‘The House Of Cards Has Fallen, Let’s Not Put It Back The Same Way’: Q’s With Tour Manager Jim Mitcham

Jim Mitcham
– Jim Mitcham
The tour manager and front of house engineer has been working in live events since school.

The industry is hurting. It’s been more than half a year without work for the vast number of freelancers and self-employed professionals, who form the backbone of the trade.

While governments worldwide have made large sums of money available for their respective country’s cultural recovery, not much if it seems to have arrived where it is most needed.
Pollstar reached out to Jim Mitcham, freelance sound engineer and tour manager from the UK, to talk about his current reality after months without any significant live activity to speak of. 
Mitcham came up through the ranks, started out as local crew, moved on to working in small clubs and venues, and now tours with bands including Cast and Black Grape. Live music is Mitcham’s full-time profession. 
He is usually busiest in summer, when he’s additionally working freelance on festivals. 2019 highlights include managing the tour and front of house for Cast’s summer festival dates, running monitors at Glatonbury’s Shangri La stage, and working as Main Stage Manager at Bingley Weekender.
He told Pollstar that his bands had tours booked “all over the place right up until February, including a South American tour being talked about.” Then, all of a sudden, March came along.
Pollstar wanted to know how Mitcham has been coping, if he feels supported by the government, and what will be important for this industry to recover, as well as to be more resilient should an economic crisis of the current scale ever hit again.
Is it fair say that, since March, all of your professional activity ended?
Yeah. All gone. Overnight, pretty much.
At first, back in March, some of the earlier gigs we had booked were moved back to September. During the summer, of course, when it became clear that nothing was going to happen in September, we looked at next March and early next year. Not long after that, it was, ‘okay, let’s look at the end of 2021’, and even that is on shaky ground I think.
Everything’s completely wiped out, every festival gone, not a single large outdoor gathering. In the UK, that is the main income for most [live pros], that short summer period, that silly season.
Right now, we’d be in the autumn touring season. There’s just absolutely no work anywhere.
There seems to be a lot of confusion, amongst politicians in particular, about what it means to be a freelancer in this business. Can you elaborate?
A lot of people don’t realize that we are small businesses, either limited companies or self-employed. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have premises, that we don’t have equipment, insurance.
We have to be trained to very high standards to do things at the level that we do. We invest huge amounts of our income back into our businesses.
I think it’s 72% of the industry, who are self-employed or freelance in some capacity. There is no ongoing definite confirmed job where you draw a wage from every week and go home to your family for the weekend, that just doesn’t happen in our industry. 
Things have got to come out on the other side of this in a different way, with a bit more stability for the workers, and not just the technical crew, the people who are working directly on the tours. The local crews are very much dependent on these tours coming into town, turning them around and sending them back out again. They’re the lowest paid in the industry, as well, so those are the people, who’ve been really hit the hardest by all of this.

When things were normal.
– When things were normal.
Jim Mitcham with band and crew on the last night of Casts “Greatest Hits” tour in autumn 2018.

What could provide the stability you’re talking about?

There needs to be some kind of mutual insurance, some kind of guarantee built into contracts, which can actually protect people. 
The problem we’ve always had in our industry, is so many people want to get a foot in the door, and that’s driven down wages. The wages people take now are the same as people have been taking in the 1990s. 
There’s a lot of love for what we’re doing. We love music, we love making people happy, that’s what we do. People don’t do it for the money, but that can mean people are sometimes living a very hand-to-mouth existence, with no safety net in place at all.
We need to have some kind of scheme, even like an industry-wide pension scheme, where some kind of mutual fund can be set up between people, and we all agree to build a little pot in there.
But also, we need to look at the whole structure of things. Being so heavily reliant on freelancers has clearly shown itself to be an extremely dangerous position to be in.
How do we change that?
This has been happening a long time, since touring became the way that artists are making their money. And, I think, that some people need to rein in their demands on the cash that is floating around and divert a bit more of it to the workers.
Where does most of the money disappear? Artist fees, production costs?
The artists are actually not taking a lot of the money. I personally know multi-platinum selling artists, who are currently working in Tesco stacking shelves, because they also aren’t receiving cash.
The artists themselves are starting to wake up to the fact that they’re not above the crew, they’re in the same symbiotic relationship with them. They’re starting to question where all that money’s gone as well.
They hold the power, they’re the ones producing the work that people go to see, they’re the faces that people buy the tickets for. There’s been a real shift of artists coming onto the side of the wider industry and the people working in it, and less within the grasp of the big corporations, who are publishing and trying to get as much out [as possible].
You’ve got comments from people like the guy from Spotify, saying artists need to just release more and work harder, and I think that has enraged so many people. Hopefully, it has planted the seed to think, ‘let’s do the whole music industry differently’. 
We’ve had this big tower of cards, it’s fallen down, we’ve all ended up in a very bad situation as a result, let’s not put it back exactly the same way. Let’s do it differently.
And the artists, I think, are going to drive a lot of that, hopefully with the support of the crews, and that will all filter down.

In his element:
– In his element:
Jim Mitcham managing the FOH.

So, you don’t envision the big players, who are struggling themselves, picking up the pieces, once the crisis is over?

They’re certainly going to try. It’s in their nature, that’s what they do. Part of that has led to the situation they’re in now. There are some very big production houses, who were deliberately undercutting and kicking out smaller rivals. They were just booting them out the game. And a lot of the time they were running at a loss to do so.
I know of a few companies that were really running in quite an unsustainable and quite an unethical way in order to corner the market. But, actually, that’s now left them more exposed to these problems and put them in deeper trouble than had they collaborated a bit more with other people.
There’s going to be nervousness going in. Who wants to hold all the cards in this industry now? With the danger that it could collapse again next year, and you’ll also be holding all the debts and liability and all the blame.
There will be some people, who will try and get in there and corner everything, but it won’t be as wide-spread as we think it might be.
How did you spend this past half year? How did you keep your spirits high? Did you apply for any funds?
We had the [Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme], which has helped a lot of people in my industry. The issues with that have been talked about a million times all over the place.
For me, specifically, because I’ve invested heavily in my business over the last few years, in equipment and things like that, it means I [wasn’t eligible for any of] that.
My partner works, but it meant that the entire household had to cut back everything right back to the bare bones. We were living hand to mouth at first.
I ended up taking out one of the government-backed loans in the end, and reinvested into equipment, which can be used now. I did a lot of online activity, as much for my own sanity to be doing something, but also for the joy it can bring other people.
It’s a collective effort, that’s what music does, that what it’s place in society is: to keep people’s spirits up and bring people together. I didn’t like the thought of that stopping altogether. I got some equipment, so we could do some kind of limited online gigs and things like that with some artists.
There are a lot of people I know, who have really been struggling with their mental health. It really hit them so hard. I try and check in with as many people as often as I can, because some people really are finding it difficult. 
With myself, it’s just a case of I had to feel like I have a purpose still. Music is my life; it always has been. Since back in school, I’ve done what I’m doing now. I’ve been looking for anything anywhere that I can do something creative, something with music.
Can you see online events working as tickets events?
We did a gig last month with New Model Army, that sold 6,000 tickets online. The wonderful thing about that was, people were sending us pictures as they were watching it. They were watching as families in their living rooms, for some kids it was their first live gig.
We had somebody sending us a picture, and they were sitting in a mud hut in Kenya, watching on a computer screen. We looked at the service stats, and the geographical spread was literally right around the world. In every corner of the world somebody was watching this thing.
It will never replace live music, but it can become a medium onto itself, if it’s taken away from just pointing a camera at a stage, which is trying to recreate a gig. That doesn’t work, and people don’t really want that. It just reminds them of what they’re missing out on.
But I think there is a lot of scope for presenting music in a different, new way. I like seeing how that is being explored at the moment. That one gig alone has subsidized a lot of the other things we do with more local and grassroots artists. Luckily the band are big supporters of grassroots music, and of people above anything else.
It’s proved the viability. Whether that can be wide-spread and happen all the time, I doubt. But, as a one off, it did show us that it is possible to do something. 
A picture from February.
– A picture from February.
Jim Mitcham worked as system tech at Bowlers Arena in Manchester for a sold out Ashanti concert, Feb. 1.

Is it fair to say that regular gigs cannot go ahead as long as distances need to be maintained? Have you seen any distanced model that works?
Socially distanced gigs just don’t work. They lack the atmosphere to be what you would call a gig. They bear no resemblance. The strictly regimented atmosphere of going in with a mask until you sit at a table and all of that, it goes against the entire ethos of rock and roll, [which is] about being free, being in a crowd full of people and letting yourself go.
From that perspective, they definitely don’t work. From a financial perspective they definitely don’t work. I know a lot of venue owners, who are trying, they have to, they’re not getting any real, tangible support. Many of them have just got some small bits of cash from the government, from the [Culture Recovery Fund], but a lot haven’t. They are trying to get by as we enter another lockdown. 
Why did so many working in the supply chain of this industry not receive anything of the £1.57 billion recovery fund for culture?
The British government had this idea that if you gave big pots of cash to some of the big companies, then it would trickle down to the freelancers. In their mind, that’s how things work. 
But, of course, the big companies got this money, and they put it in the bank, because they don’t know what’s coming or when they’ll start trading again. So that didn’t come down.
The main problem we’ve had in the UK is that it’s been this one-size-fits-all for everyone. We in the music industry, who haven’t been working since March, are in the same self-employed scheme as every builder, plumber and electrician in the country, who have been working since March.
A lot of those people are openly on forums talking about getting ‘all this extra cash’, and how great it is, and that they’ve never had a better year. Part of the problem is, the government doesn’t really understand our industry, as well as they think that they do.
We don’t have a unique tax code, for example, for our industry, so they have no way of actually measuring what our contribution is and how we work.
A lot of people in our industry specifically are limited companies with a single director, paying themselves in dividends. 72% of us are freelance, and the percentage of people who’ve fallen through the cracks and not qualify for any support whatsoever is huge in our industry.
Vast numbers of people have not received a single penny or other support. They’ve not been able to access anything, not even universal credits or any kind of help whatsoever. 
So, if you look at the national picture, you can say, ‘we’ve helped most people’. But if you zoom into our industry that not actually the case. And the government doesn’t seem to understand that, they don’t seem to want to engage with that fact.
All these production houses are about to shut down, they’re all collapsing. We’ve had Blitz go, we’ve had MCL Create go, Nightlights.
The government is saying, ‘well, we’ve given £1.57 billion to the arts’. Now, that is true, but a major chunk of that went on to already portfolio funded organizations that were already grant funded.
A lot went to grassroots music venues, which is good, but a lot of those venues weren’t even eligible to apply, some got turned down. That was supposed to be a ring fence fund, but because it was distributed by the Arts Council, and not a body that actually works with those venues like the Music Venue Trust, you get into this problem where the Arts Council don’t understand rock and roll.
Until recently, they didn’t see rock and roll as art, they thought it’s something completely different. The government takes its lead from these other agencies.
Now, there are some good people, like the Production Services Association, who are talking directly to the government, trying to get them to see the overall picture for our industry. But the fallback for the treasury in particular seems to be, ‘we’ve already given you this money, we’re not giving you any more’.
But that money has not reached the people it was intended to reach, and it’s certainly not reached the supply chain. It may have reached some people on the forefront, some musicians, some artists, but it’s not really reached the majority of the production houses that provide work for hundreds of thousands of people every year. I think it’s the fifth biggest contributor to the UK economy, and that is being allowed to collapse, to just willfully disappear.
It’s going to be a long time before that comes back.
What will be crucial to being able to even contemplate a comeback right now?
The key thing to venues opening and gigs happening again is confidence. It’s confidence that people are going to buy tickets. And they’re only going to buy tickets if they’re confident they’re going to have a good time.
That confidence is going to take a while to come back. There are ways that government, for example, could help with that, by, say, underwriting promoters to allow them to take more risks. To book gigs even if the confidence isn’t quite there, to build that public perception back up again. But it’s going to be a good few years, I think, before we’re back to what things looked like just before lockdown.
Have you been following the developments around mass-testing and vaccines, and what do you make of them?
I’ve been following closely, and, of course, there was the big study in Germany as well, which proved that with the right ventilation gigs can be safe. The methods they used, it wouldn’t be suitable for all venues, but it gives some hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. 
There’s a lot of talk around a vaccine, I think that’s one part of the puzzle. I wouldn’t like to see people having to prove that they’ve been vaccinated to get in. I don’t think vaccines work like that anyway. You just have to prove that, statistically, 50% of the population has been vaccinated to assume that 50% of your audience have been vaccinated. 
There’s a lot of scare stories that you’ll need to prove that you’ve had it, I don’t think that will be the case. 
There’s lots of things converging. I don’t mind wearing a mask to gigs, I don’t think there’s any reason why anyone should mind wearing a mask to gigs. It’s common courtesy for other people, and if it gets gigs on it’s a very small price to pay. 
All of these elements in combination, and I’m hopeful that by spring next year there could be some things happening.
What is most important, right now, for the people working in this business?
I know lots of people who will probably never return to the industry. I know some fantastically talented lighting designers, who are now becoming electricians. They’re finding other work, which doesn’t fulfill them in a way music does, but it fulfills them and their families with stability.
That’s a really sad thing that’s happening right now. I’ve always enjoyed going to work, but if you’ve got a job where you’re not actually enjoying going to work that can be more damaging to people’s mental health than not working at all.
To feel stuck in that routine of doing something that you know you hate. So, for those people, the important thing is to give them some kind of hope that things will come back. Hope is so important to people, I think. 
If you sit down with your bands these days, what strategy are you working on? Are you even contemplating touring again anytime soon?
I’d be surprised if any touring happens especially in early 2021. The bigger disaster comes when next year’s festival season cannot happen. Most festivals cannot survive that. Two years in a row, that’s their entire income. And it’s not just the big festivals, it’s the traders that go there, it’s all the ecosystem around it. Once we lose that infrastructure, it’s going to take a long time to get it back.
And even if you can put on a festival next year: if there are no production houses left that haven’t gone bankrupt, what do you do? You might want to put a festival on, but you don’t have the equipment to do so. It won’t be possible.
The waiting game is frustrating, the fact that everything is so much out of everyone’s hands, there’s nothing that anyone can do to move the situation along or do things differently. That’s what’s hitting people the hardest is that feeling of powerlessness at the moment.