Notes from the road: Mike Babcock, sound engineer

There are plenty of jobs out there suitable for vagabonds seeking a paycheck. You’ll find these jobs throughout many different industries, but music industry jobs are often at the top of the Jobs That Will “Make” You Travel list. The world of touring musicians and the team of people employed to support them is surprisingly small. Through my own music playing and touring, I’ve gotten to know all types of music industry professionals–most of whom travel regularly.

Notes from the road is a new series on Gadling. I’ll introduce you to music industry folks and let you watch as I pick their brains. From advice on how to get their job to travel tips to personal stories, it’s about time we learned more about the travel behind the music.

Our first set of notes comes from Mike Babcock: professional sound engineer. He’s done sound for a long list of performers, including Faith Hill & Tim McGraw, B.B. King, and Pantera.

ES: Can you tell us some bands/musicians/tours you’ve done sound for?

MB: Going back 20 years, this might take a while. In some way, shape or form, I have most likely worked with, for, or around every major touring artist. But seriously I have had my favorites over the years. Such as: Brand New, Rob Zombie, Pantera/Damage Plan, Paramore, Sevendust, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, BB King, Atreyu, Killswitch Engage, Warped Tour, Mayhem Festival, etc. I’m sure you can tell that I have a rock and metal background.

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ES: How did you get into doing sound professionally?

MB: When I was in high school, I was in a local band, called Ubiquitus (the name wasn’t my idea). We booked a show at the local 4H building. Being in high school on a fast food job budget, we didn’t have much money for sound and lights. A friend of a friend owned a sound company, so I booked him to do the show with us and asked if there was any way to get a discount. The answer was to help him load his van and help set up the equipment on the day of the show. During the week after the show, he called me up and asked if I wanted to help him out the next weekend on another show he was doing. I agreed and the rest, they say, is history. I spent the next 4 or 5 years working for him and a couple other companies before I got an offer to move to Florida for a sound company that I would eventually work at for 12 years as their production manager before I took my first tour.

ES: What do you remember the most about your first tour?

MB: Being nervous and really quiet, hahaha. My first tour was with the band Brand New, it was actually 2 separate week long tours a few weeks apart from each other. The first tour was in a van in the northeast. Worcester, MA, Charlotte, NC, somewhere in Jersey, etc. I remember not packing a jacket. I lived in Florida and it was in the 80s and 90s every day so I just didn’t think about it. Learning the weather for wherever I’m going to be was the first lesson I learned on tour. The second leg of that tour was in the UK opening up for Incubus. I don’t know if I learned anything on that one, but it was the first subway ride of my life.

ES: You’ve shared small quarters with many people while touring. Any tips for achieving some level of privacy while traveling with others?

MB: Yes, spending 3 months straight living in a 45 foot house with 12 other people takes a lot of skill and even more patience. When you have that many people in such a small space, trying to find any sense of privacy is really hard to do. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing, at all times. The rule I always make sure everyone knows is that my bunk is MY space. Once I close the curtains, I am no longer on the bus. The only reason anyone should invade my space is if the bus is on fire, we’re at a border crossing, or somehow I overslept (which rarely ever happens).

But really, each band, crew, and touring party has their own flow. Some people will hang in the front lounge watching TV, some will hang in the back lounge listening to music, some will sleep every possible second they can. I usually find my rhythm within the flow pretty easily and even if there’s someone in the bus I would rather not be around, there’s always a way to avoid confrontations. I’ve been lucky in that I have never seen anyone “duke it out” over petty differences and it’s nice when adult aged people act like adults.

ES: Have any tips for touring bands in terms of how they treat the house sound guys?

MB: Karma works well here. What you put out to the world will come back to you threefold. I think someone once said that “winning is contagious, but unfortunately so is losing”. I take that to mean that even if someone is having a bad day, don’t let it get you down, let your good mood and you having a good time be the contagious part of the day. Don’t take your bad day out on the locals. Be thankful you even have a gig in this economy and be nice to everyone you work with. Everyone gets special treatment. People not only remember the assholes, they also remember the people they really enjoyed working with, too.

I also try to leave something behind, a bit of knowledge I can pass on, or funny experience they will tell their friends for years to come. I just try to make it as fun, enjoyable, and stress-free as possible so everyone can just relax and have a good time. I’ve found that I really enjoy going back to the same clubs and working with the same people over and over again, and I know they feel the same way.

ES: You’ve traveled with pretty expensive gear. Any advice on how to safeguard valuables while traveling by van, bus, rv?

MB: Before the tour, you need a written copy of everything, with serial numbers and value, on file. Also, make ONE person responsible for the keys and ensuring the doors are locked. You can not trust that the lead singer will hit the right button after he gets off the phone. For trailers, use a locking ball hitch and install lojack or something similar into the van AND trailer so in the event that someone does take your trailer, you’ll know where it is. Don’t leave valuables, like GPS, iPods, laptops, guitars, etc. sitting around in the van. Keep everything close by at all times. Don’t park the van where there are no street lights. It all sounds like pretty common sense, but I see people do not so smart stuff all the time. I’ve been lucky so far and haven’t had a trailer stolen, but many of my friends have not been so lucky. I feel many of the times I’ve heard about stolen gear it was either due to someone not locking the van or a shady hotel in a shadier neighborhood.

ES: What about flying with expensive gear? Any sort of beneficial insurances worth purchasing? Tough cases worth buying? Etc.?

MB: When shipping gear, or flying with gear, having real road cases are worth their weight in gold. There are a ton of good case companies–R&R Cases and A&S Cases both come to mind for more traditional road cases. Pelican comes to mind for a plastic style of tough case. Just look for quality craftsmanship. I ship gear with a reputable cartage company, such as Sound Moves or Rock-It, and rarely ever have to even think twice about it showing up safe and sound. Sure, every now and then there’s an issue, but a reputable company that works exclusively within the industry is the best way to go. They understand why something can’t be a day late, or even a few hours late.

ES: Traveling as part of your job has probably given you the opportunity to realize some dreams in your free time. Any memorable experiences you’ve had in places you visited for work?

MB: The more I travel, the more I realize I haven’t seen anything yet. The first time I have a chance to be in a certain place, I do tend to do the touristy type of stuff. I have taken pictures that have been taken thousands, if not millions of times before. Such as looking directly up at the Eiffel Tower, standing on a cliff over the Grand Canyon, statues of naked people holding a ship of some sort in Belgium, in front of the Sydney Opera House, holding a koala, etc. But the most memorable times are when I can just wander off and find something completely random, either alone or in a group. Like climbing a volcano in Hawaii, just because I had a few hours to waste before the dinner plans, or sailing on the Sydney Harbor, or taking a helicopter tour with 6 strangers and getting pictures very few others have, or finding that the hotel we’re staying in is hosting model tryouts and we enter in one of our touring mates as a potential model only to have him physically thrown out of the room almost immediately, or stumbling into a hotel in Portland to find that another band has already occupied the room who eventually turn out to become lifelong friends. Those are the moments you remember the most. Sometimes it’s fun and games, sometimes it’s hard work, but it’s always rewarding. I’m living my dream and I hope I won’t have to wake up for a long, long time.

ES: Is there any way you’re giving back to the music community?

MB: When I started touring, I noticed that music venue websites, in general, suck. They are built to bring in business, not supply the artists and crew with the information that they need. I decided to use some of my free time to build a website that was built not to bring business into the clubs, but to supply the crew and artists with only the information they need. For example: Where artist parking is, are there showers, do they have internet, what kind of PA and lighting system is installed, do they serve food or are we on our own. You know, stuff that the fans really wouldn’t be interested in, but is really good info to know if you’re playing there. What started out as a little hobby of mine, has since turned into a pretty big deal. I have over 1000 venues listed, mostly in the US, but also in 7 or 8 other countries as well. It’s still a “hobby” but eventually I’d like to turn it into something that tour managers and production managers “have to have”. Check it out at themonitorguy.com.

Galley Gossip: 5 reasons flight attendants don’t serve first class predeparture beverages

You’ve boarded a flight and you’re feeling pretty relaxed sitting in that big comfy first class seat. Sucka, you think to yourself as a couple of passengers check you out on their way to coach. Glancing at your watch, you wonder where the heck the flight attendant is because you’re dying of thirst and shouldn’t she be offering drinks right about now!

Predepartures. That’s what flight attendants call the drinks that are served before takeoff to passengers seated in business and first class. If there’s time flight attendants will walk through the aisle and take individual orders, but time is the keyword here. With so many full flights staffed with minimum crew, there’s usually not enough time to check the emergency equipment, set up the galley, hang all the coats, get passengers situated AND serve predeparture beverages. This is why flight attendants might choose to do a one shot service and offer passengers Champagne (if we have it), orange juice, and water- or nothing at all. Because it’s more important to get flights out on time than it is to serve drinks before takeoff.

What most passengers don’t realize is that it’s against FAA regulations for an agent to shut an aircraft door until all the overhead bins have been closed. If the agent can’t close the aircraft door on time, the flight will be delayed. If the flight is delayed (even by a few minutes) someone will have to take the blame. This means someone will get written up. If an airline employee is written up too many times for causing a delayed departure they might very well lose their job. On time departures are a big deal in the airline industry. So that gin and tonic the passenger in 3A is crying about is not a concern if passenger 23D refuses to sit down and passenger 14E can’t get her suitcase inside an overhead bin and the flight attendant working in the back is calling up front to let someone know there are seven bags on their way up that need to be checked.

Here are a few other reasons flight attendants might not serve you a drink before takeoff….

1. DELAYED BOARDING: Boarding is even more chaotic when a flight is delayed. If passengers are blocking the aisles waiting to get to their seats, flight attendants aren’t going to jump over them in order to serve drinks.

2. NO CATERING: Everyone is seated and the flight attendants don’t look very busy. Why aren’t they serving drinks? If the catering truck hasn’t come to swap out the carts they have nothing to serve.

3. THE GALLEY ISN’T SET UP: The catering carts do not come on board ready to go. Flight attendants have to organize them first. If we don’t do this during boarding, the service during the flight will be delayed. Besides organizing the carts, we also have to break up several bags of ice, count the meals, load the ovens, and make sure we have everything we might need for the service in flight. The one time I didn’t do this we took off without dinner plates and I had to serve first class passengers their entrees on cookie plates.

4. MINIMUM CREW: Nowadays most narrowbody aircraft (one aisle) are staffed with minimum crew. This means if we’re not greeting passengers at the door, we’re busy setting up a galley. In the past we used to have extra flight attendants on board to lend a hand to passengers who might need it during boarding and help serve food and drinks in first class. Not the case anymore.

5. DRY FLIGHTS: Some countries do not allow flight attendants to unlock the liquor carts until after takeoff. There are even a few cities in the U.S. where it’s against the law to serve an adult beverage on Sunday before noon.

Photo courtesy of Kevin H

Galley Gossip: Goodies for the crew

I’m taking a trip next week to Las Vegas. Is there anything I can bring the flight attendants and pilots as a little token of my appreciation. You guys work a really hard job. I just saw the Capitalism Micheal Moore movie and I had no idea that pilots and flight attendants got such a raw deal from their employers. I thought about making cookies or muffins? Any ideas would be great – Tina B.

Thank you for thinking of us, Tina, that’s really nice of you! But you don’t have to bring us anything for doing our jobs. Except maybe a smile. A little eye contact goes a long way, too. You’d be surprised what a difference that makes in this day and age of travel when passengers rarely acknowledge our greetings during boarding and won’t remove their headphones when we’re trying to ask them what they’d like to drink. Don’t even get me started on passengers who actually say please and thank you! When I hear those simple words I can’t help but provide nonstop refills on drinks. No joke, tears just about came to my eyes on a recent flight when a little girl named Fallyn made the crew a thank you card for being nice and making her feel so comfortable.

“You must work for an airline,” I said to Fallyn’s father with a knowing wink.

He looked at me funny. “No. Why?”

Because it was the nicest thing I’d heard in a long time!I’m not alone. When my coworker spotted Fallyn’s card hanging up in the aft galley, he told me about the time a kid on one of his flights drew a picture of him, Cart Man. My colleague actually had the picture made into a magnet and to this very day – fifteen years later – it still hangs on his fridge. Little things really do mean a lot.

If you really want to bring something edible for the crew, make sure it’s wrapped and sealed. I’d hate for you to waste money on those who might be afraid to eat anything for fear it might not be safe. That’s why candy is always a good choice. Julie, creator of Jet Line Clothing, brought the last five crews York Peppermint Patties. A Delta flight attendant, and prettiest laviator, never commutes home without Toblerones. I’ve had pilots bring donuts and frequent fliers (regulars) hand out everything from chocolate covered strawberries to gold hoop earrings (on Christmas). I’ve even received coupons to fast food joints and a five-dollar gift card to Starbucks. Recently a passenger gave me a pen. It’s my favorite pen. I keep it in my uniform blazer pocket. Oh and discarded magazines always make my day!

Whatever you decide to bring for the crew will be appreciated. Trust me! And watch how quickly your beverage gets refilled.

Whenever I bring treats for the crew, I’m never sure how to distribute the goodies. It’s easiest to hand it to the flight attendant at the front as I’m boarding and mention it’s for the entire crew, though I’m usually in coach. I’m often on regional jets and it’s unusual to have more than two flight attendants. I assume they’ll share (and with cockpit crew too) but I never know. – Mickey

Not only will it be easier on you to pass off the goodies to the flight attendant at the boarding door, it’s easier on us as well. With airplanes being turned around quickly, full flights staffed with minimum crew, and not enough bins for all that luggage, boarding can get very hectic. When things calm down the flight attendant working the front of the aircraft will let the rest of the crew know that a passenger brought something special for them. But go ahead and let a flight attendant working in the back know you brought something for the crew. Not only will this ensure that everyone shares, it also lets us know WHO brought the treats on board so we can be sure to thank the correct person.

Now you’d think that flight attendants would automatically share with pilots, but that rarely happens. At my airline, flight attendants working domestic routes don’t get catered meals. Basically we either eat what we’ve brought from home or first class passenger leftovers. But pilots still get meals on select routes. Therein lies the problem. So if you’re bringing a food item for the crew and you’d like the pilots to also have some, make sure to let the flight attendants know. And when you do so get as close to the cockpit as possible and yell really loudly. That said, flight attendants and pilots tend to get along better at smaller airlines. They treat each other more like family. Probably because they fly together more often and lay over in the same hotels, forcing everyone to be on their best behavior.

Photo courtesy of Thundershead

British Airways crew suspended for Facebooking

A British Airways FlightBritish Airways has suspended 15 cabin crew members for “inappropriate” Facebook comments.

Back in October, a Jetstar flight attendant was disciplined for Facebook-stalking a 15-year-old (Airline apologizes for male flight attendant harassing a 15-year-old). That I understood. Some friends of mine in the law and medical fields have been warned about their Facebook personae; that they should consider themselves “employees of [the company]” first and foremost. I think that’s a little oppressive, but okay, they’re in some pretty high-power jobs where people immediately learn their full names.

But, I’m surprised anyone’s putting a Facebook gag on their cabin crew. I recently flew British Airways — and thoroughly enjoyed my experience — and not only do I have no idea about the full name of any one of the cabin crew, but I would never consider even searching them on Facebook, let alone friending them and reading their walls. If I were a big weirdo and did decide to spend my time that way, I would think the shame should fall on me, not on anything unsavory I might find.

What exactly is “inappropriate”? Does it depend what your definition of is is?

BA Press Officer Euan Fordyce is quoted as saying the airline “will not tolerate intimidation of our staff,” and that there were other, additional reasons for the suspensions. That seems to imply bullying, or some other kind of workplace no-no — but rumors are circulating that complaints about ongoing battles over wages, working conditions and job security are the culprits. Stuff.co.nz reports that “the UK’s Unite union called the move unacceptable.”

Funny; if they hadn’t suspended their crew members, I wouldn’t even know that those battles were going on.

[via stuff.co.nz]

United plans for new image overhaul

After coming in last among large airlines in customer satisfaction surveys for two out of the last three years, United Airlines has been overhauling its operations in an effort to increase on-time performance and win back customers. Now the airline is working on the physical appearance of its planes and crew.

Every single one of the airplanes in United’s fleet will be getting a make-over. The grey with black and red stripes interiors (knows within the company as the “tequila sunrise” scheme) will be replaced with blue leather. The 1980’s-era overhead bins will be updated as well. The airline also announced that fashion designer Cynthia Rowley will be creating more stylish, updated crew uniforms.

With a reputation for poor customer service, delays, cancellations, broken guitars, safety violations, and lost luggage, can United really overhaul its image with a few aesthetic updates? Probably not, but airline officials hopes they can continue to address the issues that have led to its poor satisfaction survey rankings and eventually turn things around. Apparently, they just want the airline to look good while they do it.