Tim Speight has worked at many of the theatres and festivals in the region and yet you will never have seen him. When the curtain goes up and the lights come on, he is nowhere to be seen. Yet without him or his team of freelancers you wouldn’t hear a thing.
Tim runs Synergy Audio based in Suffolk. They hire out stage equipment and sound engineers to venues, festivals, and conference centres. He is just one of an army of freelance specialists who make the magic happen in theatres and concert venues up and down the country.
I met Tim at a non-descript warehouse in Suffolk recently, crammed to the rafters with over £350,000 worth of equipment. Equipment that his team would normally be testing, prepping, and loading onto vans to be sent out to gigs.
After a very successful year in 2019, Synergy Audio moved to new premises in March of this year – a two-week lull before they would normally get busy… then lock down happened. We started our conversation by talking about the freelance technical industry in general.
Tim: “We are not a unionized industry, there is no one single representative voice. We have various trade associations, but there are broadcast based ones, video, audio… they are all trying to work together, they have spent a lifetime not doing that because these are very specialised disciplines. No one individual can do everything to a high standard, it simply is not possible. Up until now working together has worked successfully.
The joy of freelancing is when we all come together and make things happen.
Now we find ourselves without work, through nobody’s fault, but maybe with hindsight we could say that this could have been handled better. What I don’t see is any acknowledgement of the situation we are in nor are we getting any help.”
TB Is that because, do you think, that as freelancers we don’t fit into a neat little box?
Tim: “Precisely. The modern way of managing things is to put them into pigeon holes. For example, a sound engineer may excel in a studio but be out of their depth at a festival. Then if you go beyond the technology and start to look at the creative side of these jobs, the skills you need to run circus, theatre, live music and dance are all their own disciplines.
And you yourself know this, I’ve seen you backstage with your camera. We spend our lives not being seen by the pubic, that is not how these things work. The entertainment is the job of the ‘talent’ – we’re just there to make the talent look and sound really good.
The general public has no idea, nor should they know, how the magic happens, what goes on backstage – that’s what we do. As a result, we are struggling as an industry to come together and have a unified voice.”
TB: What will be your memories of 2020?
Tim: “One of the things that surprised me was how normal things become quickly. You only need to go to two gigs like Virtually FolkEast and they become normal.
The showground in Norwich took an interesting approach. They put the infrastructure in place for six weeks and then hosted a series of different events. The organisers invested in it and made it work, it was pretty slick to be fair.
Snape Maltings are doing great things, trying to make events happen. They have space, they are out in the country which makes managing crowds easier. But they are putting on shows, selling 150 tickets a night in an 820 seat auditorium. In order to implement social distancing they are having to use the entire auditorium.“
TB: Tell us about last August’s ‘Light It In Red’ campaign, co-ordinated by ‘We Make Events’ and what you are planning for Sept 30th – the next scheduled day of action.
Tim: “’Light it in Red’ was great, it gave everyone in the industry a handle that they could relate to, they could do it. It highlighted the scale, the number of people involved. But looking back on that now, not a lot happened as a result.
The #WeMakeEvents campaign has broadened its horizon somewhat – it has become a global thing, which reflects the fact that there are people all around the world in the same situation as Synergy Audio. So the 30th September is a global day of action with countries all over the world doing their thing but what we are meant to be doing is… a little vague!
Light It In Red is running again, seven hundred venues were involved in August, hopefully we will see more venues getting involved this time. I had a long chat the other day with a senior member of Plasa (the lead international membership body for those who supply technologies and services to the event and entertainment industries.) Plasa are in meetings at quite high levels with representatives of government, which is encouraging. But because of the diversity of the industry it is very difficult for Joe Public to understand it.
We had a fairly successful Light It In Red event in August that got us noticed. Having pushed that particular boulder off the top of the hill I need to follow it down.
Light it in Red focused on the buildings and the venues. That’s great, but the venues are nothing without the people and it is the people who are actually suffering. A venue doesn’t physically suffer and in my experience I know of at least three of our regular freelance engineers who have decided to leave the business. That’s 25% of our regular engineers. If that percentage is being mapped out across the country, that is a lot of talent leaving the industry. In my mind that is what I want to highlight on Sept 30th – the number of people in this industry in Suffolk who are not working because of the situation we are in.
Just to say ‘watch this space’ on Wed 30th Sep, things will be happening…
And in case you missed it, this is what they got up to last month: