The Path Less Travelled: Successful Touring In Less-Developed Parts Of The World
“On one tour we walked away from an unsafe stage structure requesting the relevant people to amend the problem. We returned a couple of hours later to find no change except for a dead chicken alongside some incense and flowers at center stage.”
The opportunity to tour off the beaten track sounds exotic and exciting, a chance to go to places that you’d never see otherwise and get paid for the privilege. While you’ll certainly have unique experiences and return home a more capable engineer, touring in developing countries can be extremely challenging.
I’ve been touring in unusual territories for 15 years and I’ve just returned home from a tour of Southeast Asia with my current band, so I’ve picked up a few tips over the years. I hope sharing them here will help make your experience of touring off the usual circuit a little smoother.
Keep It Simple
As with any tour, the pre-production work starts long before you hit the road; but things can take longer in less-developed regions, so you need to start early. Spend extra time creating your technical rider to leave no room for confusion.
Keep the language as simple and concise as possible, with no slang terms – remember, the people reading it likely do not have English as their first language – and photos within the document can be a useful addition to illustrate a point. The same goes for emails – keeping it simple means fewer misunderstandings.
It’s a good idea to offer a few different options for locally supplied equipment such as PA, console, etc., and if a particular software version is needed, be sure to highlight it. It’s not uncommon for local companies to respond to a rider with “Yes, all fine.” This can be a trap! Some countries have a strong culture of “saving face,” meaning they’ll agree to whatever you like on paper in order to get the gig and look good, and you won’t find out until you arrive that there have been substitutions.
For this reason, I recommend asking them to detail exactly what they intend to supply – don’t settle for “Yes, all fine.” Be aware that local promoters might look out for their own interests by giving work to companies they have relationships with. This can mean you’ll be told that some items are not available in their region, when actually their preferred company just doesn’t stock that equipment.
If you feel that you’re not getting the whole story, be prepared to dig a little deeper, perhaps with the manufacturer, to see who carries what you need in a given area – it can be useful to have contacts for the product support team for each region anyhow.
Specify things that normally go without saying, from the technical to the ancillary, such as adequate waterproofing and work lighting. I once walked on to a stage to discover that every single wedge sounded different. I asked the local folks to show me the amplifiers, and lo and behold, every wedge was being driven by a different amp as well as different crossovers!
These days I specify wedges that come as a turnkey package with the amps, but where appropriate I say something like, “All amps to be identical” or
“All either option A or B, no combinations.” Have the promoter put you in touch with the supply company for every show and ask them to send you the loudspeaker design file (i.e., d&b ArrayCalc, L-Acoustics SoundVision, etc.) files for what they intend to put in the venue.
It’s common to find that the projected amount of PA is sub-optimal to keep costs down – you may have to push for more boxes to insure adequate coverage. It’s also not unheard of in certain countries to discover that some equipment is a copy brand – yes, fake PAs are out there!
Carry The Vitals
It’s worth carrying some equipment if possible – for example, with my current band we carry all of the wireless microphone and in-ear monitor systems we need, the necessary antennas and associated cables, and even the multi-pin XLR tails to get in and out of the units. This means that the band gets consistency with the equipment that they’re actually in contact with.
Of course, you’ll need to specify your power requirements, and in the case of RF be sure to check that your frequency bands can be used in that country – the wider the bandwidth you carry, the better. If you go down this route it can be cheaper and safer to use the services of a touring freight company such as Rock-It Cargo rather than have the daily check-in wrestle with scheduled flights and excess baggage costs.
It’s a great idea to arrange advance visits and maybe even advance teams. The scheduling on my recent tour, flying between international back-to-back shows, meant that it simply wasn’t possible for the core crew to get the show happening in time each day.
The solution was to have two small advance teams, each consisting of a sound tech, lighting tech and video tech, who would leapfrog each other ahead of the core crew and get things up and running. We also had two sets of our carry gear.
If your scheduling isn’t that tight, it’s still worth getting to the venue as soon as you can on arrival. Even if your show is not for a day or two, setup typically takes several days in less-developed regions, and so it’s better to get in there early with time to make changes rather than arrive on show day and find that everything is wrong.
Pack a small toolkit in your checked baggage with some “get out of jail” items. My must-haves include a multi-meter (measuring power can save lives), an RF scanner, and a Leatherman multi-tool, as well as wipes and a paintbrush for consoles that may not have been cleaned for some time.
Kindness Always Wins
Be kind and patient with the crew from the local supply companies. The more remote you go, the less experience the local techs will have. Sometimes you’ll stumble upon an ambitious gem of a tech; sometimes they’re folks just trying to feed their families. If there’s an obvious gap in knowledge, try to see it as an opportunity to share education rather than a cause to get angry.
If things are not as you expected (and my advice is to keep all your expectations low), it’s probably not the fault of the people who are actually there but of those higher up. It can get very frustrating, especially when you’re tired, but trust me: you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Smile, make eye contact, learn names and keep your cool.
In really poor areas the crew might have been sleeping on flight cases at the venue for days and not have been fed, and they also may be there for a long time loading out after you’ve gone. If you see that’s the situation, when you’re leaving the venue after the show it can be a nice touch to take excess food and drinks from the dressing room riders out to them. Items such as a cold drink and a snack, which we take for granted, can make a very welcome difference to someone’s night.
Expect The Unexpected
When touring in developing regions you’ll come up against challenges that hadn’t even occurred to you, despite all your best preparations. The local way of dealing things is often not what you’re used to.
On one tour we walked away from an unsafe stage structure requesting the relevant people to amend the problem. We returned a couple of hours later to find no change except for a dead chicken alongside some incense and flowers at center stage.
We were informed by the delighted local promoter that everything would now be fine as this offering had been made and the “stage gods” were duly appeased. Needless to say, we had to walk away again while a more pragmatic remedy was applied.
The most vital things to bring on these adventures are a positive attitude and a sense of humor. Apply them liberally and you’ll come back from a tour of remote regions better at your job and with some truly unique experiences under your belt. Happy touring!