They say not to judge a book by its cover, but sometimes the cover can be very revealing.
Take my friend Greg, for example. I met him at Starbucks, where we'd both go to write. One day we happened to sit next to each other and we struck up a conversation.
Greg was scruffy, wore a leather jacket, and rode a motorcycle. I knew right away he was connected to the music industry, which proved true. What I didn't know was that he is also a novelist. He would write furiously while at the coffee shop, and then disappear for months touring with bands all over the world.
As a writer, I'm all about the details. Touring with a band sounds very glamorous, no? How does one even break into that industry? I wanted details, and Greg generously provided. [And I'm happy to note I didn't have to edit his text very much - the perks of working with a fellow writer.]
Here, in his own words, is a glimpse into a life I will likely never lead:
My name is Gregory Krueger. I work as a Guitar Technician for touring music acts. My first career was as a caterer to the motion picture industry which lasted for a good decade. Since a teen I've been playing guitar and trying to be in bands. While catering in Los Angeles I was part of a band called Straight Jack It. We played the club scene, Whiskey, Roxy, Dragonfly and other small clubs in Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley alike. Through this I made some contacts with promoters and managers and so forth. One day, out of the blue I got a call from a manager friend saying that he had a new band out on tour; they didn't have an album out yet but it was going to drop soon and big things were expected for them. He said that he needed someone to go out with them and set up their backline and guitars. I was excited to get the opportunity to work for a touring act and naturally said yes without giving it a second thought - what was the worst that could happen? If it didn't work out or I didn't like it I could always go back to catering. So, the first thing I did was Google what BACKLINE was. I was that green. Turns out I knew what it was but wasn't familiar with the common industry term for amps and speakers placed on stage.
So I started my touring life with a young band called 10 Years, out of Knoxville, Tennessee. I was shown the ropes and was now their only stage guy. About a month later the band's debut album, The Autumn Effect, came out and their first single, Wasteland, immediately began climbing the charts. At the same time their tour manager decided to leave and, pretty much by default, I became their tour manager - a guy who only a month before didn't know what backline meant. Before I realized what I'd gotten myself into, I was tour managing a band whose first single was dominating the charts and simultaneously held the number one slot in Active Rock and Alternative Rock radio for 11 weeks straight. And the whirlwind ensued.
Now, most everyone thinks of the touring scene as being the cliché sex, drugs and rock and roll. I can't honestly say that stereotype is untrue. At the same time, like any stereotype it is hyper-inflated from reality. Sure there are good times on tour, parties, friendships made and a general carefree sense, but most people in the touring business are not your average 9-to-5 button-up, go-along-to-get-along types. Us CREW are looking for more out of life than a cubicle and have a passionate love for music and the jobs which we do. It is not a job for most people. It is hard to have families or maintain serious relationships when you are in a different city every day of the week for months on end. Yet, still, somehow we make it work. We embrace life outside of the norm and disregard the constraining paradigms under which most people live. We are ROADIES, ROAD DOGS, modern day CARNIES. Our lives are way outside the box and we wouldn't have it any other way. My job has afforded me opportunities which I am beyond thankful for and experiences which I would otherwise never have had.
Today, I've been touring with international acts for a decade. I've traveled to all corners of the globe, around 33 different countries and all 50 states. And while I've seen some amazing sights and experienced so many different cultures, it's not all fun and games and sightseeing. Most trips are a lot of work, especially overseas. I worked for one band that was constantly traveling internationally. We traveled with 22 checked items at all times. Dragging carts of gear from airport to shuttle, to hotel rooms, into another shuttle, to the venue, set up the show, then break it all down, cram it back into a shuttle, into a hotel room, then back into a shuttle, through another airport, through customs, excessive baggage fees and then fly to the next place and do it all over again. Quite often all I see of a city is the view from the seat in the back of a shuttle bus or van or outside of an airplane window. But at the same time, sometimes that's all you need to have your eyes opened. Driving through the ghetto in Manila, Philippines, seeing the corrugated metal shanty neighborhoods with sewage running down the gutters, kids playing in murky puddles, or driving through the banana fields in Brazil and seeing a mother breastfeeding her child on the stoop of their mud and brick self-built house. These glimpses into the real world are nothing less than life-changing. We in the first world take everything we have for granted. We forget, or fail to realize, or simply don't know how good we have it. Even the worst off of us has it easy compared to so many millions out there who struggle on a daily basis to find nourishment, shelter, warmth, let alone love and a feeling of self-worth.
So if you ask me, "Do you like your job?" I would say no, I don't like it - I love my job. It's rarely easy, or glamorous, or comfortable, but it's always rewarding. There are many times that showering once every few days is a blessing. Subsiding on meat and cheese platters which have been left on a backstage table (I refer to as sweaty meats), wearing the same clothes for days on end, stinky shoes, living on a tour bus with a bunch of stinky dudes farting all night long. And that's if you're lucky enough to be in a tour bus.
For most bands it's a van and trailer, with the occasional show room at a hotel on a day off, if you've sold enough T-shirt at shows to afford it. For van bands, fast food dollar menus are clutch to survival. Food, water and the usual amenities are often in short supply. While on the other end of the spectrum, some bands have multiple tour buses stocked better than some mini markets, full bars, snack drawers full of candy, beef jerky, or whatever else your little heart desires. Dressing rooms, showers every day, your own bunk, and your own hotel room on days off, Starbucks orders… However, in today's temperamental music industry such higher level acts are few and far between. It is becoming increasingly hard for your average mid-level band to support themselves. Music no longer sells. The only way most bands have to make money is through their live shows and, most importantly, through selling merchandise. Merch pays the bills. And on the road the bills stack up quickly. Everything costs money. From gas to food to strings, pics, sticks, drum heads, etc. So next time you're at a show and see an overpriced T-shirt, before you make a sarcastic remark about paying $30 for a shirt, remember that after the venue cut, seller fees, taxes, management commission, printing costs, design fees and shipping costs, the band might see enough of that money to buy a value meal from McDonald's.
There are no tried and true methods to break into the industry. If you think it would be a cool job, then it's probably not right for you. If you love music, hard work, long hours, unfavorable conditions, not seeing your loved ones for weeks or months at a time, and if you can think quickly on your feet and love daily challenges of problem solving, then perhaps you would like a job touring. Starting at a local club or venue as a stage hand or production assistant could be an avenue to learn the ropes. Others might have a friend with a band that is just starting out and help them out for free until perhaps one day they might be able to pay or their hard work gets noticed by a bigger band and get offered a job. It also helps to have a sense of humor about life and not get too caught up in meaningless negativity.
While touring consumes most of my life I do get some downtime between tours or between gigs. After a tour I just decompress at home for a week or so, usually adjusting to "normal" life and trying to get back into some sort of home routine. Being on the road so much becomes the norm. We become institutionalized to the bizarre style of living, almost a suspended reality, so when you're dropped back into the rest of the world it all seems a bit foreign at first. I love sitting at the coffee shop down the street from my house for hours on end in the mornings. I read or write and listen to music. I am a self-published author of two novels and several novellas and short stories. I love to go for rides on my motorcycle and venture down roads unexplored. I recently did an open mic stand up while in New York City and it was one of the greatest moments of my life. Above all I have a thirst for life, knowledge and new experiences. I have found a new zest for life and am embracing all that it has to offer me, because life is not about sitting and waiting, it is about movement and growth. For the simplest forms of life to the most complex, from a plant to a human, to grow is to live. If you are not growing then you are not alive. Talk to a stranger. Become a tourist in your own town. Give a gift for no reason. Experience something worthwhile every day. And above all else, smile. This is my recipe for a happy life.
Check out Greg's books here.
Photos courtesy of Greg Krueger and Harry Reese.