‘The Industry Isn’t Going To Be Just Switched On Like A Light Bulb’: Q’s With Sound Engineer Paul Stevart
– Paul ‘Stev’ Stevart
Aware of all the talent this industry is currently losing.
Paul “Stev” Stevart runs his own limited company Viking Audio together with his partner in Manchester, England. Before COVID hit, he headed all things sound at various events and festivals as well as on major tours coming through the city.
We wanted to know how he’s been dealing with an event-less summer, how he managed to stay financially afloat and how to maintain a positive outlook despite everything.
Pollstar: Please introduce yourself.
Paul Stevart: My name is Paul Stevart, all my friends and colleagues call me Stev. I am a sound system engineer and project manager, I’ve been doing that for 25 years, since I was 19, my whole career.
I was head of sound at Warehouse Project in Manchester, and head of sound at Parklife Festival, as well as a tour and sound system engineer. Last year, I worked with The Lumineers, Boyzone, Mariah Carey. I also mix sound for Gabrielle.
Is that all happening under the Viking Audio brand?
Yeah, Viking Audio is my company. I’m essentially a freelance sound engineer, but I work as a limited company.
Have you had any professional activities since the first restrictions were introduced in March?
Since March 23, when the first lockdown came, I’ve had four days’ worth of as a sound engineer, which were all in September. I did a few socially distanced shows with Gabrielle in September.
Basically, all my work for the summer got cancelled, after we initially thought it was just going to be a few months, but that’s just carried on. All the work has disappeared from my calendar till potentially June next year. You know, it’s my first booked piece of work, but obviously, that’s only potential at the moment.
How have you been managing? Have you been falling back on savings?
No, I got a job. I’ve been working as a mental healthcare support worker for eight months now. I started in April.
Basically, I work full time in care homes for severely mentally ill people. You know, people with paranoid schizophrenia, personality disorder, delusions, that kind of thing.
Is that something you’ve done at some point in your life, or you’ve trained for?
No, the way I got into it was quite weird, really. Generally, in January and February, as a sound engineer, I don’t work that much, there’s not that much work around. I was volunteering in my local community center doing things like cooking meals for elderly people. When lockdown came in, that obviously got closed down, and I was talking to one of the other volunteers, who was a psychiatric nurse for the organization that I work for. I just said, I’m going to need some work, and she put my name forward to the company.
As soon as lockdown came, I started [looking], because at that point we didn’t know that there was going to be any support or furlough or any of those things. I just wanted to get a job, any job, as soon as I could, and I started two days after my interview. A lot of people did apply to supermarkets and van driving jobs and all that sort of stuff.
Once the furlough and support schemes were introduced, did you apply for any of those?
Yes. Because I’m a limited company, I take a portion of my wages as PAYE and a portion of my wages as dividends. So, I do get government support. But it’s about 35% to 40% of my wage. Which isn’t enough for me to live on, basically.
It does help a little bit, it topped my wages up a little, but, yeah, I needed another job. When lockdown was first brought in, there was no furlough scheme, etc. So I got a job straight away. So, I do get government help, but if I didn’t have my job, then I wouldn’t have been able to survive.
You’re offering mental support to people, which is quite admirable, because it would seem like a lot of people in this business are currently struggling to maintain their mental health themselves.
You know, in some ways, it’s been a positive experience. A lot of my job is cooking, cleaning, I go shopping so they have food, I take people out for walks. I mean, usually they’d go to community centers for activities, but obviously, they couldn’t do any of those since I’ve been there.
So, it’s just about taking people to the shops, giving people their medication and genuinely looking after them. They’re not allowed to go out on their own or certain things like that. So, basically, we just look after them.
How do you maintain your mental health?
I’m somebody who likes to work. When lockdown came, I lost all my work. So, you know, it obviously left me in a financially bad situation. But I also wanted to work one because I wanted something to do, I wanted to be busy, I didn’t want to sit at home.
– In his zone:
Paul Stevart behind the mixing desk.
Are you planning to continue in this line of work until there’s clarity around the future?
If it’s another six months, eight months, nine months, then, yes, I would just continue in this work. If it went on for much longer than I would potentially look for a job where I could try and use some of the skills that I’ve built up over my 25-year career, because I don’t use many of them at the moment.
And also, obviously a care worker is quite low paid. I mean, that’s been one of the strange things for me. In my other careers as a sound engineer and project manager, I’m quite well established, quite senior. I’m reasonably well paid.
And now I’m at the very bottom of care work, £9 an hour, cleaning and cooking and stuff. It’s been a very humbling experience. It is hard work, care work, it is very tough work.
Are you hopeful the UK’s tiered system will bring back a modicum of work?
Not in the short term. I live in Manchester, a lot of my work is touring bands for Manchester-based companies. And I’m pretty sure that Manchester’s going to go back into the highest tier.
And also, the government may say that we’re allowed to do certain things, but without insurance we can’t do an event. And at the moment, even if the government says, you can put on an event for 1,000 people, if you can’t get insurance, you can’t do it. And nobody’s really that up for insuring events when they could get locked down at any moment.
So, in the short term, it’s not going to make any difference. One of the problems we have is that the government keeps trumpeting things are open, when, in reality, we can’t open.
There’s a government backed scheme for ensuring TV and film shoots. Basically, we need something like that, government backed insurance for events. And some kind of lower VAT scheme. Hopefully they’ll do something like that, beach we’ll probably need it to get back.
Do you have more ideas that could alleviate the situation for the professionals working in his business?
There’s a few people I talked to, and it looks like everybody’s going to be heading towards a [situation where], if you buy a ticket for an event, you either have to be vaccinated or you have to have a quick turnaround test, in the 24 hours leading up to going to an event. I think we’re probably going to end up with something like that.
And that gives hope of some kind, but, again, all these things are expenses that have to be considered, and it’s time and energy, and somebody checking all of that at an event, which means more people that need to be employed and more money that needs to be spent. So, I think there are going to be events, but I think they are going to be slightly more expensive for people, and there’s going to be slightly lower margins and lower wages for a lot of people.
It’s not like the people on the ground are the most well-paid as things stand, isn’t it?
It depends, I mean, they’re not really poorly paid, but they depend on a volume of work. What we get paid as a daily rate is pretty good, but it depends on being busy. They’re not fantastic money, but they’re on better money than care workers etc.
I’ve heard of talented lighting designers becoming electricians, because there’s no work in the field they love. Do you see a danger that this development will make the return of live even more difficult that it already is?
One of the big things people are worried about, is that when we come back online, there’s going to be such demand, we won’t be able to fulfill it.
There are people, who like me are freelancers, and have found other routes to survive. I know people, who are set builders, and are working or building sites. I know somebody who’s working at Argos, who is a stage manager. A lot of those people will return. But because we don’t work full-time jobs someone just having one week’s work for you is not going to be enough for you to leave your full-time position that you’ve now got.
[The question is], how are you going to go from a full-time job back into something that’s going to be very spread out. And then there’s also the companies. My work depends on rental companies, the people who actually own the sound systems, mixing desks, who own all the kit. They are at the most danger, because they’ve got thousands of square feet warehouses, full of millions of pounds worth of sound equipment, speakers and desks, and none of it’s been out for months.
Now, even though they get support with furlough, they’ve still got to pay the rent on the building to do that. Some of the companies I work for have laid off more than 50% of their workforce. The whole chain has been sort of emptied. I know someone that’s had to lay off 60-odd people, but he’s not going to be able to get all of those 60-odd people back at the drop of a hat or the signing of one contract. Some companies have lost some very senior members of staff, even Ticketmaster, and people like this have laid off loads of people.
The capacity in the industry isn’t going to be just switched on like a light bulb, and suddenly every arena in the country is going to have five gigs a week. There literally won’t be the supply, and some people that have gone out of business.
The whole question of ‘how do we supply it all if it comes back?’ It’s a worry, how are we actually going to cope if it does come back, because we’ve lost a lot of people, a lot of skills, a lot of money. Running equipment rental companies is a huge investment. An arena sound system costs millions. And companies I work for have got like 10, 15 of them. They’ve had to sell some of it, they’ve withheld on all kinds of payments. Once we reopen is everyone suddenly going to ask for their money?
Is your government aware of the huge contribution live events make for the national economy?
Yeah, I was actually part of a campaign called #wemakeevents, I organized a couple of protests, I was part of a sort of political lobby group for a while that were pushing government. They’re well-aware of how much money our industry’s worth. There’s all kinds of trade bodies and organizations pushing it at them. There’s lots of industries fighting for the government’s attention and money at the moment. Just tough times for everyone, I think.
What else will be important for this business to return?
Our industry is full of experts. I know people, all they’ve been doing for the past ten years is work on egress at festivals, they work on how to get people in and out of large events safely, or they work on traffic management, or they work on all these kinds of aspects of large events.
I know for a fact that lots of people and bodies have come up with plans of how to how to actually make events happen here. And they just need to be allowed to work on that and work with government to work out how these things can happen rather than a bunch of politicians, who know very little about it, making decisions on what’s safe and what isn’t.
Government need to bring in actual experts in the field and work with them to work out how we can make these things happen, rather than just make arbitrary decisions.
Has this whole thing changed your personal outlook on life? Have you changed?
Yeah, I would say very much so. It’s personal and professional.
Because I’ve been a sound engineer all my working life, I didn’t know any different, and I really appreciate how lucky I was, how good my job was, with lots of perks in it, how I make good money, etc. And this whole experience really humbled me and grounded me.
I’m actually open to becoming slightly less driven by trying to earn more money and trying to do bigger things, and instead trying to concentrate more on what’s important to me, and working with the people that I care about, and that helped me over the years, as much as just shooting for the stars on big shows, and big money.
My income’s gone down, literally, by 50% to 60%. I kind of realised that my life’s not all about money. I need it, but I need a quality of life as well.
And working as a care worker is something I never would have [considered otherwise]. I know it sounds weird, I didn’t deliberately get that job, I just took the first job that was offered to me. Anyone that would have offered me a job for more than £9 would have got me. Honestly, doing a job like that has changed me, and I’ve learned a fucking lot.
You seem to have a very stable mindset, would you agree?
I would describe myself as a determined individual, I think. One thing that I’m not going to let happen is let something like this beat me and crush my life. I’m not scared of work, I’m not scared of doing things. And I think you make your own positivity, and I make my positivity by working hard.