Stories From The Touring Women Who Keep The Music Sounding Sweet
“‘Listen, I’m not going to treat you like a girl.’” Dana Wachs is recounting her interaction with a male staff member at a show she was working as front of house tech. Wachs is a self-professed gear nerd and a self-taught jack-of-all-trades who works as an audio engineer, tour manager, and monitor engineer. “But in effect, by saying that, what he did was to treat me like a ‘girl,’” said Wachs.
The gendering of roles within the audio and technological side of the music industry is one of the more complex parts of the problem found in dealing with misogyny and sexism in music. Is this discrimination founded on ignorance or are people really that condescending and threatened by women in the field?
“I’ve definitely had band members or audience members or other techs, who are like, ‘Do you find it hard being a female tech?’ As if it’s never crossed their minds that I could do this,” said Rachel Ryan, over the phone from her home in Los Angeles between tours. “It’s just that they’ve never seen a female tech, so they’re genuinely confused. That’s coming from a very different place than just ‘let’s talk about your experience as a female, as an engineer, as both’.”
Sharon Levinson — another FOH engineer who doubles as tour manager for acts like Amon Tobin, Swans, and Kid Koala — approaches it from a slightly different perspective. “When I was 20, when I first started, I looked like I was 15, so it was probably less about the fact that I was a girl and more about the fact that I looked 15 and probably didn’t know what I was doing,” said Levinson. “[Men not taking me seriously] doesn’t happen as much now as it used to. Or if it does, it’s usually only the first five minutes and then they realize I know what I’m doing and it’s not an issue.”
“When I was younger, I did experience a lot of condescension,” said Wachs. “But that may have been because of the fact that I was just young and nothing to do with being a woman. Other times, it seemed more obvious that I was being targeted because I was a woman.”
If there is any difference between the way men and women techs work with each other within the industry then Ryan, Levinson, and Wachs all seem to share a similar view: That it is more about individual styles and personalities than boys versus girls.
“It always depends on the individuals,” said Levinson. “I’ve been hired by bands that include girls specifically because I’m female…being the only girl on a tour can be isolating, but if there are two of us (or more) it kind of cancels out the gender issue.”
Tour life is gruelling. Twelve hour days, hundreds of miles of driving, organizing a crew of 40, weeks away from friends and family, solving problems on the fly.
“On the recent Deerhunter/Kings Of Leon tour, the fiber communication between the FOH console and the split somehow died just two minutes before their set,” Wachs recalls. “I ended up having to mix FOH from the monitor console, using the monitor engineer’s show file with no effects, low-pass engaged in every channel, on headphones, probably about 50 feet behind the mains. That definitely brought my heart rate up a bit!”
These problems can sometimes be magnified or diminished, depending on the context and the country. “In Japan, many of the crew were women.” said Wachs. “They worked hard. Everything was efficient and ran smoothly.”
Ryan has had similar experiences working abroad during her time out on the road. “I’ve definitely been to other countries where I’ve been the only female tech and they’ve never seen one before,” said Ryan, who has been behind the board since she was a teen. Working with bands like Silversun Pickups, School of Seven Bells, Phosphorescent, and Little Boots, she has an enormous amount of experience. “I happen to work with a lot of female bands who are specifically looking for female crew or have female band members,” she said. “I also work, within the industry, with a lot of men, who are engineers or tour managers or even in bands. This last tour, out of 45 people, four of us were female.”
“I hate to separate female engineers, but because there are issues, usually from males in the industry, we need to talk about it or else it will never change.”
— Dana Wachs, Touring Engineer
Ryan has a great fondness for some of the women she’s had the pleasure to work, with behind the board and on stage, over the years. “I love all the girls that I’ve met,” she said. “We run into each other on tour. It’s good to have that community of people — male or female, it’s good to have a support system. Touring is hard, whether you’re male or female. It’s important to have your people to keep you grounded.”
Ryan is part of a few different female-focused groups, including The Knife Set (a group of women all working in tour management, audio engineering, and tech). She is also a member of Soundgirls, an online resource center and community for audio engineers, of which Wachs is also a member.
“Soundgirls not only shares plenty of job opportunities, but is a resource for technological troubleshooting, as well as supporting women in a vastly male field,” said Wachs. “I hate to separate female engineers, but because there are issues, usually from males in the industry, we need to talk about it or else it will never change.”
The importance of these discussions and facts becomes clear for both the recognition of issues and the successive dismantling of the currently male-dominated workforce.
“There are not a lot of women in this industry.” said Ryan. “If we don’t talk about that, no-one knows about it and then it never changes. Young women don’t realize that they have these opportunities; representation matters.”
But what about particular aspects of gender that are, at times, impossible to escape? For instance, what happens when a touring FOH engineer or TM gets pregnant and then has to face additional discrimination because of biology?
Levinson, a new mother, worked right up until and immediately following the birth of her 14 month old son, Eli. She dealt with the challenges of pregnancy while out on the road with the band Operators, though they’re not the challenges one might expect.
“The funniest thing about being pregnant happened in London, Ontario, “ Levinson said. “I was about six or seven months pregnant. It was after the show and I was coiling cables when these two drunk guys came up and went, ‘Uh, can we help you?’ And I said, ‘Um, no, I’m good. Why?’ ‘Well, we just feel bad for you.’ It was pretty funny. Like, dude, I can definitely do this way better than you can. I got this.”
A big part of working toward positive change comes from calling out inappropriate behavior in the workplace. In this case, that’s in the club or on the bus, and making sure people are held accountable for their actions.
“It needs to be known that certain behavior is not acceptable or professional,” Wachs said. “The leaders and employers in any industry need to hold their employees to task, and I would hope they would not want their company or brand (or band) to be represented by antiquated and offensive ideals.”
Like with any job, the longer you work in your field, the more experience you have to draw from and form your own opinion. Your own network of trusted allies grows, and you develop your own way of dealing with misogyny.
“I find that as I get older, I have better ways of coping, both internally as well as how to shut it down when it’s happening,” said Ryan. “I hope that more or less I’ve found a way to shut it down politely. There’s definitely things you let go and things you call out. But I have less of a problem calling people out in such a way that stops them without then causing more problems. And that’s taken a very long time to figure out how to do that in a way that works best for me.”
While antiquated attitudes are frustrating and sexism within this industry is a serious issue, the main point all these women have made is simple: Be good at what you do.
“In many respects, I’ve been very lucky with the engineers and the crew that I have met over the years,” said Ryan. “It’s almost always been about whether or not you’re good at your job and less about gender.”
“It’s more about figuring out all the pieces that are involved in any given tour,” Levinson said. “Sometimes, it’s not even the audio stuff that’s tricky but the visuals. With the Amon [Tobin] tour, it was a logistical nightmare. It was seven huge, heavy road cases in a semi [transport truck]. [Amon] has the best ears of anybody out there in the music world, so the sound had to be perfect,” she continues. “But I also had to figure out if there were forklifts available or like, if the cube was going to fit down a hallway. I spent hours trying to get dimensions of venues just to make sure we could load in.”
“I’m a big proponent of therapy. Everyone should go to therapy!” Ryan said, jokingly. “Tour can be such a bubble, and it’s very easy to get sucked in and to lose yourself a little bit. I have found that having an outside source, whether it’s your friends, your parents, therapist helps you cope with the differences that touring life presents.”
And perhaps, most perfectly, Wachs sums up why gender simply isn’t important as an audio tech. “An engineer once asked me how I could mix while wearing heels. I pointed out to him that I was not wearing them on my ears.”