Helena Pozniak
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Movers and shakers behind the scenes

The Telegraph
Women with imagination and skill are delivering premier events

Music festivals are a diverse affair, with an equal mix of men and women on stage and in the audience. But behind the scenes, it’s often a different story. While plenty of women work in music and events management, they tend to be primarily found in marketing and communications roles, while technical and production teams are mostly led and staffed by men.

But some women are bucking the trend and taking on key backstage roles. “Sometimes I feel as though I’m mother to 80 grown men,” says Stephanie Thompson, a production assistant and former sound engineer on the international festival circuit.

For more than a decade, she has been one of a handful of women working on the technical side of live music events, such as Live 8, the Brit Awards and charity concerts in honour of Nelson Mandela. Following a degree in sound technology from the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (Lipa), her love of live music led her to become a radio-frequency engineer and part of a team assisting acts such as Coldplay and Robbie Williams.

Live events were a buzz, with as little as 30 seconds between band changeovers. “Live 8 was the largest crowd at 250,000. It was an incredible adrenalin rush, knowing you were a little cog in the wheel that made it happen,” says Thompson. After 11 years on the road, she has now opted for a more logistical role and is noticing a slow increase in the number of women entering an industry where jobs have traditionally been held by men. “When I started, the only other women in the crew were the caterers,” she recalls.

Hosting several hundred music festivals during the summer, not to mention large sporting and theatrical shows that draw huge crowds, the UK events industry has been forced to become more professional. Many universities offer events courses and more women are filtering through.

“It’s fair to say that the days of the amateur are over, and this even applies to smaller events,” says Teresa Moore, head of music and event management at Bucks New University, who has spent a decade working in the festival industry.

As roles evolve, there’s more demand for qualified staff in the area of technology — from marketing and communication to data analytics; law, including contracts, intellectual property and organisers’ responsibilities; and sustainability and crowd management, where women are increasingly taking on positions to ensure the safety of the millions of people who attend live events every year. “The live music industry is still an old boys’ club,” says Katie Maddison, creative production manager at Bestival.

But this annual event on the Isle of Wight in September has bucked the trend: four of its six full-time production staff are women — albeit under director Rob Da Bank — and the event contracts out technical production to a team led by a woman. “Experience counts more than qualifications in this industry, and there’s a strong work ethic,” says Maddison, who studied events production at Bournemouth University.

She is currently putting in 18-hour days, consulting with engineers and technicians to realise one of the “crazy ideas” of her creative director — building the world’s largest disco ball, set to measure 40ft across. Last year she was responsible for the construction of an award-winning stage that resembled a boat. “We went for a rusty liner and it looked so real that people thought we had literally dragged it from the sea,” she says.

Her trade-off for the 5.30am starts and late nights on site? “There’s a moment when you see 40,000 people watching the pyrotechnic finale you have been working on for months and the excitement that you’ve made that happen is special — it’s enough to keep you working the entire year.”

It’s this thrill and anticipation that has inspired Cisco’s consulting system engineer Francesca Martucci, who helped to deliver IT infrastructure for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. She was in on the project from planning to implementation and spent time on site during the Games, ensuring internet access ran smoothly. “For me, the appeal is being part of a big project. Watching the Games on the BBC and seeing everyone benefiting from access to technology was very rewarding,” says Martucci, who, having worked as an engineer for 14 years, is used to being the only woman on a team. “I’ve experienced very few situations where this has been an issue.”

With a packed summer calendar, live events used to provide seasonal work, with the crew taking a break in the winter. Not any more, says senior production manager Amy Harmsworth, who has worked full time for nearly 11 years with event manager and producer Enteetainment and spends a third of her time on site. Besides her many organisational skills, she has also learned to drive a forklift truck and is no stranger to high-visibility vests and wellies.

“There just aren’t slack times of the year any more,” says Harmsworth, who recently completed a gruelling Glastonbury schedule, where she was operations and logistics manager for the Pyramid stage. Winter sees her busy producing the likes of the Chinese New Year in Trafalgar Square. On any day she might be negotiating with agents, liaising with artists, turning up at an empty festival site with a tape measure, or worrying about how an accident on the M25 will affect event logistics. “I have two phones and a walkie-talkie going off all the time,” she says.

Having studied theatre and stage management at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, Harmsworth found her way into the industry through a work placement and dogged determination. She believes that the wealth of event management degrees, now offered by universities such as Leeds Metropolitan, Bournemouth, Cardiff Metropolitan and Southampton Solent, are creating a smoother route into an undeniably male world.

“We are seeing more women coming through the system — but production is still a difficult area and many of these events courses are extremely broad. You still have a lot to learn on the job,” she says. Ask anyone in the industry what you need to know, and besides the obvious vocational qualifications, persistence and personality will take you far. Latest figures from industry trade body UK Music indicate that live music adds billions to the UK economy and sustains the equivalent of 24,000 full-time jobs.

Insiders say it’s a loyal, social industry, with many people breaking in by working for free — initially — and following this up with vigorous networking. “An employer once said to me, ‘If I give you a job will you stop sending me your CV?’” recalls Thompson. “And he did.”

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