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Billboard Touring Conference: From Hilarious to Harrowing, Tour Managers Swap Stories (Like How Billy Joel Is a ‘White Knuckle Flier’)

Dealing with hungover musicians, food-poisoned drummers and music icon with harrowing flying habits was the focus of the aptly titled panel, "My Pyro Won't Py, Bro: What To Do When Things Go Wrong."

Dealing with hungover musicians who don’t want to leave hotels, replacing a drummer who’s fallen ill with food poisoning mid-set, trying to make a gig happen after an earthquake — these are just some of the situations tour managers are responsible for handling. 

That was the focus of a panel at Wednesday’s Billboard Touring Conference aptly titled “My Pyro Won’t Py, Bro: What To Do When Things Go Wrong.” Moderated by Joseph Lloyd, the production manager for Jason Aldean and Sugarland, the event featured road stories — some hilarious, some harrowing — from industry vets who work with huge artists, insurance companies and coach bus firms to make sure that the show, as it must, goes on.

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“You just gotta go with the punches and look for answers when the problems arise,” said Steve Lopez, TM for Widespread Panic. “You have to be ready. I just don’t panic and just get it done,” added Max Loubiere, longtime tour director for Billy Joel

Lopez recalled one incident that nobody could foresee – on the highway to their next gig, Widespread’s bus driver suffered a fatal heart attack. The band’s merch manager quickly took the wheel but the bus crashed. In that moment, he had to figure out how to inform the driver’s family and make all the necessary arrangements, and then assess the health of the band’s gear and somehow make it to the show on time. “Speaking of brotherhood, we got calls from other bus companies, other bus drivers, saying, ‘We’ll be there in an hour to help you finish the tour,'” he said, as the rest of the panel members nodded their approval of how close-knit the touring community can be.

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As Wayne Linder, the leasing operations manager for Pioneer Coach, pointed out, bus travel has become much more tightly regulated in order to prevent accidents – all Pioneer drivers are extensively vetted and their buses come with a number of electronic logs and monitoring devices, ensuring that drivers don’t exceed their DOT-mandated hourly limit. For especially long stretches on the road, they’ll force the artist to either carry a second driver, or do a driver swap at an appointed time and place. “We’ve had every kind  of breakdown you can think of. When you get the call at 2:30 in the morning, you have to be awake and ready to keep the tour going,” he said, noting that he’s prepared to call in favors from friends, family and any other connection he has to keep his clients on the road.

But the biggest problem these men face is weather. Loubiere revealed that Joel is a “white knuckle flier,” so he’s already expecting a problem on Thursday, when the Long Island legend is scheduled to fly via helicopter to a show at Madison Square Garden in the midst of what could be a torrential downpour. Paul Bassman, the president of Ascend Insurance Brokerage, helped organize the plan to evacuate Lollapalooza’s 100,000 attendees last summer, working with local authorities to make sure that everything went on without a hitch (90 percent of the festivalgoers came back after the delay). All of the panelists agreed that their best ally in this fight against the elements is a program called WeatherOps, which gives the most accurate, site-specific weather updates out there, sometimes down to the minute when a storm will hit.

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“Artists always want to play,” Bassman said, and sometimes that’s to their detriment if the concert promoter isn’t on the level. Kyle Jones, who works as an account manager for Stage Call, remembered a time when he was touring with a George Strait festival in El Paso. During the Dixie Chicks‘ set, the wind came in so hard that their “boas were blowing straight back like they were on Viagra.” The drums started to topple, lights fell, boards on the stage came apart, so he shut the gig down. The promoter was so incensed that he attacked Jones, ripping off his shirt. “That’s the only time I’ve been assaulted, he said with a laugh. Despite the dangerous weather and the lack of proper insurance, the bands didn’t get paid.

Overall, anyone wondering how to be a tour manager learned this valuable lesson – have a plan for everything you can think of, and when those plans fall through, figure something else out and get your job done.