One for the Road
It's 6:00 am. Your wake-up call comes via the direct phone line between the bus driver and your cozy bunk. As you stagger out of the bus door, the smell of diesel fuel greets you like an unwelcome friend. The hotel desk clerk, looking half as bewildered as you are at this hour, has your rooming lists, key packets, and previous day's faxes all in order (or are you still dreaming?). Once the luggage is unloaded and the bus drivers leave to forget a night of endless highway stupor, you retire to your room. The bed is inviting, but you fight the urge to get in it. Instead, you unpack your computer and begin printing out today's newsletter. Although the band is probably still asleep on the bus in the parking lot, they'll soon awake to be informed of lobby call, sound check, performance, and after show activities. It's nearing 8:00 a.m. now, you're not sure what city you are in or which day of the week it is, but that's all somewhat irrelevant. A production runner is on his or her way to pick you up and take you to the venue. Just enough time to search for the coffee machine in your room. It's going to be a long day...
Shoe in the Door
FOR THE LAST 18 MONTHS, I've crisscrossed three continents as road manager for Shania Twain's world tour. Like many things in the music industry, my calling was never applied for nor did it come with a concise job outline. Instead, it was the culmination of learning, networking, and persistence that led to a satisfying position. It all started with my decision to leave an electronic engineering career, which had me living in Europe, to pursue a career in music business. After three years of study at Berklee, I took the unusual step towards the touring end of the business by deciding against doing a record company internship. I visited the office of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and had an in-depth interview with Touring and Production Manager Billy Banks. He told me about an upcoming winter tour with Wynton Marsalis and his 16-piece jazz orchestra. He needed help in tackling the logistics of this huge undertaking and guaranteed hands-on experience. I packed my bags for New York with all the excitement such an opportunity inspires.
Working at Lincoln Center, I became involved in numerous aspects of the tour. My responsibilities included the collection and distribution of music, promoting the tour, and assembling vital equipment. Since it was an international tour, I was also involved in arranging for visas, carnets (for transporting equipment across international borders), and the logistics of travel, lodging, and communications. Along with these important tasks, the most memorable learning experience was actually riding on the tour buses and helping with production on-site. This was a huge step up from the basic phone, fax, and filing chores one might encounter at many internships. Banks became my mentor and helped me to understand the intricacies of life on the road.
Four months had passed in New York, during which I remained in contact with Shania Twain's tour director, George Travis. He was a connection that I had pursued though the recommendation of Berklee Associate Professor Jeff Dorenfeld. Although skeptical at first, Travis let me update him regularly on what I was involved with at Lincoln Center. Eventually, I had just about given up hope of hearing from him. Shania's tour was just months away and I wasn't expecting a call. The morning after I saw her perform at the Divas concert for VH1's "Save the Music," my phone rang. It was Travis asking me to come to Manhattan and talk details. He was insistent that I work for him, but also quick to point out that my responsibilities would be great. Translation: "I'll give you one shot so make the best of it!" The rest is history, as they say.
Despite my opening description of a typical morning for a road manager, many are probably wondering what does the road manager actually do? The responsibilities are vast and varied, making the job challenging. Since everything on a tour is coordinated between the production team, management, and the artist, duties will change from tour to tour. The main goal hews to the old cliché, "the show must go on." The following is an outline of what a typical tour may encompass for the road manager.
To start with, there are the initial pretour issues that need to be handled. These can be among the most massive efforts of the entire endeavor. Everyone has his or her jobs to do. The production manager handles all the technical aspects of the equipment and its transportation. The budget, ticketing, and contracts are handled by the tour accountant and the artist's management. For me, there were itineraries to be written, riders to be sent to all the promoters, and hotels to be booked. Added to all of this was the responsibility of seeing to it that rehearsals ran smoothly and that there was a balance of personalities among the nine musicians. For a touring act, the production office becomes the center of all activity and if a road manager is smart, he or she will pay attention to how things are run. It is not inconceivable that on occasion you'll have to fill someone else's shoes.
The only way to operate in your mobile world is to have a system. Typically, once checked into the "hotel du jour," you need to get to the venue early to handle any unexpected oversights. Runners are assigned to do your duty while you make sure that dressing rooms are assigned, the caterers are following your rider, and the production office is up and running. Meanwhile, the crew is well on their way to testing the sound system and your promoter is releasing any remaining seats. Once finished, you can return to the hotel in order to "advance" the next day's venue and hotel with information of your arrival and needs. This system remains fairly unchanged and it becomes refined to the point where it can be performed almost ritualistically.
One of a road manager's biggest responsibilities is being punctual and anticipating the unexpected. Getting the band to the sound check is not always as easy as one might think. Traffic, bus routes, and weather have all made for some interesting days. How about discovering that the venue has only one entrance for you and the thousands of fans that will be arriving, or that there is a campground outside the gates of the venue? Remember the importance of that early morning visit!
The most amazing situations have a way of presenting themselves on tour, but with good planning, everything runs like clockwork. Even the shows run on time these days. During the show, I like to participate in what is going on backstage although others might take this time to kick up their heels. One memorable time occurred in Syracuse, New York, when the weather at an outdoor show turned to a wild thunder and lightning event. The set became "all request" leaving nobody--including the techs and the sound guys--knowing what song would be called next. We were running around with instruments in a free-for-all in the middle of a downpour before eventually shutting the show down. Fortunately, the crowd did not go home feeling disappointed.
There are also special occasions that break the day-to-day routine. While on tour promoting an album, the artist is likely to be at a high point in his or her career. This provides for all kinds of interesting work like video shoots, television tapings, and award shows that have you rubbing elbows with the industry's most celebrated. It is quite a feat to have major artists brought in from all over the country for a show like the Grammy Awards telecast. Behind the scenes, the road manager may be arranging limousines, charter jets, wardrobe, make-up, and rehearsals. Frequently, you also become the on-duty accountant, translator, and main contact between the production staff and the artist's crew. Days like these are generally filled with more than the usual amount of excitement.
The Lure of the Road
Those wanting to become a road manager should start by looking at the touring positions that are available. As in most businesses, you start small and work your way up as you gain experience. The technically inclined may look into becoming the production manager or gear tech for a small touring group. They deal with stagehands, technical specifications, riders, and the transportation and maintenance of all the gear. Joining a production office staff is also a way to start. You can only imagine the effort that goes into carrying your own office across the country to handle all communications, faxes, and ticket issues that arise from city to city. Even being a tour accountant can lead to other positions.
The best way to get into the business of touring is to get a job at a venue where concerts take place. You might work as a stagehand and get to network with production crews. Working in the box office, you can network with tour accountants and promoters. In merchandising, you will meet tour accountants and merchandising companies. Other entry-level positions can come through working for a promoter. Although the promoters have their own corporate operations for buying and promoting shows, they also have many people in direct contact with the visiting artist and their crews. You might spend a summer as a production runner and work your way up to becoming a local promoter representative. Finally, if it is a record company job that you are leaning towards, there are departments that deal with touring and providing tour support for smaller acts. The bigger acts will have a record company representative at each show in each region dealing with promotional tickets, radio stations, media, and more.
One should keep in mind that the jobs directly related with tours often last only a few months or for a particular season. Even the longest tours end after a year or two. The freelance aspect of the job means that the contacts that you make will continue to be important throughout your career. This also means that your chances for advancement and taking on different responsibilities will come along faster than they will in an office environment.
Those few individuals who become seasoned veterans and work their way to the top of the field could find themselves on the conceptual side of the next blockbuster tour to circle the globe. Touring is an integral part of any artist's career. Not only does it promote their work, add revenue, and help them to gain exposure, touring allows an artist to be in direct contact with legions of fans.
Admittedly, it is the little things that make touring special. People have approached me and said, "I would quit my job and work for free if I could do what you do." I think to myself that if I actually worked the equivalent number of hours at another job, I could probably earn more. (I might even learn to enjoy flipping burgers.) Most of the uninitiated figure that a road manager is someone who has always loved to travel. Sure, you go places, but most of the time it means seeing only the scenery between the hotel and the venue. The best times are spent bonding with your bus mates and the crew who eventually become your rag-tag and dysfunctional surrogate family. It seems that even the most difficult situations eventually become nostalgic road stories: "Hey, remember that time in Des Moines when . . ." The greatest reward comes when you realize that as a direct result of your efforts, hundreds of thousands of people had a great experience hearing a favorite artist.
Picture the dressing room in an arena before the show. After a short vocal warm-up and band prayer, I become "band wrangler" and make sure that everyone is ready to roll on time. The crowd starts to roar as we are walking down the winding corridors in a scene eerily reminiscent of one from Spinal Tap. We exchange wishes for a good show and everyone gets their instrument from the techs for a last-minute check. The production manager gives me the signal to get my guys on stage. The air is thick with fog, and you can feel the anticipation. The house lights dim, a hush comes over the audience, and then the music begins. This is the payoff that makes the hundreds of nerve-wracking tasks that led to this moment all worthwhile.