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by Baker Lee • in
  • FOH at Large
  • October 2018
• Created: October 11, 2018

Illustration by Andy Au

According to Forbes magazine, our economy is booming, and as verified by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the unemployment rate is now listed at 3.9 percent through August. New numbers will be coming out in October, so it’s possible that the unemployment rate will be even less at that time. As stated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment increased in professional and business services, health care, wholesale trade, transportation, warehousing and mining. While the unemployment rate remains unchanged from the previous month of July, it is down from 4.4 percent the preceding year at the same time. This is good news, and yet, an article published by National Public Radio states that there are a record six million jobs still in need of being filled. This translates to approximately one available job for each officially unemployed person in the country, and seemingly provides us with a conundrum.

To understand this better, we need to know that the unemployment rate is the ratio of the number of unemployed people to the total workforce. This means that if in any given month there is a loss to the number of people counted as workers, then the unemployment rate will drop. The reason for leaving the workforce may not be because someone is now employed when before they weren’t, but rather because they have retired, gone to school, stopped looking for work or are now counting themselves as stay at home caregivers. For example — as reported by Forbes between the months of March and April — the number of jobs increased by 164,000, but the number of unemployed people dropped by 239,000, which is one possible way to explain so many job openings. This is not an intended knock on the economy, but rather a simple way of explaining the discrepancy between the number of open jobs and the low unemployment rate.

‡‡         What’s In It for Me?

Granted, this is all very interesting information, but knowing that the employment rate is up in the health care and mining industries is a minor concern to us in the field of audio because the important question is, “What about me?” Well, it turns out that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “overall employment for broadcast and sound engineering technicians and radio operators was expected to increase by 7% over the period from 2014-2024). This is about as fast as the average of all occupations nationally.” This is good and bad news. The good news is it means that more companies will be hiring sound engineers. On the flip side, it could lead to a glut of engineers, which could stagnate or drive down employee wages.

Not surprisingly, New York City, Los Angeles and Las Vegas have the highest employment level for audio engineers at an hourly rate averaging $35-$47 per hour, but this mostly chronicles broadcast and studio engineers, and not live engineers. Remuneration for live engineers seems to vary from $15 per hour to $38, but these are just numbers on paper since none of the labor reporting sites mention overtime pay and — considering that it’s nearly impossible to keep any type of event under an eight-hour day — overtime pay can be a big factor in live work. That is, if one is on the clock.

‡‡         Hourly vs. Day-Rate

Many clubs and live sound companies prefer paying a day rate rather than an hourly wage, and of course, this fee is somewhat negotiable depending on the engineer’s skill level. This is often due to the club or venue not offering a full-time job, owing to dark days and one-off bookings. Day rates range from $100-$500, depending upon the venue, company and location, with some of the higher rates being paid in, once again, New York City, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Based on a 10-hour day, these rates translate into $10-$50 per hour, but when a day goes longer than the prescribed ten hours, the engineer is then working for less of an hourly wage.

Unfortunately, many of these companies cannot guarantee a full week of work, and many live engineers end up working for multiple companies to make their required salary. While it may sound great to be making $500 per day, an engineer can often work three days for a company and then have nothing the following week. In essence, without picking up any outside work, the engineer has now had their salary cut in half.

Roadwork can be lucrative for an engineer with many bands and agents paying a set fee for the week. Although some engineers who work with top name acts can get anywhere from $5,000 per week and up, not everyone is in that category and not every act can command the type of cash to afford the engineers at that level. Some of the bigger-name acts that don’t tour extensively anymore will pay a day rate, but often that day rate is only for the day of the show. Therefore, if said engineer needs to go a day early and leave the day after the show, the agreed upon rate is depreciated as it has to be factored over a three-day period.

Years ago, after having some tour experience under my belt, I started re-evaluating my salary in regard to the time I was spending on the road. At the time I was making about $1,500-$2,000 per week based upon an average of 4 shows per week. When calculating my fee in terms of shows, I was making about $400-$500 per show, which was then a really good weekly road salary. If we did more than four shows per week, my daily rate went down, and if we did less than four shows it went up accordingly.

The arrangement suited my lifestyle and I was thrilled to be doing the work and traveling around the world at the same time. After all, this was the profession I had chosen and it seemed to be paying off, but situations change and, due to circumstance, I began re-evaluating my time and remuneration. Instead of figuring my salary as payment per show, I began to think in terms of the many hours I spent away from home and the value of my time.

‡‡         What’s It All Worth?

Hence, if there are 168 hours in each week and my job requirement was to be on call for the full week, my $1,500 salary was then less than $10 an hour. Calculated at $2,000 per week, my pay translated to about $12.50 per hour. It didn’t make a difference if I was spending my time traveling, drinking in a bar or doing a show, because I began to feel that my time and sacrifice was more valuable than my engineering or production skills. For more than 40 years, I have been fortunate to have been steadily employed in a field I totally enjoy with even some of my worst memories being good ones. For me, work has been a way of life, but along the way, my priorities developed and changed and, while I am not trying to be negative or undermine the labor force, I have come to the conclusion that sometimes there are more important things than working and making money. After all, there aren’t many people — when on their way out of this corporal plane — who voice regret about not having worked just one more show.

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