Skip to main content

Supply-Chain Shortages Create Touring Industry ‘Nightmare’: ‘Everything’s More Expensive’

Artists are eager to get back on the road, but personnel, trucks and stages are hard to find — will profits be in short supply as well?

To plan Dashboard Confessional’s 2022 tour with Jimmy Eat World, which begins Feb. 27, the veteran emo band’s tour manager, Jack Funk, started making calls in late December to fill two buses with 12 musicians and hire a production crew. Even at the last minute, this process was, in normal times, routine.

Not this year.

“It’s a nightmare,” he says. “I started talking to people: This guy’s busy, this guy’s busy. Everybody wants money. And rightfully so — they’re in demand. But we’re not Bon Jovi. We can’t afford it.”

Related

In late January, with barely enough time left before the tour started, Funk found the final crew member, a front-of-house engineer. “It’s really stressful,” he says.

For touring stars, venues and promoters, everything is anxious in 2022. The pandemic seems to be abating, which means everyone wants to be on the road after two disturbing years of canceled dates and up-and-down revenue. Live Nation reports more shows this month than any previous February in the company’s history, and the “overall concert pipeline” this year is outpacing 2019.

But abruptly shutting down the multibillion-dollar touring industry, then restarting it after two years, turns out to be a complicated process. Tour and production managers, as well as promoters, are contending with the same personnel and supply-chain problems afflicting industries from clothing to food. Experienced riggers, stagehands, truck drivers and catering crews have found jobs elsewhere over the past 24 months; the delays that cause supermarket shelves to run out of chicken or popcorn is murder on a business that needs replacement parts for tour bus engines in the middle of nowhere at 2 a.m.

“Every band wants to go back to work, so you need more people, you need more drivers, you need more lighting crews,” says Jake Berry, a longtime production manager for shows from U2 to J Balvin’s arena tour beginning April 19. “That’s not there, so you’ve got to find them.” Adds Corrie Martin, a Wasserman Music agent who represents Imagine Dragons, Rise Against and Riot Fest: “Things that would take 24 hours before are taking two to three weeks.”

Barring new variants, most 2022 tours are not in danger of cancellation, and concert industry sources emphasize shows will not lack crucial equipment or security staff. “We’re not seeing anything holding back the volume of shows,” says Arthur Fogel, president of Live Nation’s global touring division and chairman of concerts. “Some of those challenges exist, but everybody’s already figuring out how to overcome them.”

The personnel and supply-chain issues are cumbersome and costly, however. Jon Dunleavy, My Chemical Romance’s tour manager, hired buses last summer for the band’s European tour in May and U.S. tour in August, but waited until late August to rent seven trucks — and every truck company came up empty-handed. He finally succeeded, but “it was nerve-racking for a minute,” he says. “Everything’s more expensive.”

Rather than raising ticket prices or reducing staff or production, My Chemical Romance will absorb the costs. The group can afford it, Dunleavy says, but “for some bands, it could tip the scales from a profitable tour to a tour in debt.” Tom Windish, a Wasserman agent who specializes in indie rock, adds that smaller acts may struggle due to higher expenses: “An artist that makes $500 a night may be losing $5,000 from their savings account to go on a tour. In some cases, the artist can’t sustain the losses.”

The most pronounced personnel shortages, according to concert business sources, are in transportation. Stephen Maples, vp of entertainment trucking for live-event cargo business Rock-It Global, estimates that “ready-to-go” drivers are just 65% of what they were before the pandemic. Nashville tour bus company Coach Quarters has just 17 drivers on hand for its 20-bus fleet. The company has had to train new drivers and pay more experienced ones higher salaries — a truck with a trailer that cost $350 per day before COVID-19 now costs at least $400. Plus, parts are hard to find. “It’s truly crippling,” says operations manager Jamie Streetman.

Stagehands are in short supply, too — 20% to 40% fewer personnel are available than usual, according to Rhino Staging founder/CEO Jeff Giek: “It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen. We’re having to [have people travel in] from out of state.”

Sound and lighting companies are struggling with the same issues. Michael Strickland, chair/founder of Nashville’s Bandit Lites, says workers in his industry “that once made X are now requesting 1.5 or 2X,” and the costs of replacing parts have increased “exponentially.”

“We’ve lost, by my estimation, 30% of the labor force,” Strickland says. “There is no short-term fix. It’s not like you can turn the switch and those 30% will come back. They’re gone.”

In Europe, promoters are dealing with shortages for everything: stages, toilets, trucks, fences, security. Costs are up 50%, according to Stuart Galbraith, CEO of 14-year-old U.K. indie promoter Kilimanjaro Group; a stage that cost £40,000 ($54,300) in 2019 has increased to £75,000 ($101,800). His company took the unusual step of purchasing, rather than leasing, two stages — and numerous toilets.

“It’s certainly stressful,” he says. “But we’re used to changing the way we do things. This is just another roll of our evolutionary dice. We will come out stronger. With more toilets.”

This story originally appeared in Billboard’s 2022 Women in Music issue, dated Feb. 26, 2022.