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Spotlight: Tina Farris' Journey From Fan to 'Bothering Little Sister' to Tour Managing The Roots, D'Angelo & More

Tina Farris
IamSuede Dominic Pearson

Tina Farris

"I've been fortunate enough to travel the world a few times over and so I have a lot of stories."

Despite the appeal of a career based around travel and backstage access, as Tina Farris tells it, the life of a tour manager is less than glamorous. Without suggesting any complaints, she calls it the "care-taking business" and lists the necessary qualities to perform it well, as she has for the past 18 years with clients including The Roots, The Black Eyed Peas, Lil' Wayne and others. "It's teaching, it's counseling, it's corralling, it's management," she says. "And you need the ability to continuously work." 

A former Compton, California, high school French teacher who grew up around musicians and is a bass player herself, Farris wound up perfectly suited for the role without ever planning for it. So much so, she was essentially drafted into the job.

When Farris was a student at UCLA, she explains she was invited backstage after a Roots concert on campus when she was spotted in the front row playing air bass "like a lunatic." Days later, she drove up to see the band again in her hometown Sacramento and, from there, would catch them whenever she could, forming a friendship as what she calls "the bothering little sister."

Following graduate school, Farris became a public school teacher and would use a buddy pass from a friend who worked with Delta Airlines to see The Roots on tour during spring break and summers, sometimes traveling for weeks with the group's crew. Over time, she became more trusted and when the band's then-road manager began looking to move on, she suggested Farris as her replacement -- subsequently tossing the then-28-year-old into the deep end without forewarning. She says, "She pulled me in and then showed up to a trip and was like, 'OK, bye.'"

Even though The Roots had already been an active band for nearly a decade, they were just beginning to break out at this time with the release of Things Fall Apart and Farris recalls running on a tight budget, touring with 10 people crammed in a bus.

"They didn't have any money in '99; they didn't have Jimmy Fallon in '99," she says. "When I came, it was me and a sound guy and I set up the instruments and helped with the sound check, I set up Questlove's drum kit. And I did merch and I did lights during the show. I don't know how to do lights -- just for the record. 'Oh it's red, I'll just keep pushing it.'"

Eventually, the operation grew and so did Farris' new career. With The Roots, they expanded to two tour busses (which they maintain today), as well as a production manager and various other technical roles. Meanwhile she began working with other acts including Nicki Minaj, Lauryn Hill, Fergie, Queen Latifah, Jill Scott, Maxwell and Mayer Hawthorne, among as those mentioned already. She has also expanded into comedy, tour managing Chris Rock's Total Blackout Tour, which kicked off in 2017 and wrapped earlier this year. And, along the line, she created her own company, Tina Farris Tours, with which she also produces the annual Roots Picnic festival in Philadelphia and comedian Amanda Seales' Smart, Funny and Black live game show in Los Angeles. Farris' upcoming tours include The Roots, The Internet and D'Angelo

In her time off, Farris is writing and developing screenplays and television shows, with one series that will pull from her own life experiences following a female tour manager in hip-hop during the 1990s. "I am a storyteller," she says. "I've been fortunate enough to travel the world a few times over and so I have a lot of stories, particularly about women and women of color and communities of color that I want to talk about."

While Farris got into the music industry initially as a fan, she credits her upbringing as key to her building an early friendship with The Roots that eventually launched her career. As the granddaughter of R&B producer Harvey Fuqua, she says she grew up hanging out backstage at shows alongside Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy. And while not everyone can have the same background, she said the kind of attitude she developed is essential to doing her job. 

"It was always natural," she says. "I don't really get the 'fan' thing. I get excited and I just know how to present myself... But, like, if you're going to fan out because you're around an artist then, definitely, this isn't the job for you. Chewed up and spit out is what will happen to you."

As Farris' career has progressed, it has been with a commitment to mentorship indicative of her teaching experience. Last year she launched the women's mentoring group Decades, which encourages information sharing across generations with monthly events and an annual conference, and "on a good day" she says she will respond to social media messages or cold-call emails from young people looking to break into the industry. Just as Farris notes receiving support from the late Roots manager and producer Richard Nichols and The Black Eyed Peas' manager William Derella in her career, among others, she now has guidance of her own to share from coming up in the male-dominated business of live music. 

Detailing the sort of episodes ripe for that television series Farris is developing, she says she has been mistaken on the job for a dancer, backup singer and "hoochie." In turn, she has had to counsel her female staff members on how to deal with these situations and now holds staff-wide security meetings at events in order to establish on that particular night "yes, it's going to be a woman tour manager who is in charge." Similarly, she says, it's typical that venue employees of both genders will defer to the men on her staff before her, meaning she must also teach her male crew members how to appropriately handle those situations. "I definitely have a reputation to not take a lot of crap," says Farris. "And then when women don't take crap, then we're seen as argumentative, confrontational and bitches and all that good stuff. It used to bother me before; it doesn't bother me much anymore."

Regardless of the teaching, counseling and corralling that goes along with her job, Farris says she ultimately sees the tour manager role as a creative collaboration with artists to execute their vision. They are creators, bearing a heavy responsibility to make things happen, she explains, and young people are catching on.

"Building a show and designing a show, you get to use a lot of creative muscle and people are into it now," she says. "Before I didn't know that what my job was. I didn't go to school to be a tour manager. I didn't even know what a tour manager was, you know. And that there's kids, like, 'I want to be a tour manager.' I'm like, 'You do? Why?! Who told you wanted to do that?'"

SPOTLIGHT:

When you're coming up, it's great to listen and ask questions. Don't be afraid to be persistent. I've hired many people simply because they emailed me or DM'ed me and were at the top of my mind when the need presented itself. Everyone has a story about how long it took to get to the person you want to work for. I was friends with The Roots for five years before I started working with them, so hang in there.

When I strategize, I use my clinical psychology and teaching backgrounds. Whatever the end goal of the day, I consider the human addition that may make plan A go terribly awry. I consider the needs of the client and what is required to pick up the check. Everything in between is on me. If something doesn't show up, I know all too well the feeling of the heavy responsibility taken for fucking up a show. That's why I plan for B. Plan A is easy. Plan B is what bites you in the ass.

The best advice I've received is you're never too late to start your dream. I've heard my aunt, my mentor and even my college comrade Ava Duvernay state this. So much of life is an alleged timeline of what you are supposed to do and have done at some certain time. Time is the anxiety. Certainly there are biological time clocks but your life's happiness does not necessarily have to begin and end with a time frame. Life is long. And there's plenty to do. Get on it. 

Dealing with musicians is specialized. You have to understand where art and business come together. You can hope your artist understands but that's not [always] realistic. You want musicians to be in a creative spirit all of the time. That's their zone and that's what creates the best results. Being in my position I'm often referred to as the 'artist whisperer.' I'll speak to an artist about something completely off topic, quelling whatever anxiety they may have and then they can focus on their creativity and our main goal, which is their music and performance.

What's next for me is television producing. I think the beauty of any storyteller is living. There's a reason why the breakout album of an artist is so amazing. It's that person's life story culminated into one incredible album. The easier life is, I feel the less compelling music is written. It's the struggles and the lessons that create the most interesting stories. I've lived a little and have a lot of stories with endings and new beginnings that I'm happy to share. Telling them to a broad audience is what excites me.

Something I never thought I'd be doing was comedy. Clearly tour managing 20 or 50 people uses the same muscle as tour managing one person, but I didn't know that the comedy world required those skills. Now I never want to stop. It's a traveling writers room! It's alive and changes, and these days music is an integral part of the stage productions as well.

Spotlight is a new Billboard.biz series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact spotlight@billboard.com.

 


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