How to Make it in Live Music Production

Words by Meagan MastrianiPhotos courtesy of Colin Harty

My friend Colin Harty has what you might call a dream job. He gets to tour with musicians such as Journey, the Roots, and Justin Bieber. His gigs have taken him from Newfoundland to Mexico City and even on cruise ships in the Bahamas. Of course, those are just the perks– the most important thing is that Colin truly loves the work itself.

Colin is a monitor technician, meaning he’s the guy who arrives at shows three hours early to haul in the speakers and mics, plug everything in, and make sure it all works. He’s been hustling in the live music business for TEN YEARS (!), working his way up from peddling wares at the merch booth at his friends’ bands’ shows to being a seasoned professional.

When he was back in town during a brief break from touring, we met up to chat about his career so far. Colin shared advice on how to get started in live production, real talk on the difficulties of the job, and even the story of the time Janet Jackson gave him a birthday cake. Whether you’re considering getting into the field or you just enjoy a good show, Colin’s words will give you an idea of a day in the life of one of the lesser-known heroes who make concerts happen.

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THE BEST PART OF HIS JOB:Hearing the first notes [of a show]. And thinking, ‘I built this. I did this’. Even now, after doing this for years, as soon as the lights go out and everybody just starts screaming, I’m just like, ‘This is why I do what I’m doing.’ Those goosebumps are the reason behind it all. And I don’t know, I truly believe that that feeling is never going to end for me. I absolutely love everything that I do. It’s a whole different world. It’s the reason I’m so focused on it, and [the reason] I’ve struggled financially, mentally, everything, to get here. Because I am passionate about it. I do love every second of it.”

THE HARDEST PART OF HIS JOB: “Maintaining friendships and relationships. I feel a little more left out of things because I don’t always have the time to reach out. But I feel like everybody already knows everything that’s going on because of social media now. They know where I’m at, they know what I’m doing, they know I’m with Journey, they know they can just go online and say, ‘Oh look, Colin’s there.’ So I feel like I’m almost put on the backburner. But I don’t know what’s going on in other people’s lives. It does make things a lot easier with Skype and Facetime and being able to text all the time. But the physical, being next to each other, having that kind of interaction, is very difficult. The beautiful thing about it is I’m not alone in that. Everybody misses their [friends and family] at home. There’s kind of an understanding, which is also why when you’re on a good tour, the crew becomes your brothers, sisters, and your family members.”

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GETTING STARTED IN LIVE MUSIC:It was dropping out of college and going and doing a couple shows with [my friends’ band] 1984, just as a merch guy. I’d hang out, and that kinda led into me doing more booking and tour managing and stuff like that with them. And then getting to the point like, ‘Alright guys, it’s actually time to start paying me to do some of this stuff. I got a little more knowledge now.’ And I pushed and pushed my way in until I hit a brick wall.”

DECIDING TO GO BACK TO SCHOOL: “The initial idea when I went to Full Sail [University] was to be there for two years to do the touring side, the 13-month touring program, and then the 10-month music management program. But as soon as I started getting my hands on the touring side, I was like, I don’t really want the Bachelor’s anymore, in any of this. I like the dirt underneath my fingernails. I like the blood, sweat, and tears that you get out of physically making the shows happen. So my degree is an Associates in Live Production and Touring. That was five years ago.”

PARENTS COMING AROUND: “From high school on, I have not had a ‘real’ job. I have pursued this. And I’m very, very, very fortunate that my folks are very, very, very supportive. It took a lot of years to make that happen. Especially my dad. My mom was always on board because, you know, she’s my mom. But my dad, being the hard-ass that he is, took a little longer.”

colin4WHAT IT TAKES TO MAKE IT: “Being patient. You know, people are idiots. They are. And that’s the nicest way to put that. Just having the patience to sit there and accept and learn different things is killer. And honestly, I don’t even know if this is a quality or anything, but being an insomniac helps a lot. [laughs] Being addicted to coffee is a big thing as well. Caffeine. Period. That is one of the hardest things is staying healthy. Just being very open as well. You gotta be open to new things, to understand that some people will have the weirdest requests.”

GRACE UNDER PRESSURE: “I do way better when somebody yells at me. I do way better under pressure. For example, after two Mexico shows with Santana last year, we had a make-up show in Austin. The trucks had to go from Guadalajara or Mexico City, I can’t remember which one, and they got stuck. There was this massive accident right before the border. Massive. Naturally, our trucks – with all the gear – couldn’t move. So all of that stuff didn’t make it to the show [on time]. By the time the trucks showed up, we had 45 minutes to do everything that we normally do in about three hours. And I stood there, and I did everything I possibly could. The good thing was I pulled it off in 45 minutes. The bad thing about that was my engineer told everybody, ‘Oh, he can do this in 45 minutes now.’ [laughs]”

colin1MEETING JANET JACKSON: “My favorite story was this past year on my birthday. I had the pleasure of being on tour with Janet Jackson at the time. And I got a call on the radio that I was needed downstage center. We’re doing a quick rehearsal, and I’m thinking I’m missing a cue or messing up, you know. So I come running up on stage, and there’s the entire crew: band, dancers, security, and Janet Jackson, holding a birthday cake that said ‘Happy Birthday, Colin.’ They sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. And she is the nicest, most amazing woman I’ve ever met in my entire life. Very, very soft-spoken. I was like, ‘I have no idea what to do right now. This is the most incredible thing that’s ever happened to me.’ And literally, I looked at her, and I was like, ‘I can’t thank you enough. I have no idea what to do right now.’ And her reply was, ‘[whispers] Well, the cake’s kinda heavy.’ And I was like, ‘Of course, oh my god, give me the cake!’ [laughs] I was in such awe. It was such a shock to me because I was the first birthday of the tour. I had just met everybody. It was incredible. And a little side note is, I don’t like birthday cake. I always have a birthday pie. But when Janet Jackson hands you a birthday cake, you eat the damn birthday cake.” ✿

Meagan Mastriani is writer from Atlanta. She is the digital editor at the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing, and she is also a zine enthusiast and a member of a small bicycle gang. In her spare time, she gardens, plays with her dog, and keeps a meticulous secret diary. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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