Life on the road can be gruelling – constant travel, an ever-changing routine and not much sleep. Yet touring is one of the most iconic, glamorised aspects of the music industry. I was keen to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes and the people who keep the show on the road.
Having toured with the likes of Sigur Ros, Emeli Sande, Leona Lewis, Beady Eye and Squeeze, Alice Martin has built up an impressive resume over the years.
We met up for a chat about what it’s like working as a tour assistant in such a male-dominated area of the industry (especially on days when you don’t even have a moment to change out of your pajamas)…
How did you first get into the tour industry?
It was actually through my dad – he started as a guitar tech and worked his way up to tour manager. I remember going to a lot of gigs from a very young age. Not a lot of people know about the touring world, but it was always programmed into me that it was a business with a lot of jobs.
After college, I started working for Apple, which was great, because I was around technology and creative people, but after a while I just needed to get out. I took some time off work and assisted my dad on a tour and realised that’s what I wanted to do.
The band that we toured with were going out again about a year later and they asked me back. Through that, I met another tour manager and it all just went from there. I was 21 at the time; it was quite daunting – I had to leave a full time job and a regular salary for one month of work. I just had to take a leap of faith and do it.
Luckily, I got along really well with the tour manager. He said he wanted to work with me again, and we went on to tour with The Pogues.
When I first started out, there were long periods of no work, which was quite stressful, but in recent years it’s started to settle down for me and I know what I’m earning and am working regularly enough. It was a long road to where I am now, but it is with anything I suppose! It’s who you know, not what you know, which is quite frustrating sometimes.
Describe what a typical day for you involves…
Most of my work has been in production and tour assisting. You have a production manager, who looks after the crew and the stage; the practicalities of the show. Then, you have the tour manager, who’s the overall boss; responsible for the band – getting them from A to B. Usually, I sit in the middle of those two people and make sure everyone’s talking and things don’t fall through the cracks.
If I listed everything I do, it would sound crazy! One minute, I’m doing the laundry and then next, I could be booking a really important flight for someone. It’s such a varied role.
On the last tour I did with Sigur Ros I was very much spinning plates, making sure everything was running smoothly. It’s a bit like being in the circus! Someone’s got to wash the pants and socks – you are a family.
What’s it like travelling around all the time?
It’s amazing. I mean, I’ve had my moments when I’m just like, “I want to get up, go to work and come home at night”, but when I really seriously think about it, I wouldn’t change it for the world.
When I first started out, the work was very much UK and European based, but as I’ve progressed through my career, I’ve been offered bigger tours. With Sigur Ros, we toured all over the world. On one stint, we were in South Korea one day and then Thailand the next, then we popped to Australia for a day – it was crazy.
What’s your favourite place that you’ve been to?
Japan was amazing – I stayed on there after our last stint and went surfing out in the countryside. I love America as well, because you can wake up every morning in a different environment; every state has such a different atmosphere.
Do you have any secret tour tips?
Get as much sleep as you can! Don’t get sucked into having a glass of wine and chat after work, because you’ll end up going to bed at 3am and getting up at 7am. Take vitamins, eat properly – it can get very gruelling. But enjoy it – do it while you can!
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to face in your career so far?
Probably, during the early stages, proving to people that I could do a good job. Because my dad is who he is (and he’s quite well known), people would treat me differently depending on their relationship to him.
On one tour, there was a guy that gave me a really hard time because I had a father in the industry. No matter how much of a good job I was doing, he just had it in for me. I was young at the time and not that confident. It’s a big challenge getting through a tour when not everyone wants to be friends.
Another challenge is just being away from home because, as much as touring is great and I really enjoy it, there have been times when I’ve missed weddings and friends birthdays. Life at home still goes on, but you can’t just pop back for it. You can’t call in sick or book a holiday.
What’s the longest tour you’ve been on?
Sigur Ros has been the longest rolling tour I’ve been on, but luckily, because the guys are very family-orientated, the longest we were away was about six weeks, which isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things. I’ve got friends who’ve gone away on tour for months.
Touring is renowned for being a male-dominated industry. Have you noticed a change in the amount of women working in touring in the past ten years?
I’ve been the only woman on most tours that I’ve been on. Unless there are female dancers or musicians… but in the actual crew, there’s still not a lot of women.
How’s that as an experience?
I get on really well with guys, but it can be tough sometimes when you’re having an emotional time and just really want to talk to a woman. It would be really nice to see more women in roles that you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be in.
When you’re on a tour bus, you’re sleeping in bunks – you have a little privacy curtain, but that’s it. I’d be going into venues in my pajamas to get changed, but then get sidetracked by someone that wanted something and I’d spend a quarter of the day in my pajamas trying to set things up, unable to get dressed because there’s too much important stuff to do. It’s a challenge not coming across as too girly – needing extra time in the bathroom or straightening your hair, for example – and annoying everyone.
What are your plans for the future?
I might come off the road eventually. It’s difficult being a woman – because you’d physically carry a baby around on tour if you wanted to have one. I worry that if I decide to have kids one day that I’d have to adapt what I do for a living. It’s something women have to think about more than men.
Who’s been your biggest inspiration?
My dad’s old assistant – she’s a really famous production assistant in the industry, everyone knows her, she’s amazing. I looked up to her for a long time and used to go into the office and help her out when I was a teenager.
Female artists that really know what they’re doing are also really inspiring. I tour managed for an artist called Andreya Triana. She really knew the industry and what was going on – she was on top of all of her budgets and what her management and label were doing. She’d want to know every deal we’d have with a venue and I really admired that.
What would your advice be to women thinking about working in the touring industry?
You’ve got to be quite headstrong and confident, because it can be quite a dog eat dog world. You’re competing for jobs – there are so many assistants now. Don’t take it personally if you don’t get offered a tour. It’s a bit like auditioning for a theatre show. Certain tour managers like certain people to work with. It’s the same as being a builder – if you’ve done work on someone’s house and they liked it, they’re going to ask you back. It can be quite hard sometimes, waiting to get a job.
Always be yourself – be kind. That’s very important because you’re living with people. Be patient. If you’re coming into the industry, don’t turn your nose up at things. If you think you can do the job and you’re comfortable with the money and terms, just do it, because you never know what it will lead to. There was a time when I jumped on tour to sell merch – I’d never done it in my life – but now I’ve got a whole heap of contacts through that group of people. Always be open to getting involved wherever you can.