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Advice > Industry Interviews > Q & A With Tour Manager Chris Arnstein

Q & A With Tour Manager Chris Arnstein

 

THE REALITIES OF TOURING

Q & A WITH TOUR MANAGER CHRIS ARNSTEIN

Copyright Bobby Borg 2003, 2008

 

Chris Arnstein is a personal manager, international tour manager, and booking agent who has provided services for the Eagles, Madonna, John Waite, Michael McDonald, Natalie Cole, Bad English, Helen Reddy, Brett Michaels, Styx, Sam Kinison, Journey, Stevie Nicks, Joe Walsh, Boz Scaggs, ELO, Julio Iglesias, Earth, Wind & Fire, John Secada, and Flip Wilson. Mr. Arnstein has also worked with the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee for Summer 2008, the Nanning International Folk Festival, the cruiseline “Festival at Sea Cruises,” as well as a number of major hotels and corporations.

     In this informative interview, Mr. Arnstein speaks candidly and offers practical advice about the realities of hitting the road, and talks about the financial, moral, and ethical responsibilities involved in pursuing one’s dreams. You won’t want to miss this.

 

 

Q: Can you describe what live performances and touring mean to you from a business perspective?

 

C.A.: A band or artist is best served by recognizing that they are selling a product. The product is the creative output of that artist or band. The unique sound, the certain type of songs, the live show that makes the public want to turn off [its] TVs, get in [its] cars, drive to a venue, find a place to park, and pay to see the product. In business terms, this is called branding, and is defined as that certain something that delineates the brand from every other brand. While every band claims that they are unique and not like any other band, all bands fall into some defining category. If you do not fall into a definable category, a record label and radio station will claim that they do not know what to do with your music. Whether it’s Coca Cola, Lexus, or Sting, the buying public needs to have a realm of expectancy. They want to pretty much know what they’re going to get for their loyalty and their money.

     The business of live performances and touring is the band’s product development. You find out what works and what doesn’t. You determine what you want to represent and what you don’t. If you’re smart and lucky and develop a substantial customer base, you will create a brand that becomes so successful that the labels will feel they have to sign you. And after a few successful albums, when the label has fired everyone you know, and gotten over the excitement of your success, and you find your album sales waning, you can go back to touring as a way to support your new expensive way of life. Remember, no one can take your live show from you. It’s yours, and it’s your career.

 

 

Q: Can you briefly discuss how bands or individual musicians get the opportunity to go out on the road?

 

C.A: Individuals and bands get the opportunity to tour because someone feels that their presence is worth more than the cost of having them perform. Whether it’s an act being considered for a booking or an employee being hired by the artist, each expense must be justified as a business decision. Touring with record label support (which is usually recoupable), must be of immediate value to the label in terms of selling the artist’s CDs or it is not worth the investment.

A band is hired because they . . . put butts into seats, are willing to work cheap for the exposure, bring some sort of cachet to the headline act (hipness, musical credibility, etc.), receive a favor from a business associate, or because someone in the band has the hots for someone in the other band.

     A musician or crew member is hired for his or her musical flavor, personal style, audience drawing ability, because he or she is a friend of the artist, or once again because someone in the band has the hots for him or her. Often, these employees mistake their friendly relationship with the artist for job security. It is not wise to start thinking of oneself as [being] on equal footing with your employer, whether you are a better musician, smarter, prettier, more experienced, or whatever.

     In any case, always remember that whether you are an opening band or an employee, regardless of what you think of your benefactor, you must always remember that ultimately you work for yourself. The time you are spending doing this is time you are not spending on doing something else. Thus, you must demand of yourself an honest answer to the question of [whether] what you are doing now is the best utilization of your time given the options. Always conduct yourself in a manner that is most beneficial to you and your career.

 

 

Q: What is the biggest misconception young artists have about hitting the road?

 

C.A: First and foremost, there has to be a reason to go on the road. It’s not summer camp. There needs to be a valid business reason for a band to accept the mental, physical, and financial strains of going on the road. One must try to determine the return on [the] investment of time, money, and resources before hopping in the van. Unless there is a well-thought-out marketing plan, the road is the road to nowhere. It is just a vacation from reality.

     Many people think “famous” is “rich.” It’s not. Quite a few very well-known bands who toured for years never really made any money. Often young bands think in the short term. They delude themselves that just because their band’s income has gone from $1000 to $1500 to $2500 per night that they will be bringing home more money per person. They forget that in addition to their road expenses, their basic expenses at home for rent, car payments, and credit card bills continue. The cocoon of traveling with a group of people that are going through the same dream as you is an easy escape.

 

 

Q: What are some of the biggest problems that musicians experience while touring?

 

C.A: The first realization everyone should have is, “This is really what you are doing with your life.” Your actions are your responsibility. Thus, one should be aware of the following things to look out for.

     Many artists like to pretend that being an artist absolves them of personal responsibility for their behavior. They rationalize that they are unique because they are “artists,” and as such cannot be held responsible for things like business commitments, monetary obligations, and personal responsibility for the way they treat other human beings.

     Unfortunately, in our society, “money rules.” The ability to sing, rap, act, play a piece of wood with six strings, shoot a three-point jumper, etc., often absolves perpetrators of immediate consequences for their actions. But it does not alleviate the effects of negative behavior against others.

     Rapper Tupac Shakur, a convicted sex offender, was also caught on a surveillance tape at a major casino jumping a confirmed gang rival after a heavyweight championship boxing match. The footage was shown on the news nationwide. Later that night Tupac was assassinated. Yet, he is remembered as a mythical figure and respected by many because he was charismatic, handsome, and sold [sells] a lot of records. One can only wonder how this behavior is forgiven.

     While this case is somewhat extreme, it is not that unusual. Always remember that no one is a success in a vacuum. In the entertainment business, it is the job of many men and women to create an image for the artist that makes them look as appealing as possible to their target market-demographic. This may not necessarily be complimentary or in the artist’s best interest. More careers are lost because musicians have angered their professional supporters (radio programmers, promotion people, record label presidents, label publicity departments, fans, etc.) with more arrogance, ignorance, or flakiness than one can ever imagine. These professionals see acts come and go every day. They are going to put their professional energies into the acts that will give them the best return on their investment.

     People will put up with almost anything when you’re delivering huge dollars to the bottom line. But the minute you are not creating enormous profits for the company, you’re more trouble than you’re worth. You are no longer a good return on [an] investment. You’ll be dropped like a bad habit. Professionals may smile at you and tell you that you are great, but their efforts are going to go towards furthering their own careers, which means positioning themselves next to success. If you have been a jerk, they won’t act on your behalf. Failure exists in a vacuum, a vacuum of interest.

     The second most common problem that musicians incur while touring is that they fail to remember that while everything costs on the road, expenses continue at home. Many bands don’t always think about personal and professional cash flow, which causes them to face hard realities when they are broke and have no established credit in their personal life.

     Lastly, when you are on the road with a group of people, a “group dynamic” develops. Unfortunately, the people outside of that dynamic (such as wives, friends, and family) do not necessarily fit in. Though they are important to you, they are not necessarily important to the others on the tour. This can create problems inside and outside the band. Therefore, it is in one’s best interest to treat the band as a job and the family as private life. While the two occasionally intermix socially or at special events, on the whole they should be kept separate.

 

 

Q: What advice do you have for musicians or bands that are about to embark on a tour for the first time?

 

C.A: One should determine early in a band’s life what the intention of the project is. Realistically speaking, is this a party band just looking to pick up a few bucks, exercise one’s creative muscles, and get laid, or is this a business?

     If it is the first option, understand and accept that it is a time-consuming and expensive hobby and you’re lucky if it’s profitable.

     If the band is meant to be a business, then it’s time to get serious! Keep in mind, however, that the time that you spend trying to develop a musical voice, learn the business, and become a viable commercial act is time away from building a more sensible and stable career. I don’t say this to sound negative. I say this so the reader can get the view from one who has spent decades on the road learning about the importance of using one’s time and resources consciously. It is wise to consider a band or artist’s career like that of a professional athlete. First, a career can be cut short for any and no reason—marketplace demand (currently popular music), age, drugs, needs of the team (label needs a radio friendly artist), politics (who’s in and who’s out at the label), an incompetent or angry label employee who does not attend to their responsibilities and causes interest in your project to be placed elsewhere (a cheap-shot injury). Very few make it into the professional ranks (get a label deal and actively tour). Fewer still actually make it into a starting lineup (get an album released and promoted as well as being able to tour at a level that makes a profit worth the investment.) Finally, fewer still have lasting careers; most professional careers are in the realm of three years.

 

 

Q: What is the primary reason bands go out on the road?

 

C.A: There are different stages in a band’s career that go a long way towards dictating what they are trying to accomplish. I’ll explain these different stages one at a time.

     Starting Out. Early in a band’s career, the band is trying to earn enough to stay alive, create a sound (or identifiable “brand”) with which to build an audience, and get a record deal.

     Becoming a Real Band. After a band starts to draw enough of an audience to justify club owners paying them some real money, they begin to believe that they can actually do this for a living. (Please note that “living” means that one can live like a human being, eat decent food, choose the type of mammals with whom they live.)

     As the band gives the signs of being a viable economic entity, a manager, attorney, and possibly an agent start to get involved. During this period the band should either have, or be considered for, some type of record deal (indie or major label). Band members have now reached the stage where they are going to have to sign legally binding agreements with other band members. They begin to recognize that they have to take the business, their band mates, and professional advisors seriously. This is often a time when a few band mate changes occur.

      At this point, the band will need to start making business decisions that will seriously affect their future. The band may have to balance accepting less money per gig as an opening act in [the] hopes of gaining a larger audience. One never knows where their big break will come. Radio stations, award shows, and TV programs flat out won’t play your single/video unless you play their live radio show, award show, or TV program. If you’re lucky, they’ll cover expenses, but usually these events are at a cost to the band, even if it’s their record label that advances it. Thus, the band has to reinvest their limited resources back into the business. This is where you can become famous and broke.

     The Band Starts to Fly (Literally and Figuratively). If the band progresses beyond the former stage (which most don’t), it usually means that they can go on the road, travel in a bus or occasionally a plane, and at the end of the tour, end up with something above a secretary’s salary in their pockets if they don’t succumb to self indulgence.

     The Band Ignores Sage Advice. Somewhere along the road the band meets an older, grizzled veteran who was great when they were kids, but is now looking a bit, shall we say, worn. He will try to take them under his wing and say, “Make every dime you can and save it. Try not to piss off the people you are going to need, such as radio station disc jockeys, when the roller coaster starts its thrill ride to the bottom. Whatever you do, do not marry the [man or] woman who suddenly finds you at the peak of your fame and earning potential. It’s also wise to tell your relatives that your business manager has invested all your money in non-liquid assets and won’t allow you to loan them money. Enjoy your success while you can, because even a great career rarely lasts ten years, and you’ve got a lot more than ten years of living (and spending) to do.” The band smiles, thanks the grizzled veteran, and the minute they are out his sight declare him creepy and vow never to become like that old pitiful geezer.

     A Wave of Recognition Lifts the Band. When this occurs, most bands get out and play everywhere that will have them and can afford them. Hope reigns supreme—hope that somehow the band will get a hit record, soundtrack cut, TV show theme, live appearance, or other break that will build their base of paying fans, while not alienating their old fans (which success will). Then, just as the band is burnt out creatively and spiritually, and at the end of their rope, if the fates decree, the big break comes!

Get It While the Gettin’s Good. The band has some hits. You are able to tour all year and make great money (for a very short couple of years). The people at the label take your calls. [Members of the opposite sex] think you are really interesting. Your presence is commanded for radio interviews by morning disc jockeys.

     The Band Is About to Break up! The lead singer starts thinking about going solo. The lead guitar player resents the attention the lead singer gets. The keyboard player wants to start doing soundtracks. The bass player just wants to get one of his songs on the next album. And the drummer hates everybody because he starts realizing that the only money he is getting comes from the live gigs while the singer, guitar player, and keyboard player are living large off their publishing revenue.

The Band Breaks up. Eventually the lead singer does his or her first solo album. Everybody else in the band is suddenly slapped with the reality that the singer was the voice of the band. Regardless of the fact that the singer may not have written one tune or played the great solos, no one cares about anyone but the lead singer. The other band members may try other projects and even have some success, but ultimately, after the bitterness, people start realizing that the winning combination that results in a successful band is a rare gift from God.

     Time and Trends Pass and the Lead Singer Falls off the Charts. Over the next decade everyone watches their income fall. The band members begin to understand the consequences of their career choices. Friends and business associates have established real lives and careers for themselves, while you (the band) traveled around the world being a band. It’s tough to be a nobody at the bottom of the food chain once you have tasted fame, money, and [attractive members of the opposite sex]. Fans and various management types try to get the band back together. Pride, and in some, an inherently nasty inner self, prevent the reunion from happening.

     I Love You, Man. Eventually, the drummer is broke. The bass player is producing demos. The keyboard player has a home studio and is doing soundtracks. The lead guitar player is finally, really getting out of rehab. The lead singer has to face the fact that he can either play to a smaller audiences as a solo artist or to larger audiences if the band reunites. Everyone realizes that carrying the burden of past anger is costly and unproductive.

     Finally, the pettiness gives way to the better memories. Maturity and money rear their older and wiser heads to remind the band that while everyone else was going to law school or medical school or slaving for “the man” to move up the corporate ladder, they were building a successful business, and hopefully for a few more years, opportunity is knocking at their door. Otherwise they are S.O.L.[Sorry Old Losers]

     The Band Reunites. Touring is now really a business of making every dime you can, because this is the money you will be living off for the rest of your life. The lead singer suddenly doesn’t feel that meeting fans is beneath him. The rehabbed lead guitarist and his new best friend, the lead singer, are now happy to get up at an ungodly hour to interview with radio DJs. Walking out of the radio station, the two meet a young up-and-coming band. The lead guitarists and singer try to take the young band under their wing and say, “Make every dime you can and save it. Try not to piss off the people you are going to need when the roller coaster starts it’s thrill ride to the bottom. Whatever you do, do not marry the [men or] women who suddenly find you at the peak of your fame and earning potential. Accept that many morning shock jocks have a perfect face for radio, and laugh at everything they say. Tell your relatives your business manager has invested all your money in non-liquid assets and won’t allow you to loan them money. Enjoy your success while you can, because even a great career rarely lasts ten years and you’ve got a lot more than ten years of living (and spending) to do.” The up-and-coming band smiles, thanks the grizzled veterans, and later declare them as creepy pitiful geezers; vowing never to become like them. And the cycle continues.

 

 

Q: Wow! That deserves a moment of silence! I hope people will understand and use that lesson wisely. What other words of wisdom do you have, particularly for musicians or bands that have problems readjusting to life off the road once a long tour has ended?

 

C.A: One must always remember that you are more than what you do for a living. In the future, this year’s big tour is last year’s big tomato, a fond and distant memory. Once again, you would be well advised to consider if what you are doing [i.e., pursuing a career in music] is the best use of your time at this period in your life. Reality dictates that a band’s chances of “making it” in a real career sense are similar to the chances of a high school athlete making it in the pros. If a band is lucky enough to make it, they should acknowledge that, at best, the duration of their career parallels that of a professional athlete. After 35, both one’s own record label and the public’s perception of older musicians start working against you. Most “civilians” have no idea what a musician, tour manager, keyboard programmer, or roadie really does. They think it’s all party time out there. Thus, it is in your best interest to establish personal credibility and recognizable skills in an arena outside the touring world as well.

 

 

Q: What else would you like to add that might be helpful for new artists?

 

C.A.: Each of us has soul-searching tests that are placed in our path during the course of our lives. Whether it’s drugs and alcohol, an unreasonable sense of greed that causes you to step on others in order to get what you want, an inherent self-destructiveness that undermines success every time it comes close, or an unwillingness to make difficult decisions because one does not want to be disliked; these tests are not easy. There are often unpleasant consequences for choosing the right path.

     These challenges are karmic lessons that periodically rear their heads throughout our careers. Overcoming these tests is not about being noble or self-righteous. They remind us that we are all human and imperfect. The test is in how we will choose to react. The answer is found in maintaining our ability to honestly look oneself in the mirror while respecting who you see; regardless of the cost. I will simply say that one must be willing to pay the price for setting personal behavioral boundaries. To fail oneself in meeting these challenges is to expose oneself to great peril—spiritually, legally, and professionally!

     The sun rose the day before you were born and it will rise after the day you die. The only things in life that are important are the people you care about and who care about you and the work that gives your life purpose. Use you talent to connect to others. True art lasts past politics, war, and even civilizations, whether [the artist is] Aristotle, Beethoven or the Beatles, and there is no greater gift than to have been able to positively touch people generations away.

 

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Warning: This material is copyright registered by Bobby Borg ©2003, 2008. All rights reserved. If you copy material from this web site, for use in any printed or electronic media, please ask permission of Bobby Borg first by email at bborg@bobbyborg.com. All credits, links to bobbyborg.com, and copyright notices must be posted.

 


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