I well remember my first trip to the United States as a lowly roadie. It was 1983 and I was touring with David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame.

“We're going to play the Garden,” said a colleague. A fellow Englishman and a veteran of U.S. tours, he'd been to New York's favorite venue many times. “It's a strong Union Hall,” he said. “Teamsters and [IATSE] Local One, strict separation between departments — get your stuff together.”

I must admit to being pretty nervous that morning in New York. We'd already played a couple of strong Union halls in the U.S. Cleveland springs to mind as a first encounter of a “hands off” operation that we Europeans weren't used to. But to tell the truth, once I'd grown accustomed to the swing of working with my mouth instead of my hands, I'd actually quite enjoyed the experience. But the legend of the Garden loomed large.

As it transpired, Frank Norton, head of IATSE Local One in New York throughout the eighties, was a nice enough guy, certainly not the guy that myth had led me to believe. We even went out for a drink with his son Ritchie after loadout, which, in hindsight, was a mistake as the following day was lost to me. But then again, it was a day off …

I mention all this as I'm sure similar doubts and misgivings permeate U.S. crews the first time they venture across the Atlantic and visit Mother Europe. Language is not the least of these worries. How do you communicate with a bunch of guys who speak Swedish, for instance?

And in Europe, of course, there are no established theater labor unions. Will it all be college kids with no clue what they're doing, my American brethren might wonder?

Well no — most of us know what we're doing, it turns out. There was a time when those would have been justifiable concerns touring across Europe, even to an English crew, let alone to Americans, but generally speaking, touring Europe these days is a lot less intimidating than anecdote might have it.

SRO discovered this while talking to a couple of key organizations and individuals you might well come in contact with the next time you venture across the Atlantic for a European tour. Following are their thoughts on the differences, and similarities, between how tours, and the labor associated with those tours, are run in Europe, as opposed to what you might be used to in the U.S.

Pay Differences

In the UK, the oldest and most well-established event labor organization is called Stage Miracles, but there are several others, including Gallowglass and Pinnicle, to name just two. But with Miracles (as they are commonly referred to) being London-based, they are almost inevitably a group you'll come into contact with sometime on your English visit.

SRO recently spoke with Steve Jones, one of the company's three directors, and asked him to highlight some of the differences, and make comparisons with how things are done in the U.S. Jones, it should be pointed out, has toured the U.S. several times as stage manager for Prince, Madonna, and Maria Carey, so he's experienced enough to make such comparisons.

“Personally, I've always preferred things the American way because they are professional, union organized,” he says. “I found stagehands to be better behaved and better at time keeping.”

This was sounding ominous already to an Englishman. “Better behaved?”

“What I mean is this — because the American system has evolved out of the unions, people are much better paid than they are over here,” he explains. “Because of that, it's not so easy to get a job as a stagehand. Consequently, if you're working for Local One and turn up late a couple of times, you could quickly find yourself looking for another job. People value the work — that's what I mean about behavior and time keeping.”

So how much less do stage crews get paid in Europe to make that difference in attitude?

“The evolution has been quite different here,” he explains. “There is a small stage union BECTU [Broadcast, Entertainment, Cinematograph, and Theatre Union], but they originated out of the theater world and never really developed much presence outside of that, leaving concerts and events wide open. When rock 'n' roll came along, particularly as it exploded in the '70s and '80s, that vacuum was initially filled by promoters organizing labor locally: lump labor, eager kids, and whoever they could find. The sharper individuals quickly recognized the opportunity and laid the foundations for organizations like ours, creating regular crews who worked often enough to know the difference between stage left and stage right. The difference is all the skills resided with the traveling road crew. Stagehands were just expected to load trucks, push boxes, and generally do all the manual jobs. The pay was never good, so the turnover in people was pretty high. In many ways it's remained that way.”

But hasn't there been a demand for more skilled stagehands in recent years, as the cost of touring highly skilled individuals has increased?

“Unfortunately, that's the historical precedent,” he says. “If anyone in a stage crew showed particular aptitude for one of the main disciplines — lighting, sound, or whatever — they tend to go direct to the service companies and get on the road because the money is much better.”

So in other words, according to Jones, whereas in the U.S., stagehands are often touring personnel looking for a more settled life, and are consequently very experienced, in the U.K., they tend to be younger people looking, essentially, for a route to getting on the road.

So what do you do to combat that effect and retain personnel?

“We currently have approximately 50 fulltime employees, and a floating pool of about 300,” he explains, describing Miracles' approach. “The thing for us these days is training. Twenty years ago, there were no regulations — today, that's pretty much still the same for stagehands. But changes are coming through elsewhere, especially from European Union employment law. Four years ago, we started to implement formal training. Devised by ourselves, we have a stagehand manual, and everyone goes through a basic induction of correct lifting techniques, equipment handling, that sort of thing, and they have to pass it to work.”

Miracles also enforces requirements like hard hats, steel toe caps, and other mainstream personal safety regimens in the workplace. “Curiously, only a few of the road crews are taking up the practice. I expect they will — it was the insurance companies that prompted us to do it, since liability is a serious issue,” Jones says.

But does this training help with retaining skilled stagehands?

“For any company, it comes down to wages, and there's still a pressure on our industry to do the job as cheaply as possible,” he responds. “In Holland, though, there's now a regulation that prohibits working more than 12 hours continuously. I expect rules like that to cross Europe, and that may make the work more attractive. It will certainly make it more expensive.”

Other Issues

Founded in 1996, Gallowglass has a different market position compared to Miracles, in that its origins are very much in the event and industrial trade show area. Since then, though, the company has grown into concerts and entertainment. But the perspective offered is, in many ways, very similar to the longer established Stage Miracles' perspective. I surveyed director Nick Grecian to get his views on issues impacting road crews in Europe compared to the U.S.

“Yes, we have had experience in the U.S., something that, for us, was a harsh lesson,” he says. “A client of ours asked us to supply four personnel for a U.S. tour. Naturally, they quickly discovered they couldn't work there without precipitating problems with the house unions. That's only right and proper, and showed up our naiveté about the U.S. market, but it's also made us aware of why our service is so highly valued by U.S. productions that come over here.

“Since inception we've always found we worked very well with U.S. productions — some find our methods highly enlightening. Because of some of the more restrictive work issues in the U.S., it's not unusual for production managers [PMs] to say things to us like ‘Gee, I wish we had you guys in the U.S.’

“We also frequently provide stage crew personnel to tour into mainland Europe, and this is often requested by American PMs planning ahead. Obviously, they will have been to Europe before to make such an undertaking, and they will certainly have experienced the inconsistencies of European stage crews. There are plenty of excellent crews in Europe, as well as some appalling ones. The point is the PM has to give his client a quality level of service, so he can justify taking us on by saying this is the way it is, and here's our guarantee.”

Meanwhile, Grecian points to health and safety as issues of growing concern to industry professionals across Europe.

“About five years ago, we identified the increasing importance of health and safety issues, and it's something that has become of increasing concern to local authorities [licensing authorities especially], venue managers, promoters, and artist management,” he explains. “We are now streets ahead on the issue of what and how to do it. All our crew have to pass through an induction course before they can work for us. Proper induction training, and they are all issued with a 64-page crew handbook that we have developed, which covers everything from how to move a flight case to correct applications for and how to work with a forklift. The process of induction we evolved in conjunction with the British Safety Council.”

That's a fairly emphatic response to a specific concern, but not without cost. How has it been received thus far?

“Well, our crew manager, Nigel Austin, is at Manchester United today presenting a forum on exactly these issues for the facility's management,” Grecian says. “That's a slightly unusual example in that it's a fixed form of entertainment [Manchester United is arguably the world's most famous soccer club]. More normally, we do this kind of thing for Arena venue managers, for example, but we do advise other organizations. They do know our reputation, and the awards we've got.”

Gallowglass's training regime extends to more specialized skills, as well, putting individuals through training on forklifts, cherrypickers, and scissorlift licensing, as well as more generalized training for things like first aid.

Like Miracles, Gallowglass has developed a strict set of rules for crews to follow.

“All our crews always carry a PPP, [personal protection pack], high visibility jacket, steel-toed boots, gloves, and hard hat,” says Grecian. “If anyone on the event is working above two meters — and we don't just mean riggers up in the roof, but set builders on anything over six foot — then hard hats must be worn.”

But do his touring personnel always conform to these requirements?

“To an extent, but this is a relatively new phenomenon,” he responds. “I hope they do, otherwise legislation is sure to follow.”

Legislation Ahead?

A concern for all is that in a vacuum, legislation tends to be Draconian, rather than practical, as Grecian confirms.

“We recently did a forum for the Health and Safety Executive [the U.K. government body charged with examining all aspects of safety, including public issues],” he says. “They wanted to know what sort of standards we'd already established. The big worry for us at the moment is temporary structures. It's looking increasingly likely that this will come under the same ruling as those applied to the construction industry. That would be a dreadful influence as it's entirely inappropriate.”

He adds that, currently, British stagehands and labor organizations do not have much direct voice when it comes to communicating its concerns to government.

“That's the problem: There are too many small pressure groups and no single specific body to represent us,” Grecian says. “There are at least half a dozen — PLASA [the Professional Lighting and Sound Association], PSA [Production Services Association], and others, but to speak with a unified voice is a problem.”

In conclusion, Grecian was more positive than this last pronouncement would have you believe.

“This is an industry that generates [more than $14 billion] a year for the UK,” he says. “Obviously events, trade shows, and concerts are only a part of that, but it's a big business. At Gallowglass, we have already expanded into providing seating for temporary events. Within the next 12 months, we will be opening several offices in mainland Europe. The market research is already well underway, the need is there, and we expect to have offices — probably two in France, Paris and the South; one in Spain, probably Barcelona; and one in Germany, Berlin in all probability. Despite the fact that EU employment rules do vary country to country, we know what we do is a good model. That's what I meant by saying we are streets ahead.”

Stage Miracles, meanwhile, already regularly dispatches UK stagecrews all across Europe, supporting larger productions.

“We just had a team of 30 out with Robbie Williams [Europe's largest grossing tour in the past twelve months — see the November/December issue of SRO or find the story at www.sromagazine.biz],” explains Jones, “and we regularly do the same for other productions. For us, the issue is about increasing restrictions on working hours, and from growing safety regulations. But that's something everyone will have to learn to live with, not just visiting productions from the U.S.”

Steve Moles worked his first load-out for Genesis in 1972. By 1985, he was crew chief for Live Aid in London, but sensibly retired from the road two years later. Based in the U.K., he began writing about the live-event industry in 1994, and in 1999, he adopted three children, just to keep himself busy. Email him at LeSauce@aol.com