Prioritization: An Event Production Manifesto
Updated: Sep 10
Firstly, I'll propose I'm qualified to spew this out because I've been lucky enough to be a cog in a vast array of varying events. Five people to 40,000 people. I love every part of it. From the marquee namesake to repainting the stage deck, audio systems tech, LD wannabe, MD, hired gun guitarist, opener, closer, middle-er...I've worn a lot of hats. I've failed many times. I've succeeded a few. I'm not famous, but I have worked in "the industry" for over 30 years and very rarely missed a meal. More important than all that, I've worked with AMAZING people who have elevated everyone's game. So, there ya go. Hope you're still with me.
Let me cut to the chase; it’s ALL about prioritization.
No matter what you’re hoping to achieve, without prioritizing the various elements/variables/processes needed to get there, you are stumbling in the dark and very likely not going to hit the mark.
In the best case scenario, the folks working on the various elements/variables/processes are focused on the task of making their particular piece of the organizational pie the best it can possibly be. (Motivation to that end is another discussion. For the sake of this monologue, I’m assuming we’re already there.. best of luck.) THAT is why managers/directors exist. A great chef doesn’t need to grow the crops or feed the chickens. They need to understand why a great recipe works. Why a side dish really lets the main course delight the palette. All the ingredients should be of the highest quality we can get our hands on. But they can’t and shouldn’t ALL be the most important thing in every bite.
Determining the priority of elements determines how much time, energy and money is spent on what. Within each discipline, the team leader should be doing this. The production manager and/or director should be doing this with a wider lens. The team as a whole should respect this reality and, when necessary, be ready to switch gears to make certain course corrections.
OF COURSE, there are ALWAYS caveats and exceptions. But for most concerts, house of worship services, conferences, weddings, etc…..this is the way.
Enough waxing philosophical.
It should go without saying. It really, REALLY should. But there are those who have never seen a tragedy play out in front of them. Or simply don’t care. So, for those incapable of basic decency or common sense, let me appeal to your profit-centered, blackened heart. One accident can easily shut down a show run or render an entire facility bankrupt. It can also send folks to jail.
If you’re hosting an insurance conference at the Death Valley Red Lion Ballroom 2 and the AC goes out, that’s the end of the conference. Issue the refunds and pay the subcontractors. If the plumbing system at the House of Blues in Houston fails and there’s a river of poopy water running out the main entrance onto the sidewalk, pack up the trailer. (Ask me how I know.) From a twenty person capacity house concert to the Philippine Arena, a major facility issue likely means complete event failure. For the purposes of this manifesto, I’m including rigging, staging and power under this “facility” header. With an extra serving of #1.
Don’t get it twisted, lighting and video folks. I LOVE the visual element of an event. It can be integral to the experience. And I will admit that “live event production” is very general and obviously, the scales aren’t balanced the same way for a Taylor Swift concert as they are for the 7:30am Traditional Service at 1st Baptist of Itsybitsyville. BUT…
If the lighting console starts to smoke and the LD’s head starts to spin and the pea soup starts to fly, the SAME thing likely happens at both: we call a young priest and an old priest, grab a mop, turn the house lights up (that’s “facilities” for our purposes here) and get on with it. Plenty of churches/event centers/ballrooms/etc. don’t have any specially lighting or video elements. Yes, it’d probably be better if they did. But we’re talking prioritization here. Festivals often start at noon. That’s seven or eight hours of acts when literally lighting is moot and a few hours when it’s absolutely awesome. Without audio there’s likely no event.
I’m gonna dig a little deeper but try my best to stay out of the weeds.
Within “Audio” the need to prioritize is paramount. The main priority within audio is “the talent.” Whatever that means for an event: the speaker(s), singer(s), instrumentalist(s)…human sound effect guru, Michael Winslow…If they aren’t comfortable with the sound on stage their performance will suffer. If Front of House is dialed to a T, but the band’s in-ears go out… that’s a grinding halt, friends. In the same spirit, if FOH spends 47 minutes dialing in rack tom 3 and the main vocal mic gets a “checK, check TWOOO, sssibilance” and done - that’s likely a problem. Prioritize. On a tour, hopefully there have been rehearsals to get as many of these variables as possible tweaked. But, the venue might not care and might force its 12 second verb and 125Hz standing waves into your mix. And if there’s no philosophical prioritization happening, you can lose the fight without even knowing it.
While feathers are freshly ruffled, I’ll go ahead and start plucking.
People. That’s the priority. Light the people.
Certain Phish and Dead fans may disagree and I’ll give you that. But outside of the jam-centric arts, if your audience can’t see “the talent,” your priorities need adjusting.
After people, information. Usually video/projection related. Whether it’s lyrics, a Keynote presentation, or overhead projection in “The Sociology Of Miley Cyrus: Race, Class, Gender, And Media” at Skidmore College, NY, the information being presented is always more important than the coolest gobo or most powerful laser in your arsenal. And…while were on that…
Mood. An LD’s most powerful ability is to set the “tone” of the room. This is where we separate the minnows from the blue whales in my opinion. Again (and again and again) the particulars will differ, as will the tools, but just like with spice, it’s easy to overdo it.
Lastly, if your tools are in any way detracting from “the talent’s” ability to do their job, you’re over prioritizing your role. I’ll double down that I ADORE a good light show. And for me personally, I’m down for walking into the sun for a few bars if it helps the vibe. But that’s not everyone. And if Mick Jagger can’t see his teleprompter because you decided at dinner that he needed four ERA 800s up his nose on the second verse of Jumping Jack Flash, you might want to tidy up your Linkedin profile.
I haven't covered the one thing that without which, all is lost.
Whether you agree with this tirade or not, a lack of clear communication is a sure fire way to rack up a loss. And I mean this in both a technical and a ‘cultural’ sense. Whether it’s texts or a full blown comms system, everyone involved has to know what’s up. When a problem is encountered during an event, the goal isn’t to fix it, it’s to circumvent it, and get through the event. That requires a pivot from (usually) multiple "disciplines". Backup systems/plans, “emergency” protocols and the like can save your rear end. And less technically speaking, managing an event effectively is about understanding the horsepower of a team/person and effectively communicating your expectations within that framework.
May your days be filled with properly functioning plumbing.