Tour Managers: Your Key to Life on the Road

Photo by seabass creatives on Unsplash
Photo by seabass creatives on Unsplash

A few pros discuss how they make sure your stage time is stress-free.

Any artist will attest that when you’re on the road, your hands will be more than full. Familiar routines (such as eating and sleeping) go out the window; perils—technology snags, stolen gear, traffic—are many; the massive expenses mean the financial strain can be severe. Yet it’s a time when it’s more crucial than ever that your head stays where it needs to be: focused on the demands of creating and performing. You need to hand off the responsibilities for nuts-and-bolts planning to someone else. Enter your tour manager.

In an ideal world, a tour manager has one job: Making sure you don’t have to worry about anything else than the time you spend on stage every night. While a tour manager can assume varying levels of responsibility depending on the size and scope of your tour, it is critical to work with someone who’s a good personality fit with your group. “It’s all about having good communication,” says Larry McClain II, a tour manager who has recently worked with Rico Nasty, Jazmine Sullivan, and Jordan Bratton. Explaining the relationship from the perspective of his profession, he says, “You really have to get in sync with your artist on all levels, because you’re with them a lot. It’s a very unique relationship. The artist is trusting you. They have a huge part of their career in your hands.”

Getting going

If you’re a developing artist who has self-booked a circuit of hometown clubs, your tour manager may be a friend who agrees to help. According to McClain, “If it's not one of the homies who learns the job while the artist is still developing, [a tour manager] usually comes from recommendations from other artists or their agent.”

A tour of any size involves ample planning. In many cases it begins months before the first performance date and can include budgeting, routing, arranging transportation and hotels, and tending to all the sundry parts of the production, from renting basic gear elements to arranging more elaborate staging features like video walls or pyrotechnics.

Next, a tour manager “advances” a tour. In other words, they speak directly with a venue to review production requirements, stage plots, and the hospitality rider (sparkling water or still?). Typically, this occurs within several days or weeks of any given show, so it’s common for a tour manager to advance forthcoming dates on the tour as it progresses.

“Once you get on the road, your day-to-day becomes more actions. You’re doing a lot of things on the fly, and you’ve got to read and react,” says McClain, emphasizing the fact that even with the best advance planning, anything can happen.

Matt Clery is no stranger to improbable scenarios and unforeseen contingencies. As the owner of 1974 Touring, his clients—who include Courtney Love, Rey Pila, and Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers—keep him on the road at least six months of the year. Once he had to make the difficult decision to cancel a gig on the day of the show due to heated social protests in the area of the venue.

“We had already loaded in and begun soundcheck. Between conversations with the promoter and the local police department, we decided to cancel. They were worried about us—the safety of the band and the safety of the fans coming to see us—so we packed everything up and went on our way.”

Setting up at venues

Assuming that the show does go on as planned, there are a number of tasks a tour manager handles while on site at a venue. Load-in and soundcheck are supervised; the green room and hospitality are sussed out; guest lists and press credentials are sorted; if merchandise supply is low, orders are placed; meet-and-greets are facilitated. And all the while, shows down the line are advanced.

“Organization is the biggest part of it,” says Clery. “With so many moving parts, coming into a different venue every day, you have to make sure everybody [your own crew and the house staff] knows the finer points of what it takes to have your show go smoothly. It’s a matter of setting yourself up for success.” Eventually, it’s time for the show.

“One rule I was taught early on is to make sure the artist can be creative,” says McClain. “That’s all they have to worry about. I try to liaise with the right people so that my artist just has to think about What’s my dance move? What’s my setlist? Before they go on I do one final sweep of the stage to make sure it looks like no one has been there before, so that the artist comes out to a clean stage with a good energy.”

Over the course of the performance, but especially during the first two or three songs, the tour manager might run between “front of house,” the mixing desk in the middle of the floor where the main sound person operates, and the monitor mix desk at the side stage, making sure everything sounds good for both the audience and the artist.

When careful, advance planning does what it should, the artist is temporarily relieved of the rigors of the road, and transcendent moments happen on stage. Clery recounted a recent tour with The Strokes in South America, where the band’s following is legion. “Watching 90,000 people chanting along with a song makes you feel small but great the same time,” he says.

Tour managers don’t have time to enjoy the fruits of their labor for long.

Settling up

“Five minutes before the show is over, I’m back at the side stage to make sure the artist gets back to the green room,” says McClain. “Sometimes there’s a meet-and-greet. If not, I’m immediately breaking down the stage. Once everything is good I go straight to the venue or the promoter and say ‘All right, let’s settle.’” He adds, “‘Settle’ means ‘get the money.’”

Tour managers themselves are paid based on the situation. According to McClain, “For spot dates [one-off shows] a tour manager is paid a show rate, an advancing rate—which is typically half the show rate—and travel expenses. When it's a tour you tend to work out a weekly rate based on the scope of work.”

Clery explains, “There's a huge range of what your role is as a tour manager and what your pay can be. You can go from ‘I'm a tour manager for a band in a van and I'm also the front-of-house engineer and I also drive the van’ way up to the executive tour manager level where you're doing only arenas. [Your pay] can be anywhere from a weekly salary, a day rate, or you could possibly be on a retainer, where you have an annual salary and are contracted to be available when they need you.”

Part diplomat, part guardian, and part logistics guru: A good tour manager is arguably the unsung hero of any successful tour. If the road goes on forever, then it’s the tour managers who keep the wheels turning.

—Nate Baker

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