The title may be a little tongue-in-cheek, but looking back, I found there are many similarities between being a tour manager and a startup founder.
Between 2001 and 2004, I was a freelance tour manager for a good number of bands from the US, Canada and Germany. I spent these 3 years on European highways and in live-music venues all across the continent. Each tour meant running a startup, some for only a short time, others for more than two months straight.
Let me start by comparing the people involved in the organization of a tour and the people involved in a startup, let’s call them:
- The band: founders / product folks
- Fans: users
- Tour manager: CEO / CFO
- Tour agent / manager: Board of Directors
- Crew: the team
- Press: well, the press
- Festivals: TechCrunch50
(I’ve put additional roles between brackets below)
While I never really liked to use the word product to describe something related to music (album, single, band), it works best for our comparison.
The band is the most important actor in our play. You can have everything sorted out and organized, your plan in place and you’ve involved the best people you know. But, if the band and their songs suck and nobody likes it, pretty much nobody will show up and pay and you will fail.
Just like with any web startup (your product is your marketing), if you’re a great & remarkable band that has managed to grow a passionate fan base around you, people will pay to see you play and if they think you’ve done a kick-ass job, they will most probably buy your merchandise after you finish playing.
If you manage to put people in awe, best chances are you’re going to be a winner.
Problem / Solution
That one’s easy: bands create music and want people to hear it. Fans want to experience their music in an intimate way and spend a memorable night. The solution: they leave for tour to go where their fans (users) are. Tours also mean considerably higher direct revenues for bands, through fees and merchandise sales.
Like for any startup, the people in your team are key. Your sound engineer (senior developer or system admin) will need to be the best you can get but at the same time, he’ll need to fit in socially (those of you familiar with sound engineers or developers for that matter, will know what I mean). The engineer will need to ‘read’ the bands sound and will deal with a good number of 500, 503 and 400 errors caused by local conditions and equipment.
Your merchandiser needs to be reliable, trustworthy, and great with numbers (marketer). If all goes well, she will be responsible for bringing in significant additional revenues. She will also be in direct contact with a good numbers of fans so in a way, that makes her your community manager and is a great liaison between the band and the fans.
You’ll probably have a guitar or/and drum tech (designer/developer) joining you on the road. A tech is responsible for the bands equipment, executes sound check and generally makes sure everything runs smoothly during the set. She’ll also supervise load-out and never leaves anything behind.
This is the trickiest part: the local promoter (affiliate partner). You rely on local promoters and that’s where things can go wrong. If you’re on a fixed-deal night, you should be alright but being on a percentage-night things can get get messy since that requires you to balance being in control and at the same time not coming across as an asshole. Sometimes you’ll need to argue over rider items or you may need someone to run some errands for you. I found this to be the hardest part because that’s were someone could screw you over big time. And believe me, some will try it, I’ve seen and heard it happen too many times. On a positive note: I’ve met a lot of great locals to work with and have remained friends with some of them until today.
Vision / Mission
Setting the agenda here: what goal do you want to achieve with the tour (promotional tour, festivals, showcases, etc) and what do you need to succeed: venue type, venue capacity, merchandise design, pre-sale ticket vendors, additional/specific staff etc.
This is also were the band/label manager and tour agent comes in (Board of Directors). They most probably will not travel with you but will act as advisers and control your work from the distance (fixed fees, projected merchandise revenues, pre-sales, etc) and connect you with the folks you need.
So what about the tour manager?
He runs the whole party, makes sure everyone and everything is in place and on time. He deals with the press (gueslist anyone?), local promoters, touring staff, fans, last-minute problems. He carries band-aids, cough medicine, sharpies, calling cards and portable printers. He collects fees and distributes per diems. He’s the first one to wake up and the last one to fall asleep. He discovers the weirdest bars (only because he’s on the quest to find the missing singer at 4am after the show) and is a safe driver. He knows his way around and if he doesn’t, he will find is way around.
So what are the key things I’ve learned?
Being flexible, persistent and trying to deal with stress and no-sleep, taking responibility and trying to manage that multi-tasking thing.
Wasn’t always easy, during some days it was easier to call-up these abilities than others but all in all it was a fantastic experience.