Specialist travel management skills are needed to keep a band on the road…
Rock stars are demanding, right? Dave Lee Roth of rock band Van Halen is often thought to be right up there thanks to his insistence in the band’s rider (the list of backstage requirements) that promoters must provide bowls of M&Ms but absolutely, on pain of cancellation, no brown ones.
The story is true but Roth, in his autobiography Crazy from the Heat, explains why this is not about being a diva – but instead to make sure promoters had actually read and understood all of the band’s requirements in other, more critical areas.
He wrote: “When I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl… well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.”
Aisha Battersby, general manager at entertainment industry specialist agent Stage and Screen Travel, does not believe music clients are more demanding than others. “Sometimes it is not the clients but concerns around the travel, requirements or schedules they have to meet and the precious things they are carrying with them. It ranges from the DJ with a laptop to a classical artist with a priceless violin,” she says.
“The artists may be on tour for months – is it demanding when they ask for their favourite type of drink? It is making sure they can perform.”
Stage and Screen, part of FCM Travel, has carved out a niche in the entertainment business, first in Australia but more recently in the UK. It works with many music artists, including house DJs, mainstream rock and pop artists as well as classical artists and orchestras. The music business has far more in common with group travel than corporate business travel. “It could be a band or an individual musician and then people travelling with them, such as managers and crew,” says Battersby.
A big tour could involve hundreds of people – the band, musicians, managers, security, dancers, partners and roadies – often travelling at different times and staying in different hotels. There is a lot of money riding on stars being able to perform and the consequences of a missed flight or longer-term problems – remember when the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl broke his leg by jumping off stage – are far more substantial than if a business traveller misses a meeting.
“We deal with problems in the same way as any traditional TMC,” says Battersby. “We have 24-hour teams and we have people touring with the bands. We are used to dealing with last-minute changes.”
The Tour Division is another well-known name in the music business and it grew out of managing heavy metal band Iron Maiden’s travel plans over the years.
The company operates as an independent under the umbrella of the Tzell Travel Group (itself a division of Travel Leaders) from the latter’s offices in London.
The Tour Division’s owner, Brian Locke, has worked at the intersection of music and travel for the past 20 years, ever since working as tour coordinator at one of the best known names in the business, Sanctuary Artist Management.
Sanctuary was formed by Rod Smallwood and Andy Taylor, co-managers of Iron Maiden, to deal with its affairs. By 2006, it was one of the world’s biggest independent music companies, counting The Who, Dolly Parton, Chaka Khan and Morrissey among more than 100 signed, managed artists.
Sanctuary’s head of production Bob Ward – much respected in the industry and now one of The Tour Division’s main clients – bought Locke a copy of Microsoft AutoRoute software. Locke recalls: “As the company was growing we took on more bands. Bob said, ‘Let’s use this to work out how these tours are going to work logistically.’”
Locke combined this with a database of venues and hotels, and designed the company’s tour books around it, developing it into a hotel booking system. “We also had an in-house travel agent, Platinum Travel, which handled flights,” he says.
This set-up was highly unusual. “Most management companies would outsource that,” says Locke. “When we brought on an existing artist we could offer our department’s services or we would dovetail into any existing team.”
After Sanctuary imploded in the mid-Noughties due to a financial crisis, Universal Music bought its skeleton and asked BCD Travel to look after the account – and it turned to Locke. He says his time there showed him how different music business travel was to regular corporate travel. “It showed me that if you are going to operate on a tour level, it is very much a front-line job; you can’t box it into a large corporate model with call centres,” he says. “You are dealing with real personalities who may need direct access to you at all times.”
Six years ago, Locke decided to strike out on his own and set up The Tour Division. The company has won the respect of a range of bands and solo artists, including Iron Maiden, naturally, and Busted, Bullet for My Valentine and Bring Me the Horizon. Locke has also worked with Beyoncé for 15 years, including on her 2016 Formation World Tour.
“I was full-time on the tour,” says Locke, “and I had Natasha handling all of the crew and a mixture of Karla and Katie flip-flopping with the B party – the band and dancers – and always someone in the office handling some of the extra travel. You absolutely have to be hands-on.”
Many bands make the jump to professional travel management when they realise they don’t want to sleep in the back of a van any more. Booking up-and-coming bands into budget hotels may not make a great deal of money, but it does help build relationships.
“The bands you need to help the most might one day become successful and may want to stay with us,” says Locke. “We usually say yes when someone asks for help.”
Airlines are often keen to work with music clients and offer specialist entertainment fares with additional baggage for large items of a production that cannot be freighted. “Delta has been amazing in the last 18 months and working with Virgin is always a pleasure,” says Locke.
Aviation charters are common in the music business, Locke says. “There comes a point when moving 100 people and upwards that for convenience and logistics you rent your own plane. You make sure you can run that schedule because it is always easier to move everyone in one go than spread that out over different flights.”
Iron Maiden’s Ed Force One is perhaps the most visible of rock star jets (see below) but private charters are often used in the business. Charter company Luxaviation is frequently contacted by brokers looking to secure aircraft from their fleet, ranging from helicopters to big jets, to take bands on tour. The company founder and CEO Patrick Margetson-Rushmore says that Bombardier Challenger 600s are popular. “They are perfect for the European range and they take plenty of luggage,” he says.
With some tours, where a band plays several dates in one city, the jet may well move on to other charters before returning to pick them up after a few days.
Discretion and security are paramount, and Luxaviation says its work with government clients puts it in good stead with bands who do not want to worry about being stalked by fans or the press. “We have to be very careful that the suppliers we use don’t talk about who they are flying,” says Margetson-Rushmore.
What does he think about diva rock stars? “People think that bands have a bad reputation but that comes from the 1960s and 70s,” he says. A lot of our bands just have a hot chocolate and a meal. It’s not always party time as they know they have to perform the following evening. We know their preferences – the newspapers they like, the drinks they like and whether they like Maltesers or Smarties.”
He will not be drawn on whether brown M&Ms are ever served onboard…
An Ed for heights
Iron Maiden’s touring requirements are different from other bands. After all, there are few acts whose frontmen are also trained pilots, as is Bruce Dickinson. On the Book of Souls tour in 2016, Dickinson flew the band around the world in ‘Ed Force One’, a nod to the band’s mascot, Eddie the Head.
Yet an incident in South America showed just the sort of problems travel agents, bands and their entourages can face when things go wrong.
While Ed Force One was being towed around Santiago airport, the steering mechanism failed and the plane crashed into the tug pulling it, damaging two jet engines worth US$4 million and the undercarriage.
The band and 20 tonnes of equipment had to be in Cordoba – 1,000 kilometres away – the next day.
Speaking about the incident, Dickinson said: “It’s quite a feat of logistics to find and put into action at such short notice all the transport, replacement air-charters, scheduled flights, etc, to enable us to play those next four shows on time without Ed Force One… Great effort, team.”