The Ups & Downs Of A Life On The Road [INTERVIEW]
While a dream of many, a life on the road brings with it countless challenges, temptations, and setbacks, which is why it's so important to have someone with you to steer the ship. Here we talk with a veteran tour manager about how to manage the slings and arrows of touring.
Guest post from AWAL
Touring’s been a thing since our ancient ancestors wandered from cave to cave in search of the kind of naturally occurring acoustics that’d make Pensado blush, showing off their vocal chops as they imitated animals and beat back the darkness with hollers and hums. These traveling innovators might have earned their keep with berries and roasted squirrels — small-fry stuff when you visualize the 100s of millions of dollars on the table today.
Life on the road’s romanticized to no end. Kerouac novels and Almost Famous rabbit holes and just about every band documentary long ensured as much. It’s a beautiful thing to see the world off the strength of your music. It can also be harder than a sheet of graphene to keep that train on the tracks. Your larynx is under attack, time ceases to exist, and bad decisions call your name like Sirens in the night. Enter tour managers, stage right.
Tour managers exist to install some semblance of normalcy in a very not normal environment. They juggle jobs when necessary and mitigate risks always. Wonder Woman, Mr. Incredible, Captain Marvel, The Boy Who Lived and most firefighters all got their start in tour management for a reason. The more you know. As our artist and manager friends continue to grow their businesses far and wide, we’ll be spending more time spotlighting the folks who make it all possible.
Thomas Fitzner, a recent TM retiree who’s overseen tours big and small, kicks things off by talking with us about scaling live income, cutting costs, sidestepping international hiccups, and keeping minds intact when the going gets tough. Hit his site for helpful tour templates.
What’s the least amount of sleep you’ve averaged on a given tour?
"Three hours, average."
How have you learned to protect sanity (yours and the artist’s) on the road?
"Setting aside time for myself to do small things that feel like home. Walking to get a coffee in the morning / afternoon. Going to grab lunch / dinner outside of the venue / off the bus. Making sure it’s not all work all day with group activities like movies, team dinners, etc. Reminding the artist to take some time to rest, and to also let me deal with the headaches of managing the shows (and tour) and letting them focus on keeping their health (mental, physical, spiritual) up."
How did you see the responsibilities and definitions of tour management evolve with experience, as artists level up and road teams grow?
"Like with any business it’s all about scaling and setting yourself up to do so. Growing from 100 cap rooms to 1000 cap rooms / festivals you start recognizing places where you simply can't do everything and where you can improve and better the team. Once you recognize these inefficiencies you can start prioritizing the addition of team members that will most importantly make the show better, but in turn also makes everyone else’s jobs easier. With some artists audio experience itself is most important, so you start to look into adding engineers (front of house and/or monitor engineers) or adding band members depending on the artist and what vision they have for their show."
"With other artists the visual portion of the show is more important so you start looking into adding LD (lighting directors), VJs (video jockeys). Additionally, with some artists their show is more of a place for fans to congregate where it’s less about an organized hour-long show structure and more about the curated vibes during the show. With that usually comes an even higher level of celebrity which means you need to start thinking more about artist and team security and adding those team members. There are so many different ways to structure and build a team, but the most important thing to keep in mind is to think about what your specific team needs, and not necessarily what the 'industry standard' is."
How does the organizational structure of a bootstrapped beginner tour compare to packed, festival-filled summers?
"My first proper headliner tour ever was extremely bootstrapped. Lmao. Everyone was underpaid but we were all just stoked to be there and have built something together. If i remember correctly we were doing roughly 200-300 cap rooms and the first team structure was this:
- Tour Manager / LD / Stage Manager / Production Manager (yes i did all lol)
- Driver / TM Assistant
- Merchandiser / Meet & Greet Coordinator
- Photographer / Videographer / Editor
- Band Member – Drums / Guitar / Musical Director / Programmer / Playback
That first tour might have cost around $30,000 all-in We had $1000 for stage design and I stretched it as far as I could. With one of the last tours I did we were supporting on a tour that was selling out 2000 cap rooms. Our team (support artist) was the following:
- Tour Manager
- Personal Assistant to Artist
- Production Manager / Front of House
- Playback Engineer / Monitors / Stage Manager
- Photo / Video / Editor
- Drum Player
- Guitar Player
- Keys Player
- Merchandiser (that we shared with headliner)
- Bus Driver
Outside of that there are so many other team structures… I was advancing for a rapper who did a lot of international shows who would literally fly around the world for five figures a night with the following crew:
- Personal Assistant
- Photographer / Videographer (depending on the date)"
There's more pressure than ever on touring to supply artists' income, but as the shows get bigger, costs tend to follow suit. How have you saved money on the road?
"Taking advantage of the amenities venues offer (i.e. laundry, parking, showers, catering). Being smart with group spending — i.e. ordering an UberXL instead of two UberX. Combining team member with support / headliner where it makes sense — i.e. Merchandising, LD, VJ, FOH, MON."
"The goal is always to make money. However, sometimes you have to take an L on a (or a few) tours to establish the foundation of your touring business, just like you have to invest in start-up businesses in any other industry to get it off the ground. TOURING IS A BUSINESS NOT A GIMMICK. Touring isn’t *usually* something you can just walk into. To have a long-standing touring career you have to put in the hours and the work in the markets both physically and digitally to see the fruits of your labor, which you may not reap for years."
What’s the ideal lead time / timeline associated with managing a tour from start to finish?
"Ideally the artist’s management team has their year mapped out 12 months in advance and you are able to have your routing done six months in advance ahead of an album cycle, then you start piecing together production-related things three months out. Sometimes you have details and logistics that come together in the last few weeks (or days) and you just have to figure it out."
Any random facts / warnings you’d like to throw in?
"Foreign markets = foreign production regulations. Some foreign markets don’t abide by the same safety procedures and guidelines that we do here in the US, which in turn can potentially create an unsafe environment to put your crew in. The safety of your artist and crew is the #1 priority with any show. Also, applying for work visas (especially in Asian markets) is something to keep on the radar before agreeing to shows."
You often have to pay an entertainment tax in each state you perform in, too. By that point, you should consider getting an accountant or business manager if you don’t have one already, so you just give them a spreadsheet with each state, the vendor, and the amount spent / earned.
If your risk tolerance is zero, tour budgets can be routed off of guarantees, i.e. the amount of money you’d receive even if you sell no tickets. If the total guarantee for a tour is $500 per date and it’s 20 shows, the operating costs should be less than $10,000 to ensure you break even (again, if you want to remove as much risk as possible). There are a few different deal structures for shows, including…
- Flat Fee: Exactly what it sounds like, most common at colleges
- Flat Fee vs. % of Door: If the flat is $1000 and the % of door is 85% and that 85% ends up being worth $1500, you get $1500 instead of $1000
- Flat Fee vs. Gross Net Receipts Percentage: If the flat fee is $1000 and the show gross is $2000, and there are $500 in show expenses for the venue or promoter, you get 85% of ($2000 – $500), which is more than the $1000 flat fee.
Tour managing can often come down to mitigating risks. How have you tangibly achieved that goal?
"Everything with touring is about mitigating risks. My way of working has always catered towards getting as many problems and potential problems addressed before we arrive on site. This ultimately comes down to having a bulletproof advance process, and double-confirming everything. Once you’re on-site at a show it’s all about putting out fires and adjusting everything as much as possible to stick to the show routine."
"I had one show where the audio in the entire venue went out halfway through the artists’ set. It was something that was out of our control. The artist luckily had an acoustic guitar and embraced the sound issue by using the moment to engage even more with the fans by performing acapella. From there on out I always put into place a contingency plan with the entire team of what to do in these types of situations so that no one would feel panicked if it happened again."