The Beginning of Modern Backline
by John Hanti
with Steven Acker
One fateful day in 1967, at Hollywood’s Paramount Studios, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels needed a bass guitar. A call went out to two young guys named Ken Barry and Dolph Rempp, who delivered and rented a bass guitar to the band. Foreseeing the need, and possibly a lucrative opportunity, Barry and Rempp formed Studio Instrument Rentals, now known simply as S.I.R.
The first rock band backline firm was born.
For decades, touring rock bands in America relied on primitive PA’s for the vocals, and amp stacks for the instruments. They blasted the halls with volume but had little control of the tone. Typically, production managers would group the PA speakers and the amps in a single line behind the band. By the 80s, PA’s had become far more powerful. That shifted the arrangement. They moved the P.S. speakers up front, stage left and stage right. Monitors were added. Amps and instruments remained on stage, behind the band, mic’d up and running through the PA.
That array of amps and instruments came to be known as Backline.
How More Powerful P.A. Systems Spawned Backline
Traveling musicians soon found it easier to cross the oceans, to cross the continent, and to cross the world’s many borders with rented equipment. Renting saved wear and tear on their own personal instruments and eased the hassles of international power and customs requirements. Festival and venue promoters found rented backline more convenient and efficient. It reduced the time it took to set up the next band, with a more consistent quality of sound.
For 15 more years, backline remained a simple industry, limited in scope to large venues and tours. Most bands continued to tour much as they always had since the day Bill Black strapped an upright bass to the roof of Elvis’s Cadillac. They roughed it.
The transformation from early backline to modern backline came not in Los Angeles, but in New York City, sparked largely by the Second British Invasion. John Hanti was one of a handful of music industry impresarios in the City who facilitated this transformation, and this is how it happened.
Setting the Stage: The New Music Seminar, New York City, 1980
I’m John Hanti. In 1982, I founded a backline company in New York City called SST, an acronym for Studios, Systems, and Transport.
When we talk about the birth of modern backline rentals, we must talk about the Second British Invasion of the early 1980s and how it stimulated the production industry. Several seminal organizations contributed to this.
The New Music Seminar in New York City started when two bright young guys named Danny Heaps and Tom Silverman launched an alternative music paper called the New Music Press. To augment their coverage of current dance charts, they started the New Music Seminar to showcase New York talent. It was an instant industry hit. Not long after that came Bob Chapparddi. He owned Concrete Marketing. Concrete was the marketing arm for heavy metal labels like Metal Blade. They handled bands like early Metallica and Megadeath Yet another media company emerged from Long Island called College Media Journal. They dealt strictly with college radio, with bands popular in the college market.
I was involved or connected in some way to each of these organizations. They would soon play roles in the beginnings of modern Backline.
Meanwhile, I had a club called The Eighties on the Upper West Side with Neil Cooper. The Eighties was home base for the eclectic arts community surrounding it. While Lower East Side clubs like CBGB's featured Punk and New Wave bands, The Eighties club had a more cerebral vibe.
We played bands like Television, Lydia Lunch, and the Breakfast Club. They weren't Punk, They weren't Pop. There were just new bands doing their own thing. We played Madonna and the Millionaires when Madonna was just another aspiring singer. We played Johnny Thunders (post-New York Dolls), Huey Lewis and the News, and so forth.
I handled the bookings and sound. Neil handled advertising and promotion. There was no great need for Backline yet, for these were all New York musicians. They brought their own equipment.
Ruth Polsky and the Second British Invasion
John Hanti (Left) with Ruth Polsky (in hat) on the train, 1984
By 1982. I had put together a rehearsal room in Manhattan, a sizable van, and a respectable stockpile of equipment. My friend, New York talent buyer Ruth Polsky, was booking a West Side Club called the Danceteria, importing a slew of post-punk bands from Great Britain to New York. Leading that invasion were bands like The Smiths, the Police, and New Order. Goth Rock bands like the Damned and the Cure soon followed.
With record label and management support, they made their way to Manhattan for one-off shows at the Danceteria and other hip Manhattan clubs. These shows were primarily for the benefit of the media. One rave review could jump-start a new band’s career in America. Such a review might also draw the attention of MTV, the most powerful musical marketing force in America. And one video on MTV could catapult a band to fame.
Polsky’s protégé’s were limited by their labels and their managers to only one or two shows in the City. She was not satisfied with that. She wanted to extend their exposure by sending them out on tour along the Eastern Seaboard before sending them back to Britain. She knew that to pull that off she would need to equip them first. The bands would need a road manager and a sound tech.
This was why Ruth Polsky came to me--because I had what she needed. I was her guy.
The modern backline business began in New York in the early 80s because New York was the first stop for the bands of the Second British Invasion. That was why I opened SST. Ironically, SST was born in the same building that S.I.R. New York now calls home.
ENTER THE NEW MUSIC SEMINAR
This was the scene in Manhattan when Danny Heaps and Tom Silverman showed up at the Eighties. They ran a little alternative music paper called the New Music Press that covered the latest releases on the dance charts. In 1980, Tom and Danny extended their influence by starting an annual music industry event called the New Music Seminar.
Neil befriended Heaps and Silverman; who would use our club to try out new records and work on their sets, as well as to review the acts we were playing. We had no idea then that Tommy Silverman would go on to start Tommy Boy Records and that Danny Heaps would end up becoming a major player at Geffen. They came up with the idea of holding a New Music Seminar” and they booked the large rehearsal room at S.I.R. in New York to host it.
It was a small event—about 200 attendees. The event exploded in subsequent years, expanding its focus to cover the growth of the music industries, and to include a music showcase festival called, “New Music Nights.” These were held in various New York City area clubs and venues and were eventually opened to the public.
The Smiths (featuring a very young Morrisey)--one of the bands SST worked with during the Second Britsh Invation
I was building SST at the time. We had by then acquired six 15-passenger vans and a substantial inventory of backline gear. Tommy and Danny knew I had a working knowledge of the bands they wanted to import from Great Britain. The bands would be a major draw for the seminar, and the New York industry’s opportunity to see them. It was a brilliant move.
Building upon Ruth Polsky’s pioneering ideas, these live events became the catalyst for international showcases which, in turn, stimulated American record labels to export their new signees to international territories, and vice-versa.
But the NMS had a problem: how to handle the equipment needs of more than a hundred bands arriving in New York from overseas? S.I.R, the leading backline provider of the day, had no passenger vans, nor did they boast the staff to run the show. SST had the vans, the gear, and the staff.
So, I got the call and I accepted the challenge.
The NMS was an enormous undertaking. The challenge was to organize and utilize virtually every piece of gear available in the city. I made sub-rental deals with S.I.R., Carroll Music, The Toy Specialist, and Danny Brill at Keyboard Instrument Rentals. The Seminar shows kept SST gear, vans, and crew in perpetual motion during its five-day schedule. We would pick up backline at the venues as late as four-in-the-morning, return it to our warehouse for repackaging and checkups, and start deliveries again and 10:00 that morning.
So many great bands! And it was my job to make them all happy. We had not a single fail in five days, not one disaster; it was all smooth sailing. This significantly elevated SST’s standing in New York as a first-class backline operation.
The NMS prompted us to grow in ways we never expected. It became the foundation of our philosophy: to hire only the most dedicated employees who were willing to represent SST above and beyond the call of duty. It was not a 9-to-5 job. It was a 24/7 calling.
The long-term success of any company rests in the hands of its staff every bit as much as its management. I believe, in fact, that the workers on the ground are more critical to that success than management decisions. SST would not have the stellar reputation we enjoy today without all the wonderful people who have worked for us over the past 35 years.
The New Music Seminar was the mother that gave birth to the modern backline rental industry…a baby nourished by the law of supply and demand.
With the demands of a hundred new bands hitting our shores from overseas came the need for supply. They required vans, drivers, techs, and backline. These bands would hit the road self-contained in one 15-passenger van. We’d remove two seats in the back to make room for the backline. The more successful of these bands rented cargo vans for the backline to make more room in the van for band and crew. A select few got enough airplay and pay to even rent a tour bus and trailer. They’d pull up to SST’s warehouse to load them up with backline gear.
This massive influx of new talent also created a need to supply gear for talk show television appearances. The bands who were on tour would have to leave their backline in Boston, or wherever, to make quick trips back to the City for an afternoon TV performance and they would need backline for those shows.
In the beginning, there was S.I.R. Studio Instrument Rentals. That’s what they did; they rented gear for recording studio sessions. After the New Music Seminar, and throughout the resulting Second British Invasion, backline rentals evolved into a whole new ball game, with SST as a starting player.