Nicole Massey did her best not to seem nervous when she introduced “the best 20-year-old boss in the world” — Billie Eilish — prior to Eilish’s performance of “Happier Than Ever” at the 64th annual Grammy Awards. Knowing everyone from her hometown was watching, Massey rehearsed her introduction and delivered her lines with perfect projection and ease, only to be betrayed by her shaking hand.
“People were teasing me about my shaking hand – in fact, a few blogs mentioned it,” says Massey, laughing as she recalled Sunday’s events. The production manager was one of four touring professionals asked to introduce the artist that they worked for during the Grammys broadcast as part of an effort to raise awareness of the difficulties the touring industry faced in 2020 and 2021 due to the global touring shutdown that followed the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eilish was only a few dates into her tour when the March 2020 shutdown halted the tour and sent the road crew back home. While crew members were able to stay active during the pandemic, not everyone was so lucky, Massey says.
“I had colleagues that hadn’t worked a day since the tour was canceled in March and didn’t return until last September when we did festivals,” says Massey.
Between 15,000 to 20,000 men and women work on road crews for major touring shows, according to Crew Nation, the charity supporting road crews, powered by the Music Forward Foundation and Live Nation, which raised millions of dollars for the charity.
“We all try to check in on one another and make sure no one falls between the cracks,” says Katie Wilkinson, assistant tour manager to Chris Stapleton and Morgane Stapleton, who says she was honored to represent Stapleton’s 50-person touring crew at the Grammy Awards. While Stapleton, Eilish and others continued to pay their crews through the pandemic, Wilkinson said the isolation of the pandemic has been extremely unsettling for some touring crew members.
“It’s very disruptive for families and I worried about people’s mental health,” she says. Studies have shown that substance abuse and mental illness are higher in the touring industry than in other sectors of the entertainment industry.
“We have to really look after one another because in many cases all we have is each other,” Wilkinson says.
Misha Mays, tour manager and day-to-day manager for H.E.R. via MBK Entertainment, said the touring community is home to many smart and creative problem solvers.
“It’s Murphy’s Law on the road — anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. And I feel like everything can be resolved if you’re looking at it from the right perspective,” she tells Billboard. When the pandemic hit, many in the touring community found themselves facing a new set of challenges they never expected with very few options. Mayes said H.E.R. was able to pay out her road crew for her tour even though it had been canceled.
“Thankfully we had a boss who really cared and wanted to keep her crew together to protect the talented people she had working for her,” Mayes said.