Live music doesn’t just happen when you’re dealing with artists as famous and creatively ambitious as Prince, John Legend, Green Day, Earth, Wind & Fire, Robert Plant, Alica Keys, and Tyler, the Creator. There are schedules. There are logistics. There are rehearsals. There are planes and buses and hotels. There are last-minute adjustments. There are things that need to sound just right.
For the past 35 years, those artists and countless more have relied on David Norman at one point or another to handle everything that goes into their national and global tours. He’s played the role of tour manager, tour accountant, and production manager for some of the most famous artists in the world.
Featured in our Co.Lab Sessions podcast series for his touring expertise, Norman discussed how he has to deal with unpredictable personalities and unmovable facts — and he has to make them all mesh. That’s meant dealing with an artist who implied a bus could be driven from Germany to London, a drummer who was hospitalized trying to set his drum set on fire, and a frontman who needed a bucket offstage to urinate in, among many other, less publishable mishaps. And that was all before COVID-19 made the process of putting on live music even more complicated.
“I used to love puzzles, and that's how I look at touring,” Norman said. “You have to take all of these different elements, and all of these different personalities that you have on the road, and kind of mold them into one coherent piece. Everything is like a domino.”
From Tragedy to a Crossroads
Once a “frustrated drummer,” Norman played in bands, including a Rush cover band, in high school, even going on tour with adults outside of Warner Robins, Georgia, where his father was stationed in the military. His parents loved all sorts of music, from country to jazz to R&B, and they infused and encouraged that eclectic taste in him. He might have had a life ahead as a performing musician himself until a few months after his high school graduation, when he got a call at 5:30 a.m. while out on the road.
His parents had been in a car accident. The band’s guitarist drove him straight back home in five hours, but by that time both of his parents had died.
Obsessed with music by that point and needing to surround himself with it to cope, Norman took the money that was left to him by his parents and used it to build a studio where he taught himself how to mix and engineer music. One of the young bands that he mixed songs for, AC Black out of Macon, Georgia, was signed by Motown Records, and when it was time for them to go on tour they asked if he’d drive their van.
He did everything for AC Black, from setting up drums and guitar rigs to driving and mixing the show. While the band did a leg opening for the electro-funk group the S.O.S Band, their tour manager, Karen Krattinger, was preparing to leave for another opportunity. She had been watching Norman work and asked if he would replace her. He accepted and has been helping artists perform live ever since.
“I lost that love [for performing] after I lost my parents,” Norman said. “So this was the next best thing to being there, you know, on the other side of it, still doing something where I'm making fans happy. They just don't know me.”
A Day in the Life Is Never the Same
Let’s take, for example, the Austin City Limits festival that Tyler, the Creator headlined two days after we spoke to Norman. “My job [for this performance] probably goes back four months prior,” Norman said from an Austin hotel room. He had to schedule and inform the festival of how many stage risers they would use and how many stagehands they would need. He needed to figure out if the festival provided catering and hospitality for his crew. He had to brief the local fire marshall on their pyrotechnic plans.
And that’s just one stop (albeit an elaborate one) in a global tour. Regardless of which artist he’s working for, he’ll have to anticipate and solve problems they’ll never know about and adhere to the whims of their requests. Prince (one of his favorite artists he ever worked with) taught Norman a valuable lesson: When an artist has a question, the tour manager needs an answer.
“You're the facilitator, you're the magic maker, you're the psychiatrist and therapist, you're the doctor, you're the everything,” Norman explained.
An Overdue Racial Reckoning
As a person of color, Norman has occupied a rare place in the touring industry. Sometimes Black musicians will have Black tour managers, but Norman says it’s not common. And white country or rock acts? Even rarer.
Norman’s been fortunate, in that regard, that he’s been recognized for how good he is at his job. Still, Norman says any industry-wide progress over his 35 years in music has been unacceptably slow.
With his impressive CV, when Norman is hired to run a tour for someone like Tyler, the Creator, he’s allowed to hire whoever he needs to do his job well. His company, Tour Forensics, emphasizes a need for hiring women, POC, and members of the LGBTQ community for the betterment of the live music industry.
There’s a double standard as a tour manager that white men don’t face, Norman claims. “We have to prove ourselves two to three times more than white males,” said Norman.
But, Norman claims, the divisiveness of the prior White House administration coupled with the national racial awakening following the murder of George Floyd by police has made people in the touring industry take a moment to recognize the need to hire people of color in these positions. He’s seeing more and more new faces since being back on tour, and those faces don’t all look the same.
Is There a Right Way to Tour in 2021?
Norman was two days away from flying to South America for Lollapalooza in early 2020 when he received word that it was canceled. At the time, he didn’t think much of it. There were plenty of other shows. But soon, they would all be canceled because of COVID-19. Live music – his job – was taken away from him, and he became depressed.
The quickest way out of that mental slump, it turned out, was speaking to university classes and mentoring young people in the music business. You can’t prepare someone for the unpredictability of a tour, but the job is to react.
In 2021, Norman says that a decision every artist should be making is a vaccination mandate for every crew member. He understands it’s not an easy decision, but he knows his way around the delicacy of tour logistics. “If one person gets sick, it affects not just that one person, it affects everyone that's on that bus,” he said. The artist may be safe, but if one person exposes an entire sound team, the cost and risk of replacing that entire team on short notice is nearly untenable.
The idea relates to a simple notion that Norman has picked up in his 35 years: being helpful and considerate to everyone involved. The soundcheck and on-site planning for Tyler, the Creator’s ACL show were important, but just as important was doing them in an efficient manner, because other acts had to do the same work. The on-site staff needed time to rest. Tyler was the headliner, but putting anyone in that festival in a difficult position could be a domino that affected his performance. Part of everyone’s job is to help make sure that everyone else is in good spirits and a healthy frame of mind.
“Tyler should be able to get to the festival, do his show, and leave. That’s his job,” said Norman. “Our job is to facilitate all of that stuff, and to make sure that the audience and Tyler have a great time.”
To hear more from David Norman, listen to his episode of our Co.Lab Sessions podcast below, and click here to browse more episodes from the series.