Production Live: Off And Running

Not to put too fine of a point on it, but Production Live rocked. 

Any inaugural event has the element of the unknown, so Pollstar was uncertain how successful a new component would be to the Pollstar Live conference. Sure, it’s the same stuff, physically: microphones and chairs in a conference room, with a big backdrop, and people talking about things.  This time, though, because it is untested, would the topics have an audience?  Would delegates find it worth their time to dedicate another day to meetings?

The answer is yes.  Production Live turned out to be important. It was born from a sense that the Pollstar conference was underserving a key component of the live music industry.  The panels are populated by and geared toward agents, managers and venue executives, but none of them have a job if tours are not cost efficient. Golf teachers say you can’t hit the ball correctly if you have weak legs.  You need a solid foundation to have the swing work. In this business, the foundation is lighting, sound, staging, trucking, tour management and every other unsexy thing you can think of that lets an artist hit the show  400 yards down the musical fairway (we’ll clean up that crappy analogy before this gets to print).

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Although they will probably not take credit for Production Live, props go to longtime conference producer Steve Macfadyen and Pollstar’s Shari Rice for recognizing that the production faction deserved its time to talk.  There may come a day when it is integrated seamlessly into the rest of the conference but, from the feedback, it will definitely be back time and time again.

Sure, the production crew had to get up a little earlier than usual, and they were probably exhausted by an ugly flight pattern into a freezing Nashville, but when the coffee kicked in, the room was animated and – get this – actually educational. People who attended probably learned information that could make tours more efficient. CAA’s John Huie and John Brown of Brown United were just a few of the first panel participants to correctly state that tours cannot launch if your production nut is too big.  Huie, without naming names, has a client that wanted to tour three nights out of the week with a production that cost $250,000 per show (we’ll check our notes but, yes, that was the number), so he had to explain why that fourth night, even when the vocals get a little tired and shaky, is essential.  Which leads to how the routing, even at 450 clicks per night, becomes a big factor.

And then there is Aerosmith, which had people bidding on a tour before its production cost was even certain.

We sent writers to each panel.  Below should give a sense of what transpired.

In “So, Who Planned This Tour Anyway?” Huie stressed “Communication, communication, communication.” When everyone – from the agent to the tour manager to the vendors – communicates, you won’t be scratching your head at the routing. Of course, it’s good to keep in mind that tour production in general is about making the artist’s vision come true.

Christie Lites’ Robert Roth noted that inefficiencies typically happen when the artist’s ideas aren’t communicated early enough in the process. Later in the discussion he said that it “comes down to being proactive. Waiting for the phone to ring? No thanks.”

With John Brown moderating, the audience got a chance to join in, with folks like road warrior Charlie Hernandez noting how much farther shows can travel each night as technology increases – which, by the way, doesn’t mean agents should route tours in ridiculous patterns just because of it. And what of tour bus maintenance? 

It was noted that sometimes the buses are repaired when the artist is onstage. That’s the kind of thought that needs to go into being a tour manager.

Huie mentioned twice how cheap the Christian tour package Winterjam is, and how the kids flock to it. He mentioned how country music could consider a similar model. It was a quick thought, in passing but readers may want to jot that down: a tour package of up-and-coming or, say, affordable country acts.  It’s a great, great idea.

Next up was “Listening In: A Rock Star In Conversation With A Musician.”

Mark Volman, one-half of Flo and Eddie as well as a Turtle and ex-Mother of Invention, hosted a conversation with The Black Keys’ drummer Patrick Carney and the band’s tour manager, Jim Runge, that touched on everything from how not to talk to Border Patrol officers to post-tax income percentages.

According to Carney, an artist needs to remember he has 30 percent of his income gone before even taking the stage thanks to commissions, band and crew to pay, and taxes owed before going out to buy that Ferrari with the first big check – so knowing the band’s business is crucial. Another tip: don’t lie about how much money is in the van when crossing the Canadian border – and don’t hire a tour manager with a nasty criminal conviction who lies to Canadian border patrol officers.

Volman said The Turtles went through seven managers in five years, one of whom “ran off to Mexico with the bass player’s wife.” Between the two horror stories, the point was made – take great care in hiring a tour manager.

Fortunately for Carney and The Black Keys, Runge is a consummate pro. And despite some rough going in the early years of their association, absolute trust between TM and artist is a must – not just financially, but for the sake of sanity. Not having to worry about one’s equipment or a rickety production helps reduce pre-show jitters immensely. So do beta blockers, Carney added.

Touring in Europe presents its own set of challenges, according to all three. Volman told about the infamous 1972 Montreax festival in Switzerland, where the casino venue he was playing with Frank Zappa burned down, and Carney added that routing festivals is difficult on top of the time away from family.

Photo: Rick Diamond / Getty Images
 Mark Volman of The Turtles, The Black Keys' Patrick Carney, and tour manager Jim Runge.

And in all things, bands and managers should always strive for balance whether it be in setting ticket prices, splurging on a hotel room “where your feet don’t stick to the carpet” or just life.

Production Live participants were provided a lunch, which meant they also got to sit down and hear a chat between two people called “Production Live Spotlight: A Casual Lunchtime Conversation And Everyone Is Invited.”  One person was Stuart Ross of Red Light Management, whose background not only includes managing Tom Waits but tour managing and putting together the original Lollapalooza. The other person was Jay Marciano, head of AEG Worldwide. Although his background is venue management, he got his chops in the world of production.

As they noted, the concert industry looks a whole lot different than it did during the days when big personalities like Bill Graham, Frank Barsalona, and Barry Fey called the shots. But just because so many concert pioneers have passed and folks like AEG and Live Nation rule the roost doesn’t mean the business is any less interesting now.

Marciano explained capitalization of the industry has led to festivals with staying power, which his company sees as such a solid bet that plans are in the works for five new fests in 2016. But with so many events being rolled out, Red Light Management’s Stuart Ross wondered if the market could soon reach a point of oversaturation. The verdict? There’s room for everyone to play and serve all the different tastes out there, as long as you start slow and build unique settings that make patrons happy. “It’s not about having the biggest headliners,” Ross said. “It’s about creating the best environment.”

The day capped off with “Four Days On, Three Days Off,” which included moderator Jim Digby of Event Safety Alliance, Stage Call’s Kyle Jones, artist manager Clarence Spalding, Bandit Lites’ Michael Strickland (one of the first in the industry to sound the bell on safety standards) and Kenny Chesney’s production manager Ed Wannebo.

The question was, does the “Nashville Model” of weekend warrior touring – where everyone comes home Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – work? Is it completely necessary? The consensus seems to be that it must be, otherwise it wouldn’t still be the norm for many acts.

“I don’t think it’s something we did consciously because of lifestyle or for families, I think it was we tried [touring weekdays], and every two years someone comes out and says they’re going to bust up the model and try something different, and then they get their asses kicked,” said Spalding, who manages Jason Aldean among other major acts. “I’m a greedy son of a bitch and if I could do Monday Tuesday, take off Wednesday and then back on through the weekend, I would be doing that because ultimately my acts would be making more money.”

Such a model presents logistical concerns, with flying people back and forth, taking weeks off and parking trucks, but the important part is that ultimately it works and that everyone adapts.

One big way the industry is adapting is with festivals, with new ones sprouting up like weeds and already hosting a lot of the production that normally would have to be carted cross-country.

Fewer trucks are required, and even major stars like Elton John are more than willing to do whatever it takes to make things work, as Strickland told the audience.

“Everybody has to win,” Strickland said. “At a big festival like Bonnaroo, we have a big base system then talk one on one with Elton john or The Black Keys or what have you and work in cooperative spirit to bring extra for particular acts. I think we’re going to see more of that.”

Production Live wrapped with the beginning of the next phase: the food and drinks of the opening reception of Pollstar Live – or was it the closing of Production Live? Probably both.  Either way, it was a good day to stay indoors.