The Caterpillar Problem

The end result gets the glory, but there’s no end result without the groundwork.

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I just finished working on a show that took five months to plan and execute. It would have gone off without a hitch, except that a monitor wedge had its power cable kicked out at the last minute, when nobody was looking. This caused a fair bit of consternation for the sax/ flute player, but he’s a consummate professional and got through it anyway.

I digress.

Five months for two hours or so of showtime. It’s a classic case of George Carlin’s “caterpillar problem:”

“The caterpillar does all the work, but the butterfly gets all the publicity.”

That’s just the way it is with live sound, and also with life in general. Getting “there,” wherever “there” is, involves a long, hard, muddy, unglamorous slog. Anybody who thinks live music is about the roar of the crowd, the growl of the guitars, the thunder of the drums, and the glory of the lyrics soaring with it all, like a Pharaoh atop a chariot pulled by giant, glowing, cats…well, that person is incorrect. That person also probably has never done the work to put on a live gig, soup to nuts.

The ugly work of show production is the important work, though. It’s the caterpillar that eventually creates the chrysalis, dissolving itself into raw material that eventually becomes the butterfly of the end result. What’s done in the literal and metaphorical glare of the worklights is the critical foundation, and without it – no butterfly. You don’t get publicity for the “caterpillar work,” but without it, there isn’t anything to get publicity for.

You don’t get publicity for coordinating across multiple teams. You don’t get publicity for the hundreds of emails and chat messages that get fired around. You don’t get publicity for being able to manage your calendar properly. You don’t get publicity for your stage plots. You don’t get publicity for the process of laying out the stage in an organized way. You don’t get publicity for running cables neatly. You don’t get publicity for tuning the Front Of House PA and monitor world in a sane way. You don’t get publicity for doing a careful line check.

But you DO get publicity for when all of that finally comes together. The process is required for the output. You can’t get around it.

And the more you feed the caterpillar, the bigger and better the butterfly becomes.

Conversely, starving the prep work starves the show. Lots of people want to run lean on the prep, especially because the prep is expensive while not looking flashy. The battle goes in dips and surges, but it’s ever present; Someone, somewhere, is always trying to “compress the schedule” and “save a few dollars.” An alarming number of people exist who are unable to see the connection between foundations and what sits on them. That didn’t happen on this latest show, but it has crept up on me on a couple of gigs this last year. It’s tempting to go along with it, so as to land the opportunity to do a night, but it’s a big risk. You may not be able to avoid disappointing somebody, and I’ve learned the hard way that showing up and then disappointing people is worse than not getting the gig at all.

The absolutely essential work of the caterpillar requires a certain amount of time. There’s no getting around it. Plenty of people will want you to work magic in unrealistic timeframes. Politely decline. Butterflies don’t always get butterfly-grade publicity, but if you want a chance at the top-shelf stuff, you need to be able to build the best butterfly you can.

Oh, and here’s one more secret: The dirty work doesn’t get publicity, but it DOES get noticed by the people who really matter.