Workers behind the concert stars are hurting

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Workers behind the concert stars are hurting
The lighting technician Joshua Dirks, who was on the road with Kiss last week, works on a lighting plan at his home in Mount Juliet, Tenn., March 13, 2020. Sound engineers, lighting technicians and more gig-to-gig employees who fuel the touring industry are preparing for the worst as the coronavirus puts a halt to live shows. Kyle Dean Reinford/The New York Times.

by Ben Sisario

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Joshua Dirks began last Thursday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as a lighting technician on Kiss’ arena tour. He ended the day on a bus home to Nashville, Tennessee, as that tour — along with the rest of the multibillion-dollar concert industry — came to an abrupt halt.

Last week, Live Nation Entertainment and AEG Presents, the two biggest powers in the industry, put their shows on hiatus amid growing concern over the rapid spread of the coronavirus, sending stars like Billie Eilish, Jason Aldean and Cher to social media to apologize to their fans for the scuttled shows.

Behind the artists who appear onstage, however, is a fragile pool of thousands of workers like Dirks, who perform much of the labor that allows tours to go on — from sound and lighting to transportation, merchandise sales and hospitality. Most are freelancers with few if any employment protections, and they now face months of uncertainty, and potential economic ruin, if the touring interruption consumes the all-important summer season.

“The next half of my year,” Dirks said, “is floating somewhere in limbo.”

Little seen by the public, the crews that go on tour with artists are mostly not unionized, and bounce from job to job with often little more than a few months’ notice. For years, as the touring business grew and ticket prices swelled, there was plenty of work. The top 100 tours in North America had $5.6 billion in ticket sales last year, more than double the $2.4 billion in 2009, according to Pollstar, an industry trade publication.

But the shutdown has exposed the vulnerability of much of the touring labor force, said Scott Adamson, a veteran sound engineer who has worked with Haim, Khalid and Liz Phair.

“When a single tour cancels, it’s a financial hardship for a small crew,” Adamson said. “In this case, the fear is much deeper, because the entire industry is just grinding to a halt.”

As Charles Dabezies, who programs onstage video projections, put it, “This is the original gig economy.”

In recent days, as a trickle of tour cancellations grew to a deluge, crew members’ Facebook feeds and groups texts began to fill with deflating anecdotes and commiseration. Of nine people interviewed for this article, most said they had no health insurance and even in good times had no work booked beyond about six months.

And the job, they said, is like no other — a life both exhilarating and grueling, with crowds screaming for encores and then, hours later, boredom and isolation as the bus rolls to the next town.

“A lot of the time you’re tired and exhausted, going to the bathroom in a gas station,” said Sarah Parker, a lighting director. “Those are just the lows that come with it in normal times.”

How long the disruption lasts will depend on the COVID-19 outbreak. But even if the spread is contained soon, it may take months to recalibrate the complex scheduling details that go into planning a tour, and workers say they are bracing for a year of vastly reduced income. Dirks said that last year he was on the road for 300 days, and he is expecting the number to be a fraction of that; others said they were contemplating a year that may be totally lost.

Chad Olech, a sound engineer for Fall Out Boy, said that for most workers, the delays have hit just as the business was set to ramp up for its peak annual period, after the lean months of winter. “This could not have happened at a worse time for this industry,” he said.

Ali Siegel, a lighting designer and director, said she was scheduled to go on the road with the band Of Monsters and Men in April but was “preparing for the worst.” At home in Denver, Siegel — who said that while on the road she is typically paid by the week or even by the day — has gone on an austerity budget, including canceling plans to fly to a friend’s wedding.

“I am debating just going to down the street to see if Starbucks is hiring, just to get through,” she said.

For most touring workers, the shutdown came as no surprise, even if the impact has been sudden.

Saint Motel, an indie-pop band from Los Angeles, completed a U.S. tour this month, just as South by Southwest and the Coachella festival were scuttling their spring plans. (Coachella has announced plans to move to October.) Brandon Jazz, Saint Motel’s tour manager, noticed that on the tour’s final shows, along the West Coast, venues were getting emptier and emptier.

“You would have a sold-out show,” Jazz said, “but then the back of the room is empty, because people are scared to go out.”

As the reality of months without work settles in, many touring workers said they were seizing the chance to bone up on technical skills, through online classes or informal workshops that fellow crew members are organizing on the fly. Still, for a business that depends on travel and social gatherings, there may be few opportunities for gainful employment, and several crew members said they were concerned that their skills were not easily translatable to other businesses.

“Our industry can’t work from home,” said Paul Bradley, the chief executive of Eventric, which makes software for managing tour logistics. “If they’re not on the road, they’re not being employed.”

Parker, who has also toured with Saint Motel, said she was most concerned about the mental-health hazards that may come with extended periods of unemployment and isolation — which would exacerbate the stress and depression that many crew members already battle after stepping off the road.

Like others, Parker said she did not know what she would do if touring work dried up.

“It would be so hard for me personally if this industry downsized or something,” she said, “because I find the most joy out of what I do. If I couldn’t get that back, and had to pursue a completely different career path, it would alter me forever.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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