What Happened to Safety?

by Steve LaCerra
in Theory and Practice
Too much of a good thing?
Too much of a good thing?

I’ve just returned from what can best be described as a hellacious three-week run of shows in the U.K. and Europe. Maybe I should modify that: I’ve just returned from a three-week run of hellacious travel. Truth be told, there were no bad shows, but there were a few incidents that I found disturbing.

Our travel issues revolved around a tour bus that was sent to us with no air conditioning and a broken bathroom. I strongly suspect that the owner of the bus company knew fully well that the AC wasn’t working but sent out the bus anyway. Under typical June U.K./European weather conditions, this might not have been a problem, but it just so happens that from the git-go we were dealing with temperatures in the low-to mid ‘90s.

The oppressively hot weather at Hellfest gave new meaning to the nom de festival (I’ll rant another time about how Hellfest has become too big for it’s own good). Those of you who have never toured the U.K. and Europe may be surprised to learn that the ridiculous freezing-cold air conditioning we’ve come to expect everywhere in the U.S. simply does not exist over there. Add those conditions with a diabetic band member plus a few more who are not (ahem) youngsters, and I was genuinely worried about our health and safety.

Getting another tour bus was a lovely idea, but simply impossible due to the timing. We were smack in the middle of prime U.K./Europe touring season — so any and every available bus was booked. I made contact with many tour bus vendors who gave me a variation on the same theme: “We have 85 tour buses but they are all out on the road,” or “I have one coming back on Monday, but it’s scheduled to turn around and go back out the next day.”

The best work-around I could arrange was to rent a passenger van for the band while my crew took turns in the bus babysitting the driver (whom we did not know and did not trust. The bus was pulling a trailer with our gear).

It was a clumsy work-around, but at least I was able to get the band guys into an air-conditioned vehicle, providing relief from the soaring temperatures. Instead of being a passenger on most of those travel days, I was the driver — the exact scenario that hiring a bus was supposed to avoid. Miserable, exhausting and high-stress are terms that don’t quite describe it.

Many of the shows went really well, and I often heard the same sentiment from the European or U.K. promoter reps: “Was it a good day?” And, usually it was a good day (travel notwithstanding), but there were a few moments worth mentioning.

‡‡         Not LOUD Enough?

The first happened at a show in Cologne, Germany, where the venue was practically dripping sweat from the ceiling. A patron came to FOH while the band was performing, literally screaming at me to turn up the volume. “This is *&%-ing Germany. It has to be loud. TURN IT UP!” Absolutely out of his mind.

I was probably cruising at around 102 to 105 dBA, which is typical for my SPL at front of house. “Listen pal, if it’s not loud enough for you I’ll be happy to jam your head inside one of those dual-18 subwoofer cabinets near the stage, where you’ll be much more happy and I won’t need to deal with your absurd behavior.” Luckily, security kept him away from me. Why must it be so loud? I don’t know…

The other incident I found upsetting was at Rock Fest Barcelona, a festival that was very well run, but needs a hearing safety check. This festival is set up similarly to some of the other European festivals, whereby two main stages are set next to each other and share a huge common backstage area. Two front-of-house positions arranged side by side face the stages, placed sort of in the middle of an audience area that spans the two stages.

So imagine that if I am at my FOH position in front of one stage, I can also see stage two, or I can look to my right and see the alternate FOH position about 30 feet away. While one act is performing on the first stage, another is doing a quick (one-hour) setup on the other stage.

Due to the proximity of the stages, you can’t help but hear the other stage’s PA system. And therein lies what I feel is a major safety issue. Rock Fest had no speed limit. When my guys were setting up our gear, another band I shall not mention was performing, and the FOH engineer had them so friggin’ loud that I could not even think. Our drummer was checking his kit on stage and could play as loud as he wanted, but you could not hear a note of it, because the other band was that loud. I had earplugs and muffs over them, and still it was brutally loud. My systems engineer was standing a foot away, and if I screamed at the top of my lungs, he could barely hear me.

I really had to check my anger because the knucklehead who was mixing the aforementioned band was doing two things that really pissed me off: (1) He was interfering with my ability to do my job, and (2) He was messing with the health of my hearing. I wanted to walk over to his FOH position and deck him. This is not an acceptable work situation, and I was only out there for an hour of setup plus my show time (which, by the way, was a relief to the systems techs as well as myself, after listening to that crap).

As I walked backstage after our set was over I thought …The systems engineers are listening to this 12 to 14 hours a day, for multiple days. Where is the concern for the safety of their hearing? The answer: There was none, and I’m not okay with that. Any person should be able to do their job without physical harm, not to mention suffering damage to their hearing. Where’s the common sense? I saw no indication of SPL measurement, and no screen displaying such information. Contrast that with some of the other shows we played (indoor and outdoors, clubs and festivals) where there were clearly defined rules about SPL limitations and large screens at FOH to keep you aware of your SPL status.

Everybody likes loud music and wants to feel the visceral impact of a live band — that’s one of the reasons to go out and see live music, as opposed to remaining on the couch and listening at home. But at SPLs like this, people get hurt. I don’t get paid to go deaf, and I’m sure you don’t either. Let’s spread the word.

Steve “Woody” La Cerra is the tour manager and Front of House engineer for Blue Öyster Cult