Billy Reed has been tour managing artists since 2009, when he hit the road with an indie rock outfit from Seattle called Barcelona. He arrived at that point through a series of chance encounters.
“I think it was just a natural outgrowth of what I had involved myself in – back in high school I was in a band and then when everybody went off to college, I still wanted to be involved in the music industry. And so I started to book shows.
“Through that I built my base, or network. That would lead to my first tour selling merch.
“Two years later, it was just something on Facebook: ‘Hey, does anybody know a tour manager?’ I raised my hands and went wherever the wind may blow. And here we are all these years later.”
Reed’s resumé includes working with high profile acts such as Alabama’s St. Paul and The Broken Bones and Californian singer-songwriter Ashe. Here, he reveals what he’s learned about selling merch on the road, the best ways to run meet-and-greets, and much more…
You see many venues around the world. What makes the best ones easy to work with?
During the advancing process – so advancing is just your communication with the venue before you arrive to go through your checklist, and make sure that your list and their list matches up and everything's covered – you can kind of get a sense of how the day is going to go just from that initial communication.
And it's just simple stuff. No one is attacking you with a clipboard. But they get it, from hospitality to parking to security, everything that goes into a show day. I think of the 930 Club in Washington, D.C., they're a great example of a club that just gets it.
What does 930 get right?
Especially at that level of touring, club level, theater level, you're encountering supports, even headliners in van and trailer, so just being able to arrive and know you're going to be taken care of. Again, it's simple stuff. Walking into the venue and there'll be a lunch setup. They roll out the red carpet in their own way. And it just makes a difference.
Can the time of day a venue gives you access also impact the experience?
Oh, definitely, it makes a huge difference. Whenever I'm advancing a tour, I always try and get the earliest possible venue access without incurring additional [costs].
Venues that will allow you to park up at say, eight or nine in the morning… [waking] up, going to the restroom, using the shower, anything like that. Just being able to get in, start your day, any routine, like working out or meditation, anything like that. Just the little stuff, that definitely helps.
Your day could potentially start at 8 or 9am, and then show settlement probably doesn't happen until very late at night. Are you on the clock that entire time? What does your average day look like?
It really depends on the artist that you're with. You could ask 10 tour managers what their job is, and you're gonna get 10 different answers.
But for me, just getting in in the morning, setting up signage, assigning dressing rooms. And again, to have a successful show day, it really goes back to the advance and just making sure your advance is good.
"You could ask 10 tour managers what their job is, and you're gonna get 10 different answers."
If you're dealing with gear, making sure gear’s getting to where it needs to be. Communication in advance with your crew – if there's anything funky with the day, giving them a heads up and communicating, letting everyone know what's going on.
But then around noon, one, two, making sure everyone's fed, hospitality rider’s showing up, if there's a VIP meet and greet making sure everything's in order for that. A security meeting later in the day.
Now you're getting closer to door times, submitting the guest list – really any and everything under the sun that needs to make the show happen. At this point there's probably people in the room, there could be issues – fingers crossed there's not an issue – but there could be issues with the guest list.
Making sure the support knows what time they need to go on. A little bit of stage management. Just making sure the artist you're with has what they need.
And then again, it depends on a number of variables, but I could be settling while the artist is onstage or waiting for them to get off. And then just packing everything up at the end of the night and doing it all over again the next day.
What are the best ways of selling and managing merch on the road?
Merchandise, especially at a certain level, people will approach it with the [attitude] of more is more: ‘If we have more items it'll be better.’ But really, at a certain number of merch items it becomes too much – setting it up, managing inventory, getting money stuck up in cost of goods, fulfilment.
Understanding that it might be different from a club to a theater to a bigger room, but in general, what's the ideal merch setup for you in a venue?
The real estate thing: location, location, location.
I think of some venues where they want to put you on a second level, and folks are coming in and out on the first floor, and they can't find [merch], it never enters their brain. Merch sales are always impacted by that.
So definitely location. Being at an entry or exit point is good. If the venue is large enough, having multiple places. That applies more to an arena level, but I’m definitely seeing it more in larger 5000 cap rooms, maybe an amphitheater or something.
So location, power, lighting, access to Wi-Fi. So many transactions are processed by credit, so it's absolutely essential to have Wi-Fi and a point of sale system to process those transactions. Because you're dealing with a limited window of time to sell items. So even if there's a lobby, getting people in pre-doors just to allow them to purchase merchandise.
Having the merch items displayed properly – up off the table, hanging on the walls. Labeling stuff. Again, such a small thing, but [not] having someone stand there and pointing at which shirt [they] want – ‘Oh, I want the black one.’
I think on the tour manager side, being very clear with security, because sometimes you get into these rooms and it'll be a disco loadout where there's a second show coming in, and they want to get your show out because they're trying to get the DJ in.
So you have security pushing people out and it's like, ‘Hey, this is how we make our money. This is how we pay salaries. Let us sell our merch.’ There's a fine line there. But I definitely have encountered that in different situations.
"So many transactions are processed by credit, so it's absolutely essential to have Wi-Fi and a point of sale system to process those transactions."
What are the best ways to run a VIP meet and greet to make sure no one goes away disappointed?
Yeah, that's a good question. I think there is a certain sweet spot as far as what the package is being offered for price wise, and what that package entails.
And so I think [figuring that out is] the first step.
And then when I start to get involved, or even before that, communicating what to expect, and then delivering on that at the show. A lot of that goes into timing. There are multiple people operating in the same space to pull this off.
So, making sure that the VIP company, tour management and the house are all on the same page in regards to timing, because there is no sure-fire way to disappoint someone than by telling them the VIP meeting is at six, and then they show up and it's already happened. I have not encountered that personally, but things can go sideways quickly.
Even just the entry process, delivering a detailed email with all the steps.
And I think a lot of tours – again, varies on the size – but bringing out a dedicated touring role who specializes in VIP can just elevate the experience for everyone. I've seen it with different VIP reps I've worked with as far as interacting with fans and guiding them along, because they are just so excited to meet their favorite artists.
What are the best practices for a festival when communicating with artists prior to the event?
Most festivals will send out some type of artists’ welcome letter. And within that there should be all the information you would need to have a successful show day: production contacts, hospitality contacts, transportation, parking information.
And the advance is similar to a venue advance, but it's different in the sense that the house or the festival in this instance is dealing with stuff at scale. And so normally on larger festivals, stuff will be segmented or compartmentalized.
And so you'll have an artist relations manager or stage manager that's only dealing with your stage.
And again, it goes back to communication, making sure people have the information they need so that they know where to go and get out.
Are there particular software tools that you rely on to make your life easier on the road?
I've kind of created a Frankenstein Google Sheets solution for myself. There are many different tour management software programs currently available. Eventric’s Master Tour is probably the most well known by a longshot.
There is a new platform called Daysheets, I've noticed them start to get traction. But for myself, a lot of it is Dropbox or Google Drive, different spreadsheets. I've started to dabble with Airtable, but I haven't messed with that enough to speak about it intelligibly. I know a lot of people have been using that.
For me I need stuff that updates dynamically and allows for collaboration, and is easy to onboard people with.
It's all about finding those little ways to save on data entry. And if you can optimize your day, going back to the advance as well, just creating systems that allow for easy data input saves you a lot of time on the back end.
What do you see successful tour managers getting right?
I think finding the balance. And I know that's a very general statement, but it can be a very extreme environment to exist in – the roar of the audience and then getting home and stuff quieting down.
And so just being able to find that balance between professional life and personal life.
As far as successful strategies, I've said it a few times, but communication – making sure your team knows what's going on, the house, the artists, everybody in the ecosphere. As a tour manager you have to be proactive versus reactive. And it's a little bit of a dark art in the sense that if a tour manager has done their job, you don't know they've done their job.
That seems very counterintuitive, but when there's a snag in the day, that's when you start to realize what a tour manager does as far as coordinating transportation or food. I think a lot of people think it just magically appears. There's a lot of work behind the scenes that makes a successful show day happen.
With any job there’s an element of learning through mistakes. Can you recall any such early lessons you learned?
I remember my very first tour selling merch, being one of five [acts] and entering the venue and thinking, ‘Okay, I need to help my band sell the most merch possible, I need to get the prime spot.’ And having no concept of like, headliner, support one to five, and taking the primo spot setting up our merch store.
Somehow, I had gotten there before the headliner’s merchandiser, and when he showed up he was just like, ‘Nah, man, this isn't how this works.’
And very kindly, the tour manager at the time came out. And for me, it was just like this larger-than-life figure. I was like, ‘What have I done?! I've caused a great error!’
But that's a funny one that sticks out to me.