Pale Waves’ tour bus crashed about a year ago, overturning and sliding off a road into the snow between Stockholm and Berlin while the band was on their way to a gig supporting Halsey in an arena run. Drummer Ciara Doran said everyone on board thought they were going to die. One of the people injured from the incident was Caroline Smith, the British rock band’s tour manager, who planned to take a week off to recover — but that week stretched into an entire year, as the pandemic locked down the live music industry.
These days, Smith is back to traveling to an arena every day. Instead of checking front-of-house sound, though, she’s helping bring people in to get Covid-19 vaccines. Several other out-of-work live music workers have taken up similar gigs around the world, she says.
In February 2020, Smith and Pale Waves had been on the road, hearing about the coronavirus but not paying close attention. Then, after the bus — and the world — flipped upside down, the band and crew members flew home, forgoing their spot on the rest of Halsey’s European stretch and rejoining in time for a London show at The O2 on March 8th. They finished the run on March 12th at Manchester Arena. “That was the day that Trump made an announcement about closing borders,” Smith recalls to Rolling Stone. “Of course, Halsey and her team are all from the States, so everybody was freaking out about getting flights home, wondering if they’d be able to get back or not. We were all watching the announcement from the production office, going, ‘Holy shit. This is real.'” Meanwhile, Smith’s partner Steve Muncaster, a stage manager and drum tech, was on tour with Dermot Kennedy in the U.S. and didn’t know if he could get back to the duo’s home base in Aberdeen either.
Smith, 29, has been working on concerts for nine years, finding her passion straight out of school. She’s traveled pretty nonstop for the last four of those, working for the likes of the indie-pop musician Japanese House and alt-rock band Hinds, and wasn’t too worried about packing her schedule in 2020. “I had reached a point where I was comfortable with the level of touring I was doing and I was making good money,” she explains. “I also had earned a good reputation and knew that I could pick up work if I needed it.” So Smith bought her first apartment in January 2020 — the timing of which was both fortunate and unfortunate. She finally has a home base to hunker down in, but that means she also has a mortgage. The government in Aberdeen accepted her application for a mortgage holiday, giving her a few months to find replacement work, but now her monthly payments are higher as a result. If the pandemic had never hit, Smith would’ve been on track to pay off her mortgage in 10-15 years; now, she has no idea as to how long that might take.
She started dog-walking and doing deliveries for The Strong Water Co., a local food and alcohol shop, to build some semblance of a cushion. She estimates that the income she generated from these two ventures and some government support is about a fifth of what she would make in a normal year of touring.
In January 2021, Smith applied to work for Scotland’s National Health Service (NHS) online and landed a paid gig as a “vaccinator support worker” at a mass vaccination center in Aberdeen. With a maximum capacity of 15,000 people, the venue, P&J Live, became an ideal spot for concerts when it opened in the second half of 2019. Because it is a brand new arena, Smith says P&J Live only held a few shows before being forced to shut down. (Lewis Capaldi was the last artist to play there on March 15th, 2020.) This hit her hometown hard; the city had already waited long enough for the new revenue.
Smith’s heart dropped as she walked into the space for the first time, stepping under fluorescent lights, towards spread-out work stations, and frightened faces. A room that should’ve felt like home was suddenly foreign. People were getting shots of medicine instead of taking celebratory shots of alcohol, bodies were six feet apart instead of crammed together in a mosh pit: There was no sweaty dancing, no pre-show huddle, no laughter shared over catering.
Dealing with disgruntled patients can, at times, compare to handling intoxicated fans.
In her public-facing role, which involves managing queues, fielding questions and complaints, educating patients, and disinfecting surfaces, her mission is to get people in and get them out as safely and quickly as possible. She says her crowd-management skills and experience with venue organization make her uniquely qualified for the job, adding that dealing with disgruntled patients can, at times, compare to handling intoxicated fans. While she joined the NHS after the labyrinth within P&J Live was already built, she echoes NIVA’s sentiments from earlier this year that roadies are particularly qualified for setting vaccination sites up. “That’s something I would’ve loved to be involved in — building a mass vax center, organizing all of that, and pulling together the staff,” she says. “It’s a big gig.”
P&J Live is equipped with Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. P&J Live started seeing 500 people a day upon opening in January, but quickly jumped to a daily average of 3,000, according to Smith. They’re currently running a reduced clinic because the vaccine supplies are low at the moment, but Smith says they’ll be up to 5,000 in the next few weeks, as shipments come in. “And we still have some rows of vaccination pods to open,” she adds. “The idea is that, when those do open up, we’ll be seeing between 8,000 and 10,000 people a day.”
Even though the last show she did in Manchester was for 20,000 people, this is the biggest amount of people she’s been around in a year. She finds that unnerving, but tries to focus on everyone’s clear diligence: No staffers have contracted the virus while working at P&J Live. Still, Smith, who’s normally at home in a crowd, finds it hard not to emphasize with the older patients she’s currently serving. “They’ve been inside for a year and, understandably, they’re worried when they come in and see the amount of people in the room,” she says. “I think that’s going to affect people for a long time — getting over that mental shift.” (P&J Live started treating people aged 80 and above, but the team there is now seeing patients aged 16-60 with underlying health conditions.)
Every day, her team dons aprons, masks, face shields, and gloves. When they change at the end of the night, each staffer puts their uniform in a pillowcase or tote bag and heads straight home to wash it a high heat to “kill any germs that may be on there” and take a shower. “We also all get tested twice a week,” she says, adding that she and her teammates are all already vaccinated. She’s full time, which means she works 37 and a half hours a week, but sometimes she’ll take on extra work to help cover shifts. The clinic currently runs from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.
Mentally, she says, she’s doing much better than she was seven weeks ago. And she’s particularly encouraged by the number of cases that are dropping as a result of vaccinations. “Being a small part of the vaccination team has given me a purpose again,” Smith says. “And I know that every person who comes in for an appointment and gets vaccinated is one step closer to normality. I’m so proud to be part of the NHS. The team I work with is great, and that’s one of the best things about touring: It’s the camaraderie, being part of a team, and working toward the same goal. I have that again.” She says her friend Emma Edgar, Hot Chip’s tour manager, recently became a phlebotomist, and Smith hopes more of her live-music peers will be able to find medical work in the coming weeks: It could help lift them back up and remind them of their superpowers.
People who choose to spend their lives traveling with bands often don’t have nests. (Why would they when they’re only home a couple nights a month?) It’s harder to maintain friendships, as well as romantic and familial relationships when they’re always gone when big life moments and social events pop up. They often don’t have job security or benefits — and if they ever do decide to find new career paths as adults, they’re left with resumes that don’t always translate well to other industries. Usually, the thrill of building a magical experience around music distracts from all that, but Covid-19 has put a lot into perspective.
“You sacrifice a lot of your normal life to be on tour, so you wouldn’t do it if you didn’t love it,” says Smith. “But then this happens, and you spend a year sad at home, wondering if all those relationships that you sacrificed were worth it. Most of my friends have kids and families now. I’m just at a different stage, which is fine…” Smith tapers off. “But at the end of the day, yes, I think it was worth it. We’re going to get back there eventually. Who knows what it’s going to be like for a number of years, but I feel incredibly lucky to have been part of that touring world, that family, for as long as I was. I don’t think it’s all going to end now, but I can’t be certain of anything anymore… I just know that there’s going to be a day where we’re both standing side-stage at a festival, and it’s going to be amazing.”
Smith had planned for her 2020 to be full of lively gigs for both Pale Waves and Zara Larsson, who she also works with. Both acts had festivals and events scheduled around the spring and summer, and both were preparing to release albums towards the end of the year — which meant proper tours were in the works to support those releases. After shelving their albums for a while,Pale Waves eventually decided to drop Who Am I? on February 21st 2021, and Larsson’s Poster Girl coincidentally followed two weeks later.
For an entire year, Smith has watched hopelessly as dates disappeared from her calendar. The last opportunity — May 2021 shows in Japan with Pale Waves — vanished moments before her phone call with Rolling Stone.
For an entire year, Smith has watched hopelessly as dates disappeared from her calendar. The last opportunity — May 2021 shows in Japan with Pale Waves — vanished moments before her phone call with Rolling Stone. At first, she welcomed the time off as a silver lining, but that mentality didn’t last long. Smith is now focused on helping stem the “irreparable damage”: “The U.K. has such a great music scene with the foundations of that being small venues that really develop artists all the way through,” she says. “Those venues aren’t going to exist at the end of this.”
Any average American who’s ever traveled through the U.K. knows that everything feels smaller there — every venue, hotel room, bar, and elevator. It’s a maze of narrow spaces. So, Smith gets frustrated when people talk about reduced-capacity shows. “It’s just not viable,” she says. “It won’t work. For one, the numbers don’t work. But also, they’re just not going to look great. You don’t want to be playing to 10 people in a room. That’s what you do when you’re in a school band and you’re 15… Plus, money made has to be split so many ways. You have to be selling out for anybody to be making money.”
As for planning for the future, she says that’s “kind of impossible” at the moment, pointing to the extra costs associated with traveling anywhere right now: “The rules will be different everywhere. There are still going to be quarantine restrictions — like if we did go to Japan, we would’ve all had to quarantine on either side of that trip for 10 days to two weeks. Who’s going to pay for an entire crew to essentially sit around in a hotel room for a month?”
Read more of Rolling Stone’s Music in Crisis series, which examines the wide-ranging impact of the pandemic across the music industry, here.