A zillion tiny parts are required for even the smallest band to go on tour, from bolts for lighting fixtures to vacuum tubes for guitar amps — and when international supply-chain complications threaten even one or two, costs go up and shows threaten to cancel. “It’s crazy right now,” says Rob Steiger, tour manager of German rock band Milky Chance. “You don’t get the simplest things like drum skins or case wheels, not to talk about the big stuff like PAs, trucks and consoles.”
Not every band on the road is struggling to find crucial equipment — reps for Alt-J, Sunflower Bean, Dry Cleaning and others report they haven’t run into problems. But as touring artists flood the concert circuit after nearly two years of non-income, many say they are contending with shortages of tour buses, drivers and personnel — and gear.
Jack White’s Supply Chain Issues spring-summer tour actually anticipated its supply-chain issues when managers put it together in early 2021. In addition to scrambling for sufficient trucks, buses and drivers, tour manager Lalo Medina had to pivot to account for suddenly hard-to-find lighting and sound fixtures. “If the lighting or production designer wants a certain fixture, but it costs a lot more because of scarcity, I’m going to ask to make an adjustment,” he says. “The difference won’t be so great where anyone notices it — it’s just the designer has to compromise his creative vision a bit to meet budget.”
“This gear shortage is killing everybody,” says Daniel Nickleski, owner of Chicago-based Sound Works Production, which handles lighting, staging and other services for top acts such as Kygo. “No one’s really canceling anything, it’s more ‘figure out how to make it work.’” Stadium acts have the resources to spend more on equipment, he adds, but smaller acts are making tougher decisions in order to keep touring: “A band might be like, ‘That LED wall’s going to cost $50,000 more, we don’t have the budget for that. Or: ‘We’re not going to take out the audio package we normally do. We’re just going to rely on the local PA.’”
Here’s a list of parts, big and small, in especially high demand for touring artists:
Vacuum tubes for guitar amps. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, and the U.S. and other countries banned Russian exports, the last major plant that manufactures these specialized tubes – located in Russia – became unavailable to most international guitarists. And that was after a key Chinese factory that made the same kind of equipment shut down, roughly two years ago, due to a fire. Electro-Harmonix, which owns the Russian tube factory, abruptly cut off orders in mid-March. “That caused a run on these tubes across the industry,” says Cyril Nigg, director of analytics for Reverb, an online music-gear retailer. “These things that seem unconnected to the gear world end up having an impact.”
Guitar Center reports a huge increase in demand as of early March: “Future supplies are uncertain,” says Michael Doyle, senior vp of guitar and tech merchandising at the music-gear chain, adding that tubes, for now, are available only through in-person store purchase. But for the moment, amp sales continue at their usual pace: “Fortunately, the issue has not impacted the supply of guitar amps,” he says.
Relief may be coming. Western Electric, a Rossville, Ga., company that makes tubes and other high-fidelity equipment, started receiving panicked requests from Gibson, Fender and thousands of individual guitarists seeking tubes. Charles Whitener, the company’s CEO, had already considered stepping up production of these specialized tubes, but the recent supply-chain shortage accelerated the plans. He expects sufficient quantities to be available within nine months to a year. “We’re not magicians,” he says. “Vacuum tubes are something you have to be very careful about building.”
Many tube manufacturers have found ways to procure the crucial equipment for musicians, despite the supply-chain and hoarding issues. “We still see there’s product available out there,” Whitener says. “My advice to any artist is to look to all the sources he has and buy what he can. It’s available. It’s just not going to be cheap.”
Pieces of the stage. Steel, a key ingredient in mobile stages for arena and stadium acts, has been the subject of supply-chain delays for months. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Coldplay production manager Jake Berry, artists could order a shipment on a boat that took 10 days in transit, then arrived at the concert site between one and three days later. Today, it is common for those one to three days to stretch into seven. “Our business is in a different place than it was two years ago, for sure,” says Berry, also a production consultant for this year’s Electric Daisy Carnival festival in Las Vegas. “We all got very used to this wonderful, very efficient world where everything ran on time. We have to think further ahead.”
Coldplay has a custom-built stage so the steel deliveries — which frequently came from Russia before the Ukraine invasion led to a worldwide boycott — are crucial for shows to proceed. “Luckily, we’ve been able to put a show on — but we’ve come very close to whether a show can happen or not,” Berry says. “You would like to think there’s an end in sight, but you can’t see it.”
Lighting fixtures. Because China’s strict COVID-19 lockdowns have led to supply-chain issues for foreign importers over the last two years, Michael Strickland of Nashville-based Bandit Lites must contend with a shortage of fixtures, spare parts, cases, cables, nuts, bolts and screws. “Lighting is reliant on China for about 90% of their products,” says Strickland, chair and founder of the company, which has supplied equipment for tours for artists including Van Halen, Queen and Carrie Underwood. “People have to use older fixtures. Most acts are making compromises. They cannot get the new light X they want, so they take the older light Y just to have a light.”
“The supply-chain issues that are affecting everything from toilet paper to computer chips – all that has affected complex moving lights, audio consoles and LEDs,” says Craig Mitchell, managing director of Orlando-based LMG Touring. “Freight costs have gone up dramatically.”
Cymbals. The Velveteers, a Boulder, Colo., rock band, were recently touring in Michigan when the drummer broke a crash-ride cymbal — and didn’t have a backup for the next gig. The band’s manager, Brian Schwartz, frantically drove to equipment stores before finally procuring one that wasn’t exactly right — for $450. “It’s hard for us to find the right cymbals. We’re seeing more and more on backorder than I’ve ever seen,” Schwartz says. “It just causes anxiety and concern on the road.”
The issue with cymbals is not so much lack of availability but shipping delays: According to Adam Anderson, a product specialist at percussion chain Meinl USA, products that usually ship within two to four weeks are now taking roughly four to 12 weeks. “The orders keep coming in, so it becomes a perpetual issue,” he says. “We do have equivalent instruments available.” Adds Nickleski: “The industry went from minimal orders [during the pandemic] to 200% busier than they were in 2019. They don’t have the staffing to do that, let alone what they used to do in 2019.”
Wireless microphones and in-ear monitors. The international lockdown in 2020 stopped people from driving, which caused a plunge in car sales, which led to auto manufacturers drastically reducing orders for electronic chips that control lighting, seats and audio systems. That resulted in a chip shortage beginning in 2021 — and problems for touring bands whose wireless mics, in-ear monitors and other on-stage equipment rely on similar kinds of chips.
Jack Funk, tour manager for Dashboard Confessional, says equipment-rental prices have “quadrupled” for mics and monitors and they’ve occasionally been forced to rely on older models. “They offered us the old-style ones and we’re like, ‘No, this is what we want’ — and they’re like, ‘No, we don’t have those,'” he says. “If you haven’t reserved any of that stuff, you won’t get it.”