Tips from Seasoned Tour Managers
Some experts share advice that’ll help minimize stress while you’re on the road.
The skills and knowledge that make touring manageable, like so many aspects of the music business, aren’t generally learned from a handbook or a course in school—they’re gathered with experience. Much of the language and know-how of touring also gets passed along from one band to the next, like a shared knowledge bank that allows newer artists to benefit from the (sometimes hard) lessons learned by more seasoned ones.
And then there are tour managers. These experienced pros are there to help plan ahead, anticipate challenges, and generally help protect a band from the problems that can surround the logistics of touring so that the musicians can focus on performance. And while a TM is something of a luxury that not every budget can accommodate, the catch-22 is that younger bands need a TM more than anyone to compensate for their lack of experience. So we sat down with a couple of seasoned tour managers to ask them what you need to know to make the experience as painless as possible.
Mind the schedule and be on time
“Always give yourself way more time than you think you need to get to a venue,” says Greg Marvin, former member of Dirty on Purpose and an experienced tour manager for Parquet Courts, Palma Violets, and others. “I usually add in an extra hour for every three hours of travel, just to be safe. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in traffic and running late to a gig. Even if it’s many hours before soundcheck, being late can ruin the whole day.”
Tour managers plan schedules to account for unseen variables, usually based on personal experience. So they often suggest times (to depart for soundcheck, to leave town, to eat lunch—whatever) that may appear unnecessarily early or otherwise cruel—but the reason is that their job is to make sure all the pieces are in place so that you can give the best possible performance, and that all starts with good time management.
Tardiness for any one thing can lead to a domino effect in the show. Arriving late for load-in can lead to a canceled soundcheck, which means the sound guy will be mixing you on the fly and your output may not be optimal. Or, on a slightly less tangible level, it could mean a frazzled mindset, which often leads to mistakes on stage or off, such as missing a cue, forgetting to add a name to the guestlist, or just plain anxiety for the remainder of the performance. Get there early and be ready to work when the time comes.
Regardless of the city and venue, the schedule tends to stay relatively constant, and adhering to the rhythm of elements such as load-in, load-out, and soundcheck is crucial. “The schedule is virtually the same every day,” affirms Greg Daly, seasoned tour manager for Napalm Death, World / Inferno Friendship Society, Subhumans, Algiers, and many other bands. “I shouldn’t have to chase you down to make sure you get on stage. A band knows when they are on, roughly speaking, and should be ready to roll as appropriate.”
Don’t commit to something you don’t want to do
“Press can cut into limited free time and time with friends,” says Daly. “Buck up and deal with it, or don’t schedule it. But don’t commit if you’re not willing to do it.” Arranging press appearances is something he’s dealt with dozens of times, and it can get painful when artists don’t want to fulfill their responsibilities.
A growing band on tour will often have a fair amount of opportunities to work with the press, and though management, your label, and your PR team may push for as much exposure as possible, know your band and the limits of your energy so you don’t wind up with obligations that you don’t want to fulfill. Where that boundary lies is different for every band, and awareness of it becomes crucial when you are on the road with tight time constraints between gigs and travel.
Appreciate your surroundings
“I’m a big proponent of going out and exploring the city I’m in, even though I’ve probably been there several times already,” says Marvin. “Going for a walk means the rest of the band can have some space for a little bit, but it’s also good for getting to know the city you’re in and remembering that this is a place where people live—to get a sense of geography.”
The act of touring is, in itself, somewhat unnatural. A group of people sharing a van for hours at a time to travel somewhere and then spend more hours together can test anyone’s sanity, causing even the best of friends to become the worst of enemies. And it’s disorienting; it’s not all that shocking that a band like Guns N Roses, deprived of sleep, can lose track of where they are during a tour. The best way to combat that is to occasionally take time away from the group, and to get to know where you are—avoiding the endless cycle of green rooms, catering, and bandmembers looking at their phones for hours until stage time.
The Golden Rule
Making sure that people are treated with respect is a cornerstone for living. The local crew at any venue know their site inside and out, so develop a mutual respect by trusting that they will do the best they can to ensure your show goes off without a hitch. That’s not to say that you cannot voice your opinions, preferences, ideas, or anything else, but do so in an inquisitive, respectful manner. “The local crew is there for your show—they are not there to make your life more miserable,” notes Daly. “Be kind and realize their role in the entire thing, because they can make your life very difficult if they want to.”
If you earn a reputation as a band that’s a chore to work with, that reputation can linger and cling not only to individual bandmembers, but also to anyone associated with your touring party—something that none of you wants to lug around when you’re traveling from city to city and counting on quality work from each local crew. Word travels fast, people like to talk, and as Henry Rollins once said, “Nothing brings people together more than mutual hatred.”
When hiring a TM, know the role
If you’re in a position to hire your own tour manager, respect their guidance. “A tour manager is there to serve the greater good, which is making sure that a show happens the best way that it can,” says Daly. “A tour manager has nothing to gain by having a good tour—the spotlight will never be on them. It’s all for the band.“
Point being: The most important thing to know about a TM is that although they are hired by the band, it’s in the band’s best interest to follow the TM’s lead as far as making sure the tour goes smoothly. It can feel like an inherent contradiction to hire someone to be in charge of you, but each bandmember needs to trust that every decision the TM makes is in the band’s best interests.