The 2019 Grammys

Beware of Strangers Carrying Ice: Nashville Touring Workshop Schools Roadies On Risks For Upcoming Concert Season

Tiffany Bearden
"Roadie" t-shirts

Always watch out for someone heading toward the tour bus carrying a bag of ice in each hand: the approach is one way interlopers can avoid flashing the proper ID to come onboard, knowing that roadies rarely turn down ice in the sweltering summer months.

That was among the security lessons shared at the most recent edition of the annual Nashville Touring Career Workshop, which prepares pros for life on the road. As country artists issue a flurry of summer tour announcements -- Lady Antebellum, Darius Rucker, and Keith Urban did so within the last week -- the Nashville concert industry is readying to welcome an influx of rookie roadies as it does each year, with some likely unaware of what they're getting themselves into and a host of new challenges facing the industry.

That is where Chris Lisle and Erik Parker come in. The two men behind the workshop have taken it upon themselves to prepare novice colleagues for the jobs and update veterans on how the field is changing, whether that be the number of dates on the average tour increasing, or the new security measures that venues will now have in place after this past year's mass shooting in Las Vegas at the country-themed Route 91 Harvest Festival in October. That attack -- the meticulous planning of which was detailed in a police report issued last week -- forced the pair to completely rethink their latest event.

The pair fielded so many inquiring calls and emails in the aftermath of the massacre that they retooled the seminar's schedule to allow "Situational Awareness and Safety,"  a session that was originally set to run alongside the usual financial and health classes, to open the night in the main room of the workshop, without competition.

"There is another [new class] that we added -- Immediate Action Medical," says Lisle, founder of the non-profit that he considers a "Human Resources for Touring Production Professionals." "We were approached by someone from outside [the workshop] about creating it. It’s almost like a first aid-for-roadies course."

The pair of directors never allow the workshop -- now in its seventh year -- to stray too far away from its original goals, however. What began as an experiment inside one conference room at Belmont University with 50 interested parties showing up has swelled to a record crowd of nearly 400 inside the rehearsal studios at Soundcheck Nashville. They were happy to see all of the first time attendees return to the October event, with more fledgling workers entering their field each year and having many of the same questions and misconceptions.

"The way roadies get paid is a lot like the way that athletes get paid," Parker says. "When you go out on the road on a tour, you're getting paid in each state along the way, which means at the end of the year you have thirty or forty tax returns. You have to fill out forms for each state, and it helps these guys to know that it is coming before they hit the road."

"Also, they need to realize upfront that you may get on a tour where everything is going great for you for three or four months, then you may not get another job for months afterwards. They have to know how to budget money for those slow periods, and how to make sure they keep some money squirreled away for those down times. Roadies often have a very artistic view of life, where they want everyone to have a great time, which means business isn't exactly a thing we are really strong at."

The two were inspired to start the program -- completely funded by donations from vendors and manufacturers within the touring community -- by their mentors, the veterans of the touring industry who taught them everything they knew, yet were left due to poor money management with nothing to show for their years of performing backbreaking work, once their bodies were no longer able to handle the rigors of life on the road. "Their health is gone, and their money is spent," explains Parker. "The whole seed of this is to make sure that people in their twenties recognize that they will have to retire one day. They need to learn how to take care of their body, take care of their taxes, and do it in the right way."

Compounding the issues facing the modern day roadie are the longer touring schedules that are the new reality of economics within the music industry. The physical demands that have always been a part of the job are now multiplied for many by months-long stretches of setting up equipment on a near-nightly basis. Add to that the stress that comes with juggling personal and family issues from the road, the duo work hard each year to make sure that their peers have someone to talk to when it begins to feel like too much to bear. The group use the proceeds to pay for a program that allows any professional to speak to a designated life coach or therapist. Thanks to the success and rising popularity of the event, the number of phone sessions offered and paid for by the group rose from two to four this year.

"We get the bill, we pay the bill," Lisle plainly states. "It doesn't matter if you have just entered the profession, or if you've been doing this for thirty years. The shows are only getting bigger, and the artists are only touring [longer]. The stress to put on a great show has only increased."