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Interview: Miles Hillyard, SSE’s senior project manager

Andrew Low
Interview: Miles Hillyard, SSE’s senior project manager
Echoing the sentiments of many other industry figures, Miles Hillyard recalls: “I decided at a very early age that I didn’t want a desk job. I left school when I was 16 and put myself through a youth training scheme for ten months to get into a small theatre. Once I’d proved myself, I became deputy stage manager.”

Beginning his career as a teenager in the Channel Islands, Hillyard then worked his way through three AV companies, starting off as a technician, working up to being a project manager and then becoming an operations manager.

“Because Jersey is such a small market, I acquired a very good technical and practical approach. There aren’t any freelancers and you have to own all the kit yourself. When I decided four years ago that it was time to move on and develop my skills further in the UK, I did a few months of freelancing in London before I was headhunted by a recruitment agency to come and work for SSE.”

Currently thriving in his role as senior project manager for the sound solutions company, Hillyard handles a long and high-profile list of events across the UK, which this year included the Liverpool City of Culture opening ceremony, Gatecrasher Summer Sound System, Global Gathering, V Festival, Reading and Leeds, Escape in the Park and touring accounts for acts such as Mark Ronson.

“Events companies work in a variety of ways,” Hillyard explains, “but here at SSE I have a very hands-on role. Not only am I doing deals with clients, drawing up quotes and working out budgets, I also do a large amount of technical stuff as well: specifying the systems, choosing the crew and overseeing logistics.

“I have to keep an eye on all the nuts and bolts to make sure that the client gets the best possible results.

“In my role, you need to know CAD, system design and numerous computer programs, such as EASE,” he continues. “It’s also important for me to be aware of future planning in terms of what the company should be buying and what I think is going to happen next year.”

Perhaps the most valuable tool at Hillyard’s disposal is communication and he constantly reiterates just how fundamental this is to a successful event. He emphasises that not only is it crucial to keep onsite staff in the loop, but those back at the warehouse as well.

“It’s not just a case of adding equipment on to a booking and telling accounts to make sure it’s invoiced – seven trucks is no easy thing to do. Because we’re so busy, in the course of a week we can have 40 articulated lorries, so we need to make sure that everybody here is informed of what is going on. We turn one gig into another gig very quickly and our facility here allows us to do that.”

As the festival season draws to a close and with it the last of the outdoor events for which SSE is renowned, Hillyard finds himself spending much of his time at the company’s Birmingham-based headquarters, giving him chance to focus on some of the current winter touring accounts. During the summer months, however, he will be in the office only two or three days a week, spending the rest of his time out in the field to oversee events and ensure that everything happens according to plan.

“Global Gathering is a classic example,” he notes. “We look after the whole site and there were nine arenas this year.
Global is a very big project for an audio company. It involved seven articulated lorries of audio equipment and 32 members of crew. These events are always a challenge due to difficult offsite noise regulations. I deal with independent and council environmental health officers, I spend the night running around adjusting arena systems to keep sound levels under control. Balancing on and off site levels is difficult and, due to changing conditions, needs constant attention.”

As well as an on-site presence at this year’s Global Gathering, council teams also employed off-site meters and specified very specific terms with regard to the licence.

Officials monitored individual frequencies at the event, which had a considerably lower threshold than most festivals – around 64dB at 63Hz after 11 o’clock at night. Hillyard points out that this is a very difficult level to enforce on a site of that size, and that if the wind is in the wrong direction, the fairground and general crowd noise can exceed that on its own.

Hillyard describes how at most events he is at some stage put into a situation where he needs to make a compromise and at events such as festivals, the structures involved – sometimes at the request of the artist – can often dictate elements of the audio design, which usually prove less
than ideal.

“It’s always a juggling act to make things work for everybody. We try to give the artist exactly what they want as much as possible and within reason. We try to adhere to their rider as closely as we can, but nine times out of ten compromises have to be made.”

Compromises notwithstanding, the set up for live events can often be fraught with problems. Setbacks are inevitable given their complex nature and Hillyard explains that, as with all build schedules, problems do arise. To construct any large event from scratch in an outdoor environment for a brief period of time is a huge undertaking.

He cites intricate planning, consistent communication and the highest pre-production levels as key contributors to success, but the most important factor, he insists, is personnel – particularly when it comes to Britain’s
unruly climate.

“With any outdoor event, the biggest problem is the weather and I think it is for everybody. If you get two consecutive bad weeks of rain in the summer, it can knock all of the suppliers back. Generators, structural, trackway and plant are all integral to our set-up and if ... Article continues below


have a problem, everything can grind to a halt for us. The only way any of us can deal with all types of problem is to choose the right people for the job. Whatever goes wrong, whether it’s caused by the elements or unforeseen circumstances, if you have the right personnel on board, the job gets done no matter what.”

Hillyard feels that such people are a precious resource; one which has too often been undervalued and even neglected. He concludes: “The industry has, unfortunately, been overlooking these people. We are all in the process of becoming more and more of a grown-up industry with proper human resources and health and safety policies and it’s changing for the better all the time, but we all need to look after these people. If we don’t, it will be difficult to keep hold of the highly skilled individuals that this industry relies on.”

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