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Newbury tour manager's road to lockdown

Live music industry ground to a halt overnight

Mick at a mixing desk, tour managing musician, singer and songwriter Philip Selway, best known as Radiohead’s drummer, with sound engineer Gavin McComb. Taken at rehearsals at Radiohead’s studio
Mick at a mixing desk, tour managing musician, singer and songwriter Philip Selway, best known as Radiohead’s drummer, with sound engineer Gavin McComb. Taken at rehearsals at Radiohead’s studio

Mick Brown’s main occupation these days is tour manager, but he also considers himself a production manager, stage manager, sound engineer and backline tech (looking after band gear on stage) – “a Jack of all trades and master of some, I hope!” Self-employed, he “will basically go where someone can pay me”, leading a pretty full-on life, but in March, like many in the entertainment industry, his livelihood ground to a halt overnight. TRISH LEE talks to him about life on the road, home in lockdown and beyond coronavirus

THE precise nature of Mick’s work varies, he says, with the level of touring. For instance, he has worked with alternative rock band Supergrass then their lead vocalist and guitarist Gaz Coombes since he started his solo career in 2011. “For Gaz I’ll do everything to get the show happening, apart from booking venues – all logistics, renting vans, sorting crew, hotels if needed, booking rehearsal rooms and making sure all the band and crew know where to be and at what time.

“As well, as of course, as making sure the ‘main man’ can let me know what he wants to happen on the shows and that he is happy with the way things are going.

“Show day is also about ensuring the artist is relaxed and to steering him clear of any issues, so he can concentrate on giving a great show.

“Gaz is pretty easy to work with. The band and crew also. We have a great time on tour, which is helped by the music being particularly good – that really does helps when you’re touring.”
Last year he was tour manager for David Gray and that was “on a different level to where Gaz is at”.
“I spent a lot of close time with David and though we had crew to look after most of the tasks I would do with Gaz Coombes, making sure David was happy was more key to ensuring he had a good show.
“Different artists call for different approaches.”

Mick also takes on concert production, live events, festivals, sound, studio work…

“As I said before, I don’t book the shows, but deal with everything, to an extent, after they have been booked in.

“Festivals have become part of the touring cycle, they can be fun, but also hard work, depending on how well the festival is run. Thankfully nowadays most are run very well.

“I still like working as a sound engineer – it’s where I started – although the tech has moved on tremendously and I haven’t quite kept up with it.

“I did a tour a couple of years ago where I was tour manager and sound engineer, and I had a different mixing desk for the 10 shows in a two-week tour. All the mixing desks bar one were digital, so I had to be on my ‘digital toes’ to keep up.

“I generally don’t do studio work, but never say never...”

Mick’s tour list of bands and solo artists is long and in the last couple of years he has worked with comedians too: Gaz Coombes, David Gray, Bob Mould, ‘Pub Landlord’ Al Murray, Simon Brodkin, Paul Chowdhry, Brydon Mack & Mitchell, Il Divo, Air and The Magnetic Fields to name a few. He also spent a couple of years overnight stage managing on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury.

The job, of course, demands extended periods of working across the country and abroad. Last year Mick was three months away from home, and when he’s busy, he can be coming home for just a few hours sleep, before moving on to the next show.

Balancing life on tour and raising a family is notoriously hard, straining many a relationship, but Mick has enjoyed a stable home life for many years. “I have been very lucky that my wife Anne has been amazingly supportive and we have two great children, Amy and Joe. But it isn’t easy. being away from home, in and out of hotels and having a hectic working schedule, to come back into family life is difficult, for me and for the family. It takes a few days to readjust. I have learned not to wait at the kitchen door at home for breakfast and expected to be shown to my seat... that doesn’t go down well!”
And Mick has a coping mechanism for dealing with the pressures of touring: “When I’m away I always use going home as a focus on a personal level. I do worry if I have missed some important moments in the kids growing up, but they have also been used to me being away as well... difficult one that.”

But the benefits of this life far outweigh any negatives.

“We live in a nice house, so we have benefitted from some good touring years and parent’s legacies.
And I have been able to get the family out on tour a few times. The most memorable was in 2009 when I was covering Radiohead’s production manager in South America. Our tour finished in Santiago, Chile, so I arranged for the family to join me out there and we had a fantastic and
memorable holiday for two weeks after the tour.”

Then in March, his industry came to a grinding halt overnight with the C-19 lockdown. Although Mick wasn’t actually on a tour when it happened, so fortunately didn’t have to cancel anything, the work he did have lined up has gone away and he has no idea when it may come back.

“The David Gray tour this year is back with the long-time tour manager and I know he has had some difficult decisions to make. In one way I am glad I am not having to deal with that, but I would also like to have been working. I am used to a slow start sometimes at the start of the year, but this has been an unprecedented lack of work for me. It doesn’t look like we will return to live events soon and there is talk of not at all this year. Financially, this is very, very difficult. I have savings meant for my retirement, but they will only last so long.

“I have been looking at any other work. I am 60 and so on the supposed at-risk group.”

Although lockdown has given him the opportunity to enjoy time with the family, he’s still restless.
“It’s good to be with the family. I have a long list of DIY and trying to get on top of paperwork and amending my CV.” He has done some work for his brother Philip, the well-known Newbury violinmaker – but it is not enough.

“I am wanting to catch up on some of the audio tech and get back into making music or being part of that. My son Joe is making some good music and I want to help him – if he wants it. Gardening I enjoy, but get frustrated with old packets of seeds not producing, but I do expect some potatoes, peas, onions and squash. We have been cooking a lot and that’s been good and I have been doing most of the shopping as Amy and Joe have asthma, so we want to keep them away from any potential risk.

“I have also been trying to keep fit. I enjoy the Joe Wicks workouts especially as he seems to have a guitar hung on his wall with the holder put upside down! Amy is with me on the workouts and we also are trying to do 5K runs. I find it a great focus.”

Despite working in the music business he has hardly listened to any in lockdown: “Well, hardly any, apart from BBC Radio 6 which I listen to most of the time. They have changed their schedule to be a bit more happy, but I usually like their output. I have picked up on a few podcasts, but I also have listened to BC Camplight (US songwriter and multi-instrumentalist) and we listened/ watched while paint-stripping to Easy Life, an artist Joe and I really like.”

It’s important in this business to keep in touch with contacts and renew old acquaintances.
Mick has been in touch with Gaz and David and they seem to be getting on OK. Two of the band have had the virus, but thankfully have recovered.

“I have tried to use this time to catch up with people I haven’t spoken to for a while.” But what Mick really needs is to get back on the road. He says it’s hard to say what his plans will be after lockdown, but he knows “diversifying is key. Driving will my most likely job I think. It is going to take a while to get the live scene back up and running.”

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