What roadies actually do – and why they’re indispensable to live music

What roadies actually do – and why they’re indispensable to live music

This summer, millions of fans will attend a music festival in the UK to watch their favourite artists perform. If you’re one of them, then while waiting in between acts or witnessing technical mishaps onstage, you may notice the ubiquitous presence of the workers who help musicians make it all happen – commonly referred to as “roadies”.

Despite being repeatedly described as the “unsung heroes” of live music, the numerous songs that have made them the subject of lyrics, and campaigns to assist them during the COVID pandemic, roadies have rarely received focused attention on what they actually do.

I have recently written a book on roadies titled The Road Crew: Live Music and Touring that explores their working lives and everyday experience of being on tour.

Roadies are fundamental workers in the fulfilment of live music events and concert tours. They are much more than “humpers” who haul road cases and equipment in and out of venues and festivals. Roadies are directly responsible for essential elements of a concert, like the sound quality and working order of instruments. They ensure all the aspects are in place to enable the successful delivery of live music to the audience, as well as being readily available to troubleshoot if something goes wrong.

In between shows, they coordinate and participate in the complex process of touring – moving all of the people and equipment involved in the concert event to cities and music festivals. Roadies also play an important supporting role in the everyday lives of musicians on tour.

But what exactly is a roadie? At once generic and vague, the term suggests that their role has something to do with being on tour (“on the road”). It does not, however, reveal much at all about the features of their jobs and exactly what activities they handle to make a concert come to life. In actuality, roadies are highly specialised workers that each play a particular part in the process of live music.

A key aspect of understanding who roadies are and what they do is tied to their collective nature. An individual roadie is part of a larger group known as the road crew, and each has their own specialism. The size of a crew is determined by the scale of a tour and the needs of musicians, but they typically include the following: tour manager, production manager, instrument technicians, monitor engineer, front of house engineer, lighting technician and merchandise staff (known as “merch”).

Taylor Swift on stage
Large tours, like Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, will require a huge team of roadies.
EFE/Miguel A. Lopes

The more visible roles can be observed within the concert space itself. For example, guitar technicians attend to the set up and overall maintenance of guitars and associated equipment, and look after any guitarists’ onstage requirements. Guitar and other instrument technicians will typically be on stage during the interval between acts. The monitor engineer is responsible for mixing the sound that musicians hear during live performance, and works at the side of the stage during a show.

The front of house engineer – usually working in a designated area in the middle of the crowd – mixes and controls the sound that the audience hears during a live music event. Behind the scenes, tour managers work long hours handling an array of tasks including budgeting, communicating with promoters and ensuring musicians are where they need to be at the right time.

These specialised roles and their importance to live music is underscored at various awards ceremonies. For example, the annual TPi Awards highlight the achievements of crew members by selecting winners in categories such as tour and production management, sound engineering and lighting design.

The term “roadie” falsely suggests that crew members’ roles are interchangeable and undifferentiated. For this reason, although “roadie” was once the accepted term, it has generally fallen out of favour. Now, many crew members prefer a more specific occupational title.

The rejection of the term “roadie” also represents a wider shift in the culture and professionalism of live music and distances these workers from the stereotypes and cliches associated with the mythologising of rock music culture.

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