Strangers in Strange Lands: Production Live! Recap

Pollstar Live! 2022
– Pollstar Live! 2022
Moderator Tina Farris, left, CEO/Owner, Tina Farris Tours; Ken Helie, tour manager, John Mayer/Dead & Company; Richard Coble, tour manager, RC Touring; Misty Roberts, Tour Manager, independent; Steve Lopez, tour manager, Widespread Panic; Zito, Production Manager, Zito Production Services.

Returning to the road after the pandemic shut down live entertainment touring has been a tricky act of balancing limited human and other resources against the old adage, the show must go on.

Doing so with the physical and mental health of the entire cast and crew as a top priority while observing regulations and protocols that often changed from market to market has been a challenge, but a welcome one, speakers said during a panel discussion entitled, “Stranger in a Strange Land: Road Managing in 2022,” at the opening-day Production Live! summit kicking off the Feb. 7-9 Pollstar Live! Conference in Beverly Hills.
On maintaining a life-work balance amid a busy career like that of a sought-after tour or production manager handling multiple acts, independent Misty Roberts said she had not done well in that regard in the past.
“I got to a point where my mental health was suffering, and I had to just full stop all of it and reassess all of it,” she said, explaining that she now mutes her phone between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. “If I’m not actively being paid and not actively getting ready for a tour, I’ll dedicate some time to you, but I’m not giving you everything. There has to be a balance. Nothing is on fire. Nothing is going to break… that badly. Like, I’m at home. I need my home time.”
Most overnight calls regard something that can’t be fixed until the following day anyway, chimed in Zito, production manager for Green Day, of Nashville-based Zito Production Services.
Ken Helie, tour manager, John Mayer/Dead & Company, said he moved to Florida to get away from New York and Los Angeles and have true downtime when he’s not working.
“That’s your time to recharge your batteries and then when you come in to work, you’re much better prepared to meet challenges and not be flustered.”
Asked about the biggest challenges for touring in 2022, Richard Coble, tour manager, RC Touring, said it’s supply and dealing with COVID.
“The two are joined so you need to address both,” he said.
He worked the Green Day tour with Zito and said his colleague was a genius at managing supply and equipment issues, while he focused on COVID issues like compliance with local protocols.
“We were one of the first out there, certainly the first in stadiums, so we had to go from zero to 100 in a few weeks,” Coble said.
Zito said that, for him, being a good tour manager has been about building partnerships.
“I look at every relationship I have on tour as a partnership, whether it’s a temporary partnership with the venue. We’re there for the day (but) we have the same ultimate goal at the end of the day,” he said. “Part of my deal as a production manager, when I get hired one of the big criteria for me is to know who the tour manager is, because if I don’t feel we have a partnership that we have each other’s back, that we have that relationship, then it’s not worth it for me. I’ve been in hostile environments where there’s an agenda from one party or the other and it’s not worth what it puts you through.”
Working with Coble, he said, was the kind of partnership that works for him, Zito said.
“We had the same goals,” he said. “We wanted to keep everybody safe and to do great shows and to execute and make the band money.”
Planning, problem solving, keeping extra staff on hand to deal with eventualities was the name of the game and it takes a team, he said.
Steve Lopez, tour manager, Widespread Panic,  said that after the band’s lead singer John Bell tested positive for COVID in August, prompting postponements of a three-night run at ACL Live, he began “going into venues and checking in with locals and asking how everybody’s doing.”
Finding out conditions on the ground leading up to a show proved valuable, he said.
“Just making sure the communication is open and we’re prepared to handle it the best way we can, together, as a partnership,” Lopez said.
Helie said for many bands that haven’t made bank, what’s happening to the touring business is an existential struggle and bands that have wherewithal must lend any kind of assistance they can to support acts trying to make their way in the business.
“There are haves and have nots and the haves are going to have to help out,” he said.
Coble agreed, saying the industry has faced challenges that have rocked the business over the years, from 9-11 to political divisions that have harmed careers as was the case with the Dixie Chicks.
“Now we’re in another era, we have COVID, and that’s a whole other arena that we’ve never had to deal with and I totally second what Kevin stand that we need to be conscious of the facts of life for smaller bands and how we can help them,” he said. “It’s a different world and we need to address things differently.”
Asked about times when they felt they went above and beyond in their careers to save the day, Roberts and Helie had a couple of interesting examples.
For the Roberts, it was being part of the Live Earth concert at Rothera Research Station in Antarctica in 2007.
“I worked for a little Pop/Rock band from San Francisco called Metallica,” she said. “We were informed that we had signed on to do a show in Antarctica in two weeks. That’s not something anyone’s ever done. So there was no blueprint, there is no someone you can call and say how did you do it? It was literally how do we get there on an expedition boat that going to take us from Ushuaia, Argentina to a science base in Antartica. How do we get them off the boat and onto the land? Where we are we setting up? I had to figure out how to get our entire crew to Antarctica and we did it. We played inside a plastic bubble.”
For Helie pushing the idea of having understudies available in case someone on tour tested positive, which happened even before Dead & Co lead guitarist John Mayer tested positive prior to the Playing in the Sand engagement in Mexico. The Cancun shows were cancelled as cases spread but Joe Russo’s Almost Dead guitarist Tom Hamilton was available to step in.
Prior to that legacy drummer Bill Kreutzman had a non-COVID health-related issue that prevented him from going to Mexico, but Wolf Bros/Ratdog drummer Jay Lane was the next man up.
“We made a list, and so everybody had an understudy,” Helie said. “If you can afford it it’s nice to have and we were able to afford it, but when one of our band members took ill, not from COVID but did take ill and wasn’t able to do a show at the Hollywood Bowl (in October) I had a drummer stashed at the (nearby) Magic Castle. Within 10 minutes we had a drummer up the hill and the show went on. In days past, that would have been a canceled show at the Hollywood Bowl. It would have been an awful day and an awful end of the tour.”
Zito said despite acts getting back on the road, the touring business in general is in a tentative state.
“I think the music industry is a bit too scared right now,” Zito said. “I think we’re afraid to move forward. Everybody’s worried about lawsuits.”
He noted how the way is often cleared for sports events, like Sunday’s Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium, while the live touring business struggles with a crazy quilt of restrictions, although many appear to be easing… again.
“There’s no way that was not going to happen,” he said of the big game and the music touring’s relative lack of clout compared to the sports side of live entertainment. “I think that’s something that’s holding us back as an industry. We don’t have that.”