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Breaking into the industry


signal32
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Hi all, I recently graduated from university (computing science) and have successfully applied for and been offered related software engineering jobs. However, I miss the events industry and would prefer to build a career in the lighting sector.

Unfortunately, my experience from amateur theatre and a brief stint studying lighting at USW is now 4 years out of date. I recently began refreshing my lighting skills and learning new technologies but realise that making connections with those in the industry is equally as important.

I wonder if you might have any advice for how I could gain a footing in the industry, with a view towards freelance lighting programming and design. I am fortunate to have some savings but require to work full time until an events career is sustainable. This is no doubt a popular topic so links to any resources my search missed would be much appreciated too! Many thanks!
Hamish

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At present the industry has a massive shortage of staff. I'd send some emails to companies you want to work for, being really honest about your experience level and see what you can get. If you've completed a computer science degree you probably have some computer networking skills that could be in high demand in some corners of the industry. Similarly if you're a good coder there's some demand for people who can build gadgets and small applications for specific functions. 

Worst case you'll make reasonable money pushing boxes and rigging lamps all summer. Best case you'll find a corner where you can be a software engineer and a lampy.

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I would add that with your skills you have a choice of what sort of life you want to have - to make a living from lighting you have to be prepared to work most evenings and weekends, it can get a bit all-consuming - this can be fun if you are a young singleton, if you've got a family or want a social life it can be less good. You could have your software engineering job to pay the bills and do am-dram or freelance for local events companies to scratch the live events itch - that's where I've ended up after doing lighting full time for some years, until I got fed up of not having a life outside work, and never seeing my kids.

Edited by timsabre
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Thanks both for your advice, much appreciated. I am pretty young and untied to any location, so now seems like a good time as any to try a career in lighting, with my degree to fall back on should things not work out.

1 hour ago, timsabre said:

You could have your software engineering job to pay the bills and do am-dram or freelance for local events companies to scratch the live events itch

Something similar to this is my long term goal. If nothing else, the last few years have taught me that diversification is key, so earning an income from both lighting and freelance software dev would suit me well.

1 hour ago, J Pearce said:

I'd send some emails to companies you want to work for

I am a bit out of the loop at the moment, but imagine that I should be angling towards production companies who offer both dry hire and comprehensive production packages as these will have the size and scope to hire someone like myself?

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Depends what work you want to do. Do you want to do music events, corporate events, sports and other 'special' events, touring with a band, theatre (touring or producing), or ...? A hire/production company is probably a good starting place, especially over the summer period when outdoor events is the mainstay of the industry.

I'd echo Tim's comments, but you're in an ideal position to try it for a summer and see how it feels. Some love it, some don't. Do be very honest about your skills, but do also sell yourself. Work ethic and being a nice human are far more important than knowing everything.

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Another point to bear in mind is that unless you're REALLY lucky, and/or have some definitely useful skills to the right company, don't expect to fall into anything like a top job anytime soon. Like any career you need to be prepared to start at the bottom rungs and work your way to where you think you want to be.

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That's true - you won't be designing the lighting rig or running the show straight away. But if you know your way around a DMX system, you'd probably get to be a lighting tech on shows if you find the right production company, which is all interesting stuff too - and once you've proven your ability the opportunities to design or operate will start to come along.

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Really appreciate your thoughts. It was always my impression that I’d need to accept a junior position and work up from there. This isn’t much of a problem as I want to prove my knowledge to myself before attempting something more ambitious.

Generally, I’m interested in all lines of work although either touring concerts or theatre are particularly appealing.

One last question, how feasible is event work in evenings and the weekend while working a 9-5 day job? I’m thinking this would be challenging but would be interested in some first had experience.

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That’s far from ideal working hours (the majority of gigs are install afternoon, perform evening, strike overnight) but there is a huge shortage of crew in the industry generally at the moment so if you go to almost any company and are open and honest about your abilities and the hours your are available they will be surprisingly flexible about the jobs they offer you. 

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1 hour ago, signal32 said:

One last question, how feasible is event work in evenings and the weekend while working a 9-5 day job? I’m thinking this would be challenging but would be interested in some first had experience.

Even assuming you find work as Tom says you might be able to, your full time employer may take a dim view of you do so regularly. Most contracts will require you to declare outside work to ensure a) a lack of conflict of interest and b) to ensure compliance with the working times directive.  If your doing a 37-40 hour week and then doing another 2-3 hours every evening it's not that unlikely that the tiredness will start to impact your performance and or safety so think carefully about this route. 

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I know someone who has a full time 9-5 job and uses their holiday days (and weekends) to go and work events, with the approval of their employer (they value the extra skills gained) - obviously this limits how much you can do and there is a definite concern over the effect on your paid job.  Many events would typically involve 9am get in through to a late finish so you aren't going to be doing another job those days.

You may be able to work a flexible 4 day week and use the extra day for events - there are ways to do it. In my situation I am my own boss for the 9-5 job so I work that round going to do events.

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Look around this forum and maybe go to PLASA show in early September. Find yourself a niche where your computer and networking skills make you very valuable to an employer. Which could be sound, video, and/or lighting. Sadly no employer wants an employee who has other commitments, and from past experience striking a show at 2am being home by 4am makes it hard to be at a place of employment by 8am fit to work.

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Looking at the situation, I think my current aim is to get into freelance software development over the next couple of years which should provide some flexibility to start earning an income from lighting work. In the meantime I can get involved with with am-dram and make some connections.

PLASA has been on my bucket list for years, so with a relocation to Cambridge from the wild north of Scotland in the coming weeks, this will finally be ticked off this year. I'd be keen to start lighting work sooner, but I hope getting established in a more central location will help later.

Thanks again for all your thoughts, I really appreciate it.

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If moving to Cambridge then take some Local Crew work during the summer on as many different genres of event as possible; theatre, music, literature, folk and jazz festivals to see if you actually like the industry and can tolerate the conditions. I personally never planned anything even actively avoiding what I ended up doing 90% of my time. You seem reasonably sensible so go find out for yourself. Keep a low profile and soak up knowledge and experience like a sponge. The good guys will always try to make time for newbies and don't mind thoughtful questions asked at the right time. 

Learn to make tea and use a broom.

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