly kept working as much as I could, but every gig hurt, and it made my condition worse. It also meant I wouldn’t have qualified for unemployment benefits if I had applied.
You can do everything in your power to pursue your goals, and you can treat your body as a temple, but there are some things you can’t predict or control. Even if you’re lucky enough to stay healthy, you might have to take time out to look after a loved one. You might need to move somewhere with fewer jobs available, or the work might simply dry up. Our industry is frustratingly fickle, and I’ve seen talented, hardworking engineers lose long-term clients just because their new management want to use their own team, or someone offers their services cheaper. It’s a smart move to make as many friends as possible and have a diverse client base, so you aren’t relying on one band or company too heavily, and you have an excellent network to call on when times are hard. Still, there will almost definitely be a point when you’ll need to make a living doing something else, even if it is temporary. Live sound, especially touring, is unlike any other job and can leave you institutionalised and stuck. What transferable skills do you have? What else are you passionate about? You need to sit down and seriously assess how you could make a living outside of sound. That Etsy shop you’ve meant to open to sell nosewarmers for elephants isn’t going to cut it.
I know I’ve been pretty pessimistic here, but there are ways to stave off disaster if the unthinkable does happen. If you realise your skills are lacking, start working on them now. We’re lucky enough to live in a time where we can study online from anywhere in the world, whenever it suits us. Learn a language, learn how to code, figure out how those social media celebrities make a living. Find something you enjoy, treat it as a hobby, and if the worst happens, you know you have something to fall back on. It could even earn you some good money on the side in the meantime, and you can feel smug in the knowledge you’ll continue to do great things, no matter what life throws at you.
Beth O’Leary is a freelance live sound engineer and tech based in Sheffield, England. While studying for her degree in zoology, she got distracted working for her university’s volunteer entertainments society, and ended up in the music industry instead of wildlife conservation. Over the last ten years she has done everything from pushing boxes in tiny clubs to touring arenas, and spends a lot of her life in muddy fields working on most of the major festivals in the UK. She has a particular passion for flying PA, the black magic that is RF, travel, and good coffee.