When Ed Force One thudded onto the runway at Christchurch Airport a few weeks ago, it wasn’t just the pilot that was unusual. Lead singer Bruce Dickinson was at the controls, while the hold contained all the gear for Iron Maiden’s Book of Souls world tour. And NZ Music Month was just about to begin.
That’s not your usual musicians’ transport. Our own Kiwi bands are more likely to cram everything into a van or truck and hope there’s cash left after fuel and food at the end of a tour. But when it comes to major events, logistics takes on a whole new dimension.
While Iron Maiden carted their show to the Horncastle Arena in six trucks, AC/DC’s major world tour needed dozens of trailers total according to veteran production manager Robbie Barclay. That’s quite a traffic jam.
One of the first big logistics mega-world tours to visit us was David Bowie’s Glass Spider in 1987. Auckland was the last show on the tour and there is a long running rock ‘n’ roll legend that after the speakers and instruments had gone home the huge set, which is said to have weighed 360 tons and took 43 trucks to transport, was torched in a field nearby. The more prosaic story is that it ended up in a local warehouse and took years to sort through.
“AC/CD brought everything. Like, everything,” says Dorus Hommels, operations manager for events company Oceania Productions. “Madonna’s got all her own [stuff].” While the rich and famous can afford their own show on the road, the more usual is to bring the ‘back line’ (instruments etc), tour set and specialist equipment, everything else is sourced locally. That includes a massive fold out stage used for Christmas in the Park and the Mission winery tour.
Know your country
New Zealand has it’s own event logistics issues. One is the availability of vehicles ideally suited to the job. “We don’t have enough of the big tour trucks,” says Mark Selwood, a long standing event logistics coordinator for the film and entertainment industry. “We make do with containers here.”
The standard handling unit is the road case; a large box on wheels tough enough to protect the valuable lighting or audio gear as it moves on and off stage, around the country and trots the globe.
“The ideal trailer is 43 to 48 foot, solid side with load bars that unloads from the rear,” explains Selwood. We have less than a handful of those in New Zealand, while in other countries there are whole fleets of them to call upon. “Most of the trucking in New Zealand is curtain siders, they’re not good for us.”
So the entertainment industry falls back on 40 foot high cube containers, swing lifted to the ground at a venue for access. In addition to the extra handling hassle, the internal width is less than ideal for road cases. Yet Mark Selwood seems pretty unflappable and takes any issue in his stride. “To me it’s just a piece of cargo. You’ve just got to get it cleared and transport it. Even though Lady Gaga had big monster things, they still fit on pallets or in sea freight containers.”
Artists’ own demands have to be met as well. Apparently Bono from Irish group U2 used to insist on sleeping in his own bed every night, so it had to travel with him.
Advance planning – up to a point
Most of the time advance planning is possible for major tours. “That’s not always true,” says Selwood. “For Prince we only knew a week before, although that was only a small show. Usually three months ahead you have a rough idea how much they are going to have. You can’t do detailed sorting out until three or four days before. You can almost guarantee there will be some changes once an overseas production arrives.”
When a big show rolls into town, gangs of local hands descend upon the venue to help the tour crew unload and set up, including fork trucks and cranes if necessary. Usually installing the day before, pack down and despatch to the next lucky city is faster but the last truck packed and away, often the overhead lighting rig, is the first one needed for the next date so there’s an added first in last out (FILO) dimension.
Venue access can have a part to play. “The AC/DC concert materials were all transported by train from Auckland,” says Clare Elcome of the Westpac Regional Stadium trust in Wellington. “Given our location shipments can be delivered onto stadium premises via the adjacent rail yards. We have onsite storage facilities around the northern end of the building and for AC/DC a total of 70 containers of equipment came and went throughout the course of the build phase.”
Time allowed to move to the next city and set up can be tight and there are ‘interesting’ moments. “There are times when we only just made it,” says Barclay. “There’s always been delays, breakdowns. Also when you had a crash you get another truck, see what you can make out of it, repair other parts, put a show on.”
A few years ago a truck full of gear rolled in the Manawatu Gorge on the way to the Rhythm and Vines New Year festival in Hawkes Bay. “All of the stuff was destroyed in the truck, a competitor’s,” explains Hommels. “We had to scramble all of our gear to help out. That was the most last minute.”
Most of the time performers, sound gear, lighting and set get to the next show intact and on schedule. Ready for the roadies to descend on the trucks for another day and another town.
Hopefully, what goes on tour, stays on tour. Unless the end is nigh and you fancy a bonfire (allegedly).
By Nigel Parry
This article was first published in Freight Transport Distribution, June 2016.