Road Warriors: The Unseen World of the DJ Tour Manager

“Airport, hotel, club, hotel, airport. Repeat. That's about as interesting as a typical trip gets,” Rob Howarth explains with a sigh. If he sounds tired, it’s probably because he is: back-to-back gigs have shuffled him between Europe, the UK and South America all in the span of a couple weeks. “But none of us do what we do because of the typical days, do we?” His story might sound familiar. In fact, you’re probably wondering if he is a DJ or musician — but Howarth is speaking to me from his hotel room in Buenos Aires about his more behind-the-scenes position: the tour manager.

Having worked with the likes of Adam Beyer, Joseph Capriati, Ida Engberg, and Joel Mull, Howarth is no stranger to the music industry or the touring circuit. For the past eight years, he’s been running Advance Artists, a management company responsible for Drumcode’s Alan Fitzpatrick, steadily becoming a seasoned veteran in the often bleary-eyed world between airport, hotel, and dancefloor. It’s a tired tango that’s fittingly earned Howarth, and others like him, titles like ‘road warrior.’ “We’re making sure travel arrangements are optimized, checking hotels have the facilities we require, arranging ground transport, checking-in for flights,” Howarth says. “It’s artist dinners, guest list, tech riders, booth set up, gigs, dancefloors, then grabbing as much rest as possible before it’s time to do it all again.”

“Some artists have teams of five or six guys on tour with them"

The “tour manager” is not a new position. Management roles have existed as long as the proverbial music tour has, and beyond; it’s a gig that exists in every industry from film to art to fashion. Where electronic music is concerned, though, the concept of a tour manager is still in its relative youth. It’s only been a few decades since electronic music gained enough widespread popularity to warrant an entire management team coming out on the road with them. “It’s a far cry from the ‘DJ and his driver’ scenario of the 90s,” notes Ross Evans, who is currently working with industry heavyweights like Nic Fanciulli and Deep Dish. “Some artists have teams of five or six guys on tour with them.” It’s not uncommon to see a DJ booth overflowing with friends, crew, and everyone in between, but Evans also remarks that this can also be read as a mark of how much better an electronic music show can be. And the proof, so to speak, is in the production: there’s often so much going on during any given tour that today’s managers handle everything from the big issues (artist relations, label work and distribution, consultancy, booking gigs, flights and hotels) and medium issues (liaising with promoters, event administration, helping with set-up, tear-down and everything in between), right down to the small issues (simply finding a good restaurant for a pre-gig meal or just acting as a travel companion for their artists).

As for the tour managers, most of these guys got their start in just the way you’d think: a love of music. Howarth was bussing bottles at Fabric London in his early days (“Everyone described it as the worst job in the club but I loved it!”), while guys like Evans and Mark Vity, currently the TM for Nicole Moudaber, got similar starts racking up hours as club kids or in their local rave scene. Ryan Harris, who represents Adam Beyer and Cassy, could be found handing out flyers and wristbands on the beach in Ibiza many years ago. “After visiting Ibiza on holiday, my best friend and I decided to just stay and see if we could survive a summer,” he says, laughing, “That somehow rolled into nine years.” Roberto Blach, tour manager for tINI, tells a similar tale of late nights in London and Romania that snowballed into a fully-fledged career.

“Music has dominated my life since I left school,” Evans muses, “I can’t imagine what I would do without it. It dictates where I live, the type of friends that I have, how I spend my free time…” For many TMs, music is their driving force, something they grew up surrounded by, and even if they don’t play an active role in making music, tour managing has been a way to keep that life force close by.

"I get a kick out of feeling like part of the overall achievement"

“When I was 17, I was driving around with the rave tapes blaring, or mixing really badly in my mates basement or sitting around stoned out of my mind listening to Sasha & Digweed's first Renaissance mix compilation. It's always been the music that's been at the core of what got me excited,” explains Howarth, “Those moments where you look at your mate and you are both going for it, totally moved by the music. That's my buzz. That’s why I do what I do.” Although music is the life force, most TMs are content to play a background role in the industry itself. Howarth continues, “I also love being in the thick of the action although not the focus of all the attention. I get a kick out of feeling like part of the overall achievement. I remember when I first got a credit in the sleeve notes for a mix compilation — thank you Geoff Oakes! — I was so excited.”

Others like Blach and Harris cite a similar interest in learning from behind-the-scenes: “I wanted to learn exactly how the industry worked from some of the most experienced people in dance music,” says Harris, “What appealed to me most back then, was being able to work with like-minded people and be involved in something I felt passionate about.”

"It’s a calling. You either have it in your blood or you don't”

Vity, however, has a less romantic take: “It’s a calling. You either have it in your blood or you don't,” he explains sternly, “Either way, it tends to find you.” Whatever their reason for getting in the game, the things that made this position appealing to the guys many years ago, remains at the heart of its continued allure. For Blach, who started out as the event manager for tINI and the Gang just over three years ago, it was the ubiquitous “friends and family” concept that seems to pique most TMs’ interest. Having an early introduction to the Gang and its extended family, Blach fell in love not only with the job’s more banal administrative duties but also with the social aspects that came along with it. “The best part of this job is the few really good friends I’ve met on my journey,” he says, “When you work in a field that gives you the freedom to meet new people, to let your personality and curiosity run free… That’s when you find yourself.”

Vity agrees: “In many ways, the ‘family’ aspect of this job has exceeded my expectations. After all, we wouldn’t even be talking if another tour manager hadn’t put us in touch.”

“Late nights, touring and partying a lot really doesn't mix very well at all with having a family"

But if their musings make it seem like this has been a fantasy career choice, the reality can sometimes tell a different tale. “Late nights, touring and partying a lot really doesn't mix very well at all with having a family and two young kids,” explains Howarth, “There has been plenty of occasions when I've doubted the sense of what I'm doing. For example, it's certainly played a part in the breakdown of my relationship with the mother of my children.” The strain of near constant travel is made all the more tenuous by the fact that these trips often involve, as Howarth mentioned earlier, little more than migrating between airport and club: “I’ve been to Rome about 15 times and never seen the Colosseum!” laughs Evans.

Aside from the burden of a nomadic lifestyle, the guys agree that the job is rarely a source of disillusionment. When I ask if, looking back, they would do something differently given the chance, Harris warmly explains his only regret: “I wish I had known earlier that you could make a potential career for yourself out of it. If I had, I would have pursued it and taken it more seriously from a younger age.”

For everyone, it’s the industry, not the job, that’s inescapably fickle. “I’ve seen people become egotistic with fame. I’ve known people doing it for the wrong reasons,” Evans continues, “These things disappoint me but honestly... Nothing surprises me anymore.” And he’s right — in any industry where fame can be hungrily pursued, it’s sadly all too easy for key players to lose sight of what’s important. But Howarth remains positive: “Sure, there is a lot of unprofessionalism within what we do that just wouldn't be tolerated in other industries,” he says, “But on the plus side, this job has given me a level of career satisfaction I doubt I'd have achieved elsewhere, and it's certainly taken me to places I never dreamed of being.”

For Blach, the biggest challenge came from learning to accept his limits: “I would rather achieve one goal perfectly than partly achieve five goals.” While Howarth joked that the position requires nerves of steel and an unshakeable attention to detail, it’s the kind of patience Blach outlined that separate a good TM from a great TM.

“You need to be organised, calm, and always thinking steps ahead,” Evans explains, “Those qualities set you up for when others around you might be drunk or tired and not thinking straight – you’re around to pick up the pieces.”

"It’s very hard to motivate yourself and be creative when you are skint"

So how do they stay energized despite it all? “Is my mum reading this?!” jokes Howarth, “I won’t lie that it’s very hard to motivate yourself and be creative when you are skint, which can happen with this job. But no matter what, nothing feels better than when I get a knowing look from my artist at a gig, as if to say, ‘Wow. We did it!’”

“TMs have always been there,” Vity explains, “But there is a lot more demand on artists these days. They need to concentrate on their work, so by default, we are the advance soldier. We take a lot of the main pressure away by dealing with just about everything else.” It’s one of those positions that perfectly captures the old it’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it expression. The fact of the matter is simple: with the industry growing at the rate that it is, tour managers and assistants are essential to the proper functioning of the electronic music machine. “What does this mean for the future of electronic music? Well, with increased professionalism comes increased commercialization,” Howarth concludes, “So, make the most of the next shady warehouse party you wind up at and soak up the rave spirit because unfortunately, all that good stuff won't last forever.”