Supper’s Digests: The Parable of the Caretaker

One of the most engaging classes at university was Recording Techniques. I credit the lecturer, Dave Fisher, for inculcating me with the science of audio engineering and, just as importantly, the culture of the industry. He provided an idea on which the following thought experiment is based.

As a music producer, you have been commissioned to record a few obscure pieces of orchestral music for a documentary series. You have hired the orchestra and engineer, and secured a local hall with excellent acoustics. When the day arrives, the morning goes as usual. The engineer sets up and tests her equipment. You both agree a schedule with the conductor. Later, the orchestra arrives to rehearse. This gets them used to the acoustics and seating arrangements while the engineer makes a few adjustments. Eventually, it sounds great in the control room, and all’s set for the recording to start in the afternoon. Everybody takes a break for lunch.

Suddenly, a white van pulls up. After a brief conversation with the caretaker, the driver lifts a pneumatic drill from the back, and starts cutting up the road outside. The building’s gas supply is being repaired. An air compressor emits a steady rumble while he rattles the building for minutes at a time, ripping up the tarmac to diagnose and fix the problem. Meanwhile, the caretaker has disappeared.

You talk to the contractor. He is not in charge of his work schedule, but tells you that local rules dictate that the noisy work has to finish by 5pm. He gives you a phone number, and you try to reason on the phone with the building’s owner. Apparently, they have been coping with a reduced gas supply, and have been waiting for a month to get it fixed. Without today’s repair, another month of dining functions will have to be cancelled. They assure you that they’ll have a word with the caretaker for not telling you about the situation when you booked, and they’re sorry. You cannot re-arrange the session, but the owner compromises by agreeing to rehouse a local society’s meeting tonight so that you can, at least, continue to record into the evening. Just one thing is in your favour: the orchestra and engineer have been paid an initial fee, but most of the money they’ll get depends on the completion of today’s recording.

Now there’s a choice. You could try persuade the orchestra to prolong their lunch break for the entire afternoon, cancel their social arrangements for the evening, and stay late to finish the session. Or you could arrange to record in infuriating piecemeal, brokering short truces throughout the day and stopping whenever the drilling has to recommence. This will drive everybody mad: you, engineer, orchestra, contractor. Or you could threaten to phone a solicitor unless the contractor is sent away, leaving the venue with an administrative headache, cancellations and fees, no gas supply, and a caretaker who’ll possibly lose his job. If they relent, none of this would be your problem, and the momentum of the session could continue to its original schedule. Happier musicians make better music.

This is all hypothetical, but the same kind of situation happens all the time: people you’ve just met will force you to make quick and unreasonable decisions with big implications. Live with the noisy drill and you’ll annoy the team you hired. They’ll feel that their contract has become a ransom note, and they might refuse to work with you again. Send away the driller with a threat of litigation, and you will seriously upset the caretaker.

Which answer were we given? Let the drilling continue. Tell the owner to go easy on the caretaker for your sake. Give the orchestra the final choice about which of the remaining unpalatable alternatives they’d prefer.

Here’s why: the professionalism of an orchestra will carry them through almost any adversity. No matter how difficult the session, their income and reputation depends on finishing the recording and doing a good job. Keep within the Musicians’ Union rules, or stretch them with consensus, and you’ll go home with a session master that will pay the mortgage. They’ll get their money and a useful anecdote about what a prat you are and how soul-destroying it is to work for the bourgeoisie. Upset the caretaker, though, and you have a powerful enemy with nothing to lose. He may now feel entitled to ruin your session, and can do so in a hundred ways. He’ll prevent the engineer from running her cables, will insist on seeing a council permit that you don’t need or you’ve never heard of, or find some excuse to cut off the electricity. Perhaps he’ll lock you out of the control room during a break and disappear for the rest of the day, impounding your equipment.

While Dave Fisher’s intended conclusion was ‘never piss off the caretaker’, there are some wider implications. One: no matter how gingerly we avoid burning bridges, life demands that occasionally one or two get chargrilled towards a nobler end. Two: the balance of power often lies in the most surprising places. Get used to this, learn to embrace absurdity, and don’t take dignity too seriously.

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