Sandwich-maker. Foot-rubber. Mother. Eye candy. Enabler. Subordinate. Weakling. Women and non-binary (NB) touring crew members have heard it all while working as managers, sound techs, drivers, engineers and other roles – and resistance is mounting as live gigs fitfully begin to return.
In 2018, sound engineer Chez Stock published a widely shared blog post detailing her experiences on tour with an unnamed major band, including allegations that the crew were offered bonuses if they could bring girls backstage for the band members and, on one occasion, being invited over the radio comms to take turns having sex with a drunk woman who had been brought into a dressing room.
In July, Stock named the band as the Killers, her experiences stemming from their 2009 tour. Her revelation prompted the band to launch an internal review, which concluded last month and could not find evidence of this sexual misconduct claim. The band’s legal team did acknowledge a misogynistic atmosphere and said “the idea of the band paying [crew] extra to ‘bring back girls’ or ‘have one waiting in the shower’ etc was an in-joke based upon urban legends of tours from an earlier era – ie roadie folklore – and not something any of them actually did, were ever asked to do, or ever attempted to do.”
The idea that treating a woman like this could be the subject of an “in-joke” speaks to how few women and NB people have historically existed in these spaces, and still do today. And when you’re on the road for long stretches, living closely among colleagues who become de facto family, how do you create spaces for safeguarding and accountability when someone behaves badly – especially without the fear of repercussions for your livelihood?
US-based production co-ordinator Meghan Keogh, 24, recalls being grabbed and pulled on to a bus by the driver of one tour, who later verbally degraded her in front of her colleagues. She told an experienced assistant tour manager (TM). “And she basically said, ‘Yeah, it happens, but you can speak out against something wrong that happens to you and you will be the one who gets fired,’” says Keogh.
So she kept quiet. As did Netherlands-based guitar technician and TM Laura Nagtegaal, a trans woman who has worked predominantly with rock and metal bands such as Blind Guardian, Rival Sons and Cradle of Filth, when she was subjected to a transphobic comment from a crew member working at a UK metal festival. Immediately she regretted not speaking up. As with much of the entertainment industry, she says, there’s a perceived “grey area” of acceptable behaviour in music – the hangover of rock’n’roll culture continues to leave a sour taste for many who feel it is better to stay silent or, indeed, quit altogether. “To be part of a touring crew, you give up so much as it is,” she says. “Just to be taken advantage of, be abused, be underpaid, overworked, physically strained, mentally drained and left to rot at the side of the road if you speak up.”
Marginalised people who have made inroads into the industry are often faced with a culture of toxic behaviour. Every woman and NB crew member I spoke to for this piece mentioned being pushed aside by promoters who assumed a man must be in charge. Most mention inappropriate comments or actions from men – artists, other crew members – such as being called “a pussy” if they can’t carry something heavy. They spoke of their awareness that some men will hire women to have “a young hot girl on the road” or how they will assume that women are there in what TM Rosanna Freedman describes as a “mother” capacity: she says she learned not to make tea on tour because she has to present a “masculine” image to be taken seriously.
Keogh mentions men on crews having asked her to make sandwiches and rub their feet; Tina Farris, who has TM’d everyone from the Roots and D’Angelo to Drake, recalls a promoter in Brazil blowing his cigar in her face instead of defending her when an artist told her “get your band the fuck off the stage”; audio and playback tech Jess Jacobs recalls a festival with the Glitch Mob where the group almost had no power for their set because a male technician refused to listen to her concerns about the setup. Before she transitioned in 2016, Nagtegaal was reprimanded for talking to a venue’s female lighting engineer without attempting to seduce her: “‘If you weren’t going to fuck her, you should have left her for us.’”
Farris also mentions the amount of racism she has experienced on the road. Alliz Espi, an artist manager and TM for Knower and Louis Cole, outlines the added dimension of being a Black woman in these spaces. “Some promoters will never address me to my face, and I can’t tell if it’s about my sex or my race. I’ve had it where someone has stood next to me and repeated over and over that I am the manager and they should talk to me, but some men just won’t.”
One year at Finland’s Pori jazz festival, Espi reported an event media partner who drunkenly started talking about Nazis “and going deep on this really racist stuff to my face”. The promoter had the man escorted from the site, asked Espi to write a report on the incident and promptly had him removed as a media partner.
But many say that true accountability can often feel hard to come by, not least when certain behaviours have been normalised. Freedman recalls an aftershow party in Vietnam a few years ago where a world-famous music producer made a sexual, degrading comment to her and none of her male colleagues who were present spoke up. Afterwards, some said it made them feel awkward but ultimately thought Freedman could take it in her stride. “No, it’s not cool, I want you to step up for me,” she says now. “And half of them don’t even remember it, it was so unmemorable to them.”
For Keogh, greater inclusion could offer a solution – that way people receiving abuse aren’t left to fight their corner alone. When she toured with Swedish metal band HammerFall, it was her first time on a crew that featured more women than men. “And they said they do that on purpose so that we’d have strength in numbers,” she says. New York-based sound engineer and occasional TM Madeleine Campbell, who has toured with artists including Shamir, Waxahatchee and Cherry Glazerr, says she has had largely positive experiences on tour because she generally avoids working with cis men. “I am very confident it’s because I’ve toured with a majority of women and NB artists,” she says.
Yet safeguarding can’t always be led by the artists when they themselves are vulnerable. “A promoter once sent dick pics to one of my artists at the aftershow,” says Espi. “I don’t even know how he got her number.”
Espi and Freedman both talk about the need for safer spaces, be that ensuring separate rooms backstage for different facets of the crew, or creating WhatsApp groups to facilitate clear lines of communication. Freedman suggests HR professionals could be useful to mediate more difficult conversations, and in the aftermath of the Killers case, the band’s touring management company have said they will bring in an external HR organisation so that crew aren’t faced with reporting such incidents to their employers. Stock is mindful that this solution is only really viable for bigger artists, but recognises how it could be helpful from the top down, to scale procedures for smaller tours.
It’s troubling that those on the receiving end of mistreatment are leading these conversations, not the generally powerful men in charge. But if there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, it might be that this pause gives time to take stock, dismantle and reconsider the status quo so that safeguarding and accountability become the norm. “I definitely think that we’re taking steps in the right direction,” says Keogh. “But there are a lot of men who have been touring for 50 years and they’re used to the culture being that ‘women don’t belong backstage unless they’re on their knees.’”