Do you tend to handpick the artists that you specifically work with?
For the most part I’ve TMd artists I also manage. Getting closer to them, and meeting their promoters and label partners around the world are hugely beneficial consequences of discharging the role. Otherwise I’m asked to do it either by booking agents or artists who know me personally. I’m 45; I’m done taking risks on artists I don’t know who’re doing their first tours and want to live the rock and roll lifestyle. Fuck the rock and roll lifestyle.
How far in advance do young bands need to plan ahead of a tour? Is there an ideal run up time?
As soon as you can. If you’ve got a confirmed run of dates there’s plenty you can lock in; accommodation, van hire, booking time off work if you need to … certain times of year are busier than others for touring, though if you’re planning to tour the East coast of the US in January, you should be fine to book a van last minute because most bands try to avoid driving in six foot snow drifts in order to avoid dying.
When planning a tour, how can new bands work out where they should be playing? What are the most important factors/influencers for them in finding out where their audience are?
The most important indicator would be if you have fans saying “We live in X town and we want you to come and play”. Beyond that it moves into (hopefully educated) guess-work. Some online platforms (Spotify, Facebook) have analytics than can let you see where your fans/listeners are based, which can help. But not all bands are created equal, and not everyone tours for the same reasons. A band with money behind them – through their own jobs, or parents, say – might decide to tour partly for fun, with less concern about the bottom-line, and another band with no backing will have to learn how to carefully plan their routing to avoid unnecessary fuel costs.
How can emerging bands be best prepared to ensure they don’t lose money when they head out on the road? Or is this totally unrealistic?
It’s pretty unrealistic. There aren’t enough people in the world with both a disposable income and interest in supporting live music for every band to come out of this in profit, or even to find any level of success, however each band wants to define the word. If most bands went to a bank manager with a business plan and attempted to have a tour funded, they’re be turned down, so bands need to consider how much they’re prepared to lose, and for how long. Everyone has a limit, and most bands are fuelled by passion as much as finance.
They’ll argue, get a parking ticket, book the right hotel in the right town on the wrong day, perform badly, reverse the van into a wall, pull a muscle trying to lift a heavy amp alone, get sick through a bad diet and sharing the same three enclosed spaces for 24 hours a day (van, venue, hotel room). They’ll also have an amazing time, get away with the parking ticket because the Italian authorities can’t be bothered chasing them for 50€, do the best show of their career and eat world-class bread and cheese (France). There’s an anecdote I use when I lecture about touring, which references the film ‘Contact’ with Jodie Foster. The NASA scientist gives her a capsule of cyanide before she goes to meet the aliens and tells her they’ve been giving them to the astronauts since the space program began. It’s not for all the things they think might happen. It’s space: it’s for all the things they can’t imagine will happen. Same goes for the road, but most bands replace the cyanide with alcohol.
What does your day-to-day role entail?
Every day will be very different. The foundation for a day on the road is that there’s not much of a foundation. Or anyway, it is rarely predictable. Touring occurs in what’s largely an uncontrolled environment, unlike your office or lecture room which are static environments. That said, each day has a very simple 3-stage plan:
1. Get band to venue safely
2. Get band on stage on time
3. Get band to bed safely
What are the working conditions like on and off tour? (hours, comfort, job security, etc.)
Off tour, if I’m doing a pre-tour advance, I’m sitting at a laptop, like hundreds of millions of other people. Working conditions on the road are often challenging.
Here’s an extract from one of my tour diaries, with Savages:
One of the many benefits of touring by van as opposed to touring by sleeper bus is that we take hotels every night, which means we can have showers every night after work if we want them, and again in the morning if we’re feeling decadent, or if we shat ourselves in our sleep. This means that we’re generally clean during what – for Tour Managers and crew at least – is a very dirty job. Vans are microcosms of bacteria and sickness. Injury and ill-health are never far away and this is not a vocation for the squeamish or prissy. In loud environments we shout into each other’s ears, leaving trails of spittle behind, while our hearing slowly deteriorates and the long hours add weeks and months to our faces. We bruise and cut our shins on the edges of stages and pull muscles in our backs when manoeuvring bass cabinets. If someone gets a throat infection, cold or some other transmittable bug, there’s a good chance we’ll all get it, what with being in such close proximity to each other for 23 and a half hours a day (taking 30 minutes alone in the bathroom). When van hire companies wash their vans before you take them out, they don’t disinfect the wheel or gear stick, so you’re grasping the sweat, piss and faeces of every driver that’s ever driven the thing. The handles of your guitar cases have been held by countless production staff, many of whom will have taken a dump and scratched their balls (production staff are almost invariably men, and that needs to change) not minutes before you’ve arrived to load in, and after shaking hands with festival stage managers, who’ve been shaking hands with every member of every band’s crew since ten o’clock that morning, and haven’t had time to stop in front of a sink with hot water and soap the whole day and night, your own hands will be ingrained with the snot, shit and bodily fluids of a hundred men and women.
When bands play shows on a tour, what can they do to increase their fan base on the night itself? Alongside playing the best sets they can?
That’s about the best advice. Ahead of the show: good promotion. On the night: play well. After the show: say thanks, in person and online.
How has touring/the live music industry changed in recent years? Has it become easier/tougher for young bands to get out there and perform?
It’s hard to compare anything year on year, whether it’s touring, streaming numbers, or why your knitted-hat business is doing better/worse. The world isn’t a static environment. It’s never been easy for bands to tour because touring isn’t easy. There were less bands years ago and less things to do with our time – the internet and the explosion of hand-held technologies have given us another ‘world’ to inhabit without leaving the house in recent years – but those same technologies have enabled bands to be more strategic, to plan better, to be better informed, and these same technologies have also led to many more bands forming, for a number of reasons, which has crowded the market. The industry itself has certainly changed, as most businesses have to some extent. Budget airlines have made flying cheaper, the proliferation of car ownership has made driving more difficult. The number of music festivals has increased the number of slots available for new bands, the number of new bands forming has made the fight for those slots incredibly competitive. Promoters are getting better at catering to those with dietary restrictions. Free Wi-Fi is more readily available. New tour management apps are (slowly) emerging. Some of the changes are demonstrably good or bad, some come down to how optimistic you are by nature.
What item of clothing/food/drink or anything else is indispensable when touring?
– Noise-canceling headphones (Bose)
– Moulded earplugs (ACS)
– A packet of Sharpies
I’ll slightly alter the question in my head and say: Don’t eat junk food. You’ll be doing 18-20 hour days and your body needs fuel. Unless you’re in your early 20s then sure, eat any old shit. You’ll be fine until you’re about 27, 28. Try and avoid alcohol every day. In my experience, people who drink alcohol on the road every day tend to have a drinking problem. It can certainly be problematic to be around it. There’s nothing romantic about it, though we (as an industry) seem to think it’s okay to put a bottle of whiskey and 24 cans of beer in musicians’ places of work (dressing rooms) at four o’clock in the afternoon. Try that in any other industry and see how fast you get sacked.
What were your previous roles, and what experience developed and prepared you for your role as a Tour Manager? What personality traits are best honed in advance of hitting the road?
I’ve been an artist manager (still am; it’s the heart of my business) venue founder and co-owner, festival booker, label manager (multiple times), lecturer and mentor. It’s been a packed 28 years. My route to TMing was – from one perspective – very direct: I like music, traveling, helping people and customer service. That’s Tour Management.
Being aware of your own personality and how it affects others is the most important thing. Annoying trait + 20 hour day in enclosed spaces = arguments. We’ve all got quirks and idiosyncrasies that piss people off. Be empathetic.
Not everyone is built for the road. Be kind to and supportive of each other. You’re all in the same boat. Everyone’s cold, everyone’s tired, everyone’s hungry, but do your best not to moan and complain about it. Do something about it instead. Moaning is tour cancer. As is slacking off during load in and load out. Everyone loads in and loads out, unless they’re sick.
What skills does a Tour Manager need to be successful and consistent throughout their career?
Patience, diligence, diplomacy, empathy, a head for logistics, and the ability to sleep anywhere. That said, there are plenty of Tour Managers who suck at all this and still manage to get work.
At the beginning of your career, have you struggled getting used to a particular role or task which you did not think was going to be part of your job?
At the beginning, with no one to show me the ropes, I struggled to get used to the entire role. Sleeping on a moving bed isn’t natural, nor is getting four hours sleep for days in a row, or moving your office to a new city (and sometimes country) every day, where your office colleagues are different people, some of whom may not speak your language, where it’s acceptable for people to drink while they’re working and when you’re packing up for the day someone wheels in a DJ and suddenly you’re trying to do your job in the middle of a fucking nightclub. It’s a bizarre environment. The one aspect I’ve never got used to – and never will – is letting people down when I make a mistake. It’s going to happen, and people are generally understanding giving the situation, but I still don’t find it easy to deal with. It’s a character flaw I can’t seem to fix.
The Tour Manager covers a high number of roles and is usually involved with a large range of activities. What do you think are the most crucial in today’s industry to smoothly run a tour?
It’s a tough question to answer. I could give ten different answers, all true. It’s crucial to be patient, diplomatic, understanding, resilient, logical, creative… I can go on. Equally, on some tours you might get away with not being some of those things. There are three-month-long bus tours of North America and there are three-week-long tours of Singapore, Auckland and Australia. For me, the former was one of the toughest three months of my life and the latter one of the most relaxing three weeks. Further, I don’t know that the modern industry presents any major challenges that didn’t also exist decades ago. It could be argued that technology has made touring easier. I once planned a US tour in 1991 without the internet. I can’t work out how it was possible, looking back at it.
A Tour Manager’s skills are extremely varied. Do these change over time? You’ve said it’s difficult to compare touring over the years, but have you noticed an evolution in the fundamental skills of a Tour Manager? Did you have to learn any new abilities to remain successful in your job over the years?
Nah, the role hasn’t changed much. Touring has become more professional though, as it’s become a more financially lucrative component of an artist’s career (for those playing larger venues with the capacity to generate substantial income), but for a Tour Manager that just means having to worry less about paying for a TV that’s been thrown into a swimming pool. It’s important to remember that there’s no barrier to entry for this job, no qualifications to achieve. Any idiot can do it, and plenty do, but how many people do you know who’re actually good at their jobs, in any walk of life? We’re mostly just doing the bare minimum and getting away with it. Same with Tour Managers. When people (artists and crew) abdicate all responsibility for their day-to-day care to someone else, it’s pretty easy for that someone else to do the bare minimum and get away with it, hiding their mistakes. God knows I’ve hidden plenty of mine.
It seems like many of the challenges of touring are related to finance, organising issues and time management. Most of these issues end up getting solved, but what are the mistakes that have seriously damaged a tour in your experience? And do you think the challenges of tour managing include securing a job in the field, career advancements, and personal financial stability?
I’ve never made a mistake that’s seriously damaged a tour, though I suppose that depends upon your definition of “seriously damaged”. I’ve made plenty that have caused problems, most of which I’ve been able to fix on my own without anyone else noticing. I’ve made others which have seriously damaged my bank balance, like booking nine flights to Berlin, forgetting I did it and booking them again a week later. I also once flew a band into Manchester for a festival, on the wrong day. Genius.
Did you ever find yourself in a position of needing a break from tour managing because of stress and poor working conditions?
Yes, usually about five days into a tour.
What is the main thing you’ve learned from your time on tour?
The damage alcohol can do, and the extent to which the industry doesn’t give a shit. Otherwise, what an utterly bizarre way of living it is, and how difficult it can be to articulate that to someone who’s never done it.
I get to travel the world and see fascinating places. I get to spend time at airports. I like airports. My bills are paid (no food, accommodation, mobile phone or utilities), the pay can be good, though when you work it out to hours worked it’s not so good. It’s exciting and challenging. I like to juggle logistics and fix problems. I like to take care of people. I suppose the last reason is what keeps me going back.
If you’re interested in getting inside the intricacies, mechanics and traumas of a tour, put the kettle on and read these:
A tour diary from Savages’ first Mainland European tour, 2012
A tour diary from East India Youth’s first (and last) North American tour, 2015