Doing More With Less: Road Crews Contend With Labor Shortages, Frenetic Pace (Transportation Special)

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We Are The Road Crew: Production crew are bearing the brunt of macro-economic problems brought on post-COVID, such as staffing shortages, price increases and supply chain issues. Courtesy Paul Bradley

The production side of a concert tour has always been overlooked, with skilled labor working long hours and dealing with unusual problems of unusual magnitude to make sure the show happens safely, on time and with the spectacle expected.

Maybe it should be no surprise then, that, post-COVID, touring crew are similarly overlooked and feeling the brunt of current challenges brought upon by factors out of everyone’s control and that no one could have seen coming three years ago.

“Everything now in Master Tour is looking like it’s going to be as busy or busier than 2022,” says Paul Bradley, CEO of Eventric, the company behind popular tour management software Master Tour, which counts 60,000 tour personnel among its active monthly users. “There’s huge, stadium-level real ‘world tours’ going out. That’s a challenge, being a big stadium-level global tour for the first time in a couple years and figuring out the logistical structure to it.”

With staffing shortages, price increases on everything from gas to steel to air conditioning units for coaches, tour economics have changed drastically since COVID. Prices may be largely passed on to consumers via ticket price, but corners can be cut in other places, which can have a trickle-down effect.

“Now that we’re in 2023, unfortunately, I think these tours that are going to go out are gonna do it with less people,” Bradley adds. “Those people on the tour are gonna do more of the work, sometimes the work of two or three people that they had previously, and they’re not gonna get paid for those extra roles they’re taking on.

“Then, of the three roles, of the three hats that they’re wearing now, two of the three are gonna suffer, which is gonna trickle down into other elements of the show,” he adds.

The biggest problem in recent months has been the lack of available and qualified crew members, he says, with many finding jobs in different sectors altogether. While many decided it was a good time to retire or be less active on the road, that has led to opportunity for a new generation, which will have to adapt quickly.

“Last year, and especially this year, we’re going to see a lot of new talent and a lot of new crew that aren’t as experienced doing some very important jobs on tours,” Bradley said. This may manifest itself particularly when dealing with fatigue and mental exhaustion on the road.

“When you get people that don’t really know how to tour manage correctly or haven’t had that experience, (they may not) identify certain triggers with their crew and artists — very small things that you can pick up that can be indicators of health issues and exhaustion,” Bradley said. “Mental health issues on the road is the next big thing that a lot of us are trying to address and help.”

With still some “firsts” since COVID, such as full-scale world tours rather than individual legs, surely there will be more headaches for tour managers and production managers to figure out in real time.

“I think the production value is going to be brought down a little bit, but the costs are gonna be offset and not reduced because of the supply and demand and inflation and just getting here and moving stuff,” Bradley said. “Slow-boating an entire set from here to Europe and from Europe to Australia is way more expensive now.”

In a business that has seen it all, there are still surprises when traveling, such as in January when 11,000 flights were canceled or moved after an FAA computer outage.

“I heard that indirectly affected 2,000 shows. I mean, I can’t travel with my family of five without there being some type of logistical glitch that makes me feel like I’m tour managing Coldplay,” Bradley says with a laugh.

One positive is that some bands have taken on production managers or tour managers full time, employing these critical professionals even when not on the road, which can mean more stability all around.

“That’s always been a treasured position and there’s only been a handful of tours, especially at the arena level, that can afford that,” Bradley says. “And I’ve agreed with that since day one. You find someone that you love that is a great person, fits in with the family of a tour and with an artist and that you trust.” s