Touring

Concert Business Faces 'Massive Shortage' of Tour Bus Drivers

Willie Nelson's tour bus
Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for Marshall Headphones

Willie Nelson's tour bus during the Marshall Headphones secret and intimate speakeasy pop-up party at SXSW on March 18, 2015 in Austin, Texas.

Vaccine hesitancy, better pay elsewhere and grueling itineraries are causing some to rethink their return to the road with rock stars.

On March 14, 2020, John Rogan was driving Staind frontman Aaron Lewis in a tour bus from Cleveland to a casino gig in New York state. The call came in from management: "Pull 'em over." As one of Rogan's last acts as a concert-industry bus driver, he drove members of the crew to the Cleveland airport. By March 16, he was home, in a small town north of Phoenix, where he sat for months.

During the pandemic, Rogan bought a used Peterbilt 379 big rig, fired up a load-board app and switched to hauling Amazon freight. Now the 53-year-old, who has driven the Allman Brothers Band, the Tedeschi Trucks Band and many others for nearly three decades, refuses to go back. "[I was on the road] two months at a time or more. And that was wearing on my marriage and my life," he says. "Now you listen what you want to on the radio, and if you feel like pulling over and taking a nap, you pull over and take a nap."

Rogan’s not the only former tour bus driver who’s found a more comfortable lifestyle in trucking during the pandemic. Now artists and their teams are struggling to find qualified drivers and that’s proving problematic as concerts resume -- beginning with Foo Fighters' recent Madison Square Garden gig and broadening to summer and fall tours like Green Day, Eagles and Harry Styles.

"It's going to be wild. There's going to be a massive shortage of drivers in the entertainment industry," says Jamie Streetman, operations manager for Coach Quarters, which has 20 buses in its Nashville fleet and has carried stars from Aretha Franklin to Jay-Z.

"A lot of these guys, it's not like they've taken a little leave of absence for a month. They've gone to little Jimmy's graduation or Sally's piano recital -- little things like that mean a lot over a year."

Another reason for drivers' departures from the industry: Most tours are requiring vaccines for their entire crews, and Rogan and others refuse to get the shots. "F--k no," he says, before launching into a rant about how he doesn't trust the government and, if vaccines are so easy to produce, why hasn't anybody cured cancer or AIDS? Rock LaRocca, another former driver who left the concert business for pandemic freight-hauling and refuses to come back, says half of his decision is due to vaccine hesitancy. He has a history of heart attacks and diabetes and "wants to see how it's going to work out in the next couple of years." For now, he’s able to live a more solitary life in his cab, wearing masks and gloves at truck stops and restaurants.

“Quite rightfully, everybody on tour is going to require everybody to be vaccinated,” says Steve Maples, vp of entertainment trucking for Rock-It Cargo, which specializes in moving tour freight. “That’s going to deter some people.”

Plus, pay rates for "reefers," or refrigerated trailers attached to semi-trucks, are up 324% over the past year, according to DAT Trendlines, a trucking industry data service. Rogan says a four-day run from Phoenix to Redmond, Ore., and back makes him $3,800, and he's home multiple days to spend time with his wife; before the pandemic, he made $450 a day driving a tour bus and was on the road for months. The higher rates were a problem for the concert business even before the pandemic, according to Maples, and replacements have come from Mexico and other countries – until the Trump Administration’s restrictive immigration polices cut off much of that labor pool.

“Drivers can get paid going warehouse to warehouse, and don’t necessarily go on the road for six to eight months out of the year,” he says.

With shows booked and tickets sold, artists and coach companies have been scrambling for weeks to figure out how to deal with this shortage. For imminent tours, like Foo Fighters and Green Day, the problem hasn’t fully kicked in, but many in the concert business expect to contend with it when a flood of tours returns to the road this fall and, especially, in 2022. “We haven’t specifically run into any shortages yet,” says Zito, Green Day’s production manager. “I feel sorry for some of the ones later in the year.”

How will tours figure this out? Green Day has scaled back its production, dropping from 20 trucks to 14 for its upcoming run. Coach Quarters’ Streetman is frantically seeking out experienced drivers and, as a backup plan, is considering training new ones. “We’re going to rise to the occasion,” Maples says. “The rock n’ roll industry is nothing if not flexible and innovative. We’re going to figure it out, but we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

One idea is to do nothing and wait. "We don't know yet how many people who found other things to do are going to permanently continue to do those other things, or are going to return to the siren call of the entertainment business,” says Robert A. Roth, the veteran rental rep for stage-lighting company Christie Lites. It’s possible, adds Maples, that departed drivers will change their minds when they see so many bands on the road and miss “catering and swag – no catering and swag at Walmart.”

Veteran tour-bus drivers have specialized skills and are not easily replaceable: They can stay awake for hours at a time, even if it takes dumping buckets of cold water over their heads; they can carry on endless conversations with rock stars, to the point of lifelong friendships; and the best ones are skilled mechanics who can quickly repair their vehicles in the middle of nowhere. "It's a different type of driving," Streetman says. "Our first goal will be to find people that have already got the experience."

LaRocca, 56, drove a bus for 30 years, touring with more than 600 artists big and small. One of his early jobs was to deliver Bob Dylan's 180-pound bull mastiff to him during a tour stop in Canada; he was with Frank Sinatra for his final show in 1992, and has also toured with Van Halen, Debbie Harry, Aerosmith and CeeLo Green. When the pandemic hit, LaRocca was on the road with Music of Cream, and found himself briefly unable to get out of Canada to return to his home near the beach in Gulfport, Miss. When he finally made it back, he thought, "Maybe it's time for a break."

He and a friend spent nine months "tricking out” old trucks as a hobby. "I realized, when people started calling me back recently, that I can make more money if I get the right truck," he says. "And I can just be my own guy and actually have some time again." He makes 4,800-mile trips every eight days, usually with live chickens as his cargo. "I run around California, get to see the sun come up every day. I don't have somebody going, 'Hey, can we stop over here and go to the bathroom?'"

It's not as if every concert driver is leaving the industry. "Everyone I know can't wait to ditch the freight and get back to touring," says Benjamin Nagy, who drives Elle King's tour bus.

John "Stranger" Adams, a rock n' roll truck driver since he carried the Youngbloods' gear in the early '70s, went home for three months after the pandemic. He was excited at first, hoping to catch up on his motorcycle riding, but hotels, shops and bars were closed at his favorite destinations, so he "sat around and didn't do a whole lot." Like Rogan and LaRocca, he hauled freight. But unlike them, he says: "None of us like hauling freight."

And while veteran driver Jay Tonini acknowledges "the freight doesn't talk back to you," he still plans to switch back to driving touring buses, first with violinist Lindsey Stirling in late June. "Pat Monahan, lead singer for Train, I drive him all the time. We've been texting back and forth," he says. "He's like, 'I'm ready to roll.' 'I know, brother, let's go!'" And despite the rising rates for hauling freight, Tonini says he gets paid better in music touring -- he asked his trucking company for more money, but it couldn't compete.

Still, drivers like Rogan and LaRocca represent a problem for the industry. Rogan started driving trucks at 17, delivering furniture, before shifting to tour buses in the early '90s and working for Florida Coach, which has hauled stars from John Legend to Willie Nelson over the decades. Back then, the driver rate was just $175 per day, but Rogan got to stay in nice hotels and hang out with clients like Widespread Panic, whom he calls "the best group of people I've ever drove in my life."

Over time, though, Rogan began to sour on the industry, as drivers began to post braggy backstage photos on Facebook and artist managers had a way of "digging into your pocket deeper and deeper." He spent a portion of the pandemic driving a client, whom he won’t name, when the artist tried to do a few shows with diminished capacity. It was a frustrating experience for everyone. The client asked Rogan to drive for a family vacation and other personal trips for a few days at a daily rate, which is lower than his usual salary. That became frustrating, and Rogan “just kind of got over the industry,” he says.

"I don't want to lose another relationship over a job. There are better ways to live your life," adds Rogan, who now owns two trucks and runs his own company, CM Transport. "The industry went in a direction where I wasn't happy. I'd grown out of it. The pandemic just forced my hand."

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