Women in Pro Audio: Beth O’Leary Women in Pro Audio: Beth O’Leary...
“There’s nothing like knowing that what you do makes people feel so elated! It’s really special bringing big crowds of people together and helping them have a joyous communal experience. Whatever is going on in their lives, they can forget about it for a couple of hours and enjoy themselves.” – Beth O’Leary
There are so many talented individuals in the pro sound and live event industries that it would be difficult to interview them all. We commend everyone working in this industry and value all of them. But sometimes, it’s important to share the stories of those who aren’t as seen or known about. The L-Acoustics Women in Pro Audio interview series was created to put a spotlight on the small percentage of women working hard to do what they love while simultaneously helping build unforgettable experiences for fans and audiences the world over.
Meet Beth O’Leary, a live event freelance audio engineer doing various tasks such as monitor teching and mixing, PA, RF, stage tech, and sometimes front-of-house.
How It All Started
Beth went to the University of Sheffield in the UK to study biology. But when Beth was younger, she had always wanted to work in wildlife conservation, “hence studying biology at university,” she says.
But she also loved music. From the moment she walked into her first festival and felt the kick drum shaking all the air in her lungs, she thought, “It would be so cool to make people feel that kind of elation!”
While at the University of Sheffield, Beth joined the volunteer crew at the students’ union, which puts on events six nights a week. “I was always very nosey about what happened backstage. So, when I joined the student crew, it took over my life. We did everything from open mic nights in the cafe to receiving tours and putting on gigs in our 1800-capacity venue. I learned how to run audio, lights, and even pyrotechnics and lasers. In exchange, I just had to work for free and never sleep. The jury’s still out on whether that was a good deal,” she laughs.
“I spent quite a long time trying to decide which path to take, though. I joined my city’s stagehand team, and a couple of older friends from university recommended me for audio jobs with a couple of local venues and audio companies. Unfortunately, no one wants to pay to save the planet. As I struggled to get through to charities for the chance to work for free during the required two-year internship before I’d even be considered for a minimum-wage job in the environmental sector, my other jobs kept calling, offering fun gigs and for money! It was one of the hardest decisions of my life. I still feel passionate about both conservation and live events, but only one keeps a roof over my head.”
Where She Is Now
Beth notes, “It’s been a long road to get to where I am now! I spent a long time trying to step up from relying on stagehand work to doing audio full-time. One factor was my location: Sheffield has always been a great city for music, but there are no major PA companies there, and it took a lot of time to get my foot in the door with a bigger company in another city. Even then, I got my chance because I offered to work in their warehouse for free for a few weeks, putting myself up in a local hostel. Luckily for me—but not so luckily for the other guy—someone had broken his leg while working at a festival during my first week, and the company needed someone to replace him. I was right there in the warehouse, with site experience and the correct insurance, so I was sent out and ended up having busy summers ever since. However, it still took several years after that to get my first tour and a couple more years again before I was making a living exclusively from audio.”
Beth comments on the helpful resources manufacturers offer when it comes to expanding her industry skills and knowledge: “Many manufacturers have fantastic resources for learning how to use their equipment and the underlying principles you’re applying. Because I’ve been working with RF a lot recently, I’ve found Shure, Sennheiser, and RF Venue’s sites full of helpful information. Online industry magazines like ProSoundWeb and Live Sound International are so full of informative articles that I can’t keep up with them all. As a woman in audio, I’ve been involved with and follow SoundGirls and Women in Live Audio, who both have great blog sections from various contributors.”
Yet, Beth praises her contacts for helping her improve her knowledge base about various industry-related skills. “I have learned the most from my colleagues. We share tips and tricks, warn each other of equipment ‘quirks’ we might have yet to encounter, and learn from each other’s mistakes. Every audio person needs a network of friends to quickly call or text when they’re stuck troubleshooting. We all do it, so don’t be afraid to ask for help! I’m fortunate to have a lot of friends in audio who are more than willing to share advice with me. If I come up against a challenge or I’m in a tricky situation, there’s almost always someone I can talk to who’s been there before. Even if they haven’t been in that exact position, we have all seen and experienced enough obstacles that we know are never insurmountable. It’s very reassuring. So, reach out!”
The best mixing tip she has received from a colleague: “Write the performers’ names down (on their mixes if you’re doing monitors) and use them liberally. It helps massively with communication and building a relationship with them. You’ll get a better performance from them if they know you care and are paying attention, rather than just shouting the name of their instrument at them.”
Women in the industry—or most male-dominated industries—often face various challenges that men don’t. When asked about her unique challenges, Beth said, “Women are often widely underestimated, undermined, and overlooked. Even in 2023, some people say, out loud, that women just aren’t cut out for technical roles, especially audio. Men are physically and psychologically better at it—apparently,” she shrugs. “As a sound engineer with a Master’s in biology, the ignorance of that is incredibly frustrating.”
And while some might disagree that people possess this feeling about women in the industry, Beth continues to share her personal experiences: “I’ve been kicked out of packing trucks explicitly for being a woman. I have been told I’m incapable of lifting road cases that I have lifted many times before. I have been asked where the sound guy is when I have had my fingers on the faders and had several colleagues and bosses make (clearly unwanted, sexually explicit) passes at me on several occasions. I’ve had to do monitors for some artists who flat-out refused to talk to me and would only talk to the man with the biggest beard in the room, despite him repeatedly telling them that he wasn’t the sound engineer.”
Beth continues, “I’ve worked award dinners where the cameramen will park their (offscreen) shot zoomed in on women’s cleavages. I spent years listening to my male colleagues comment on every woman’s appearance who crossed their line of sight. I’ve been the butt of endless jokes about cleaning and making tea, been told to stand there and look pretty instead of doing my job—and through all of this, I had to smile and laugh along because you don’t get called back if you don’t have a sense of humor.”
Beth continues, “Talking to many men about sexism is challenging without them taking it personally. It’s not personal. They don’t believe themselves or their friends to be sexist, so they don’t want to hear that they’re associated with an industry that can be sexist. Just because someone hasn’t seen overt, textbook examples of discrimination doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. That’s why it’s so important for allies to call their colleagues out when they’re prejudiced, even if it’s something small. If they know that even passing derogatory remarks won’t be tolerated, they won’t feel emboldened to escalate their behavior to anything more serious. Or maybe they’re unaware that their behavior is harmful. It’s imperative to address the negatives so we can grow as an industry and as humans. It also provides support to other women in the industry and assures them that they will be heard if they share their negative experiences. Communication is important. The industry is undoubtedly improving regarding discrimination, but it doesn’t mean we’re ‘out of the woods.’ There is still plenty of work to be done.”
Beth also highlights that the benefits of working in live events have yet to grow in line with what’s expected of those working—which extends to men just as much as women. “This happens all across the industry, regardless of gender. We’re expected to have the knowledge of an IT consultant, the speed and accuracy of an ER doctor, and the customer-focused pleasant demeanor of an air steward, all for only a little more money than guys were getting in the 80s to stack some speakers. Ever-more ambitious shows and budget-squeezing means less and less time off to recover and lower welfare standards on site.” She continues, “There have been countless articles about artists canceling tours due to burnout over the last couple of years, but technicians don’t have the same luxury of canceling work or controlling a tour’s schedule. It’s taking a toll on a talent pool already struggling to meet demand after so many people left the industry during the pandemic.”
Then, Beth solemnly comments, for women, there’s the matter of hygiene: “It can be problematic when you’re on tour. Venue showers are often communal with weak water pressure that isn’t great for properly washing your hair. Women’s toilets are often left locked until the audience arrives, and the lack of running water at festivals makes working at them while menstruating deeply unpleasant. There’s nowhere private to get changed on a tour bus except contorting yourself in your bunk, which gets a lot harder as you get older.”
Addressing the Challenges
However, instead of focusing on the negatives, Beth still loves what she does and reinforces that amazing, talented, and supportive colleagues surround her. She feels that addressing some of the industry’s shortcomings will build a more diverse working community that will benefit everyone involved.
“I feel that more women would enter the industry if it became a more welcoming, rewarding place for everybody. Businesses benefit from employing people from all walks of life, and it can become a self-sustaining cycle of attracting more diverse talent when they see that people like them are accepted and valued. We need to accelerate the move away from aggressive, repetitive banter and towards professional working environments that everyone can enjoy. People can still have fun at work without it being at other people’s expense.”
Industry transparency was another request from Beth and many others in the industry. “We need to change the freelance recruitment process too. We all love to say that gigs should go to the best candidate for the role, which is an honorable goal. However, the real world doesn’t always work that way. It’s more about who you know, who answers the phone first, or who they always work with. Teams must get along, but word-of-mouth recommendations can be a breeding ground for biases and discrimination.”
On the topic of sound education, Beth feels that the material isn’t for everyone. “I think our industry would benefit from diversifying our learning material. So much audio education that I have encountered in my nearly twenty years in the industry can be dense, tedious, convoluted, and only appeal to people with a specific mindset. If you don’t think like those who wrote the resources, you’re made to feel stupid and aren’t cut out for the job. However, this really isn’t the case. So many people’s brains work differently—we’re not all cut from the same cookie-cutter. We need to attract people who think in many different ways. Different perspectives fuel innovation and speeds up problem-solving both on the gig and in the longer term.”
Words of Wisdom
“Don’t expect this industry to have any formal structure,” is Beth’s advice to other women wanting to get into live sound. “Get as much real-life experience as possible and build up a network of contacts. The best advice I ever received was to consider each person who hired me as my client rather than my boss. As a freelancer, that is true anyway, but it helps to get some perspective on your working relationship. You can treat each client with respect and do your best on each gig, but you don’t feel like they control you, and if things don’t work out, you can just prioritize other clients better suited to you.”
She then mentions the three essential skills people should focus on when entering the live sound industry. “First: Communication. As a sound engineer, you’re constantly communicating with people: the artists, the client, the stagehands, the rest of your team, and the audience. You’re talking to new people daily, so you can’t rely on people getting used to you and getting what you mean. Your job will be infinitely easier if you can convey your point concisely and confidently without arrogance. It’s something I’m still working on myself, to be honest!
“Second: Troubleshooting. No matter your role or level, much of your job will come down to troubleshooting. Being calm and working from one end of the signal chain to the other will always serve you well. Even if you can’t fix the problem, a good troubleshooter can think of alternative solutions so the show can go on.”
To not burn out, Beth advises: “Third: Resilience. Live events can be tough. Long, unpredictable hours make having a personal life hard. Losing out on jobs and having to work in challenging situations with rapidly approaching deadlines and difficult personalities can all take its toll. Bouncing back, not taking things too personally, and seeing every gig as a new start will help you stay the course and not burn out.”
What’s in the Box?
“I feel like this is a story where you had to be there, but it was still a very laughable moment for me!” Beth chuckles as she recounts a funny anecdote while working on a show. “I was lucky enough to tour with Kylie Minogue, who had a very slick and polished show. I was teching monitors from under the stage, so I had never seen the show outside of our relay screen. One night, the stage manager asked me to help open a pair of doors from inside a black box for a big reveal because the guy who usually does it had been called away. As I was waiting, the guy came back, but I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t know when precisely the doors would open, and I knew if I tried to leave, opening the curtains would let light in and potentially cause a distraction.” Beth pauses, then continues, “So I decided to stay at the back of the box. It was dark; I was wearing black, no one would notice! Or so I thought… Well, it turned out that when they flung the doors open, the entire box lit up, and I was no longer in a dark corner. I was mere feet behind the icon thousands of people were screaming for. We were lit up like a Christmas tree. All I could do was stay absolutely still and hope no one spotted me while the stage manager was bent double over laughing at me from behind his door!”
There’s always that one show or production that stands out to those working on them. For Beth, it was back in 2022. “Last September, I was lucky enough to be in charge of RF for the Taylor Hawkins tribute concert in Wembley Stadium, London. I had never done RF for a show of that scale, so it was a real challenge. In an already chaotic environment, I needed to coordinate the Foo Fighters’ gear, the House stock Britannia Row provided, the guests’ own gear, and three separate Camera and Broadcast crews’ equipment. I also handed out and kept track of the IEMs throughout the six-hour show being played at a live-streamed sold-out stadium, so the pressure was immense. Luckily, I had plenty of support and good humor from the rest of the Britannia Row crew. The whole gig was a team effort. There were plenty of issues to overcome and very little sleep that week, but the show was flawless, and the atmosphere was incredibly special. Plus, I got to meet the exceptionally talented Nandi Bushell!”
Why She Does It
“There’s nothing like knowing that what you do makes people feel so elated!” Beth exclaims. “Especially after the pandemic, it’s really special bringing big crowds of people together and helping them have a joyous communal experience. Whatever is going on in their lives, they can forget about it for a couple of hours and enjoy themselves.”
When asked what her favorite show to work on was, she couldn’t narrow it down. “I love every show I’ve done equally. My job is often like a waking fever dream. I once worked on a production with mirror ball palm trees, inflatable flamingo-shaped scooters, and people bungee jumping from the roof while half a dozen giant lips danced by, and no one even batted an eye,” she laughs. “A few highlights for me were the Taylor Hawkins tribute concert in Wembley Stadium last year, the 2022 MTV European Music Awards, and the Eurovision Song Contest 2023 which were all big, fun team efforts. I always enjoyed doing festivals like Bestival, Reading, and Download, which were chaotic and a lot of work but really worth it.”
The Future of Live Events
Now that we’re on the other side of the recent pandemic, Beth hopes for a better work-life balance for the industry’s future. “We’re slowly talking more about mental health and burnout, but we’re yet to take widespread action. More reasonable schedules would open the industry to many more people, particularly women. It’s a job, not the Hunger Games! We’re all on the same team, even if we’re in different departments; we should all be able to work together positively, creating amazing and positive moments.”