Q’s With Suzi Green Of TPG And Back Lounge: ‘It’d Be Tragic If Things Start Back Up, And Nothing Has Changed’

Suzi Green
– Suzi Green

Suzi Green is a veteran tour manager who decided to launch a support group for crew that have been out of work for over a year now – a forum for professionals in the same boat, to talk about how COVID restrictions have affected them. It’s called the Back Lounge, and Pollstar reached out to Green, whose more recent tours include PJ Harvey and The Chemical Brothers, to find out all about it.

As a member of the Tour Production Group, Green is also looking at how to make touring a friendlier, more inclusive place. The Mental Health Charter for Touring is downloadable from the Groups’ website, so live pros have a valuable resource available for when things start back up again. Green and her colleagues at TPG are about to start a fundraiser commissioned by UK charity Music Support for Recovery Support, which is the most pressing currently given the mental health crisis many in this business find themselves in right now.
Pollstar: How you are feeling after more than a year of being banned from doing what you love most?
Suzi Green: I’m in reasonable shape, I would say. A lot of that is because I found a cause, a reason to still get out of bed every day. My days still very much have routine. It’s completely self-created, and unpaid. I’ve been doing a lot of volunteer work, and that really has been my savior.
When my work got cancelled like everyone else’s last year, I hit a massive depression. I also had Covid at the same time. The after-effects of that may well have contributed to quite how bad a state I was in through April, May last year. 
I thought if I could connect to my tribe, I would feel a bit better. It’s funny, touring people are like Carnival people. We all chose this weird lifestyle where we kind of live on the fringes of society. I think it’s one of the reasons why things have been so hard for us. While some of the other industries got their ducks in a row, we haven’t really. We’ve all been like lone agents out there. I was surrounded by people who were either on furlough and having a very nice time sunbathing in the garden, or never really understood what I did for a living anyway. And it’s hard to describe. 
I had a friend, who’s a teacher, and she said, a bunch of them were meeting on zoom, and I heard about someone else who had a support group. They just hung out with each other, and kind of talked about this weird situation that was unfolding, which helped.
So, I was nosing around on the internet, looking for something similar for the music industry. I just wanted to talk about how weird this was, and when everybody thought we were going to work again, and what it was like suddenly being at home all the time – just about life suddenly looking very different. And I found this U.S. group called Backline Care, they were running twice-weekly Covid support groups. So, I started staying up late to be the lone Brit on that, and it was great. It was what I had been looking for: just being with a bunch of people and hearing someone in Chicago say something that has you thinking, ‘Oh my God, I feel exactly the same’.
I did that for about a month, and then thought, ‘well, we need something like that in the UK’. I never really intended to start something. Somehow, I put out a post on Facebook, and I’m not a social media person. I’ve always been laughably anti-social media, I have a prehistoric Facebook page full of people I’ve met once, and I stuck out a post. I also wrote on a couple of touring groups I found that I’m thinking of starting a group and would anyone be interested? And 50 people replied in 24 hours, which was like, ‘well, okay, so I’m not alone in this’. 
We started a week later. That was last June, and we’ve been meeting every week since. We’re now a community of 900 across Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and email. It’s funny, every time I talk to someone about it, we seem to have gone up 100.
What’s come out of your sessions so far?
First of all, how we’ve all been dealing with what’s going on right now. The world may be starting to open up again. We might actually get to do some events this summer. What was interesting was seeing how everyone was kind of really worried about that. You’d think, if you read the instructions on the box, that we’d all be really excited about the prospects of earning some money doing the thing that we’re trained to do. But actually, there was real fear, we’ve all got very used to staying at home, with our partners, our pets, our families, our houseplants, whatever it is that we’re nurturing. And the thought of stepping back out there, especially the thought of stepping back out there if things haven’t changed now that we’ve actually stopped and had a look at some of those things, was a big deal. 
That’s why I’d say I’m in fairly good shape, because I feel very connected to the community, and I feel very supported, and like I can offer support as well. And that makes every day worth getting up for right now.
Can you clarify the fear of going back out there? Is it a fear of working in a potentially hazardous environment? Or is it really the fear of abandoning a lot of things that you’ve come to love, as it almost sounds, on the road all the time, you didn’t realize what you were missing out on, like quality time at home?
Both of those things. I have a slightly weird career in that I toured for almost 10 years, then stopped for 10 years, then came back. I definitely knew what life off the road was like. It attracts an interesting bunch of people that tend to be quite free spirits, who work well within that environment of moving every single day. There’s good and bad about touring, it can be the most incredible career: the travel, the people, the experiences, it’s not working away in a bank five days a week, that’s for sure. But I think you also compartmentalize the life of it, and suddenly, now, it’s become a really long period at home. You evolve to fit your surroundings don’t you.
We definitely all have those wistful feelings of the things that we miss, but I think the sleep deprivation isn’t one of those things. I’ve got a friend and a colleague, he’s a production manager, he said, ‘I haven’t been tired for a year’. That says a lot, suddenly the thought of going into insane schedules, really high pressure, very little time to stop and take a breath, and quite often carrying the weight of a whole team of people – it’s really daunting, and you realize you’ve forgotten it ever was.
I say that as a tour manager, but I know that sound engineers and lighting designers and whatnot have the same fears: what’s the first loadout going to be like, not having used those muscles in a long time, but also just being able to remember what it’s like running a show. 
Once things reopen, it will require people at the top of their game. What is more, some promoters will want to schedule even more shows to make up for at least some of the losses. How do you mitigate that?
I think we’re in for a real roller coaster. We talked about boundaries on the group recently. A large part of the discussion centered around day rates. A very real concern to people at the moment, and we’re already having it, is that because there is only going to be a little amount of work this year, it’s going to be very competitive, coupled with budgets possibly being smaller, because it might not be a full tour strung together, which kind of spreads the cost. It might be the odd one-off date here and there, which tend to be more expensive to put on.
Often crew will get the short end of that straw, in form of a conversation about lowering your day rate. That’s a big worry. We were talking about how to handle that, whether you put on your invoice ‘temporary Covid rate’. And, if you drop your rate, how to make sure that it’s temporary. As long as we’re not all fighting for the work and undercutting each other, which you would hope after a year when lots of people have been talking to and supporting each other, [we’ll be all right]. At the end of the day, people have bills to pay. 
I think we’re going to go from that scenario into what you might want to call the roaring 20s or whatnot. When touring does come back, it’s going to be so much work. There’s less crew around because a lot of people have left the business, there’s less suppliers around, because some of them aren’t around anymore, sadly. Every artist that has sat at home and spent the last year writing their next record is going to want to tour it, plus the backlog of the people that would have toured with their record ready to go last year.
I think we’re going to go from a sparse landscape to having so much work, that it’s going to present another problem in ‘how on earth are we going to manage and balance that scenario of filling up every tiny gap in the calendar, and possibly terrible routings, because there’s going to be a shortage of venues. Another challenge will be how people manage their own personal wellness.
One positive many people have found in the crisis is that it has forced them to reflect on their lives, including how important it is to take care of yourself. At the same time, a lot working in this business want to return with a vengeance. How do you navigate these contradictory positions? 
Because people need to make money, sadly, I think the welfare of the people that are the ones out there delivering is fairly low on that list of priorities. It’s going to be very much a personal responsibility of deciding what you personally can cope with workwise. It might be that what I can cope with and what you can cope with is different. It’s going to be about balancing, and not automatically saying yes to everything, and carving out what you need in order to stay well. 
Since I stopped touring for 10 years and came back to it, I have two months off a year, which is about two months clear off the road with no dates. And I’ve actually managed to do that for the past five years. I can see that one falling away, because if there’s a chance of a sniff of work at the moment, I’m certainly going to take it. I need to make some money. But I think it’s going to be a balance of what we can do, especially as people who have any kind of say in how schedules are structured.
That’d would mainly be the agents, I guess. If you’re not an agent, thought, what can you look at concretely?
Tools we can implement to help support each other better. Talking about load-ins, for example: in the first week of a tour, when things are getting up and running, it takes longer for things to be decided, everyone knowing their role etc. But what about a week or two into a tour, if you’re on a long run. What about making your load-ins a little bit later, so everyone could get one hour more sleep tonight, that would make a difference to the day. We had a really great call with Chris Gratton, who’s Justin Bieber’s production manager. He was saying that he started putting an hour of family in his day schedules. After soundcheck, before doors, he blocks off an hour where everyone has to go and pick and choose to do what they like with that hour: connecting with family and friends at home, go for a walk, go for a run, having a nap, anything they want to do with their time. 
And whilst that sounds difficult, in some ways, because, oh my god, that hour before doors we’re working out the merch, everyone’s trying to do their little ant colony thing. But if we could try and look at the schedules, there has to be a way of at least putting in a couple of stops, whether it’s a later start or a break halfway through the day, at least for most people.
What do you miss most about being on the road?
I think I can speak for a lot of people, who would agree with me: you miss being part of a team of people, who are all pulling in the same direction. And letting your part, your little part that you bring to the table, help make that show happen. And those moments, like a festival show, where the band is on stage, and I will walk through the audience and find a little spot and just have a look. What does it look like? What does it sound like? You have those moments of, wow, breathtaking, stunning, gorgeous. Those moments that remind you, why you put up with the sleep deprivation schedules, the high stress, the hours at airports, those moments that make all of it worth it. I also miss hanging out with a bunch of people you have something in common with, even if the only thing you have in common is that you love music, or your love traveling or whatnot, and the banter and coming together and the funny things that happen – it’s just like taking a circus on the road.
Why do we think it is a virtue to be working all the time? Why is it not considered virtuous to take care of and do something for yourself because it actually makes you a human being that is better to deal with for everyone?
I want to make this a bit of a movement going forward, because a lot of people are talking about exactly this, but I don’t think everyone will be on board for that. People come with different agendas.
But there are things we can do to make the environment better. And not all of them involve spending more money. Great, if you’re on the kind of tour that has enough budget to put in really decent rest stops in a nice hotel where everyone’s got a gym and a pool. But touring is everything, from jumping back with transit management to the trucks on the road, crossing the world. It’s going to be a slow process, but if there’s enough people trying to make a difference, I think changes will start to happen.
Before the tour even starts, the crew chiefs, the managerial positions could all meet on zoom, and come up with a few things, principles, that they want to try and keep on a tour. That could be nominating go-to people if someone has a problem and needs to talk confidentially. It might nip a problem in the bud before it really does become a problem. Touring in a healthy way has got to encompass the whole food chain, from the artists to the bus driver, and everyone in-between. 
If you’re a manager or even an agent, you want your artists to give the best performance they can every night they step out on stage. For that to happen, the environment behind the scenes has to be healthy as well. Nothing good is going to come from a toxic, difficult, argumentative, non-communicative, revolving door. When you cross backstages at festivals, you can see the teams that are working together and the ones that are not.
So, it’s up to each individual that’s part of the food chain to make a difference?
It’s like sustainability in all things, you have to start with yourself. You’re the only person you can rely on, really, when it comes to changing your behavior, no one else is going to change your behavior for you. Go and start with yourself. And then maybe you can influence the person next to you and the person next to them, and then maybe they will influence the people next to them. And that’s how it starts.
We’re not going to change the world in a day. You’re not going to change this industry and the way it’s been run overnight, but we’ve never ever had a year out, which might well end up being nearer to two years, but we’ve never had this circuit breaker like we have right now. And I think it would be tragic if everything starts up again, and nothing has changed.
Are some of those changes everybody can implement listed in the Metal Health Charter?
There’s a whole load of things in the charter, and already we’re having our first rewrite. The message behind it is, aim for as many of these things as you can. It’s quick, easy, realistic, little breaks that you could do tomorrow, that might make the environment a little bit kinder and more wholesome. What might be right for one might not be right for another. Read that list of things on the charter, there’s got to be two or three things in there that you could probably do.
The crisis has been particularly hard on the up-and-coming young bands? Can they even afford to take it a bit more easy? 
I think this is for everybody. Let’s say you’re a little band and you’re not in a bus, you’re in hotels, you’ve got a day off, you’ve moved, you’re driven to a new city that morning, you can’t get into the hotel till four o’clock in the evening. You’re sitting around in the lobby, you’re exhausted, all you want to do is curl up in your hotel room and not see anyone until the next day. So, how do you get an early check in?
Find out who the front-desk person is, phone them up in advance, tell them, ‘I really hope you can help us’, be really nice be really polite. Phone them again on the morning, as you’re on your way, and go, ‘Hi, it’s me, again’. Offer them guest list, whether they’ve heard of your band or not, doesn’t matter. You’re just trying to be nice. That’s how the world goes round, it’s money and being nice. You can do things in a horrible, harsh way, or you can actually try and make it pleasant. 
There’s all kinds of things, everything from using a travel agent, which actually quite often saves you money rather than you booking yourself. If we have a forum where we can share information and little tricks, that can make things a little bit easier and a little bit better, aside from the expertise and the skill set of the job itself, they can really make a successful tour.
What’s the first you’ll do once you’re allowed to tour again?
I wish I had a very concise answer. And I have to say I did last autumn, I had a couple of days rehearsal for a promo event we did in Germany. And one of my favorite moments aside from just hearing people playing music in the rehearsal studio, was when we went out for a sandwich. It was just a bunch of us sitting outside a cafe, we were able to take our masks off, because we were eating. And we just hung out together. The sun was shining, and it was just so great to sit with a bunch of people, you’re working with, taking a little break, and just thinking, ‘God, I really love this job.’
Do you think the Back Lounge will cease to exist, once we’re out of the crisis?
We’re carrying it on, it is absolutely going to be a community that survives. And it will be for anyone who’s on tour that just needs some way to reach out. We’ll keep the discussions going in various different ways. It’s good to stick out on a Whatsapp group, ‘hey, I’m having a lousy day, is anyone around for chat?’, and there’ll be a community of people there that will support you. We’re about to launch our website and announce details of some free workshops around building a resilience toolkit for when we return to work. The first one is 21st June to coincide with that mythical date when events can supposedly start again and will be on Mindfulness for Touring with an amazing coach Craig Ali. Watch this space!