Q&A with Touring and Production Manager Bill Reeves on the challenges of the big comeback

Bill Reeves

At the end of the year, Pollstar caught up with veteran tour and production manager Bill Reeves, who had worked on tours with Prince, Anita Baker, Maxwell, D’Angelo and Anthony Hamilton. Reeves is familiar with many of the challenges facing the living industry right now, including inflation, labor shortages, supply chain lockdowns, and this ever-evolving pandemic. Here, Reeves, who also co-founded Roadies of Color, an organization focused on bringing greater diversity and equity to the live industry, discusses what he’s currently seeing there, including testing constant COVIDs, a lack of behind-the-scenes workers showing up for calls, no room service, and why, after 40+ years in the business, he has no plans to change careers (unless, of course, than it touches the numbers).

Pollstar: What do you see on the road these days in terms of inflation, labor shortages, supply chain challenges, pandemic, etc. ?

Bill Reeves: The work that I’ve been doing in the last six or seven months since we kind of woke up from the pandemic days has been a lot of corporate work. One of the things that’s really obvious now is testing, testing, testing, testing, whether you’re vaccinated or not. We recently did something with an orchestra in Miami and had a few days of rehearsals with the orchestra before doing the show and we all had to get tested every day. In some cases it’s a real cost where we have to do a lot of testing.

What I also noticed, and I’m sure everyone notices, is the rising cost of everything. I am currently in the process of booking buses for our spring tour. And the average bus rental is now $700-$750 per day, down from $450-$500 per day. So quite a big jump in the cost of buses.

Another thing is not having the right number of workers or machinists for a call. In one instance, I think it was somewhere in Texas calling 32 guys, and you got 15. I heard from a friend on the J. Cole tour that they were in huge trouble with the staff of the local teams. It was the same kind of thing, you call 30 or 40 guys and you get 10 or 15 guys. I mean, not just missing one or two, but missing a significant percentage of the call. As we know, there is a labor shortage in America in general and it has certainly spilled over into our little corner of the world. Places with strong unions are not a problem; places that have the right to work or don’t have a strong union or union they have a hard time finding people to build farms and unload trucks and do whatever you need local crews to do. It’s a problem.

Broken Dreamtown:Paras Griffin/Getty ImagesBroken Dreamtown: J. Cole, who had to postpone stops on his “off-season tour” with 21 Savage due to reported production delays, performs at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on September 27, 2021.

Fast food places now pay close to $20 an hour, what do some of these people earn, especially in right to work states?

What I heard recently from a person on tour who asked the team leader, “Where is everyone?” The crew chief or the promoter’s rep or whoever said, “Well, in this particular jurisdiction, we pay $10 an hour.” No one wants to work for $10 an hour anymore. Everybody wants $15, $20, $25 an hour. And that’s a problem, not just in the entertainment industry, but in America in general.

How do you think it will play out?

People stayed home for about a year during the pandemic and realized they weren’t able to support themselves and are now looking to make more money or will just continue to stay home. My personal view is that the labor shortage will slowly become a non-issue because people living on unemployment and stimulus checks etc. will eventually have to go back to work. Along with this, wages usually increase because there is a shortage. Amazon raises its base rate to $15 and above in higher cost of living places like New York or Los Angeles, where they waive $17, $18, $19 per hour. I think we will see a stabilization over the next few months where employers will have to offer more money to recruit workers. Eventually it will be enough money for the workers to start coming back. But right now, it’s a tough call.

We just released our fourth quarter numbers, and revenues were strong, but there is also inflation. Ticket prices will likely be higher due to rising costs with labor shortages, gas prices, safety and security, how do you think this will translate?

I think what’s going to happen is artists and promoters are going to end up getting a bit more money, but they’re also going to spend more money. So at the end of the day I think everyone at the top of the food chain ends up doing what they were doing before, but there will be a little increase in income for the people at the bottom of the food chain, the workers occasional.

Do you think fans can absorb higher ticket prices?

I wonder at what point the consumer, in this case the ticket buyer, says, “You know what? I’m just going to stay home because I don’t want to spend $250, $300 to go see this or that. I think the increased cost of everything could drive up ticket prices to the point where ticket buyers are going to say, “Yeah, no thanks. No matter. I have plenty of other options for my entertainment dollar. I have 14 different streaming channels. I have YouTube and all this other stuff on my computer that I just have to pay in the single digits, $8 a month or $9 a month or whatever. Why would I go out and spend $250 to see such a guy in concert? That would be cause for concern. But so far this has not happened. So far the ticket prices keep going up and somehow people keep buying those tickets.

Thank God.

Obviously, watching something on Netflix isn’t the same experience as being in the room with musicians making music. It’s obviously a different experience. I don’t know if there will ever be a demand for live entertainment, live music, I just wonder how far we can continue to push the consumer to keep artists and their promoter bottom line at a high level. At some point, artists and promoters have to take a little less to be able to make the whole ecosystem work.

I heard that Opie Skjerseth, the famous tour manager of the Stones, at one point during their “No Filter Tour”, was moving boxes himself.

I talked to [tour managers] K.C. Jackson [Roadies of Color co-founder] and Victor Reid, who said that at the end of the day, when you’re there and you have to put on the show and you’re missing a significant number of guys, everyone has to step up. The two gentlemen said they found themselves pushing stuff, where in the past they had been supervising, telling someone else to push those boxes or cart. When there’s no one to say, “Go ahead, do it,” but it still needs to be done, you’re going to do it yourself.

This probably means things take longer if there are fewer guys and you have to rig a show.

Well, look at the J. Cole situation. They had a really hard time getting this tour started in terms of prep time, partly because of the complexity of the show, but also largely because of the lack of people to put it on. They were notoriously late to their first two shows, still settling in when the audience arrived. Those kinds of things you never want to happen.

Is it only unskilled labour?

No, it goes from the guy who knows nothing to whom you just say “Go push that box” and the difference between right yard and left yard, to riggers who have a very specific skill set, not everybody has. And this is also true for transport and the shortage of truck and bus drivers. Many bus companies have buses, but no one to drive them. Ditto for trucking companies.

And shipping costs increase too.

The bus companies have definitely increased their numbers. First of all, they rent their buses more expensive than before. And they pay their drivers more than before. And gas is more expensive than before.

And the hotels?

Hotel costs are up but there is less service and less people. I’ve worked quite regularly on various ad-hoc and other projects, which means I’m at hotels often, and I can’t think of the last time I was at a hotel that offered full room service, service full catering, maid service. This is all due to COVID, but also, again, to labor shortages.

What is your prediction for the future?

Everything costs more, inflation hits everyone in the wallet, which ultimately makes it a little harder. I think some of it will subside. I mean, gas prices, you can’t control. The lack of workers, I hope they start offering a little more so you can answer your calls.

So the million dollar question, despite the challenges, is it still worth staying in this industry?

For me, yes. I can’t speak for the younger ones, but I’m better than 40 so I’m not ready to pivot. At the end of the day, it’s always a fun thing to do. I’m not ready, especially after the last year and a half of nothingness. I was suddenly retired for a year and a half, which didn’t bother me, but the reduction in my savings account bothered me. So I have to keep working like most people, paying my bills, keeping the lights on, keeping the food in the fridge, all that stuff. Maybe I should have listened to my mom and gone to law school, but I didn’t. So I can’t fall back on my law practice because I don’t have one. So is it worth continuing? Yes, as long as I am physically fit enough to get on and off the bus, on and off the plane, and in and out of sites and can still physically do this job. It’s always better than working for a living. You know the old adage, “If you do something you love, you won’t work a day in your life.” I still have a great appreciation for this job, what it is and what it allows me to do. This allowed me to have a fairly comfortable life. I can’t turn it off tomorrow unless I go to the Lotto. If I get the Powerball for a couple hundred million dollars [laughter], ask me again. I may have another story.


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