Jonathan Roberts, technical manager

 29 June 2014

Jonathan started out in performance but worked his way up into a technical career. He has worked for festivals, the 2012 Olympic Games and live events venues.

"In technical music and performance, the idea that you're obliged to do unpaid work is a bit of a myth."


I grew up in Southend and I live there now.

What job do you do?

I'm the technical manager for The Backstage Centre, which is a production venue for music, live events and theatre.

It's seen artists like Leona Lewis rehearse for their tours and organisations such as the Royal Opera House film promotional videos.

How did you get into a technical career?

I've been fascinated by technology and performance since about year nine, pursuing them in my qualifications and careers ever since.

I have to know about everything technical in the building so that I can answer all sorts of questions.

I didn't take a clear-cut technical route from the outset though. I studied for a degree in dance and then worked my way up in the industry, doing courses as I went along. 

I've been lucky to climb the ladder quickly, doing interesting things such as working as a follow spot operator, which is a kind of lighting technician, for the 2012 Olympic Games. 

I've not had to do any unpaid work. In fact, I think that in technical music and performance, the idea that you're obliged to do so is a bit of a myth. If companies want responsible people, they will find a budget. 

What qualifications do you have?

I have GCSEs, included one in music and electronics, and I took A-levels in music, music technology, and drama. 

Fortunately, the drama course was under the Edexcel exam board, which allowed me to specialise in lighting.

I also have a degree in dance theatre from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Although this was performance-based, I was able to do some lighting work within it.

I've done plenty of competency certifications, such as Portable Appliance Testing (PAT), SPA live events and working at height. If you're a technician in music or performance, you're likely to need to do these kinds of courses quite regularly.

What do you do at work?

I work with the visiting technical crews that accompany musicians and performers at The Backstage Centre. I help them to use lighting, sound and other equipment in the building effectively.

On a typical day, I'll introduce myself to a new crew and show them around the building. I need to make sure we can meet their requirements for all sorts of things, like rigging and power. 

If companies want responsible people, they will find a budget.

I have to know about everything technical in the building so that I can answer all sorts of questions.

Before clients can arrive, I have to provide technical specifications and risk assessments. This allows clients to work out things like rig plans, without having to worry about health and safety issues.

What's the best thing about your job?

Working in The Backstage Centre is the best thing. It's like a giant toy box!

It's great to see the whole process of a rehearsal, from the moment a tech crew arrives right through to a sound check. If that can happen in a day, you know it's been a good one.

And the worst thing about your job?

The hours are often inconsistent. There can be long gaps in my schedule where I'm inactive, followed by absolute mania. 

When one high-profile singer rehearsed here, I was supposed to have a delivery from their team at 8am and it came at 8pm! You have to be at work waiting for things like this, so don't expect a 9-5.

All-nighters are common in this industry.

How do I get into a techical career?

1. Watch lots of live performances

There's always so much to learn technically from seeing things performed in the flesh. People who think they can get into the technical side by only helping out with backstage events are missing out.

2. No course is the 'best' one

It's important to study at a higher level in technical music and performance as the technology changes often. But there isn't a 'best' course you can do – you have to find out what's right for you.

Start at the bottom at live music venues, even if you're just moving boxes.

I went straight from sixth form to do a music degree at The University of York, but I realised quickly that it just wasn't the right thing for me to do. Dropping out was one of the best decisions I've made as it wouldn't have led to the career I have now.

It's worth taking your time and looking around. Apprenticeships are a great way into this job. For example, there's one in live events and promotions and another in technical theatre: lighting, sound and stage. 

3. Prove yourself

One route in is by just going to work! Start at the bottom at live music venues doing anything, even if it's just moving boxes. Music venues need these people and they can work their way up.

London performance venues have regular vacancies for entry-level technicians. If you work hard, people higher up will spot it and call you back for other jobs.

As my degree was in performance, I had to work on the technical side from the bottom up. I built a reputation, which means a lot. 

Find out more about The Backstage Centre, including what's on and how to hire a space.

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