21st April 2021

Festival Tech Work: Aren’t We All Artists Anyway?

Festival Tech Work
Janna Dickenson

The highway is cold in October in northern British Columbia. The winds whip and the grey skies chill bones. The only warmth I could find was from within, my stubborn little heart working overdrive being overwhelmed with passion, determination, fear, and excitement. Within moments I would be arriving in Edmonton in pursuit of sound people to hopefully learn from, and I had no idea what I was in for.

I hadn’t been to E-town in a long time, and most of my friends had moved on from there. I knew I must have been lucky because this really amazing group of musicians took me in with welcoming arms, and let me tell you, they are true musicians. Each one so immensely talented, all excelling quickly and about to gain national attention. So many of the people I spent time with have since won rather impressive awards and show little sign of slowing down!

I didn’t know it at the time, but this trip was to be a lovely journey into the mind and hearts of those that make the music I have since learned (and love) to mix.

The more time I spend with musicians and actors, the more I somehow simultaneously love and hate the way in which we treat them, on set or onstage. It seems to me like they are treated as though they are children, full of naivety, bound for error, and full of mischief. We create the simplest paths through our terrain, so their need for decision-making is as low as possible. We carry them into specific areas and put up protective walls to shield them from stress, noise, conflict, or concern. And we smile big, holding doors and offering libations.

We hide the technical from them as though it’s none of their concern and we take on the hard jobs so that they need not worry about it.

It annoys me no end when I watch crew members who misunderstand this relationship dynamic. The act of over-bestowing personal space, flattery, pleasantries, attention, and doting, big smiles, loud small talk, etc. can be perceived as being fake, which in turn resembles a lack of respect. New stage workers see this and assume they aren’t to be respected. However, when approached earnestly the intricacies of these relationships are rather interesting, resembling that of the yin and yang energetic dance.

We learn quite quickly in this field of work that we cannot do it alone, not a single one of us can. It takes a team, all with unique skills and qualities, and all working our respective roles in unison. So the act of sheltering artists is also kind of considerate and thoughtful, rather than it being rude or demeaning. Depending on how you look at it, the gesture could say, “I don’t believe you can fully understand all the components at play here.” Or it can say, “I respect your role. I recognize your art as a crucial component of our collective puzzle. Keeping you sheltered from the hijinx, drama and technical issues is my way of offering you the best space I can, so that you may be in the best position to share your art on our stage.” And there are miles of difference between the two.

In Edmonton, I slept on floors and couches, jammed by fires, studied sound through online universities, practiced scales in parks, secretly listened to rehearsals, went to show after show (“studying”).

I even got flung over the shoulder of none other but C.R. Avery himself during his set! He continued, marching around with my feet in the air as he finished his number in the dim-lit Aviary, where he was offering up to us his theatrical and outlaw-ish musical poetry. I was in the thick of musical expression and artistic pursuits. Late nights, later mornings, so many pints, so many cigarettes. We were all just stories sitting on wooden bar stools, flocked by the liquor with open eyes and ears.

I witnessed torn clothes and spilled beers, strong winds and psychedelic revelations of strangers. I witnessed awards and aggression, heartaches and heartbreaks, and even found myself so unguarded that I experienced my own as well. The trip became a real ‘trip’ that’s for sure! And it all came full circle when I was lucky to meet two SoundGirls who offered me what they could, and sent me on my way. I have been lucky enough to cross paths since with one at ArtsWells in 2017. She was mixing the main outdoor stage, and I was volunteering and mixing the casino (Jack’s), as well as the small outdoor Bears Paw.

We met under the stars one evening and talked compression in the streets until our friends wondered where we were. I felt so proud to be able to demonstrate to her how far I had come, and even prouder when she wasn’t surprised. The other woman I have not seen since.

She taught me how to festival patch, wrap cables over-under, and I can still hear her voice constantly asking me about my signal flow.

A few hours out of her day and it made a lasting and meaningful impact on my life. Education sharing without restraint is essentially investing in the quality of future techs which benefits all of us, and above all it benefits the music.

I ended up leaving this oil town in an army truck with wheels taller than my head. And when I rode out and down that highway, I wondered when I would be back, and if I would lose the music that had begun to tingle through my fingertips. I looked on, kept forward, and puttered back south to Vancouver as the engine rumbled and spat.

I was offered my first ever gig mixing at Woodstove Festival in the north of Vancouver Island. It is a festival organized by musicians. The event was about to do its first year run, and I was invited to take part! I was to mix in the main hall, and I had never touched a board! No one was concerned about that, however, and of course, I was terrified and praying for a miracle. But these people, these bluegrass island folk human gems saw something in me that they wanted to bet on, something I hadn’t even yet identified for myself.

You see, we must remember that these artists that we sometimes treat so cavalier, they speak, they witness, they also can see the magic that we often debate is even there, and they share stories of those moments with others.

When you take the time to approach them and their art with grace and care, they see you, they mention you, they sing your praises, and they recommend you for jobs and tours.

I have so much more to learn on technical skill still today, but damn did I ever make a name for myself in this community quickly when I respected the delicate space of art creation. Just as I prayed on my long road back south, I am still just hoping that I can do right by them, and live up to it.


Article by SoundGirl: Janna Dickenson

SoundGirls Profile

Another great article by SoundGirls: Julie Rix: Sound Engineer/Music Industry Professional

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The mission of SoundGirls.org is to inspire and empower the next generation of women in audio. Our mission is to create a supportive community for women in audio and music production, providing the tools, knowledge, and support to further their careers. SoundGirls.Org was formed in 2013 by veteran live sound engineers Karrie Keyes and Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato and operates under the Fiscal Sponsorship of The California Women’s Music Festival, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. In 2012, Karrie and Michelle participated in the “Women of Professional Concert Sound” panel at the AES Conference in San Francisco. The panel was hosted by the Women’s Audio Mission (WAM) and moderated by WAM founder Terri Winston. Terri brought together five women working in live and broadcast audio. The groundbreaking panel (which also included Jeri Palumbo, Claudia Engelhart and Deanne Franklin), provided young women and men a glimpse into life on the road, tips and advice, and a Q & A with the panelists. More importantly though, was how incredibly powerful the experience was for the panelists. We had all been in the business for 20 years or more, yet most of us had never met before that day and within minutes we bonded like long-lost sisters. We were struck by how similar our experiences, work ethics, and passions were and wondered why our paths had never crossed and how our careers would have been different had we been there to support each other through the years. Each of us are strong on our own, but together we were even stronger and a powerful force. We were empowered. Each of us had been asked hundreds of times in our careers: Are there other women doing sound? How did you get into sound? How would a young woman go about getting into sound? Through creating SoundGirls.Org, we hope to establish a place for women working in professional audio to come for support and advice, to share our success and failures, our joys and frustrations, and for empowerment and inspiration.

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