Did you know… In our industry it is more acceptable to be a drunk than a pregnant woman

By Malle Kaas & Will Fenton 

Sunday Sept 4th this year Women In Live Music hosted a workshop at PLASA called ‘The show must go on…But how far should we go?’
With us we had Will Fenton, a touring sound engineer, backliner, tech entrepreneur and advocate for best H&S practice across the live events industry.
Plus we had a very live audience with us (despite it being early on a Sunday morning!)

The trigger for this workshop was a picture of a touring professional shared on social media who was working on stage while attached to a drip. The image went viral but divided the backstage community in two: Those who thought it was a heroic moment and those who thought it was endemic of a toxic work environment.

That made us in WILM think – Let’s discuss this!:
Is it worth dying over the job so that the show can go on?

Or perhaps less dramatically expressed: Is it at any time worth putting your mental and physical health at risk in order to do the job? And who is going to stop you anyway – you or someone else on the crew, your employer or likewise?

The picture that was shared on the social media (NB everyone in the picture survived the show)

Let’s imagine the situation: You have food poisoning or have injured your leg during load-in. You are clearly in pain and not doing well. Should you be on the way to the hospital for a check up, or at least in bed somewhere recovering? And who would be the one to take the decision? Is it you, who then may be at ‘risk of being replaced’?

Or is it your boss, who’s priority may be the seamless consistent delivery of the live product over an individual’s wellbeing? While the law in most European countries is robustly clear that the responsibility when anyone is harmed ultimately lies with the person paying. The scenario here is, however, complicated by the nature of freelance culture in an unregulated work environment. How many times haven’t we all found ourselves mouthing the mantra, “The show must go on” despite our personal needs. We are an industry made up of individuals who seem to have some appetite for risk with many of us having a work ethic in which bowing to the pressure of our health needs, might be seen by our peers, and ourselves, as weakness.

We can perhaps agree – if you have to pay a price with your health it doesn’t sound like a healthy workplace, right? Could we create a workspace where it is possible to step down when your body/mind needs to recover? And what would that look like?

In the USA where our industry is highly unionised it is common practice to have a second person in key roles. While it’s clear this kind of peer mentoring is exactly what we need to be working towards, it is difficult to imagine it catching on in Europe without a change in our working expectations and pressure from an industry group or external regulation. It also seems unlikely that we can easily justify the expense in an industry struggling in an economic environment of ever tightening margins which alone in the UK according to several sources, has lost somewhere in the region of 70 thousand practitioners as a result of the global pandemic.

A conclusion?: We need to continue discussing pros and cons regarding our work ethic in the industry! It seems as well that there is some disconnection between what the law in the EU and the UK demands regarding the reality ‘out there’. Including how we should address this imbalance sustainably.

Which brings us to the next topic: Insurance! How does it look? Are we always insured correctly? While again the law should be clear who will be providing cover it is still common practice for self employed freelancers to be expected to provide public liability insurance and rarely for production and event companies to provide the level of employers cover they really should for the liability they are taking on using a freelance workforce.

In real terms, if you are a freelancer hiring another freelancer then you are suddenly ‘an employer’. However the only time we may consider issues like this, in practice, is at the point at which it’s too late and something has already happened. It’s also the case that while common in many areas of industry, working while impaired by illness, injury or under the influence of alcohol or other substances would almost certainly invalidate these insurance products anyway.

A whole other topic is: Addiction

We all know the situation where yourself or someone else might be struggling with some sort of addiction. It could be cocaine, alcohol etc. It is obvious to everyone that what they observe is abuse. The duty of care should fall on the employer again but that’s an issue also made unclear by the reliance on a freelance workforce strong on personal freedom and flexibility.

Addiction issues are not simple and when our peers are affected we may blame ourselves for not having intervened as colleagues or employers.

At the moment every gig, every tour and every event is it’s own ship in a fleet of pirate ships, some captains are better than others and many crews are close families but there is a lot of grey areas in practice and any of us could find ourselves easily slipping through cracks unobserved and unaided by the limited support structures around us. 


Well, isn’t that how it is with addiction….

In our industry being a drunk is more accepted than being a pregnant woman – This was a closing remark from one of the female audience after we had discussed how to deal with addiction when we see it at work. Very true words. In WILM we hear too many stories regarding women who feel they have to hide their pregnancy or don’t get pregnant at all because they are afraid of losing out on work. At the same time it is a fact that our dear industry isn’t that family-friendly which leads to parents leaving the industry sometimes for good. Can we do something to change that?! (please read WILM’s report from 2019 on the subject: (Motherhood combined with a career in live music)

The world touring singer, Tina Dickow with one of her three children

Another thing we need to address is: Chronic diseases! Most of us know someone managing a chronic health condition in this business we call show. But do we ever hear our colleagues talk about it? Na, not really – right?! But we surely have met a colleague or two that have shared their health struggles in hushed voices late in the back lounge of the bus.

Are we normalising behaviours that are not compatible with a good life? By not talking to each other about all these issues, we are perpetuating an environment that is difficult for most to sustain a life-long career in. Another mantra we often share is “If you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life”. Many of us will testify that doing something you love actually results in you working four hours a day longer than you can, for a hundred bucks less than you should.

Well, back to the starting point: When the job comes with a price and we have to pay it with our physical or mental health, is it then worth it? Could the situation be different? Can an unhealthy culture in the touring life and live events be changed? If you’ve read this far then the answer to all these questions for you is likely yes. But the real question is who has the responsibility at the end?

These are all topics that we should keep talking about and hopefully one day our industry will be more like a cruise ship than a fleet of pirate ships.

It’s not always easy when you are struggling with some health issues….