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Who Do You Need on the Road?

This blog post came from Spotify.

A guide to the support crew you’ll need to ensure that every show is seamless.

When Henry Rollins named his now-classic Black Flag tour diary Get in the Van, the title pretty much summed up their travel strategy. He was recalling his days in a band that never dealt with a large road crew—it was just throw the gear in the back of the van and go. The idea lives up to an appealingly rogue-ish archetype for a certain kind of band and performance, but it’s not what will work for everyone.

In terms of both equipment and personnel, no two bands’ requirements for touring are going to be identical. Hiring to meet the needs of any production—whether minimalist or more complex as an act’s ambitions shift—is as crucial to having a good show as a well-rehearsed setlist. If you get to a point where the pressure of managing your show’s production demands is detracting from your ability to focus on performing, it’s probably time to hire some help.

The size of your road crew will scale in proportion to your budget and how elaborate your show is. We’ve gathered a list of the most common positions and responsibilities. Note that each of these roles may necessitate its own army of assistants to help based on the artists’ wants and needs.

Tour manager: While you and your artist manager are the ultimate decision-makers in nearly all situations, next in line of authority when you’re on the road is the tour manager (TM). If you only have the budget to fill one road-crew position, this is the one you’ll fill. Responsible for the tour as a whole, the TM handles everything from advances to band payouts and all stops in between. They oversee the rest of the road crew, handle top-level logistics, and ensure that all travel plans are squared away. In general, a TM makes sure that all elements of a show—the production, the sound, the merch, or literally anything else—are planned and executed with precision. Think of them as the 18-wheeler that keeps the entire production moving forward.

Production manager: The production manager oversees the technical portion of the stage show, coordinating the individual parts to make sure that they come together to form a cohesive whole. The production manager reports to the TM and is usually on-site for setup before the rest of the crew. The stage manager, sound crew, lighting engineer, catering staff, and drivers all report to them.

Stage manager: The stage manager is in charge of the stage level, measuring and laying out the correct plot, planning the backline, coordinating with the support bands with regards to their stage plots and layouts, interacting with the house crew, and making sure that the artist hits the stage on time. The stage manager will also manage the techs as needed to make sure that all aspects of the artist’s performance are seamless.

Sound crew: The sound crew have two positions to manage—the on-stage monitor and the front of house (FOH) mixer, which in some cases is a job performed by the tour manager. Together, they’re responsible for making sure that the audience experiences the same level of awesomeness at every stop on the tour. Sound can vary drastically from location to location, so the crew do their best to create consistency by making modifications based on artist or location preferences and requirements. FOH mixers will often double as on-stage monitors in smaller productions; the venue’s own house team might also be used.

Lighting designer, director, and tech: The lighting designer will usually conceive the framework of the lighting scheme before a touring production gets underway, but of course there will be nuances between sites. That’s where the lighting director (LD) comes in: They are there to ensure that the designer’s concept is carried out as consistently as possible from show to show and to make adjustments as necessary. The lighting techs are there to implement the equipment that brings the ideas to fruition, following the guidance of the director.

Instrument techs: There can be a number of individual instrument techs, assigned to drums, guitars, keyboards, wind instruments, and beyond. These team members are responsible for making sure each instrument is in working order, and for having failover solutions ready in the event of broken guitar strings or drumsticks, cracked drum skins, sticky pedals, etc. Each tech needs to have an intimate understanding of both the instruments (how they work, how they should sound, and what signs of weakness to look for) and their users (some musicians are harder on their instruments than others!). They also need to be able to purchase gear and the associated equipment. In smaller productions, these individual jobs may roll up into a single backline tech position.

Pyrotechnicians: These crew members deal with any fireworks, spark fountains, and other incendiary devices that help punctuate the stage show. The pyro crew make sure that safety is paramount, taking into account the stage plot as well as the artist’s gear and movements to prevent potentially hazardous situations.

Security: Security personnel make sure that the artists and guests are safe (chances are, if one group isn’t safe, neither group is). They also keep an eye on all equipment, including instruments, to protect against theft or misuse.

Drivers: Depending on the band and their desires, drivers may be at the service of the production crew, the stage crew, and the artists, making sure needs are met and schedules stay tight. And in some cases drivers can tour manage and vice versa.

Merchandise manager: Sales, inventory, stocking, reordering, and other aspects of artist merchandise all fall under this position. Sometimes the actual merchandise transactions are handled by on-site staffers, but providing the merch to be sold is something that still falls to the artist team.

Catering: Few artists like to perform hungry. Caterers make sure that the artists are fed according to their specifications, and in most cases the entirety of the road crew as well. They’re counted as members of the production team, and usually arrive on site early to nourish the crew as they begin to build the set in a new location.

—Fred Pessaro

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