Is the Touring Industry’s Supply-Chain Nightmare Finally Over?
Though shortages continue and expenses remain high, touring professionals say the era of "doom and gloom" is beginning to lift.
Sixty miles outside Taking Back Sunday‘s gig at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., last July, the alt-rock band’s driver woke up and informed tour manager Andrew Sprague: “Bus can’t move.” The bus company’s fleet was too depleted to supply a backup, so Sprague spent a day securing transportation for 12 musicians and crew, some of whom hitched a ride on touring mate Third Eye Blind’s bus.
But 2023 is different, Sprague says: “Fingers crossed, everything’s moving a little bit better.”
Personnel shortages and supply-chain issues continue to plague the touring industry, but as 2023 shapes up to be a gigantic year, with stars like Taylor Swift, Drake, Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen and The Cure selling out shows, bands and managers are noticing an economic tension release from the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s been full-tilt since April of 2022,” says Brent Dannen, studio general manager for Rock Lititz, the 96-acre Pennsylvania campus where artists rehearse and prep for major tours. “Certain supply-chain issues are not like they were pre-pandemic — we’re not back to that yet. But they have improved since this time last year.”
Robert A. Roth, a rental representative for Christie Lites, the lighting company that works with stadium stars such as Bad Bunny and Karol G, is even more upbeat, although he acknowledges freight costs remain “elevated” above 2019 levels. “If somebody’s looking for a doom-and-gloom outlook, you need to look somewhere else,” he says. “Are things more expensive than they used to be? Yes. Demand is high. Challenges remain. [But] things are improving.”
One reason for concert-business optimism is that touring artists, crews and vendors have adapted to challenges like bus-driver shortages and being forced to procure hard-to-find parts from international factories.
Hemphill Brothers, the Nashville bus-rental company that specializes in concert tours and has worked for artists like Janet Jackson and Mötley Crüe, spent the past year and a half training 60 full-time drivers and stocking up on hard-to-find tires. And bands have learned to book buses farther in advance than usual, sometimes 14 months before a tour begins. “In ’21, we were doing a lot of things for smaller acts,” says Joey Hemphill, Hemphill Brothers’ co-owner, chairman and treasurer. “Now the monster tours are back.”
Finding qualified tour personnel remains a struggle. John Benjamin “JB” Brubaker, lead guitarist for August Burns Red, says a key lighting director recently departed the band’s tour for “some bigger accounts,” but they were able to find a replacement. Michele Abreim, who manages Pierce the Veil, adds that the metal band has given raises to all of its crew members since a tour last September, with high-demand guitar and drum techs being especially expensive. “Normally, our crew is with us a longer period of time before we give pay bumps,” she says.
Rhino Staging, which supplies thousands of staff and crew for live-entertainment events, has aggressively trained workers over the past two years. According to CEO Jeff Giek, it’s still challenging to find people for specialized concert-production work like stage rigging – but new employees are slowly filling the spots. He adds that Rhino has turned down more work over the last 18 months than it has in the last 30 years, but that tours have not had to scale back dates or production due to lack of personnel. “There’s some sex appeal to working in the music business. We’re better off than some of the other industries — I have friends who have cleaning businesses or are in the restaurant business, and they’re really struggling,” Giek says.
Bands are still frustrated that supply-chain issues, due to lingering pandemic shipping delays and factory shutdowns after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, still translate into parts shortages. August Burns Red’s lighting fixtures require cooling fans that have been on back-order for weeks: “It’s just dead equipment sitting in the back of the tour bus,” Brubaker says. Pierce the Veil ordered new guitar cases months ago, but they won’t be ready for the band’s tour, which begins later this month in Mexico. “We’ll sometimes start a tour without everything we need,” Abreim says.
Some economic, logistical and emotional issues remain insurmountable for touring acts — especially in Europe, which, Brubaker says, is “extremely expensive” given high oil and gas prices. “It’s definitely still an issue,” adds Bob McLynn, who manages Miley Cyrus, Green Day, Fall Out Boy and others. “Costs are very high. It’s more difficult than it’s ever been. We had an act do a sold-out theater tour [in] Europe, came back, $60,000 loss on the tour. It’s brutal.”
Lorde, one of McLynn’s clients, wrote last fall of “truly mind-boggling” freight costs, crew shortages, overbooked trucks and other factors that created an “almost unprecedented level of difficulty.” Still, Lorde’s own international tour, which began last April, has achieved what McLynn calls her “greatest success ever, as far as ticket sales.” For 2023, many artists playing top venues say they’re seeing similarly high numbers, including rapper Key Glock, who has sold between 48,000 and 60,000 tickets for a tour of mid-size theaters that started in early March.
“It’s almost 100% back to normal,” says Kyle Carter, Key Glock’s agent. “You’re seeing a lot more of these bigger shows go out — the Beyonces, the Drakes. They’re able to do the shows they want to do. It’s easier to find buses. It’s easier to find equipment we need.”