Stagecraft: US rocker Bruce Springsteen performs at FNB Stadium in February 2014. The South African Roadies Association is working hard to ensure the technical professionals behind music performances are up to international standard. © Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/JAMES OATWAY
Stagecraft: US rocker Bruce Springsteen performs at FNB Stadium in February 2014. The South African Roadies Association is working hard to ensure the technical professionals behind music performances are up to international standard. © Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/JAMES OATWAY

South African Roadies Association (Sara) member Jerry Ngobese served an apprenticeship on a European tour with the Rolling Stones. Today he runs his own business, Jerry Blue, and stages events around the country.

Live music and festivals are a booming business in SA, made possible by the technicians behind the scenes who are never lauded as much as the talent behind the microphones they set up on stage.

The production of live events is an intelligence-led industry, responding to demand, feedback and circumstances.

The International Live Music Conference was established by backstage wizards in 1989. Sara founder Freddie Nyathela attended the conference for a decade and was inspired to have something similar in SA.

The Live Event Technical Production Conference (LETPC) was first held in 2015 in Johannesburg. "This conference was a first for Africa. It empowers industry players so they can be on a par with where the world is in terms of skills and other issues that affect the industry. It will assist emerging black companies," says Nyathela.

These skills are in demand in a plethora of sectors. They can be used to find a job or create a job
Bernard Sebothoma

The gathering in May brought together the cream of technicians, production managers, musicians, DJs, event managers, promoters and educators.

It fostered an exchange of skills and knowledge with, among others, the Backstage Academy in the UK, Charterhouse in Ghana, Creative and Cultural Skills in the UK and the German Entertainment Technology Association.

The department of arts & culture has been a sponsor of the conference since its inception, and has committed support for another three years. The department head of the events and technical services portfolio, Collen Hlatshwayo, says the gathering is important as it provides opportunities to develop an understanding of the sector.

"The conference speaks directly to skills that have a place and value in the future," says conference organiser Bernard Sebothoma. "These skills are in demand in a plethora of sectors. They can be used to find a job or create a job."

Entry-level, on-the-job training provides the industry with the majority of its young workers. Sara drafted the qualifications for live-events technical production and is the only accredited training provider with the culture, arts, tourism, hospitality and sport sector education and training authority.

Sara has laid a complaint about the sector education and training authority (Seta) and the department of higher education & training with the public protector, as the organisation believes the qualifications should be upgraded from NQF level four to five. There has been no finding yet.

Nyathela says the Seta and the department have been hampering the empowerment of people with technical and production skills. "They are working hard to make sure this qualification dies a slow death so our young people are not empowered with these skills,"

Hlatshwayo says this problem can be sorted out. "We have to offer the sector an opportunity to engage in discussion on skills training and development beyond the conference."

The Seta’s quality assurer, Dimpho Phungwayo, says a discussion with Sara will be a "win-win situation".

The Backstage Academy in the UK, which provides employment-focused education and training for several thousand people, has an exchange programme with Sara.

Paul Walters joined the academy in 2015 and told the SA conference in May that 86% of their students were young and unemployed. "When I arrived, it was quite an awakening for me. The students in the first or second-year design course were already working in the industry all over the world."

Dutch safety co-ordinator Willem Westermann, who helped stage the first years of the North Sea Jazz Festival in Cape Town, has offered workshops and apprenticeship training for Sara students since 1997.

Recently the music industry was rocked by suicides, including those of Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, Swedish producer Avicii and Scott Hutchison from the Scottish band the Frightened Rabbit.

Mental health first aid was initiated in the UK in 2016 by a music manager, a musician and tour manager — all former alcoholics and drug users — who launched a helpline. The Production Services Association, which has 2,000 member companies in the UK, and organisations such as Help Musicians and the Music Managers Forum have contributed with research and guidelines for safety.

Fatigue is a health and safety issue, and is still not adequately addressed. The high level of self-employment in the industry leads to high levels of fatigue.

The growth of the LETPC indicates a maturing of the live production and technical sector. For these three days in the year, competitors come together and find commonalities in a forum to address those issues. Additionally, Sara has established an LETPC organising committee, which includes placing six young people on a two-year mentorship programme.

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