Behind Backstage: Concert production, women and mops

A look at the obstacles women face when attempting to break into concert industry

There’s something magical in attending a concert; working one, however, brings you back to reality.

Sitting in front of the Activities and Recreation Center at 7:30 a.m. one bright April morning, I had trouble thinking because my mind was still foggy with sleep. The sun had yet to warm the ground, and wearing shorts left me chilled in the early spring weather. But since my boss had yet to appear, I remained in the sunlight on the cold seat hoping my choice of clothing wouldn’t come back to bite me later.

Instead, I bounced my legs and tried to distract myself, watching the early-morning stragglers creep toward the gym.

Gradually, a strange occurrence came to my attention: a slow wave of nearly-silent people — all men, all dressed head-to-toe in black — migrated from the parking lot to The Pavilion. It was odd, since those who frequent the gym so early are usually the workout buffs and athletic types.

In contrast, these men these men appeared to have walked off the Pirates of the Caribbean set only moments before. Some men had beards, some were clean-shaven; some sported longer locks than anyone I’ve ever met or encountered, some were bald. Most were heavily tattooed, pierced, dead-eyed with exhaustion, or some mixture of all three.

Of the 40 or so men working, we were the only women helping to unload. There’s a reason most concert tech and sound work remains a male-dominated occupation: setup and takedown of music shows requires enough strength to lift hundreds of pounds of equipment for hours on end. It’s considered “blue-collar” grunt work.

But in the wake of a new wave of modern feminist organization — like the #MeToo movement that has led to the indictment and ousting of several icons in many industries (but especially the American film industry) — it was still shocking to see such a vast gender discrepancy as there was in the set up for the recent alt-J concert in Davis. Among that swell of men oozing in the direction of The Pavillion, I had yet to see one woman.

A burst of laughter echoed from somewhere out of my sight, breaking the still morning air and rebounding off of the cement walls of the ARC.

I’d never been more intimidated — maybe it was their camaraderie, maybe it was purely their choice of dress. Either way, they were a club I was not a part of, and here I sat, waiting to get started with no one in the group saying so much as a “Hello” to me.

Suddenly, I spotted my co-worker arriving with our boss, who gestured for us to follow the group around the building. On the other side, near the loading zone for the ARC Pavilion, two massive tractor-trailer trucks were in the process of being unpacked. This must have been where the laughter came from, as these workers spoke familiarly with one another, laughing and teasing like soldiers on the frontlines. Their voices mixed cacophonously with the sharp cracks of metal equipment against wooden carts.

The three of us, outsiders, shared a glance.

Yet this doesn’t come as a surprise to women familiar with the industry. It is nearly an unspoken prerequisite for being a Productions Director in the ASUCD Entertainment Council (EC) — a position responsible for helping put on shows for artists like Chance the Rapper, alt-J, BØRNS and Khalid. Kurtie Kellner, a third-year managerial economics major, oversees sound and set up for all EC-led events. And she’s nothing if not familiar with the treatment of women backstage in the music industry.

When asked about her experiences, she grinned, understanding immediately.

“A lot of times you just kind of get brushed off and dismissed,” Kellner said. “It’s like, ‘No, this is kind of heavy, we can do it!’”

Kellner was quick to remind me that this doesn’t happen at every concert or with every company. At a recent EDM concert — where she shadowed under the man running the lighting for the show — Kellner made it clear that she was treated respectfully.

She followed this up, however, with a slightly ironic sentiment: “Adam [the man running the show] had made all of the guys sign sexual harassment and sexual assault waivers right before they got to the venue.”

Despite the few silver lining cases like Another Planet Entertainment — which recently made headlines for being the only entertainment company to be headed by women — much of the industry still needs to play catch-up.

As for me, I couldn’t help but agree. Especially thinking back to when, an hour after working ambiance, a man came up to me, took the equipment I held in my arms and left me adrift and jobless without so much as a backward glance:

 

It was early afternoon — approximately six hours until the doors opened — so The Pavillion was fairly empty. Only a few workers milled about, carrying fencing, and discussing placement of the remaining equipment or cleaning up fallen debris during load-in. Confetti leftover from the Chance the Rapper concert in October 2016 sat in heaps on some of the constructed barricades, and the entire floor was covered in a layer of dust; off to one side of The Pavilion stood a mop.

Weighing in at 162 pounds, each barricade required at least two people to maneuver into place in front of the stage — they were then bolted into place with two bolts spanning the length of a hand to prevent collapse mid-concert. Assembling barricades could take anywhere from an hour to three hours, depending on availability of help.

So imagine our surprise when six of us, all EC staff members and all women, arrived to help out only to find barricades already in place.

We stood motionless, momentarily dumbstruck and debating our purpose until Liz O’Neill, EC’s director and a third-year double major in psychology and managerial economics, took the initiative and approached one of the men presumed to be in charge. In his mid-30s with a few graying hairs and eyes hardened from years on the job, the assumption seemed promising — the majority of other men in The Pavillion looked to be in their late 20s, grinning and messing around with each other when not currently occupied.

If anybody could get the man to take her seriously, it would be O’Neill.

“For the most part, people know I’m in charge and won’t talk to someone else,” O’Neill explained later. And that’s entirely plausible when she walked toward the man unperturbed, clipboard in hand, frown on her face.

The highest of positions in the industry, O’Neill told me later, remain run by men. If she were to reach out to a promoter, for example, she would likely speak with a man. On the other hand, advertisement and marketing remain women-driven fields.

Take it from Kellner, who had already experienced the culture of dismissal time and again over the course of two years in her position.

“As a girl, you have to make a point of putting your foot down, and being like, ‘Yes, hi, how can I help you?’” Kellner said once. “You have to go out and ask for a task. They won’t immediately assume you’re in charge. You have to go out and say, ‘Hi, yes, I’m in charge.’”

Despite O’Neill’s leader expertise and authority, we ultimately expected dismissal until later that evening  — our job had been done already, so there was nothing left for us to contribute.

What we got, instead, were a bucket of bolts, the aforementioned mop and a few dismissive glances. So we took what we could get, dragging the bolts and mop to the barricades, and fell upon our duties resignedly. We were disappointed but not surprised by this treatment.

It was, however, a blow to my self-confidence, being in a situation that was so clearly tight-knit and not necessarily unwelcoming, but still exclusive. We’d had experience — UC Davis had hosted countless concerts in the past — and yet time and time again, we’d been sidelined for the sole purpose of us being women. Looking at my coworkers, I could easily read the frustration and indignancy written on their faces.

Unfortunately, it’s one aspect of concerts that few understand until they find themselves working one: the gut-punch and sharp anger when a man — usually a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier — approaches you, plucking your job right out of your hands with nothing more than a condescending “Thanks for volunteering, ladies.” Or, my personal favorite: delegating you menial tasks like mopping and sweeping, both of which hold the unspoken association with women and femininity.

Katie Lewis, another third-year on the team, a genetics major and the assistant director of EC, was just as confused as the rest of the EC staff when she was given charge over mopping up the confetti on the barricades. And while we attached the remaining bolts, over our shoulders stood Lewis stooping over the dirty metal, wiping back and forth until deemed clean enough. Which, apparently, it wasn’t, as another male ARC employee went over the same barricades with the same mop, afterwards.

Looking back, Lewis is still slightly uncomfortable by that job and who was doing it.

“We were assigned barricades — so I got there assuming that I would be doing lifting,” Lewis remembered. “And [the men in charge of barricade set up] were, like, “Ah no… you guys, you are such great volunteers!” and left us with cleaning up after [putting] up the barricades together already.”

In no way was this incident malicious — the backstage workers couldn’t simply take the barricades down for us to put them back up. Regardless, the situation was definitely an uncomfortable one, like we had encroached on a territory we didn’t belong in. For all that was unspoken, the whole event might as well have read “BOYS ONLY. No girls allowed.” As if we were all five years old again, and boys were afraid of girls on account of their cooties.

“They didn’t realize that this is what we do and just assumed that, since it was a group of like five girls, we were just there to just clean up or whatever,” Lewis agreed.

In the first moments after a concert ends — when the lights snap on, the band leaves the stage and the crowd grows quiet — the world pauses, and silence seems to fall over the room. The audience remains standing, as if in shock that the pounding music and flashing lights have cut out, with their jaws on the floor and not a sound to be heard throughout the venue.

Finally, when reality sinks in, the crowd unfreezes and surges toward the exit doors in the back of The Pavillion, an eruption of chatter exploding from the massive group. Soon, all that’s left are some discarded pieces of confetti, forgotten empty water bottles and crumpled tickets.

That’s when the real work begins for us. And by “real work,” I have come to learn that this means sitting and waiting before I could clean up after the artists.

After the Alt-J and BØRNS concert, once the remaining few EC workers gathered, the ambiance manager brought us to a deserted room backstage to wait out the post-concert party most artists enjoy for a few hours before boarding their buses. By this time — after waking up early, setting up and attending the entire two-hour show — I was completely exhausted.

The four other girls from EC and I crammed onto a couch while we awaited the call to action, each of us taking turns to dip our hands into a bag containing nothing but pillow mints — the only food available for us to eat.

An hour later — around midnight — the supervisor arrived, giving us the green light to enter the first room, which happened to be BØRNS’ and his band’s. Fame often makes us forget that celebrities are human too. I was struck immediately with that realization when, upon entrance to this backstage room, we had to pause to take in the scene. To our left was a table piled with empty pizza boxes and bags of chips; to our right, a cluster of couches sat upon a rug covered by chip fragments, popcorn and discarded drink bottles. Behind, tucked away in a far corner was an empty Converse All-Star shoe box. The ambiance was dim and softened the edges of the room as well as the debris thrown across the floor.

It was an odd sort of humanizing moment, when the glamor of an artists stage performance wears off and all that remains is the knowledge that most artists cannot clean up after themselves. And who had to sift through the garbage, pick up the used towels, the burnt cigarettes and empty beer bottles? Who helped unload and dismantled the green rooms and the barricades, the couches and the rugs? It certainly wasn’t mostly the men.

We are not mothers. We do our jobs out of love, not for the artists themselves, but for the music they have created. It was laughable that this translated into us cleaning up their messes.

Yet the entire time, when I stepped on a chip or packed away towel soaked with who-knows-what, I realized that the music industry, like any other, has a ways to go until equality is reached.

And maybe it will never be reached fully — maybe productions won’t ever be a women-dominated field like advertisement or nursing. But the next time you attend a music show or festival, I’ll bet you the women working behind the scenes deserve more work than clean-up duty and more recognition than “Ladies, thanks for helping!”

 

Written by: Erin Hamilton — elhamilton@ucdavis.edu

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