Moving Tours Around The Globe And Rising To The Challenge Of Supply Chain Shortages
Steve Maples, vice president of trucking for global freight broker Rock-It Cargo, remembers March 13, 2020, distinctly. There was suddenly a worldwide reality that crews needed to get home and off the road as quickly as possible, thanks to the sudden spread of coronavirus.
“It did not take long as an industry to accept that, hey, we’ve gotta get shut down,” Maples says.
For Upstaging Co-Founder Robin Shaw, COVID’s shutdown of the concert industry meant her company had to find pivots in order to keep her staff employed and productive despite not being able to conduct the company’s usual business.
Upstaging quickly designed and produced PPE face shields, and took on regular freight to keep drivers working.
The difference between the two companies is that Rock-It Cargo is a freight broker; handling logistics and arranging for freight forwarding – getting every part of a concert tour between points A to Z – for its entertainment industry clients across the globe. Upstaging does much the same, but uses its own fleet of trucks and drivers in addition to providing logistics and full production services.
What they have in common, Maples and Shaw are quick to tell you, is that they are in the problem-solving business.
“There are no problems; there are only solutions,” Maples says. “In May of 2020 we just went dormant and we found some things to do. Day in, day out, we are faced with issues or problems, and we solve the problems.”
For Shaw, “What we did to keep ourselves vital was become suppliers in the supply chain. Our team would get up at the crack of dawn and start trading on freight lines to keep our truck drivers working.”
When discussing the current state of the entertainment transportation industry, the term “supply chain” comes up frequently.
It’s a broad one, referring to everything from goods and services, inventory and materials to the number of trucks, trailers, light and sound rigs and availability of personnel to operate them. It’s been disrupted across industries in a volatile and unpredictable supply and demand economy.
It can be seen, Maples says, in Los Angeles Harbor, where cargo ships have clogged shipping lanes, unable to dock and be unloaded. Air freight is similarly disrupted by the grounding of planes normally used to move productions across the country or around the world.
“You’ve got to ship early,” he says. “There’s 40 ships sitting off the coast of California right now waiting to unload. Just getting the drayage companies to pick the container up out of the port and deliver it to wherever it is you want it delivered is going to be a real challenge.”
It’s not just a matter of getting the trucks and containers in and out of ports, Maples adds. Freight has to be moved out of yards before more can be put in. Add in competition from other large-scale shippers and the jostling for space is fierce.
“Same with aircraft. All the wide-bodies have been cut back,” he explains. “They’re all flying more narrow-bodies, which means you’re limited in what freight you can put onto a commercial airliner. Freighters are all tied up, moving gear for Amazon and all the other online operations. Charter is going to be the way to go for a lot of the big tours, and charters are difficult to secure.
“Our teams at Rock-It who do the freight forwarding are chomping at the bit to get to work. As soon as things start to move, how do you get from here to there with a price that works for the client, and works for us, and that gets the gear moved quickly? That’s how tours work,” Maples says.
“Supply chain disruption” can refer to a clear imbalance in shipping and receiving capacity, but it’s also affected by measures taken by some companies in order to remain in business during the shutdown.
“A lot of the carriers had to sell off iron to survive the last year or so, and replacing that is really difficult,” Maples explains. “If you want to order a trailer, you don’t know how much it’s going to cost. They’ll take your deposit money and they’ll give you a slot a year away.”
Supply and demand is out of whack as touring attempts to ramp up with rescheduled 2020 tours overlapping those already planned for 2021 and beyond. There’s plenty of demand, but supplying the infrastructure and logistics to successfully deliver a glut of concert productions when there is a shortage of manpower – human capital – is a challenge both Maples and Shaw face.
“The problem we’ve been having, even prior to the pandemic, is that there is more demand than supply,” Shaw explains. “Over the last five years, there are more artists touring than there are drivers available.
“So whether it is a lighting crew member or sound technician or carpenter, there just aren’t enough people to service the number of tours that are going out,” she says.
Many drivers turned to regular freight hauling or other pursuits at the height of the pandemic and aren’t returning to concert industry jobs despite the gradual and somewhat fraught reopening of business.
Maples says the truck driver shortage is part and parcel of a larger – but solvable – societal problem.
“If there is a dramatic driver shortage in North America, it’s got nothing to do with rock and roll and little to do with COVID,” he says emphatically. “My generation told our kids that they could make a living at a computer and never have to pick up a hammer or shovel. We have to encourage people to accept that [working at a] trade is a good thing.” Part of the solution to the problem, he believes, will come with an upward adjustment in pay and working conditions.
“Wages for drivers and hammer-swingers were suppressed for so long. That’s now changing because you’re going to pay a driver a lot more to get them,” he says. For Maples, tour industry trucking is better positioned than other freight sectors just because of the nature of the work.
“Our industry attracts people because we bring the music and it doesn’t get any better than that,” he says. “From a truck driver’s perspective, as long as you’re OK living nocturnally, this is a lot more pleasurable than going from one Wal-Mart to another or one warehouse to another.
“You are part of a family or part of an experience. And every day is a little bit different. The amenities of catering and the perks that come along with touring are attractive, particularly to a truck driver who does nothing but run warehouse to warehouse for a few years. So I think it’s a correctable problem and we will have a fairly solid workforce behind the wheel.”
Another solution to the driver shortage, according to Shaw, is the recruitment and training of young people to enter the industry. Upstaging made use of the downtime to look at diversity and training in staffing.
“During the pandemic, we set our sights on looking at the biggest issues, with a focus on getting new talent into our industry,” Shaw explains. “We teamed up with [Metallica’s] foundation All Within My Hands, which gives scholarships to students who want to learn entertainment industry related trade. … People have been thinking about this issue, but only now is it on the forefront of everyone’s minds.”
The pandemic may also have provided time and a catalyst for seeking solutions to the climate crisis and helping the industry take a leap forward in sustainability, she says.
“That’s what I look forward to, finding solutions to help solve the environmental issues that come with touring,” Shaw says. “Ticketholders and fans are very aware of our carbon footprint and in the future there will be no option except for sustainably focused companies and touring.
“I have been speaking with a company called Overdrive Energy Solutions, which is a consulting firm based in Los Angeles that matches companies like Upstaging with the right technology to move us into the future,” she says. “They do the research and come up with green solutions for the touring industry.”
As the man said, there are no problems; there are only solutions.