Taking the Show on the Road
Show producers and their logistics partners earn props for their behind-the-scenes work on live entertainment events. From the opening act to the grand finale, here’s how they set the stage for shows on tour.
Before the house lights dim and performers make their grand entrance, first come the trucks. There’s no live entertainment without someone to deliver musical instruments, costumes, scenery, lights, sound equipment, or jumbo video screens. For a show on tour, moving all that gear from one venue to another demands a tightly sequenced and well-orchestrated plan.
“Entertainment logistics is very organized and very controlled,” says Jason Juenker, senior production manager at NETworks Presentations, one of the largest producers of theatrical touring shows in the United States.
“Everything has to happen on time and in the right order,” agrees Greg Walden, event production director at Geometry, a New York-based marketing firm.
When the show must go on, logistics professionals make sure all the components get on the go and arrive exactly as planned. Here are some stories from the road.
How Rock Gets Rolling
Rock-It Cargo has provided freight forwarding for some of the biggest names in music, from Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga, and Madonna to The Police and Taylor Swift. The company’s show business clients also include orchestras, theater companies, dance troupes, and TV and film production companies. But with roots that date back to 1978 in London, Rock-It Cargo has perfected the art of taking a big music show on the road.
Before a tour starts, Rock-It Cargo’s first job is to move gear to a central location—either a rehearsal spot or the site of the first engagement. Then it arranges to transport whatever gear the band requires from one venue to the next.
“We use different freight modes—local trucking, cross-country trucking, air freight, and ocean freight,” says Ed Butler, vice president, senior operations manager and a partner in Rock-It Cargo, based in Los Angeles. “We also provide import, export, customs clearance, carnets (a document that allows a shipper—including a band—to move equipment across international boundaries and clear customs without paying duties)—everything a tour would need.”
Every band has equipment to move, including the instruments and microphones, amplifiers, speakers, and other electronics that go with them. The bigger the act, the more gear it needs to transport. “Some acts take on their own audio, lighting, video, even catering,” Butler says. Technicians—the people who keep all that equipment functioning—transport “work boxes” full of tools, cables, manuals, and other items needed for maintenance and repairs.
Stage sets—risers, backdrops, and anything else the band uses to give the stage a special look—also figure into the logistics equation. So do lighting, audio and video equipment, and the mixing equipment that technicians operate during the show.
Much of this gear travels in wheeled cases, rolled onto pallets. “Some of the cases have to stay upright,” Butler says. “Some are so heavy, you can’t move them around much. Some you can flip, and some stack easily.”
When all this gear arrives at a venue, workers unload it and set it up in a certain sequence: rigging, stage set, lighting, video, and audio. “The last to load in is the band gear,” Butler says. At the end of the show, everything moves out in reverse order.
One thing that makes band equipment different from, say, a load of shoes bound for a distribution center, is that every piece is part of a system, all of it essential to the show. “If one goes missing, it’s detrimental to the rest of the system,” Butler says.
How does Rock-It Cargo make sure nothing goes astray? “There’s an old expression: ‘Know your gear,'” Butler says. “That means doing site inspections at many of the tour’s locations, whether at rehearsals or a few live shows, before the tour is ready to depart.”
During those visits, members of Butler’s team get to know the band’s personnel and take a good look at the equipment. “Sometimes a band might not tell us in advance about a large or overweight piece of equipment, or maybe something delicate,” he explains. The forwarder’s employees must discover those things on their own.
magical mystery tours
Band logistics may provide other surprises as well. “Tours are not planned as far in advance as a lot of other corporate forwarding events,” Butler says. “Usually we have three to six months to get things rolling.
“But a band may be on tour when the members decide they want to add a festival show,” he notes. Suddenly, management and the logistics partner are hashing out how to accomplish that—maybe with just one week’s lead time.
Such arrangements aren’t easy. But sometimes Rock-It Cargo pulls off a real coup. Butler’s “personal best,” he says, took place in 2008 while moving gear for The Police from Singapore to Macau. “We built 30 pallet positions—more than 154,000 pounds—on a Singapore Airlines Cargo 747 freighter in one hour and 40 minutes. That was from the time the first truck backed in to the time the last pallet was weighed. And then we were gone.”
Steve Crease founded X-Freighted—a Los Angeles-based firm that manages transportation for entertainment clients—in 2013. Like Rock-It Cargo, it has handled many touring musical acts, including Coldplay and Sam Smith.
X-Freighted’s specialty is serving British bands when they tour North America, with a particular focus on getting their gear from the airport to their first venue, and then back to the airport at the end. “For domestic moves, the band production team usually books their own specialist interstate truckers,” Crease says. “They hire between one and 20 trucks, and those drivers and trucks stay with the entire tour.”
Most touring bands arrive on the continent via New York or Los Angeles. Before starting out, the band’s management advises Crease about what it’s shipping over. “They provide a spreadsheet with a detailed packing list, and a description of goods, serial numbers, dimensions, and individual weights,” he says.
The band also obtains an ATA (Admission Temporaire/Temporary Admission) carnet and tells Crease when and where the shipment is coming in and when it needs to arrive at the first venue.
“Once we receive that information, I set up the customs clearance and airport transfers,” Crease says. Then the gear goes onto trucks. “We find out what the venue is, whether it has a loading dock, and whether it has restrictions on parking or loading times—which is common,” he says. “The venues are highly organized and structured in terms of when equipment moves in and out.”
Although X-Freighted generally doesn’t handle domestic moves, Crease has enough experience to know that one of the difficulties bands face when moving gear these days is a dearth of wide-body aircraft on routes between major cities. Most airlines now use narrow-body planes for those flights. “They have strict weight restrictions,” he says. And the aircraft doors aren’t as high as on the wide-bodies.
Luckily, band managers and tour organizations are savvy enough to understand the restrictions they might face when the schedule calls for moving a band and all its gear overnight between two far-flung cities. “Often, we say, ‘This is impossible. You’d have to charter an aircraft, or it’s a 12-hour drive and the load-up would have to be completed by midnight,'” Crease says.
But one of the biggest challenges is finding like-minded, professional carriers in every city where X-Freighted’s clients need transportation. Getting a trucking company to agree to pick up a load and deliver it the next morning is not enough.
“You could find that they’ve overstretched themselves, and their idea of delivering on time is within four hours,” Crease says. “That doesn’t work.”
Developing a network of trusted vendors takes time, and contending with factors such as traffic and weather, which can throw off a delivery, takes experience. “You have to stay on top of those challenges and triple check that everything is in place,” Crease says. “If you do that, the deliveries happen without incident, and the customers are happy.”
On Tour With Tame Impala
One of those happy customers is Matthew Chequer, tour and production manager for Australian band Tame Impala. Crease manages the band’s transportation in North America, and lends a hand with freight moves elsewhere.
“We just did a Southeast Asian tour, and Steve Crease helped move gear down there, and bring it back to North America,” Chequer says. “Usually, I copy him on all the emails, no matter where the gear is going in the world, because inevitably it ends up in North America.”
Crease and another forwarder who works with Chequer handle all the band’s transportation needs. “They arrange for a local trucker to pick up the freight from the airport and to clear it with customs,” Chequer says. “That frees me to concentrate on the hundreds of other things I do.”
The biggest logistics challenge that Tame Impala faces is getting its equipment across international borders. Anything from incorrect paperwork to a customs agent in a bad mood can delay band gear in transit. “A customs agent can open a box and point out an incorrect serial number or question a $100,000 item listed on the paperwork but not actually with the gear,” Chequer says.
Sometimes the problem is simply competition with other cargo moving through customs. “We had issues in South America during perishables season, when food takes priority over everything else—particularly musical equipment,” Chequer says. “Even though Steve Crease has everything booked months in advance, sometimes you can’t do anything about it.”
An eight-hour customs delay once forced Tame Impala to cancel a show in Germany. When that tour ended, the band headed for the Sasquatch Festival in Washington State, only to encounter another customs holdup. “We thought we would have to cancel,” Chequer says.
Forced to withdraw from its original spot in the lineup, Tame Impala moved to a smaller stage at a later hour. The gear arrived just in time. “Fans were waiting for about 90 minutes, watching us frantically set up, unpack boxes, and take equipment straight off the truck and onto the stage,” Chequer says. “Despite that, we managed to have quite a good gig.”
Like Crease, Chequer understands real-world constraints. “One thing I learned early on was to always ask your cargo agents prior to a tour if something is possible,” he says.
Looking at a flight schedule, for example, you might assume there’s plenty of time to get a band’s gear from Point A to Point B. But experts can spot inconspicuous details that may foil a planned move. “I appreciate what cargo agents do to save my hide,” Chequer says.
Bright Lights of Broadway
Even if you’ve never seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, you’ve probably heard about the moment at the end of Act One when a massive chandelier crashes to the stage. And you might assume that this one-ton fixture, adorned with 6,000 beads, is tough to move from theater to theater.
You’d be wrong. “It’s surprisingly easy,” says Juenker at NETworks Presentations, whose production of Phantom has been touring for about three years. “The chandelier slides into a rolling cart with sides to protect the crystals,” he explains. While the chandelier’s size makes it awkward for a truck, it does fit, with straps and padding to keep it from harm while on the move.
Based in Columbia, Md., NETworks produces its own shows and manages every aspect of each production. As of mid 2016, it had 11 shows on the road, including well-known titles Dirty Dancing, Beauty and the Beast, The Sound of Music, Blue Man Group, and Once, along with Phantom.
When a NETworks production arrives at a venue, the crew walks into a completely empty theater. “We bring all the lighting equipment, sound equipment, scenery, costumes, and even our own flooring,” Juenker says. All that gear arrives in trucks operated by theatrical trucking company Clark Transfer, based in Harrisburg, Pa. The number of trucks varies with the production; Phantom currently uses 20.
Before a new show starts to tour, NETworks has the scenery constructed at various shops around the United States and arranges to rent the sound and lighting gear. “We assemble all the equipment off site before we bring it to the first theater,” Juenker says.
If a show takes a short break—around Christmas, for instance—the company usually stores all the gear on the truck trailers. If a show goes on a longer hiatus, or when it closes, the gear moves to the NETworks warehouse in Annapolis, Md.
The show’s head carpenter works with the trucking company to coordinate deliveries to each theater. Items are packed into trailers in a way that allows the crew to unload them in the order needed. “As soon as a piece of equipment comes off the truck, it’s generally put into use right away,” Juenker says.
The process plays out in reverse at the end of the final show in that city. “As soon as the equipment comes off the stage, it goes right onto the truck,” he adds.
Because NETworks keeps the trucks for long periods, it can modify the trailers for items that need special handling. “We put padding on the walls in certain places, or build special nooks for items to fit into, so they don’t get jostled,” Juenker says. Crew members who travel with the show also use straps and load bars to protect the gear.
NETworks designs all its scenery with an eye toward travel. “We keep the dimensions of our trailers—the height and width—in mind when we build the scenery to make sure it can fit easily,” Juenker says.
It takes about two days to load Phantom into a new theater, but most shows start bringing in the gear on the morning of the opening performance. “They start at 8 a.m. with a blank theater and have a show at 8 p.m.,” Juenker says. That makes the prospect of weather delays a particular hazard.
Generally, the crew gets the job done on time, despite all obstacles. But on rare occasions, the weather lands an especially hard blow—as in 2001, when a truck full of pigs overturned on an icy Iowa highway, just ahead of several trucks moving a NETworks show. The first trucker in line slammed on the brakes, causing a chain reaction of jackknifed trailers.
“Luckily, no one was injured,” Juenker says. “But by the time we got all the equipment re-sorted and back to where we needed it, we were forced to cancel a couple of shows.”
Taking It to the Streets
Marketing firm Geometry Group uses entertainment to forge an emotional bond between a brand and its consumers. Take the time when SC Johnson’s stain remover, Shout, sponsored a booth at The Color Run, a just-for-fun 5K race in which runners are repeatedly blasted with clouds of colored powder.
The idea behind this piece of “event marketing” was to give runners the experience of using Shout. “We used a 12-foot spray bottle with a fog mister that, when it was inflated and turned on, looked like it was spraying Shout out of a nozzle,” Walden explains. Staff handed out T-shirts and took photos of runners, who could also try an inflatable obstacle course meant to feel like a trip through a washing machine.
Uniting all the elements needed to stage a marketing event requires the same kind of coordination as a touring concert or Broadway show. Missed deadlines can spell ruin.
“Even if the goods themselves are not perishable, if they do not get there on time they are worthless,” notes Brian Bourke, vice president, marketing at SEKO Logistics, a third-party logistics provider based in Itaska, Ill. “It’s like spoiled fruit.”
That’s where a partner like SEKO Logistics comes in. “One of our specialties is providing time-definite service,” Bourke adds.
To appreciate the role of coordination in these events, consider the time Microsoft hired Geometry to stage a game show in a plaza off Boylston Street, in the heart of downtown Boston. Among the components that Geometry’s transportation partners had to haul were a 40-foot x 40-foot stage, a 48-foot water tank, water to fill it, and a roll of Astroturf. Nine trucks were due, and each had to arrive at a specific time.
“I had scheduled the trucks based on what we needed to do, and when, so we wouldn’t have laborers standing around waiting on someone else, or a truck sitting on Boylston Street blocking traffic,” Walden says.
The first truck in the lineup, due in by 7 a.m. the day before the event, was SEKO’s. “It was coming from one of our fabricators in Denver,” Walden says. The truck absolutely had to arrive on time, unload, and then clear out. “We had one spot where we could park a truck without blocking fire lanes or sidewalks or getting into trouble with the city,” he adds.
As Walden left his hotel at 6:30 a.m. and walked toward the plaza, he was delighted with the sight that met his eyes. “I was on the phone with SEKO, and their truck was down the street, in a place where it could safely park,” he says.
To clear the way for the event, Walden made several advance trips to Boston to talk with city officials. When load-in day came, Boston law enforcement officers were ready. “Dedicated police officers were there to help control traffic as we backed trucks onto the plaza, because we literally had to stop traffic on Boylston Street to get on and off.”
Despite careful preparation, unexpected variables may still await the driver who arrives for a scheduled drop-off. “The margin of error is a lot smaller in these situations,” Bourke says. “Unexpected events—be they snowstorms or cars being towed—have a traumatic effect.”
Yet, in most cases, professional event producers and their transportation partners pull things off. The band’s lead guitarist strikes the first chord, the theater orchestra starts the overture, the game show host steps into the plaza, and it’s on with the show.