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Inside Summer NAMM 2014, Part 2

Summer NAMM, the biggest show of the season is starting up in Nashville and at the head of the NAMM tech pyramid is Pete Johnston, supervising producer and technical director of special events.

Inside Summer NAMM 2014, Part 2

Jul 10, 2014 3:46 PM,
With Bennett Liles

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Editor’s note: For your convenience, this transcription of the podcast includes timestamps. If you are listening to the podcast and reading its accompanying transcription, you can use the timestamps to jump to any part of the audio podcast by simply dragging the slider on the podcast to the time indicated in the transcription.

Summer NAMM, the biggest show of the season is starting up in Nashville and at the head of the NAMM tech pyramid is Pete Johnston, supervising producer and technical director of special events. He’s here to tell us how he keeps all the tech plates spinning during the show. Coming up next on the SVC Podcast.

Pete, it’s nice to have you back with us for part two on the SVC podcast, and by now you’ve got to be one busy guy. It’s the first day of the show as we post this, and I know everybody will be interested to know what you’re doing during the events. We talked about getting ready for it, but where are you while it’s going on? Are you going to be on the radio, running around or just sitting in a big throne room guiding all the technical aspects from a central command post?

That’s a great question and I will be at D. All of the above. I’ll be on radio, I’ll be running around, and when the show actually starts, I’ll sit at the tech table at the back of the room and kind of oversee everything from there. But we’ve got events starting, you know, our call time is early each morning. Our crew is there at 6:00 a.m. getting ready for the event to kick off at 8:00. I’ll be in there running through sound checks in the morning because we’ve got great musical acts that start off each morning, so we’ll be sound checking. A lot of these artists aren’t used to sound checking that early in the morning, but we do our best with them. Yeah, I’ll be all over the place. There’s a lot of running around. You know, I should probably log my miles at one of these NAMM shows. I’d probably be amazed to see how much traffic I do cover. [Timestamp: 1:53]

Get yourself a pedometer and charge by the step.

There you go.

That’s a tremendous job and you’ve got a lot of people. I would think that one of the most challenging parts of this is just coordinating all of the people. You have tech people that you’re used to working with but how big is the tech team there? Do you get into all the problems or is it just the bigger ones that get up to you?

I mean a little bit of both at times, depending, but we have a big enough crew where I don’t have to get down in the detail. I’m not a big micro manager and I believe in hiring people that are professional and can do their job. And I like to get through that the interview process and have them prove themselves. Once they’ve done that, I kind of leave them alone, so a lot of times I think I am spared some of the micro problems. As long as the big picture’s happening I’m okay. We don’t have a huge crew. We try to maximize our members’ money and we try to save as much as we can, so it’s not an exorbitant crew, but it’s gotten pretty efficient. As you stated and as I talked about earlier, I’ve been with this crew for awhile, so it’s like an old married couple. We can kind of finish each other’s sentences at times, you know? [Timestamp: 2:56]

Oh yeah!

So we’ve got a really good rapport with each other and I’ve got a great right-hand guy that helps me from my AV company. He kind of funnels the problems up to me. At the same time, saying that, I am very detail-oriented, so I do like to know what’s going on, but I try to do that without the micro management. [Timestamp: 3:13]

We mentioned before that your audience for these big events has a very critical ear. They’re all the top sound people. For the performers, it’s got to be kind of nerve wracking for them rehearsing early in the morning to play for such an audience. What kinds of things do they want from you other than lots and lots of coffee probably? What do you have to do to support them?

Yeah, you know again, we’ve got a great crew that’s pretty good at taking care of them. We do a lot of homework up front to make sure and talk to them before we get onsite to make sure all the background requirements are there. We kind of explain the environment to them. We show them clips of stuff we’ve done in the past and that helps to give them some knowledge as to what to expect. The acts we do in the morning aren’t super intense. We try to keep them kind of smaller acoustic, one or two or three instruments. We don’t get into any really large acts. That certainly helps in those early morning hours. But you’re right at the beginning of your question, our audience does have a very critical ear and this isn’t a dental convention, so we don’t get to fake it. Everything’s got to be good. The music has to sound right. The talking heads have to sound good. We don’t get to fake it. [Timestamp: 4:18]

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Inside Summer NAMM 2014, Part 2

Jul 10, 2014 3:46 PM,
With Bennett Liles

And they really don’t have a lot of time to rehearse. Maybe one time through it and make a few changes. What kind of tweaks do you have to do?

Yeah, you know that’s a good point. At the sound checks, we don’t have a ton of time to get everything down like we normally would. And I’ve also got a sound engineer who likes to do very little EQ-ing or additional tweaks to the sound. He likes the sound to come off – he always believes in the artist and feels like if the artists are getting the sound they want on the stage, he just tries to repeat that in the PA system. So we keep things pretty clean in that regard. [Timestamp: 4:51]

I know a lot of things happen with this many people to coordinate, especially musicians. They want everything to sound as good as it can. Have you had any really interesting requests or demands from the performers on past shows you’ve done?

Oh gosh, you know we’ve had a few silly rider things. I don’t know that we’ve had any green M&M requests, but no we – thinking back, and I’ve had a lot of various artists of there, nothing that really stands out as being unordinary. I’ve got speakers and sometimes musicians – I had a guy last year, he wanted to run through the audience and do stuff, and that always makes me a little nervous because I lose control of camera shots and sound control there. But no, nothing out of the ordinary. We even had Gene Simmons and I’m trying to remember if he brought anything when he showed up to the table. [Timestamp: 5:38]

You probably have to be ready for anything with him.

Yeah, or Alice Cooper, you know, bringing those guys up. But no, it’s been – knock on wood – fairly normal to this point.

Well, as long as you’re only having to rig speakers from the rafters and not any of the performers themselves.

That’s right. No, we haven’t had to do that yet.

Communication is the key to all this, so what sort of com system do you use to keep everybody connected?

Well, we’ve just moved over to a Clear-Com system that we’ve been really happy with. So we’ve got a multichannel Clear-Com system and we’ve got it divided up so that the camera guys can have their own channel, sound guys can have their own channel, lighting can have their own channel and then I can weigh in on any of those channels that I need to. [Timestamp: 6:17]

Well, that’s almost an art just setting up who can talk to who else and which people don’t need to hear each other and that takes a lot of careful forethought sometimes.

Oh, yeah. You know, when I want to show people behind the scenes look at our business, I throw them on a headset during a show so they can hear the things that go on. It’s really – that part still fascinates me to this day is how many – I think I’ve mastered the art of three conversations at once.

Oh yeah, oh yeah.

Put out fires and weigh in and talk to people. It really is – that, to me, is one of the most fascinating parts of my job. I get an adrenaline rush and that’s why I enjoy the live component of it. [Timestamp: 6:53]

So what else is there? Texting and email going on or is that just an overload?

Yeah. You know, I try to keep the crew off their phones as much as possible because some of our shows, the awards shows, are pretty complex, and there are a lot of buttons they have to push. So I’d rather most communication happen on com if it has too. I did have a couple of floor managers last year that were texting me stuff that were helping us wrangle talent from the audience back to the backstage area, so I have had some people on text. The problem with text or email in those rooms is the connection’s not always reliable, so I really push people to the com system because it’s a more reliable system. [Timestamp: 7:27]

Right and you have more control over it and everybody knows who’s there.

You’ve got thousands of people on their cell phones at the same time. There would be times when you send a text in the morning you don’t get it until later that afternoon.

And at the pace that this show moves, that’s history.

Yeah, exactly.

This is going to be a huge job, so what comes after this? You just going to fall in a bed for a while or what?

You know, I’ve been at NAMM now awhile, almost two decades. It used to be that we had some down times in between shows, but we’ve added so much to our plates these days and there’s not much down time. As soon as we come up from the Summer NAMM show I’m gearing up for Winter NAMM and the Tech Awards. Yeah, our hands are full 24/7/365 these days. [Timestamp: 8:07]

I’m glad we got a chance to talk to you before it all gets going and nobody can get near you for this. It’s been great to have a little preview of what goes on behind the scenes at Summer NAMM. Been great talking to you. Pete Johnston, supervisor and technical producer of special events for the National Association of Music Merchants. Been great to hear about it.

Well, thank you so much, Bennett. It’s been a pleasure to talk about it.

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