By Chris Illich
There are very few people who don’t enjoy going to see a live music performance. It’s just something that the vast majority of our population tend to appreciate. But, more often than not, they just reflect on the performance in terms of the act they are seeing, not on what it took just to get those performers on stage.
If you do consider what goes on behind the scenes, you usually think of the promoter, the lighting tech, the sound engineer and the stage-hands, or maybe even the usher that took you to your seat. But, an often overlooked profession is that of the tour manager. And here’s the thing, they probably don’t mind that you don’t think of them. They are the man behind the scenes, running the whole show, and if they can do it unnoticed, they’re doing a great job.
Mike Lukas, Niagara Falls native and tour manager for Steve Earle — yes, that Steve Earle, famous for “You better stay away from Copperhead Road” Steve Earle — and when we spoke, he didn’t make it sound like life on the road was as glamorous as it has been portrayed.
“On a typical day, we roll on down to the venue at noon, and we unload our trailer and se the stage. I help with the stage because we only have a front of house engineer, a monitor engineer, a guitar tech and myself – just four guys on the crew. We then set up a backline that has 30 stringed instruments. That takes us a good hour and a half. Then I’ll make sure that the band is fed, and then I bring in the merchandise. I’ll go set that up, or count in with the venue if they are selling it for us. Then we do a line check and check all 48 channels and make sure that every instrument is reading. By the time we’re finished that, around 5pm we bring in the band and do a sound check. Then it’s time for dinner. I have to take everyone’s dinner order, and everyone’s after-show dinner because some guys want to eat after we load out. Then I deal with the venue and tell them our photo policy, our guestlist, our security issues, and then I print out the setlists,” he long-windedly explained.
“Once the doors open, I sell the merch until the band is ready to get on stage. Then I get Steve off the bus, make sure his in-ear monitors are on and clipped, get them on the stage, and that’s when I answer emails and get things ready for the next day. After the show, I sell more stuff and I get everyone ready for the meet and greet, so I line them up and bring them down and take pictures. By then it’s midnight, I settle the merch, settle the show and make sure we get paid, then I help the guys load the trailer. After that, I call the hotel in the next city to make sure they know we’re coming around 4 or 5 am and make sure that they know we’re coming with a 65 foot long bus.”
If it sounds like a long day, it’s because it is. And even before they head out on tour, Lukas has to do all the advancing as well. He has to get as much information about the tour as possible so that when they show up to a show, it just sort of runs itself. In 2015 Steve Earle and his band and crew are performing over 130 shows in 2015, and for each one Lukas has to send the tech info, the rider, the stage plot, and all the hospitality needs. He has to tell each one when they are showing up, how many local hands they need, if they’re selling merch and if they’re doing a meet and greet.
While he’s doing that, he’s rounding up a tour bus, “which is an endeavor because there are more bands than there are buses these days because you have to tour to make money as a band,” booking hotels for the tour, and getting the band up to their booked rehearsal hall in Nashville (parts of the band and crew are from Nashville, Texas and North Carolina, and Steve lives in New York City).
Aside from actually being on stage performing, tour managers have to do it all. It’s not for the glory, it’s not for the money, it’s because they enjoy the life on the road and being part of the music industry.
“I just wanted to be involved with music. There’s just not enough spots in the world for musicians to have paying gigs,” he said.
“When it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be one of those musicians, I started touring with bands selling their merch. From doing that for a couple of years, Steve gave me the opportunity to run his show – never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be his road manager.”
On the road to becoming Steve Earle’s full time tour manager, Lukas was doing gigs for Anthill Trading with the Tragically Hip, he was on the road with Gavin DeGraw and Thievery Corporation, he did some work on the Police reunion tour, did some work on the Rolling Stones “No Security” tour among others, and was then invited out a short tour with Steve. Soon after, Anthill was bought by LiveNation and “everyone was being set home.” That’s when Lukas got the call.
“He said, I want you to come work with me directly and be a roadie. Then his tour manger left and he offered me the gig that I’ve been doing for the last three years. The workload has increased heavily, but I don’t mind it,” he said.
“What I do mind, is that I miss a lot of family stuff. My sister just had a baby and I missed that. I don’t get invited to weddings anymore, and being away from my partner is tough too. All in all, on the best days it’s inspirational and amazing to be a part of it, on the worst it can be very emotionally draining. But once that show gets going, you just sweep it up under the rug and just move onto the next day.”
But, you better stay away from Copperhead Road.