When we said we were going to come back to touring better than ever, I really believed it.
During the pandemic we saw many people from our industry pulling together, as a good crew does, to get through the unprecedented loss of our livelihoods and purpose. We talked at length on Zoom calls about how we could make touring a better place for all of us. We talked about mental health and physical health, and sustainability and diversity. We mused on what needed to change, what we missed and what we had newfound appreciation for.
So it was with high hopes that I started touring again this year. I was delighted to quickly find myself booked up for the whole year, an incredibly welcome result after the loss of income in those dark days of 2020 and 2021. With an estimated 30 percent of touring personnel choosing to stay in the alternative careers they found during the great shutdown there are more gigs than crew at the moment, and those of us remaining in the industry have generally found plentiful work. For this we can be exceedingly grateful.
Among fellow roadcrew I’ve seen little shifts in a positive direction. I think the honest discussions of our shared struggles has opened the door for more “real talk” with trusted colleagues about how we’re really feeling and the challenges we face. I think maybe we’re a little kinder, a little less judgmental. Many crew I’ve spoken with have expressed an alleviation of work-related anxiety, having had a taste of a different life off the road and experienced a change in perspective – a realization that while the work we do has meaning to us in that it spreads a little joy in the world, we’re not saving lives, and that even if we have a really bad gig one day, there’s a bigger picture.
I would love to be able to continue in this vein, waxing positive about how we did it, we really did come back better than ever. It saddens me greatly that I don’t believe we have.
Despite all the fine talk, we’re not better than ever. We’re not even where we left off. I hate to say this, but from the testament of every one of the many crew I’ve spoken to, we’ve actually gone backwards. It feels like much of the fine talk was so much hot air.
We knew there would be new challenges in the post-pandemic era, like managing COVID cases and the risks of being unable to insure a tour for virus-related cancellations. We expected difficulties in getting equipment due to so many bands being on the road at once now that we can tour again.
We suspected show cancellations would be rife due to a number of factors, from COVID diagnoses and artist mental health issues in dealing with increased touring pressure, to economic factors – with so many acts on tour at a time of high inflation, there are only so many tickets the public can buy, and some tours are operating at a loss.
And we knew Britain had an additional political problem in dealing with the disastrous effects of Brexit on UK musicians and crew. British citizens are now allowed to spend only 90 days out of any 180 in the EU, a number easily exceeded by anybody who tours for a living. As a result, we have UK talent unable to say yes to the tours they are offered, at a time when we have lost so many from the industry already.
We anticipated all that; but many more unforeseen challenges have arisen on top of these:
• There’s a major supply chain issue in equipment manufacturing caused by component shortages – among other things, a huge fire at a major semi-conductor supplier in Japan has had far-reaching effects on many industries, including our own.
• Airlines have lost staff and are struggling to train new people fast enough and get security clearance for them. As a result, flying has become harder, with cancellations and lost bags (and equipment) presenting logistical problems for tours, often at the last minute.
• Many tours are under-staffed because so many people have left the industry.
• With rises in the cost of everything, budgets are getting tighter and tighter, leaving some productions with little choice than to take one fewer crew member per department than previously, leaving the remaining people feeling overstretched and under pressure. A lack of experienced people may mean that newer personnel are thrown in at the deep end, and while new opportunities are welcomed and appropriate levels of challenge are a crucial part of learning any job, when that challenge is too great, the inevitable impact can be damaging. More experienced touring personnel are left feeling exasperated by having to carry someone, and the newbie who, often through no fault of their own is out of their depth, can suffer a blow to their confidence, reputation, and sense of belonging in the industry.
• Another way to make money go further is to squeeze more shows into the schedule – after all, rehearsals and days off when no revenue is coming in are expensive. This, coupled with crazy routings due to lack of venue availability, can result in unreasonable demands on crew to make the numbers add up. Nobody in this game is scared of hard work and long hours, but this year it seems totally out of hand and dangerous levels of exhaustion have become a very real problem. I’m not talking about the occasional super-long day or grueling travel arrangement (we’ve all done ridiculous things in the name of keeping the show on the road before), but when this happens repeatedly in a short space of time, conditions become unsafe.
All these factors have placed tour and production managers under huge stress as they try to navigate these problems, and many crew feel disillusioned and pressured.
Budgets have been cut, but expectations have not. Day rates (which despite rampant inflation have often not increased in years) are actually being cut in some areas, and there will always be someone who’s willing to do a job for less, be that suppliers or freelancers. Long term it serves nobody, and we destroy our own livelihoods, but equally it’s understandable when we all have rising bills to pay.
Some agents, promoters and managers may have no idea of the real effect of their scheduling decisions on the people who have to actually deliver the goods. By the time tour and production managers get hold of the schedule and can say “hang on, this won’t work for the money you want to spend,” it’s too late. Sometimes production managers may be able to force a revision; or they may be forced into agreeing unrealistic budgets because they risk losing the job otherwise, and then the price paid can be in crew welfare.
When there’s no fat left to trim, we can be sure that somebody is paying the price.
So, what can we do? We’re all in this together, so how can we help turn this around?
Things may be tough right now, but it will change, as all things do – if the great shutdown taught us anything, it’s that. We’ve been through a devastating time – not just our industry but everyone – and the aftermath of the pandemic is not the only historical event we’re dealing with.
Factors such as global inflation, rising fuel costs, a war in Ukraine, and Brexit are also at play – things that are out of our control. How to solve the problems in our industry is a huge question.
With so much out of our hands, what do we have some influence over?
• We can have sensible conversations with artists, managers, promoters and agents about how we can run shows efficiently in a way which also affords crew a safe, humane and responsible standard of living, allowing for basic welfare requirements such as adequate sleep.
• If we’re as serious about looking after people’s mental health as we said we were, then treating everyone respectfully and responsibly is a really good place to start. To that end we can be fair and reasonable when personnel changes are called for, by having the difficult conversations as soon as a decision is made rather than avoiding them and keeping people hanging on thinking they’re doing a tour when they’re actually being removed or replaced. Set them free to find other work as soon as the decision is made, no matter how uncomfortable making that call feels. And let’s have the decency to have a phone conversation about it – nobody should find out they’re losing a role of over a decade’s standing in a one line text from the accountant. (Yes, that happened.)
• Ask whether there is room for negotiation on rates if you are asked to do a job for less than seems fair and reasonable. We all have a part to play in keeping pay at sensible levels.
• Look after ourselves. Eat as well as possible, drink enough water, and if you know you only have a few hours to sleep before the next load-in, get to bed as soon as you can. This industry is harder than ever right now, and self-sabotaging with harmful substances only makes things worse. If you need help, reach out to an organisation like theroadieclinic.com, musicsupport.org, or backuptech.uk.
• Britons can write to their member of Parliament (MP) and propose adopting the measures put forward by carryontouring.uk, which would allow touring personnel to apply for an exemption to the 90-day rule.
• Speak up, stand up for yourself, and keep the lines of communication open by being civil and willing to hear all sides of the story when conflict arises. Things only get better when we say what’s not working, have frank and open discussions with decision-makers about the alternatives, and treat each other with respect.
We touring folk are resourceful and resilient people, and the current state of affairs is just that – current. It will change; what ideas do you have about how we can make sure that this time it really is for the better?