Q’s With Tour & Production Manager Bill Reeves On The Great Return’s Challenges

Bill Reeves
– Bill Reeves

At the end of the year, Pollstar caught up with veteran tour and production manager Bill Reeves, who’s worked on tours with Prince, Anita Baker, Maxwell, D’Angelo and Anthony Hamilton. Reeves well knows many of the challenges currently facing the live industry, including inflation, labor shortages, supply chain hold-ups and this constantly morphing pandemic. Here, Reeves, who also co-founded Roadies of Color, an organization focused on bringing greater diversity and equity to the live industry, discusses what he’s currently seeing out there, including constant COVID testing, a lack of backstage workers turning up for calls, no room service and why, after more than 40 years in the business, he has no intention of changing careers (unless, of course, he hits the numbers).

Pollstar: What are you seeing out there on the road these days in terms of inflation, labor shortages, supply chain challenges, the pandemic, etc.? 
Bill Reeves: The work that I’ve been doing in the last six or seven months since we kind of woke up out of the pandemic days has been a lot of corporate stuff. One of the things that’s really obvious now is testing, testing, testing, testing, whether you’re vaccinated or not. We recently did something with an orchestra in Miami and had a couple of days of rehearsals with the orchestra before we actually did the show and we all had to get tested every day. In some cases, it’s a real cost where we’re having to do a lot of testing.

What I’ve also noticed, and I’m sure everybody notices, is the increase in costs of everything. I’m currently booking buses for our tour in the spring. And the average bus rental now is $700 to $750 a day compensation, whereas it used to be $450 to $500 a day compensation. So, a pretty significant jump in the cost of buses.
Another thing is not having the proper amount of workers or stagehands for a call. In one instance, I think it was someplace in Texas calling for 32 guys, and you got 15. I heard from a friend on the J. Cole tour that they had massive issues with staffing from local crews. It was the same sort of thing, you call in for 30 or 40 guys and you’re getting 10 or 15 guys. I mean, not just missing one or two, but missing a significant percentage of the call. As we know, there’s a worker shortage in America in general and that’s certainly bled into our little corner of the world. Places that have strong unions, not a problem; places that are right-to-work or don’t have a union or a strong union, they’re having difficulty finding people to come in and build trusses and unload trucks and do all the stuff you need local crews to do. That’s an issue.
Broken Dreamville:
Paras Griffin / Getty Images
– Broken Dreamville:
J. Cole, who had to postpone stops on his “Off-Season Tour” with 21 Savage due to reported production delays, performs at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena on Sept 27, 2021.

Burger places are now paying close to $20 an hour, what do some of these people make, especially in the right-to-work states?
What I heard recently from someone on tour who asked the crew chief, “Where is everybody?” The crew chief or the promoter rep or whoever said, “Well, in this particular jurisdiction, we pay 10 bucks an hour.” Nobody wants to work for 10 bucks an hour anymore. Everybody wants $15, $20, $25 an hour. And that’s a problem, not only in the entertainment business but in America in general.

How do you think it will play out?
People sat home for a year or so during the pandemic and realized that they weren’t able to sustain themselves on what they had been making and are now looking to make more money or they’ll just continue to sit home. My personal opinion is the worker shortage will slowly become a non-issue because people who are living on unemployment and stimulus checks, etc., will eventually have to go back to work. Concurrently with that, pay is generally rising because there is a shortage. Amazon is raising their base rate to $15 and more in higher cost of living places like New York or L.A., where they’re giving up $17, $18, $19 an hour. I think we will see a leveling off over the next few months where employers are going to have to offer more money to get workers. Eventually, it’ll be enough money that workers will start coming back. But right now, it’s a tough call.

We just did our Q4 numbers, and revenues were strong but there’s also inflation. Ticket prices will likely be higher because of the rising costs with labor shortages, gas prices, safety and security, how do you think it will pencil out?
I think what’s going to happen is that artists and promoters will end up getting a little more money, but they’re also going to spend more money. So at the end of the day, I think everybody at the top end of the food chain ends up making about what they were making before, but there will be a little bump in the revenue for the people at the bottom of the food chain, the casual workers.

Do you think fans can absorb higher ticket prices?
I’m wondering at what point does the consumer, in this case, the ticket buyer, say, “You know what? I’m just going to stay home because I don’t want to spend $250, $300 to go see so-and-so.” I think the increase in cost of everything could drive ticket prices to the point where ticket buyers are going to say, “Yeah, no thanks. Never mind. I have plenty of other options for my entertainment dollar. I got 14 different streaming channels. I got YouTube and all this other stuff on my computer that I only have to pay single digit, $8 a month or $9 a month or whatever. Why should I go out and spend $250 to see so-and-so in concert?” That would be a point of concern. But so far, it hasn’t happened. So far ticket prices keep going up and up and somehow people keep buying those tickets.

Thank goodness.
Obviously, watching something on Netflix isn’t the same experience as being in the room with musicians making music. That’s obviously a way different experience. I don’t know if there’ll ever not be demand for live entertainment, live music, I just question how much we can keep pushing off on the consumer to keep the bottom line for the artists and their promoter high. At some point, artists and promoters have to take a little less so that they can keep the whole ecosystem going.
I heard that Opie Skjerseth, the Stones’ famed tour manager, at one point on their “No Filter Tour” was moving boxes himself.
I spoke to [tour managers] K.C. Jackson [Roadies of Color co-founder] and Victor Reid, who said at the end of the day when you’re there and you’ve got to put the show up and you’re missing a significant amount of guys, everybody’s got to jump in. Both gentlemen said they found themselves pushing stuff around, where in the past, they’re supervising, telling somebody else to push those boxes or cart. When there’s nobody to tell “Go do it,” but it still needs to get done, you go do it yourself.
That probably means things take longer if there’s less guys and you got to rig a show.
Well, look at the J. Cole situation. They had a real rough time getting going on that tour in terms of setup time due partially to the complexity of the show, but also due in no small measure to the lack of the proper amount of people to put it together. They were famously late on their first couple of shows, still setting up when the audience came in. Those kinds of things that you never want to happen.
Is it just unskilled labor?
No, it’s from the guy who doesn’t know anything who you just tell, “Go push that box,” and the difference between stage right and stage left, all the way up to riggers who have a very specific set of skills not everybody has. And that’s also true with transport and the shortage of truck and bus drivers. A lot of bus companies have buses, but nobody to drive them. Same for the trucking companies.
And transportation costs are up, too.
Bus companies have definitely upped their numbers. First of all, they’re renting their buses for more than they used to. And they’re paying their drivers more than they used to. And gas is more expensive than it used to be.
What about hotels?
Hotel costs are up but there’s less service and less people. I’ve been working pretty steadily on various one-offs and such, which means I’m in hotels a lot and I can’t think of the last time I was in a hotel that offered full room service, full restaurant service, full maid service. This is all down to COVID, but also, once again, the worker shortage.
What’s your prediction for the future?
Everything costs more, inflation is hitting everybody in the pocketbook, which at the end of the day makes the job a little more difficult. I think some of it will subside. I mean, gas prices, you can’t control. The lack of workers, hopefully they’ll start offering a little bit more so you can fill your calls.
So the million-dollar question, despite the challenges, is it still worth it to stay in this industry?
For me, yeah. I can’t speak for younger guys, but I’m better than 40 years in, so I’m not ready to pivot. At the end of the day, it’s still a fun thing to do. I’m not ready, particularly after the last year and a half of nothingness. I was suddenly retired for a year and a half, which I didn’t mind, but I did mind the reduction in my savings account. So I have to continue to work like most people, to pay my bills, keep the lights on, keep food in the refrigerator, all of that. Maybe I should’ve listened to my mother and gone to law school, but I didn’t. So I can’t fall back on my law practice because I don’t have one. So is it worth it for me to keep going? Yeah, it is, as long as I’m physically in decent enough shape to get on and off the bus, on and off the plane and in and out of the venues and can still physically do this job. It’s still better than actually working for a living. You know the old thing: “If you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” I still have a large degree of appreciation for this business, what it is and what it allows me to do. It’s allowed me to have a pretty comfortable life. I can’t just shut it off tomorrow unless I hit the Lotto. If I get the Powerball for a few hundred million dollars [laughter], ask me again. I may have a different story.