Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Never Piss Off the Sound Guy

Things I Learned the Hard WayThis is the first in a series of short stories with clear morals that I keep coming back to for reminders. I call them Things I Learned the Hard Way.

When I was in college, I ran an open mic night at the campus cafe. I’d play my songs and then invite others to do the same. Some were wonderful and some were dreadful, but they were all played with heart. (And, yes, this was absolutely a proto-Fray Day.)

My friend Jed was the Sound Guy. We had two mics and four speakers, and it was his job to make sure everyone sounded good. With acoustic guitars and cheap equipment, it was no easy task.

One night, while I was warming up the crowd, a killer brrrrrrrrrwwwp of feedback flew out of the speakers, shaking the rafters. The usual etiquette was to just play on as if nothing happened, but this one was so loud, I stopped and waited for Jed to make it stop. Some knob-fiddling and mic adjustments and we were back on track.

When the song was over and I was transitioning to the open mic portion of the evening, I wanted to assure the crowd and the upcoming performers that everything was okay, so I said something like:

“Well, if Jed’s got the sound under control,” I said, “we can move on to the open mic.” My tone was meant to be a friendly jibe, but I came like a chiding from a petulant boss.

The audience fidgeted uncomfortably. I couldn’t see Jed’s face at the back of the room, but I didn’t have to. I knew I’d fucked up.

Later Jed pulled me aside and let me know he didn’t appreciate it. All I could say was, “You’re right, I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.”

I learned a valuable lesson that night: Never piss off the sound guy. He’s got the power to turn off your mic, turn off your spotlight, or create a feedback loop so loud it could induce seizures. You may have the eyes of the crowd on you, but the sound guy has all the power.

This is a lesson that’s applicable to more than just college open mics. Every time a CEO criticizes a subordinate in front of others, every programmer that mocks the designer who’s trying to make their code usable, every high mucky-muck who depends on the people below to make their promises come true … they should all remember this lesson. Often, when companies fall apart, it’s because the people at the bottom, the ones actually doing the heavy lifting, have become pissed off this way.

Never, ever, piss off the sound guy.


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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.