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How To Get Into This Industry

One of the primary questions I get asked about while sitting behind my console (or in e-mails, or social medias) is “How do I get into this industry?” by way of asking “How did you get into this industry?” This is, unfortunately, a complicated question that is difficult to answer in an easy-to-digest sound bite, so in this episode of the Blueshift Design Blog, I’ll attempt to shed some light, if you will, on this most impenetrable of conundrums. Let us ponder.1

While it may seem obvious that we should grant that one who wishes to join the ranks of us “road dogs” has arrived at that decision fully informed and only after much personal introspection, it bears mentioning that, like any industry, this one may not be entirely what one expects. There are many very, very long work days, disagreeable coworkers, mercurial artists, fussy gear, and days weeks that will so test your sanity and resolve you’ll wonder if you ever want to press GO+ again. I won’t spend too much time on this, since those who make the attempt to become touring personnel quickly discover what it’s like, but it is something to bear in mind.

On, therefore, to what you really want to know: how to score a position as the Designer With Ultimate Creative Freedom who is never questioned on a world tour with a top-selling artist. Behold, the secret sauce: you can’t.

At least, not right away.

This is not to discourage potential lighting designers and sound mixers and video arts folk from joining the industry. Note that I did not say “You can’t, ever.” The important ingredient to remember in the recipe for success is time. This is difficult for many reasons, not the least of which is that it violates our sense of meritocracy. In this industry – and you will hear it said time and time again – it’s all about who you know. It takes time to establish a social network of people who know you and your abilities and how easy you are to get along with on the road, and these are all qualities that take time to cement in the minds of those we work with. And the fact is that there may be many, many people in front of you in terms of who are deserving of a gig at any given time. The important thing is not to take being passed over as a personal slight. Of course, the flip side to this is that there may be times when you have skills that legitimately surpass those of someone else selected for a job. Perhaps even vastly surpass. This happens, and it sucks.2 To quote REO Speedwagon, keep on rollin’.

The thing to keep in mind is that you will sweep the floors of a warehouse, drive a new console across town as a delivery person, and run a followspot before anyone lets you sit behind a console and drive. If you are truly skilled and humble, when you do finally achieve a degree of success, there will be very few jobs that you will ask others to do that you have not, at some point, done yourself. All this to say, the industry can be difficult for reasons other than difficult gear or long work days. There are challenges – certainly not insurmountable ones, but challenges nonetheless that you must master before you are handed greater responsibility.

Once you’ve decided that you’re okay with All Of That, the real work begins. What follows is not necessarily the best way to go about getting into the industry, it is how I would go about it, if I were trying to get in – which, by the way, I totally am. Trying. Tweak as necessary for your personal situation.

  • Knowing Your Craft

The first and most important asset you can have, other than a good attitude, is knowledge. Knowledge is power, in this industry more so than many others. “Spend a lot of time being a nerd” is advice I give to young people who are interested in doing what I do. The lighting world has a dizzying array of products and technology, and knowing as much as you can possibly cram into your brain will be nothing but an asset to you in your search for a gig. The level of esoterica you can absorb is quite frankly staggering, but the more you know, the better off you’ll be. Do you know what the sound of a loose tilt belt is on a Vari-Lite VL3000? What does a DLP projector with incorrect convergence look like? Do you know how to write a macro on a GrandMA? Be the person who’s studied the console inside and out. If you want to be a programmer – and if you want to be in lighting, you should have at least a basic understanding of automated lighting programming – get your hands on some offline software (Flying Pig Systems and MA Lighting both provide their offline software for free) and a visualizer and some songs, and go to town programming a light show for your chosen music. Learn to program different styles of songs, especially styles you aren’t personally drawn to as matter of musical taste. There are some excellent books about programming, I highly recommend Brad Schiller’s Automated Lighting Programmer’s Handbook.

I also recommend becoming skilled at fixing moving lights, or whatever gear your chosen field deals with. This is not a skill that everyone has, and having it will make you attractive, and also better at your job on the road. Learn consoles inside and out, grandMA and Hog especially. My perhaps-somewhat-controversial opinion about the “other” desks: don’t worry about learning them unless you have time to burn, these are rarely used in the professional arena.

With the directive to know your craft, however, comes a slight warning: do not hyper-focus on one area. Know a little about the other production areas. If you’re into lighting, know something about video and sound. This is especially important as sound and lighting and video often have competing interests, and if we know a little about what our talented sisters and brothers in the other disciplines do and their limitations and frustrations, we can all have a little more empathy for each other and work better together as a team to make a cohesive show. I was a front of house mixer long before I ever cared to know anything about lighting, and did video shooting and editing after that, and those experiences have given me a tremendous respect and admiration for those who run the other funny-looking consoles.

  • Finding a Job to Get Started In

A lot of advice I’ve seen regarding where to “go first” in terms of finding gainful production-related employment recommends looking up your local IATSE chapter and joining. I’m going to recommend against that here, not because I have anything but respect for the Stagehands Union3, but because the purpose of the union is not to find you a job, it is to staff production events. You can learn some excellent skills in IATSE, and meet some wonderful contacts, but their strength is in providing skilled stagehands, not touring personnel.

There are a few options here. One is finding a job at a local concert venue. This can be an excellent way to get started, especially if you have the good fortune to have a venue where up-and-coming bands without LDs regularly come through. However, I’d take care to thoughtfully gauge the quality of the potential gigs – there’s a lot of regional bands out there that are happy to remain regional, and a venue gig can quickly become a black hole of trying to keep 1980’s PAR cans and shoddy electrical systems in good working order.

My preferred option of choice is to get in with a production company, and then work your posterior off to become the lighting person there, especially if they don’t have one already. Even if they do, you can work you way up through hard work and perseverance. Finding a good-sized production company is also a critical piece of this puzzle – there are a lot of companies that do not necessarily focus on having a strong lighting inventory, so if lighting is Your Thing, it might be best to avoid those in favor of an organization that focuses heavily or exclusively on lighting. Of course, as the size of a company grows so too does the talent pool from which they can pull people – bluntly, your competition – so that’s something to keep in mind.

Once you’ve found your company, do gigs for them. (Whether you freelance and thereby cast as wide a net with all the gear companies you can, or work for one full-time is a personal choice, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. Do what works for you.) Do any and all gigs for them. Take a lot of time becoming friendly with the account managers of the company, because they are the ones whose mind you need to pop into when a client asks “Do you have anyone that can run all this for us?”

  • Personal Skills

It is a sad truth that our industry has a lot of cranky, ill-tempered and difficult-to-get-along-with people. They will be everywhere, and they will probably be your boss or someone that you have no authority over. Learn to work with these people, or at least become skilled at hiding in the feeder caddy when you see them crossing the stage toward you. This is easier said than done – sometimes these people are simply unavoidable, and you have to work with them. Take everything in stride, chances are difficult people treat everyone that way, and everyone else has to simply work around their sullen attitude.

Advocate for your clients, more and better lights gives you the ability to make your show look better, which in turn will you a more attractive choice for gigs. Be open to criticism, take it in stride and you’ll gain the reputation as someone who’s humble and easy to get along with. At the same time, be able to defend why you made a particular lighting decision to a client; if you made it for a good reason, don’t be afraid to speak up. Make professional-looking business cards, hand them out to anyone you do a gig for. Shake their hands, ask them about their band, and be genuinely interested.

In short, getting into this industry is all about making contacts, being easy to work with, and being incredibly skilled. And the second someone throws you a decent gig, say yes, put on your lighting design hat, and blow their minds.

1: This will necessarily be written from the perspective of a touring LD, but this advice may with only minor changes be applied to a career in the sound or video world.

2: In fact, this happens a lot more than most of the people who have the really good jobs care to admit. There does not exist a surfeit of meritocracy in this industry, but there does exist a lot of work that you’ll get if you’re lucky and nothing else. #RealTalk. I have an entire blog post in the writing wings about this problem, but I don’t think it’s really solvable.

3: Listen to me lavish praise on an organization that I see as protectionist and obtuse.

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