Chris Johnson was awesome enough to do a phone interview the night before he left to go out on tour with Matt Toka. Chris has been a tour manager for several years now and has managed for bands like Versaemerge, Conditions. Artist Vs. Poet and many others. After interning and working as an assistant for a management company, Chris decided it was time to start his own company in Los Angeles. Chris and his business partner Luca Zanello started Music Machine with the goal to have a family oriented company where they will always be there for their artists.
Read on for Chris’ advice on mistakes to watch out for when beginning as a tour manager, the importance of networking within the music industry and also to sleep before going on tour because the sleepless hours will begin once the wheels on the bus go round and round.
Rob Marcacci: Where did you grow up?
Chris Johnson: I grew up in the Northern Virginia/D.C. area about thirty minutes outside of D.C. It was basically suburbia, nothing too crazy. A lot of people there work in or for government there. Lots of houses, grass, and trees there and that’s about it.
RM: Were you always interested in music growing up?
CJ: I wasn’t actually. Music kind of found me. I did not initially pursue it. I was always doing sound and started with learning sound engineering through my church growing up. I asked a couple random questions on a youth retreat I was on and then the guy that was running it said he would teach me some things. It turned into me working at the church doing front house stuff for them.
I was also a big athlete in high school. I was trying to play college basketball in a D3 school or something along those lines. The basketball thing didn’t work out and I graduated high school owning a lawn and landscaping company. I realized that I didn’t want to keep mowing lawns and doing landscaping the rest of my life. I ended up selling my business and wanted to work in a recording studio. I was an apprentice and took care of a lot of day-to-day stuff.
RM: How did you get into the studio? Was this also in Virginia?
CJ: It was a project studio called Avalon Studios in Maryland. I went through a company and my friends and I knew nothing about it. I was doing it through something called Connections and they helped you get an apprenticeship and kind like on the job training. I worked there for about two years in and out of the studio.
I started getting more involved with finding bands that I liked and hunting that stuff out. I started to get involved with my local scene and going to shows. I found out that a few guys I went to high school with were in bands. I met a local promoter who lived in the Northern Virginia area and he ran a booking company there. He booked at a few venues around the area in Virginia. We talked at a My Favorite Highway show and hit it off. He offered me a job to work as an assistant talent buyer and helped with the productions of all the shows, sound if need be, running the door, basic stuff.
I worked for him for about a year and then I ended up leaving to start my own company in Northern Virginia for about three years and booked shows throughout all of Virginia. I did a couple things in Maryland as well. About two years into my doing that, a bunch of bands in the area started to get signed. My Favorite Highway got signed to Virgin Records. Friday Night Boys got signed to Fueled By Ramen. The Bigger Lights got signed to Doghouse. I had been friends with those guys and they asked me if I wanted to come out on the road to tour manage for them so I went out on tour with them for about five months.
We ended up doing a tour with Never Shout Never and Chris offered me a job with him as an assistant tour/stage manager. I did a tour and a half with Chris and then I worked for a bunch of other bands like Artist Vs. Poet, Versaemerge, Conditions, and I’m about to go back out on tour now. I haven’t toured in over a year but I’m about to go back out with a guy named Matt Toka who just signed with Warner Brother Records. I did Warped Tour and many other cool tours, got to see the country but the biggest goal was for me to develop myself and be extremely well rounded. I wanted to learn the industry inside and out in order to be a manager. I like the business aspect of it; I like helping develop companies, working with bands, marketing ideas and enjoy all of that. Tour managing helped me to meet a lot of good people and expand my network.
RM: Could you explain your duties as a tour manager?
CJ: Being a tour manager is being a parent on the road. You are supervising everything. It depends on the band with how much supervision is really needed. Some bands need a lot of supervision to keep them in check if they are crazy partiers or if they aren’t responsible. Then there are older mature bands where you are mainly taking care of venue-oriented things. You are their manager while on the road and following through with everything the label is sending you. There is press, interviews, and lining up times for interviews for the band. You have to make sure all the technical aspects are taken care of, all the merch is good, make sure you have back stock, and you get the drop shipments in. Also coordinating with the drum and guitar techs to make sure the gear is ready to go. The artist has to be taken care of one hundred percent.
It is a weird position because the band is your boss and they are the ones in charge. They are also giving you the power to be in charge. Anything I may say, or a tour manager may say, could ultimately get shot down by whatever the band wants to do and you are there for advisement. It is a very tough line to walk and it is definitely tricky. If anything goes wrong on the road you are the first person to get blamed for it and if anything goes right on the road you are the last person to get the praise for it. It is not a glamorous job at all. A lot of kids think that touring is awesome because you get to see how the bands live and get see a big party. A lot of times it is not easy as a tour member or a crew member; it is a lot of hard work and many sleepless nights. The band might be sleeping but if you are in a van you might be the one driving overnight. You have to do a lot of the heavy lifting so the band’s time on the road is taken care of so they don’t have to worry. They are there to perform for the fans.
RM: You mentioned you started your own promotional company back on the east coast. Did you like taking care of the business side of that company and also for your current company, Music Machine?
CJ: I am definitely the business end of the company with Music Machine. I have always been extremely entrepreneurial and always looking for opportunities to expand. I have been a business person ever since I was in high school. I’ve owned my businesses since I was fifteen years old. If you are looking to be involved in the music industry, and you are not an artist, you need to be a very business oriented person. Take a lot of business classes and not necessarily just music business classes. It is important for the future growth of the music industry to have people thinking outside the box. When I work with bands on the management side I always try to think outside the box, not just the standard of how it’s been done for the past fifteen years. The past has led us to this point now where the industry is in shambles and it is looking for a new model for it to get back up where it was twenty years ago.
It is great to take music industry classes but I think it is more important to go out and get a degree that is going to have some other thoughts and ideas in more of a corporate world that will translate over into the music world. When you take the music industry classes you are learning about the way things have been done in the past. By the time you get out of school and into the work place you are now unlearning some of the things you learned in school. Going to school to be a tour manager is not worth your $40,000 a year or whatever the cost may be. If you really want to be a tour manager you should look into working at a venue and search out for a talent buyer or agent. You could also work for a promoter and this can get you involved with some of those bands. You do not need a degree for touring. That is great if you do go to school for music and there is nothing wrong with it.
What I am trying to say though is that kids are telling me they are going to school to be a tour manager and I am just saying that there are other avenues to get to that point besides music school. If they do want to go to school, I think that Full Sail has a great music program. They have a couple good road programs and their live audio classes are great too. This would help you be a more versatile person on the road and could possibly allow you to charge more money for being on the road. Your salary for being with that band might go up with that knowledge. Internships are also very helpful for getting started, especially in Los Angeles, New York and Nashville. A lot of hard work and luck are involved. I have been very blessed with the opportunities that have presented themselves but at the same time it has been a lot of hard work.
RM: How did you startup Music Machine?
CJ: I previously owned a promotions company back in Virginia and I met Luca Zanello through a mutual friend. He was in a band at the time and we just started hanging out. We always stayed in touch and ran ideas back and forth throughout the years. He stumbled upon this one band called My Ticket Home. Luca was telling me to check the band out so I flew out there to see them and they blew me away. We decided to manage the band together for a while and then I got really busy with being on the road. I ended up pulling myself away from that project.
A year ago I moved to LA and I would still stay in touch with Luca. We were running ideas back and forth about different bands and projects we had some interests in. I ended up going to work for a big management company out here as an assistant. I left that company to go off and do my own thing. Luca and I always talked about starting up our own company so we decided to start it up as a real independent type company. We are very family orientated with how we run our business. We wanted to work with bands that we feel have great potential in music that we love and actively support to build a strong foundation for artists to go to. We will be fighting for them day in and day out.
If someone told us a couple months ago that we would be expanding and bringing in a third manager to the company we wouldn’t really believe you. A lot of great opportunities have come our way and we are extremely blessed for everything.
RM: What are some important steps for someone if he or she wants to start their own company?
CJ: First off make sure you have a product or service that is going to be competitive and something you can go after. A lot of kids will go out and jump the gun and just immediately want to be a manager. What can you actually provide this artist or band to help achieve what their goals may be? If you can’t do that then you need to pause and pump the brakes to refocus on spending time with people that have been in the industry for awhile. If you have that service or product that is ready to go then it is honestly about getting yourself out there and expanding your network.
There are a lot of people out there that are “managers” and they manage these bands but they are actually doing a disservice to the band because they do not know what they are providing. Their insights are not showing them how to do things and that is how people get screwed over. At the same time, everybody came from somewhere. I came out of high school not knowing anything about music and I just worked hard and listened to what people have to say. Just make sure you know what you are doing and you are not leading people astray. You will ruin your reputation before you even have one. In this industry, your name is kind of all you got and the reputation that you build. If you tarnish that reputation before you have anything to put your feet on you will sell people short.
It is tough if you are an independent person going out right now and starting your own company. Being the lone ranger in a sense, like we are, people are going to look past you and look over you and not expect anything. You have to be willing to put in long hours and be willing to hear a lot of no’s. That doesn’t mean that you have to accept the no’s but it just means that you are going to hear no more than you will hear yes. There will be frustrating days.
Like I said, starting a company is tough. There is probably a wrong way to do it and a right way but in the end everyone is different and so is there situation. If there were one right way everyone would be doing it. There will never be one specific avenue to go through.
RM: What are some mistakes you made along the way that you learned from?
CJ: Booking an uber pop band in a hardcore market. Paying a band $1200 when they should be getting $200. Those are mistakes that everyone at some point in time has made. Being a manager you make mistakes everyday and you learn from it. You have to be willing to accept those mistakes by taking risks and sometimes it doesn’t work out. You have to be able to be on your toes to rebound from those mistakes. Whether it is putting a band on a wrong type of package and they are out on the road playing in a bunch of bars in front of forty year olds when their demographic should be teenagers.
A lot of younger bands think that they should be touring. That is honestly not an intelligent move. I call it “touring smart” and it is working on not overextending yourself. If you don’t have the money to tour, there is no reason for you to go out because you will not make money as an independent unsigned band. Having those kinds of conversations as a manager to help the band limiting those mistakes. You don’t want to put them in a tough financial position.
It is a trial and error everyday. You might try something new with one client that you might not try with another to see which one works. It is a daily challenge.
RM: Do you have any additional advice you would like to give people starting out as a tour manager?
CJ: You have to be open to putting the band in front of you. Whether it is a situation that they want to eat at a specific place where you cant eat anything there because maybe you have a food allergy. Or on a day off you want to do something that the band might not want to. On the road you might want to crash one night but the band wants you to drive. You have to be an extremely selfless person. Take care of the band first because they are your bosses and they have you out on the road. While you are in charge, they are also in charge of you in some aspects. Get as much sleep as you can before you go out on tour and be prepared to not sleep while on tour.
If you are a newer tour manager you will most likely be working with smaller bands. That is the time to learn everything you can. You can get the opportunity to learn how to run sound, how to do monitors, and adding value to you being out on the road will help continue your career. Also, use your time wisely. I have a problem of biting off so much that it is hard to chew. I try to go above and beyond every artist that I work for. I try to make sure that when they are on the road all they have to think about is breathing. Other than that, work hard, stay organized and keep track of everything including receipts and money.
You can learn everything you need to about being a tour manager but at the end of the day you are dealing with people in a close confined space for about 3 months at a time. You are managing personalities and managing people so being a people person will help. You have to be able to give a hard no when it might be a little bit awkward. Sometimes you will have to get in somebody’s face whether it is a promoter not paying a band or a production manager not giving you the right power drops that you need. Inner turmoil will come up between the bands on tour as well and you have to be able to stop it.
Thank you again to Chris for his advice on being a tour manger and tips on how to start up a company. Make sure to follow him on twitter @iamChrisJohnson and check out his company website Music Machine here.