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The backup specialists

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20 May 2019

It may have started with the simple hire of a few amps, speaker cabinets and an old drum kit, but those now engaged in the hire of backline equipment have generally expanded the services they offer far beyond stage gear and the leading companies say they have never been busier. Claire Bicknell reports

Whatever instruments and associated equipment an artiste wants, the leading backline suppliers will be able to source, whether it’s in their vast stock ranges or by reaching out to associate companies.

A vintage Hammond organ? No problem. The latest spec keyboard? It’s in the warehouse. 

These companies go above and beyond to fulfil clients’ requests, often with expertise and technical know-how spanning several decades and covering a host of brand names and instruments. 

Music Bank, established in 1994 as part of hit record producer Trevor Horn’s SARM raft of companies, moved to a new facility in Acton, West London in 2018. Clients include Stormzy, Spice Girls, Stevie Wonder and Foo Fighters.

“The last year has been very busy for us, with backline hire increasing year-on-year,” says studio technician and backline bookings agent Marek Wilson. 

“One thing we’re seeing more of is the return of keyboards. Keys are once again an instrument of choice for pretty much all genres – not just pop music, right now, and they seem to be flying off our rental shelves.”

Music Bank holds an extensive range of backline, including drums, guitars, amps, keyboards, microphones, outboard, computers, woodwind, brass, orchestral, DJ equipment, amps, speakers and combos.

“We tend to use our ‘three shouts’ rule,” says Wilson. “If a new piece of gear gets requested twice and we don’t stock it, by the third shout, it’s ready and waiting for you on our shelves!

“All backline hire evolves at the same rate as the technology involved with it evolves. An example of this is the Kemper Profiler amp, this technology has made the biggest impact on hire for some time, but there is always going to be high demand for old school classics.”

Going above and beyond is all part of a day’s – and night’s – work for the leading backline companies. 

“My best last-minute job was booking, and then prepping and setting-up a drum kit for Ringo Starr when he decided to come out and surprise the crowd at Paul McCartney’s show at The 02 (cap. 21,000),” recalls Wilson. “It was without a doubt one of my heroic moments.”

Alongside PAT (Portable Appliance Test) and rigorous checks before equipment is hired, Music Bank’s warehouse department constantly ensures its stock runs like new and its in-house repair guru has 40 years’ experience of looking after artiste’s personal collections. 

“I can’t see backline hire slowing down any time soon – live music is still very much the driving force in the music industry and our backline hire goes strength-to-strength, year after year,” states Wilson.

As well as backline, Music Bank offers rehearsal studios, storage and tour supplies. 

Founded in 1976, London-based John Henry’s clients include Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Nicki Minaj, Craig David and Liam Gallagher, as well as festivals Reading (90,000), Leeds (80,000) and C2C: Country to Country, held at The O2. 

It provides a wide range of audio, staging and backline rentals. 

“We stock everything backline-related with over 2,000 product ranges for bass, guitar, keyboards, pianos, instruments, drums and percussion, stage accessories and flight cases,” says manager Jamie Henry. “It’s busier than ever for us – the live industry is performing strongly and we’re seeing more and more tours from both local and overseas artistes.”

Henry states in-depth equipment knowledge is essential, along with an ethos of delivering the very best in customer care.

“We live and breathe music at John Henry’s and that means we know the pressures of the live industry and we do anything to support our clients, whether it’s running a replacement out to a local gig, sending a technician to repair a Hammond, even overseas. We aim to get it done and with whatever it takes.

“All of our staff have a deep knowledge of backline equipment from vintage pieces to the latest models, and when we’re not co-ordinating hires, loading trucks for tours, prepping and maintaining equipment, we’re all out working on shows, attending music events or even playing our own gigs,” says Henry. 

In terms of changes in the sector, he highlights one in particular – client requirements.

“Artistes are definitely becoming more demanding – the drummer’s spec can be bigger than the rest of the band put together sometimes.

“There are so many new innovations and toys to integrate into the set-ups, and it’s always a challenge to ensure you get each musician’s set-up exactly as they want it, before it goes out on the road.”  

Vintage sounds

Brighton-based Ooosh! Tours works with clients such as Slaves, Black Honey, Easy Star All-Stars, Gus Dapperton and Gabrielle Aplin, offering backline alongside other services including rehearsal rooms, PA hire and splitter vans.

“It’s been a fantastic year for us, with more clients and more hires than ever before,” says director Jon Wood. “We’ve had to take on more permanent and freelance staff to cope with the demand.

“We stock a huge range, comprising of the old vintage gear all the way up to the newest keyboards and releases. You have to keep on top of keys, especially, as soon as there’s a new model out, all the keyboard players want it.”

Wood points out vintage equipment is still very popular.

“Despite technological advances there’s still a healthy demand for old analogue gear, we still keep a couple of Hammonds and Wurlis in. Keeping them in good working order is an uphill battle, but people love the sound and the look of them, so we have to have them.”

Digital advancements mean not only keeping up to date with the latest spec models but also with the knowledge of how to use, maintain and repair them.

“Digital modelling systems, all-in-one solutions to recreate sound digitally, are really starting to get a serious foothold in the guitar world,” adds Wood. “It’s gone from being a niche outsider thing to starting to be on every other band’s rider.

“Obviously this means more learning and investment from us to keep up our skills and stock to match what bands want, and to be able to provide not just the hire gear but the knowledgeable support to help clients.” 

Wood says the company acts quickly to respond to clients’ needs.

“It’s a leap of faith for any band or management team to hire from a company, especially if you fly halfway around the world and you’ve never met anyone – it’s all done over email, paying large sums of money, but we have a great reputation which we’ve worked really hard to establish over our history. 

“People know that we’ll provide good quality equipment at a fair price. If things go wrong – and all the prep and maintenance in the world can’t stop things sometimes going wrong – then clients know we’ll work quickly to solve problems and provide support.” 

Dual base

Providing backline hire and tour support since 1976, Peter Webber Hire has worked with clients including Bob Marley, AC/DC, De La Soul, and Fun Lovin’ Criminals. 

The company also works with events ranging from 147,000-capacity Glastonbury to London’s multi-venue Camden Rocks.

Peter Webber’s son Ben now runs the company, whilst Peter’s daughter Lee runs rehearsal spaces The Loft in Brighton, an arm of Ooosh! Tours.

“We’re really busy, which is of course fantastic,” says Webber. “We’ve recently partnered with trucking company Star Movement on logistics and storage facilities and Getoutldn rehearsal, mixing and recording studios, both in Ashford, Middlesex, to complement our services and to provide a strong offer to the industry.

“We’ve now got two hubs – one in Brighton and one in Ashford – so we can easily whizz stuff out of any location.”

Louder in Leipzig

Manchester’s STS Touring specialises in festival backline supply, counting Download Festival (111,000), the multi-venue Live at Leeds, and Liverpool International Music Festival amongst its clients, as well as hire to The Waterboys.

“More and more artistes want a PA package as well as backline supplied,” says MD Pete Dutton. “A desk and in-ear monitors are a usual request – we’ve made a major investment in mixing consoles and in ear systems.”

STS prides itself on service and back-up options.

“We provide free spare amps, drum parts and whatever is needed. We also have an in-house repairs department.”

It has recently established its branch in Leipzig, Germany, which is in development.

“We’ll leave some stock over there. The branch is starting to take shape and should be completely up and running within a few months,” adds Dutton. 

Whatever artistes are looking to play on stage, the leading backline companies thrive on the challenge. They’ve got the UK covered, and some are branching out even further, with all providing that extra level of service to respond to clients’ needs 24/7. 

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