Alicia Blake | Ultimate Ears Stories from the Field

Alicia Blake has worked as a FOH Engineer, assistant recording engineer, monitor engineer, promoter, talent buyer and tour manager. She currently works as TM / FOH and has worked with bands including The Head and the Heart, Yellow Ostrich, Wye Oak, Blitzen Trapper and Thao with the Get Down Stay Down. As part of our monthly On The Road With… series, Alicia talks about lousy venues, sloppy stage sound, transitioning into in-ear monitors and opening for Dave Matthews Band.

Hi Alicia, thank you for taking time out of your busy day to talk with us. Who are you out with right now and what roles are you handling?

Currently, I am working with two bands right now. The Head and the Heart — who I am tour managing —and I’m about to set out with Yellow Ostrich, where I’ll be running FOH.

Which role do you prefer, running sound or managing the tour?

Honestly, I don’t prefer one over the other — it totally depends on the band. I enjoy both roles equally. With The Head and the Heart, I started out running FOH and Tour Managing at the same time for them, moved on to TM & monitors and eventually moved into solely doing tour management. As our production budget and shows got larger, it called for more crew. Tour Management for them is definitely a full time job.

How did you get started with The Head And The Heart?

Well, they’re a local band for me — we’re both based in Seattle. I had heard from some friends who worked with their management that they were looking for a new TM / FOH person for their upcoming tour. I sent my resume over to their management and the rest is history.

I believe that you are in pre-production and rehearsals right now. Can you tell us a bit about that? What’s a typical day look like?

Tour rehearsals for The Head and the Heart are definitely a new concept for them, as they are still a pretty new band. The level that we are touring at right now is totally new. Pre-production for me involves getting our FOH and Monitor engineer in town, arranging a rehearsal space and making sure we stick with a schedule. Half the band have moved into IEM’s – so a majority of their rehearsal days is getting each member used to wearing their ear pieces and dialing in monitor mixes for everyone. This is definitely changing the feeling on the stage immensely for those with IEMs and those without — hearing the drop in stage volume alone has been an eye opener for everyone.

And the upcoming tour, any surprises that you can tell us about? Will you be at many festivals this year?

The upcoming tour this summer is a good half and half mix of festivals and our own headlining dates. We’ll be doing a couple of support dates with Dave Matthews Band — which is quite the sight to see from the back end. They’re a fully self-contained unit; totally impressive. We’ll be playing festivals all over including the Newport Folk Fest, Forecastle Fest and Lollapalooza this year. I know the band is really looking forward to headlining the 9:30 Club again this summer as well.

So I understand that you got started by running sound at a local club. Can you please tell us about those experiences and about everything that you learned.

I got started working under the house engineer at a local all ages club in Seattle, putting in volunteer hours and learning all about live sound and a little bit of recording as well — we had a full recording studio upstairs, wired up to the show room, so we could record live shows in addition to sessions in the off hours. My time spent at the club was incredibly valuable — learning a lot on the fly as I worked with different bands every night, 3-5 nights out of the week. We had every kind of band you could think of come through and I made a lot of contacts. I eventually took over running sound at the club a couple years later and started doing ‘Sound 101’ classes for kids wanting to volunteer and learn all about engineering.

Wait a minute, from running sound, you then started booking shows, is that right?

Eventually, yes. I was interested in how booking bands at the club worked and moved into booking a majority of the calendar at one point. I was pulling double duty a lot of nights — booking the shows, greeting the bands, running sound and then settling out at the end of the night.

And then you went on to running the club? What does that entail?

The club itself was all volunteer run and eventually interest waned, I think with some of the other people on staff. I just started taking on more responsibility and found myself booking most of the shows, adding new staff to cover volunteer coordinating, and teaching more people how to run sound so I wasn’t having to do it all. It was an amazing experience — considering I basically got to book whatever I wanted. We had some really incredible shows happen there.

So here’s an interesting question from a club manager’s perspective. How important is sound to the club? I mean, in your opinion, how is the gear and the quality in general?

Personally, I think that sound is incredibly important to the reputation of a venue. Not only for patrons (although I’m amazed at what the general public is okay with in terms of quality of sound), but for bands. Now that I’ve been touring for a few years, I know what it’s like to come into a room and be completely disappointed in a PA system or just the gear in general at a venue — knowing that it may make or break a show. If I’ve been to a room before that doesn’t have good gear, I absolutely dread going back. It’s no fun if a club can’t provide adequate gear equal to the quality of shows they’re booking. It’s an investment you make as a club owner and I think it’s very telling what your priorities are if you aren’t willing to sink some money into your sound system.

And what about when a band has a sloppy stage sound? When they are just too loud? Is that ever an issue?

As an engineer who has done countless house gigs at this point, I think you eventually learn how to talk to a band about what their stage sound is like in an objective way. You may not get what you want out of it sometimes, but more often than not, I’ve managed to get bands to entrust me with their sound and make some changes from stage to make for a better sound out front.

What are club owners looking for? What’s their biggest motivation?

I’m pretty sure I’m not the right person to ask this question — the club I ran was a totally different animal than most clubs out there. We were non-profit and volunteer run. We were looking to keep afloat and provide a safe space for kids under 21 to see bands they love. Most clubs? I’d imagine there’s varying degrees of actual interest in shows they’re presenting, but I mean, it’s a business. What’s the motivation in any business?

And lastly, do you miss it? Or do you prefer to be out on the road?

I am definitely past booking shows these days. I have so much respect for those who can do it day in and day out. It’s an incredibly high pressure job, having to consistently bring in patrons with the bills you choose to throw down money for. Touring for me was a perfect way to continue working on the back end of concerts – I can’t foresee stopping anytime soon.

And with that, many many thanks for your insights and for sharing your perspectives. We’ll be seeing you out on the road!

Alicia Blake has worked as a FOH Engineer, assistant recording engineer, monitor engineer, promoter, talent buyer and tour manager. She currently works as TM / FOH and has worked with bands including The Head and the Heart, Yellow Ostrich, Wye Oak, Blitzen Trapper and Thao with the Get Down Stay Down. She’s always on the lookout for the best bakery in town while on tour, and hangs with her cross eyed cat Francis at home in Seattle.

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