The 2016 “Summer Sixteen” tour headlined by Canadian rapper Drake grossed more than $84 million in two-and-a-half months, making it the most successful hip-hop tour ever up to that time. Of the hundreds of thousands of people who saw the shows, one can likely count on two hands the number who gave any thought to how the act got in front of them.
Danny Crooks knows the gig chapter-and-verse. As vice president, corporate transportation for Cookeville, Tennessee-based trucking and logistics company Averitt Express, whose On Tour Logistics unit managed the 54-concert swing across North America, Crooks sweated every detail. There was a lot to sweat, especially with 28 53-foot trailers of gear, merchandise and support going in and out of venues almost every night, along with 20 tour buses. It was the largest tour that the Averitt unit, which operates about 100 trucks, has handled to date.
To no great shock, New York City presented the biggest logistics challenge. After the load-in on the morning of the show at Madison Square Garden, eight trailers and their drivers parked near the arena. However, due to the limited space around the venue, the other 20 drivers – and their rigs – had to cool their heels at the closest waiting point – Secaucus, New Jersey, 15 to 20 miles away, and more than a one-hour drive, to the Garden’s location in midtown Manhattan.
Almost as soon as Drake left the stage, the crew began loading the gear and strapping it in, while at the same time calling for the drivers to roll out of Secaucus. Timing was tricky due to the round-the-clock congestion from the New Jersey Meadowlands to New York. Drivers could not arrive too late out of concern they would delay the load-out operations. Yet they couldn’t come too soon for fear of draining their hours and causing chaos and confusion at the arena. The unit had three “co-lead drivers,” each of whom had ownership for specific phases of the process, said Crooks.
Details like these are all in a day’s work for concert logistics companies, a tight-knit group who deal behind the scenes, under super-tight time frames and with no margin for error. The equipment, whether it be lighting, sound boards, stages or instruments, are of very high value; insurance can run $5 million on a single trailer. Performers and tour managers have no desire to pay dozens, sometimes hundreds, of crew members to sit idle. Overarching all of this is the timeless cliche that “the show must go on.” Transit time mishaps can mean short-handed equipment at the next venue, which could result in heavy fines for the vendors and a diminished experience for concertgoers.
The pressure has been intensified with the advent of electronic logging devices (ELDs), which have ended the fudging of drivers’ on-duty times that had been commonplace in the concert logistics world. The days of flouting the law by pushing the extra 100 miles to the next town has ended. Now if a driver is 100 miles away from the venue and runs out of hours, things can get hairy. “It’s a huge dice roll,” said Michael Easparam, who handles design and systems integration and is chief lighting designer at Solid Rock Live, a full- service entertainment company based in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
One of the more interesting evolutions, added Crooks, is how tour managers and crews have quickly become well-versed on ELDs and their ramifications.
Pulling shows together night after night is a complex, specialized task not for general freight carriers or the garden-variety driver. There have been more than a few cases of companies using a generalist, only to discover that an exception becomes a nightmare because the carrier, not being dedicated to that customer, displays no sense of urgency to solve the problem. As a result, all of the players today use dedicated trucks with specially trained drivers who understand the nuances of the concert business.
The Averitt unit will not bring a general freight carrier into the mix unless the work involves a team and the outside driver does nothing but drive, according to Crooks. On Tour Logistics will also not rotate out drivers on multi-month tours unless personal emergencies occur, he said. On most tours, a family atmosphere prevails, with drivers effectively becoming one of the crew members. A driver or drivers will often be dedicated to the same artist on repeat tours, with one of the drivers functioning as a relationship manager, he said. Drivers get paid a flat weekly rate.
Tour requirements vary depending on the prominence of the act, the tour’s geographic scope and the lavishness of the stage set-up. Worldwide tours require the skills of freight forwarders like Los Angeles-based Rock-it Cargo, which is expert at arranging inter-continental movements and has been doing it for 40 years. The bigger acts will often have two crews working simultaneously, with one at the venue where the act is performing and the other getting ready at the next location. Irish band U2’s 2009-2011 “360” tour, which was accompanied by a giant mechanical claw hovering over the middle of the arena, required three crews – one at the venue, a second taking down the set from the previous show, and a third assembling the stage at the next site. Between 120 and 150 trucks were dedicated to that tour, an enormous, budget-straining endeavor reserved for only the highest-profile acts.
In what might seem like a paradox given the hectic schedules, there is very little variability. For relatively lengthy tours, the marching orders, schedules and other requirements are provided up to six months in advance. The most efficient tours run with clockwork-like repetition. The good drivers are able to optimize their workloads after two or three shows, said Crooks. The best relationship is where the driver reads the crew leader’s mind and knows what needs to be done without asking, he said.
The work is not for everyone. There are long periods away from home, with maybe a week’s break sandwiched in. Drivers banking on a lot of miles behind the wheel may also want to think twice, said Easparam, whose company manages tours of shorter durations. A well-put together tour through the Southeast U.S., for example, may involve only two to four hours of driving per night between venues, he said.
The concert logistics world is a fairly closed shop, which makes it difficult for newbies to break in and which effectively keeps out the generalists. Opportunities come by word-of-mouth and everybody knows everybody else. This, of course, is a double-edged sword. “Every experience, whether it’s good or bad, travels fast,” said Crooks.