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Why Every Indie Needs A Ninja Road Manager

NinjaThe role of tour manager requires an entirely different but equally important skillset from most other industry roles. Here we hear from David Burton, an incredibly seasoned veteran of the music industry with a vast swath of tour manager miles under his belt.

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Guest post David Burton for Indie.ninja

There are many different jobs in the music industry, but knowing who to hire and when to hire them requires thought and planning. The needs and budgets of developing artists and labels aren’t the same as those for established ones. Making the right decisions and hiring the right people is where indie.ninja comes in. ‘Why Every Indie Needs A Ninja’ lets you know when it’s time to bring in a professional and how they can help take your career to the next level.

Road managers (tour managers, TMs) have a reputation for being just as hardscrabble as the bands they wrangle from gig to gig. The major difference being that while the guitarist or drummer gets to sleep off their hangovers, the TM is up early working their tail off advancing shows, coordinating travel and hospitality and making sure the group gets paid at the end of the night. David Burton, a.k.a. “Dave Bourbon,” has led just about every New York City indie rock band of note across the country for the last several decades and continues to make sure they know where to find mandolin strings in the middle of Austin and that the beer rider is taken care of. Though he’s currently off the road and working in management, he’s got more miles on him than a used Ford Econoline and knows what goes into the job and when an artist needs to put someone else in charge.

2Hello, my name is David Burton. I am from the greater Los Angeles area and have lived in the Greenpoint / Williamsburg area of New York City since 1995 with stops at many points in between. I started as a stagehand in college, “managing” small bands and doing my best to promote shows as a 19 to 20-year-old kid with no money and no clue. I settled in Ireland for a while, worked in a nightclub, and would often shepherd visiting American bands around Dublin. Then I moved to London where I booked shows for visiting Irish bands, arranged vans and backlines, did merch, and went out on tour with them, before moving home in the early ‘90s. Some of the bands I’ve worked with are The Swans, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Hold Steady, Primal Scream, The Shins, Franz Ferdinand, Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective, and Broken Social Scene.

Being a road manager is sort of like being in a video game where anything can happen. On any day I have to deal with press, accounting, artist melt downs, hotel failures, work permits and joy and love from the power of rock n’ roll. I have been pretty fortunate that I have only left a few people behind, which is known as oil spotting, and have never personally had to bail anyone out of jail or had to deal with a person dying on the road, knock on wood. There have been many cases of missed flights, missing musicians, seized gear at customs, emergency room visits, lost luggage, immigration detention, fist fights, delusions of grandeur, leaving gear at the gig, guest list people threatening to kill you after stealing from the band and getting caught, relatives getting sick or dying while on the drive between Minneapolis and Missoula and there is no airport to get home from easily. For as many awesome people I have worked for, I have worked for some real curs as well, who tick all the boxes for borderline personality disorders and are not good at looking after themselves.

I encourage all bands to bring someone out on tour with them. Just as a baby sitter. It’s cheaper than divorce. Having someone along to keep things moving and be the dick at times also enables the band to keep to the task at hand, which is playing shows. Of course, for bigger bands there are a lot of moving parts that need to be in sync. When I see a younger or smaller band opening up for a band I’m tour managing, they are making so many mistakes that they would be better off paying a friend a couple of hundred bucks to drive, sell shirts, load gear, and get paid.

Some bands need a road manager almost immediately. There is a lot of learned reliance out there. It is shocking to me how some people function off the road without having someone around to tell them where to go and when to be there and where the bathroom is when it’s right behind them.

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