As the saying goes: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. The tech spec is a document that helps plan and communicate to and ensure a gig or event runs smoothly.
Writing technical specifications for your band for promoters and venues is important. A clear, concise tech spec helps in many ways: it makes you look professional and helps you to be taken seriously; what’s more, in practical terms, thinking things through and communicating clearly and concisely what your needs and expectations are helps avoid oversights, misunderstandings or mistakes. It helps the production staff help you.
As usual, we’ll be talking with an industry insider and expert to get valuable insights and advice from those in the business. For this blog, we’re delighted to be talking with Barry McParland.
W.B: Could you tell us a bit about yourself and what your work entails, Barry?
“Like many people in this industry, I freelance in a few different roles. Mainly, as a sound engineer, I look after the audio for Rudimental and I also production manage lots of festivals and gigs.”
As well as his work with drum and bass band Rudimental, Barry also works with Zero Degrees Events, who design, create and produce unforgettable experiences for global lifestyle brands, including Adidas, Red Bull, GQ, and the Hard Rock Hell festivals. He has extensive experience, especially in sound engineering and production management and has read a LOT of tech specs and delivered the gigs and events.
N.B. My own work in music PR mean that I’ve seen first-hand just how complex and hard a production manager’s job can be, at gigs and festivals. Barry, for instance can be working on 5 festivals back to back. That can involve hundreds of bands over a course of a month. Production managers deal with artist liaison and sound techs, and the whole backstage crew and bands should help them help them in order to ensure things runs smoothly.
W.B: Barry, you’ve seen more tech specs than most people have had burgers at festivals. Can you talk us through what one involves and what it ought to include?
“A tech spec is a concise document that lets venues and promoters know what’s needed to make your show happen. It should be accurate and contain only relevant information. It’s not a wish list or a drinks rider.”
W.B: So what info ought to be in there?
“Typically, the tech spec should contain information about your audio set up, lighting requirements, backline requests and most importantly your channel list and stage plot.
“Often bands will combine their spec and rider in one document: this is fine, but if you do that, layout and accuracy become even more important.”
W.B: What if a band’s starting out and doesn’t know the form for a tech spec, or what to put in one?
“If you’re unsure about any of the above, there’s no shame in asking for help from any local venues or engineers. At the end of the day, the more accurate the information you give, the easier everyone’s day will be, which in turn should make it easier for you to get the most from your performance.”
W.B: So what are the do’s and don’ts. Could you please list them for us?
“First off: Always, always, ALWAYS put your band name on EVERY page! Quite often (especially at festivals) I’ll print all specs and keep them in a stage folder, but once they’re printed there’s no way of knowing whose spec is whose, if your name isn’t on every page. It sounds so simple and obvious, but it’s so important. Name on EVERY page!”
W.B: That makes sense! What else?
“Here’s another biggie: I get so many specs from agents where the band don’t include any contact details. This is a massive fail and asking for trouble! If there’s anything that needs to be clarified, it’s such a pain to go back to agents, especially as they often don’t reply.”
Thanks!. Bands might not think about it from the point of view of the promoters, venues and production management, but such companies receive literally hundreds of tech specs and rider documents, and it’s all too easy for pages to get missed, muddled or end up out of order.
To make the documents effective, number the pages and on every page, include the name of the act, as Barry says. A header or footer on the doc can be a good place to do this. It’s also helpful to include the date (or dates) of the gig or event that the tech spec and rider applies to. Stating an expiry date for the document can also help its readers know if it is active and relevant or out-of-date. Also, as Barry’s mentioned, put contact details on every page. If the contact details are on a page that goes walkabout.
W.B: What about content, Barry?
“Don’t make it an essay or story. No rambling or waffle. Keep the spec concise: bullet points if need be. If you get as many specs in your inbox as I do, often they don’t get fully read: just glanced through. Keeping it concise makes it easy for everyone.”
That’s important advice! Bands may be artistic and creative, even lyrical! but a tech spec isn’t the place to waxing lyrical; nor is it a place to paste in photos from the Net or swanky clipart. If you’re going to include graphics, stick to simple diagrams (especially for the stage plot), with clear symbols and notes. Also remember: the documents have to be clear. They’ll often get photocopied, so don’t rely on colour or use colours that don’t photocopy well. Black and white is best. Also, bear in mind that the pages will often be consulted backstage and in low lighting, so clarity and readability are key.
Some technical advice: If you’re sending tech specs and riders by email, don’t rely on Word documents or similar. Issue them in Adobe’s PDF format. That means that they’ll be readable and compatible with the recipient’s system, and will look consistent on screen and when printed. Do bear in mind the advice we’ve given above on colour and formatting for PDFs too, because the docs will get printed and copied too. You can print into PDF from software like Microsoft Office or Apple equivalents, or use conversion software (including freeware) to convert other document formats to PDF.
Update and Changes -- For bands, it’s good practice to bring hardcopies of the latest version of your tech specs and riders to the event, so that if you find that a venue or production manager has an old, superseded version of the docs, you can give them the current and relevant ones.
Sometimes specs do change between the time they’re originally issued and the event. You might have a change of band personnel or instruments, or change a set thus requiring different instruments, equipment, lighting or sound production. Keep venues and production staff appraised of changes, but go for a belts and braces approach by bringing hardcopies of the specs on the day.
It’s also good practice to check with a venue a week or fortnight, say, before the gig. That can help ensure that you and they are on the same page, with the right specs, and clarify oversights and omissions on either side. Sometimes, also, you might find that your spec and riders haven’t been followed to the letter. There may be compromises, substitutions or omissions. Dialogue, e.g. a phone call, can make sure everyone’s on the same page.
W.B: Not naming names, Barry, but can you give us an example of how not getting the right advance packs from a band can have repercussions on the night of the show?
“Yeah. Last year I was advancing a tour for a Chinese artist who was doing a small UK run. Their spec and rider were in one document, but their tour manager, who didn’t speak a word of English, relied on some software to translate the document from Chinese to English.
“I copied the info from the hospitality section and sent it to the catering company; the technical section, I sent to the relevant people for PA, Lighting, backline etc.
“Now this document was written like a story, and the lingo conversion wasn’t great, but we muddled through.
“Then came Show One: a Sunday night in London and there’s a vital keyboard missing. In translation, the software had moved this specific keyboard from the backline section to the catering section, and so it was completely missed by everyone. Luckily we managed to sort it, but it wasn’t cheap getting one of the major backline companies to reopen so late on a Sunday!
“To make matters worse, the entire band spoke perfect English. Had we chatted with one of them, rather than struggling with the Tour Manager and document, the problems could have been avoided.”
Wow! Thanks. That illustrates exactly what you’ve been saying about the importance of brevity and clarity, and the chains of communication. Also a lesson to bear in mind if a band is touring internationally and needs to translate documents like a technical specification.
W.B: Lastly, have you any advice on how to be a professional band when dealing with the production and crew?
“Just treat people with respect. On most gigs, production staff are the first in and last out, and work all the hours in-between, so common decency goes a long way. Even if we don’t like your music, if we like you as people then we will go that extra mile to help you. If we’re met with hostility or egos, it’s not a nice place for anyone.”
That’s been advice we’ve heard time and time again from every pro we’ve interviewed for the WaterBear blog, from so many angles of the business. Treat people politely and well. You get better results from them and people talk to people, so if an artist or band is rude, unhelpful etc. their rep can get tarnished.
From my own experience in PR, I can also offer some advice, based on what I see at festival and gigs (and I’ve worked with Barry at some major events). Time after time, bands don’t read their production packs, so they turn up on the day asking Barry Twenty Questions about parking etc. when he is incredibly busy co-ordinating production and solving problems. And lo and behold: it turns out all the info was there on page 16 of the production pack! Bands need to read all info before they arrive and adhere to it.