Recently, a musician friend, Eric Barfield, reached out to me on Facebook and asked if I could write on what I’ve learned through my experience as a tour manager with the Air Force band. I agreed and so without further ado, here you go, Eric!
Working as a tour manager can be incredibly rewarding but is an enormous amount of work and is especially difficult when you are also fulfilling a performance role (for smaller bands, a member might also be the tour manager). I can tell you that the more forethought that you put into the tour, the more you will be prepared when things don’t go according to plan. Murphy’s Law states that, “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Even the best-laid plans fall through. The key to tour management that I have found is becoming an eternal Murphy’s compensator. Oh, and lots of flexibility. Lots.
(Note: This post is geared towards the planning/execution of a tour minus budgeting. There could be a whole series of posts on tour budgeting, but this one is NOT focusing on the financial aspect as that will be vastly different for each tour situation. Please keep this in mind as you read. Thanks!)
For starters, here is a short list of things that WILL happen at some point during one or more of your tours:
- The band’s/your gear will be left at an airport or the airline won’t put it on your plane.
- The backline company’s gear won’t work or it won’t be what you asked for.
- The bus/taxi/plane/gear truck will be late at some point.
- The hotel will mess up the room reservations.
- You will NOT get much of a soundcheck due to #3.
- On international tours, power converters will NOT always be available.
The list could go on and on. You may have noticed on the list that there are a few things that would be completely outside your control if they were to happen. That is a key factor to keep in mind when running a tour. As much as you would like to think that you have everything under control being a tour manager (with the best intentions, of course), the reality is that you don’t. No matter how much you plan. But, here is the good news: you can be that eternal Murphy’s compensator to help out when things go wrong. Here are a couple of things off the top of my head that you can control:
- Get Organized!
If you are going to plan/execute a tour, you must be organized. What does this mean? Create an itinerary for the band and make sure it’s concise and to the point. Include important phone numbers, hotel info, addresses, and most importantly, daily schedule. If your gig is in a different time zone and you have planes to catch, be sure the schedule reflects it correctly. That being said, don’t muddle up the band’s itinerary with any more information than they need (i.e. the sponsor’s phone number. One band point-of-contact is enough and that is you). You should have the rest of information you need organized separately from the band itinerary. Having a band itinerary will put everyone on the same page so there is to be as little confusion as possible.
- Think through every step of the tour, before ever taking a step
This sits very closely with #1. From you (and your band) piling up gear in the living room before the tour, all the way back to unpacking gear after the tour, you need to go over every step and think about all of the things that could go wrong. Don’t micro-manage the band (i.e. don’t tell them what to pack necessarily), but think in your head about every single step and try to counter the bad outcomes with solutions to avoid them.
- Double-check on the backline
Depending on how warm and fuzzy you are feeling about the sponsor and backline company, a phone call with a follow-up email (if needed, include the requested gear list) the day prior to a gig is a really good idea. Furthermore, in the event of a gear crisis, check and see if there is a music store or two in the area where you could grab something in the event of an emergency. This is especially true for international tours. If you research prior to your arrival, you can be that much more prepared if something goes wrong.
- Know the power situation at the gig site
We take power for granted in the US but let me tell you that if you travel abroad, depending on where you go, it can become a big issue very quickly. Big venues generally won’t be an issue, but smaller, non-traditional venues can be iffy for powerful gear (i.e. a church or restaurant). Before you even set foot on the plane, ask about power availability at the gig site. If you are a US-based band, do they have 110-volt power drops on stage? If not, do they have converters available? Keep in mind that while your backline might come from a local company, the gear you are bringing (i.e. pedalboard, keyboard, latest-live-tech-gizmo) might only support 110 volt. That being said, many companies are making their gear compatible with both so that all you have to do is convert the plug. However, don’t leave it to chance. It’s always best to check.
- Check the foreign driver laws
If you are traveling internationally and you require a rental vehicle, or your ride from the airport falls through and a taxi won’t do, then someone may have to drive. Use a lot of caution with this one as driving in another country can be extremely hazardous for someone who isn’t used to it. Check the laws and have a contingency plan for your transportation falling through, whether it includes a band member driving or not.
- For international tours, make sure everyone has a passport
For seasoned folks, this will be a no-brainer, but if you are new to this, it is easy to forget. Enough said.
- Be prepared to argue, nicely
You will have disagreements with not only the rest of the band, but also the sponsor, the hotel, the backline company, and anyone else you come in contact with. Blowing up is not recommended. Tactful, non-expletive, problem solving is usually the best way to go. There will be times where no amount of tact will work. These are times where you get through the show (come hell or high water), draw a line through the sponsors name, have a beer, and never come back.
- Remain flexible
As mentioned earlier, things will go wrong. Being flexible and willing to adapt on the fly is paramount to a tour’s success.
- Know that you will screw something up
Everyone does it at some point and that is how we learn. It’s not the fall that counts; it’s how you bounce back and recover. Live, learn, and grow.
This list is fairly broad (off the top of my head) and most certainly not all-inclusive. These are just a few things that can help get you pointed in the right direction for your touring endeavors. I could keep going on and on about the various things to check and re-check. Every time I go out on tour, I’m learning something new whether I’m the tour manager or not! There are books bursting at their seams with information about touring and what to do and what not to do. However, regardless of how much you read or write, there will always be some tour experience that will have you scratching your head wondering, “How are we going to get out of this?”
Do you have questions, comments, additions, or good road stories? Please share them in the comments below!