Working behind the scenes on music tours often means long hours and lots of stress — but no official resource to turn to for help. “There’s no HR anywhere,” Courtney Klimson, founder and president of concert company Theory One Productions, tells Rolling Stone. “If something happens to you, who do you tell? And if you tell the wrong person, are you going to lose your job? If you say it the wrong way, are you going to be labeled as X,Y, and Z?”
So Klimson and her husband Paul Klimson, an audio engineer who’s worked with stars like Miranda Lambert, Kelly Clarkson, Justin Timberlake, and Drake, decided to create The Roadie Clinic, a not-for-profit advocacy group designed to address the unique issues faced by live music’s gig workers. The organization wants to be a substitute corporate parent for thousands of roadies: “Just give me a call, because I don’t have to worry about losing my job and I can be your advocate,” she says.
Though the Klimsons had the idea of an advocacy group before the COVID-19 outbreak, the pandemic gave them an unexpected abundance of time to build up the organization. Paul Klimson recalls initially fearing that COVID would shut down their plans — but the Roadie Clinic’s staff, comprising 17 roadies and music industry veterans who are all volunteering their time, all came through. “They pushed us. They said, ‘We want to get this going,'” he says.
In a survey conducted for Rolling Stone, the Klimsons emailed 400 roadies. Of the 179 who replied, 62% admitted to struggling with relationships as a result of their job and travel-centric lifestyle. Other common problems surround finances (58%), feelings of isolation (57%), communication with loved ones, friends, and others (54%), mental health issues (45%), and substance abuse (18%). Around 95% of those surveyed said they were relieved to hear of the group being formed, 96% said they plan to use the group’s services if costs are covered, 97% said that they trust the organization because the Klimsons are roadies themselves. The most requested resources involved financial assistance and help with mental health issues.
“There’s so much abuse and so much hard work on the road. People go home and crash, and they don’t really know how to function for a couple weeks. So if you just need a place to get your head back on straight, there will be this big, open-family concept. Come, rest, recover.”
The Roadie Clinic will have a physical home as well as an online one. During the COVID lockdown period, the Klimsons moved out of New York City and chose to resettle in Niles, Michigan — a town out of the way of major tour cities, but located on a stretch of interstate that is frequented by tour buses, where they hope to eventually provide music’s unsung heroes a brick-and-mortar space to receive therapy and addiction resources.
“We’re not going to be a rehab or even a halfway house,” Courtney Klimson says. “But if somebody needs to come to us for a couple of days before they get into their rehab facility — or if they’re just concerned about going back on the road and are worried about slipping — that’s one of the services.” The couple is also working with professional counselors and licensed therapists to design relapse prevention plans and other resources for roadies focused on sobriety.
“There’s so much abuse and so much hard work on the road,” Courtney adds. “People go home and crash, and they don’t really know how to function for a couple weeks. So, if you just need a place to get your head back on straight, there will be this big, open-family concept. Come, rest, recover. If you need help getting your family back home to understand what your life is like, we get it. If your partner or kids are missing you — if they’re lonely, confused, and don’t understand this world — bring them to us. If your families back home have emergencies while you’re on the road, we’re here to provide that in-between until families can be reunited.”
While some organizations offer relief funds for roadies, The Roadie Clinic wants to help live music workers better manage their finances as well. Since the lifestyle is gig-to-gig, freelancers have to be careful with their money — but there is scant educational material on topics like budgeting and taxation for tour workers, and jobs can get reshuffled at any moment. “That dynamic became very clear when this year’s tour cancelations happened,” Paul says. “One client was just a text, one was an email, one was nothing but dead air. We’ve been placed in a kind of labor-pool pot that management companies don’t have to worry about because of the way the structuring is.” A financial literacy program led by experts, he says, will help roadies understand basic processes like how to balance a checkbook and how to start investing for a nest egg.
The couple also wants to tackle the problem of exhaustion — which they expect will hit anyone who returns to the road when touring finally starts up around the world again. When Paul worked for The Tonight Show and The Roots at the same time, for example, he’d often wrap a show late on a Friday, fly overnight to Europe for a show then rush back to New York by 6 a.m. on a Monday. And for an A-list arena show, it’s not uncommon for someone on the rigging crew to work 20-hour days back to back. That type of schedule will be whiplash for anyone coming out of quarantine: “If you put any civilian on a tour bus, they will crumble within two days,” Paul says.
The Klimsons envision more balanced negotiations between roadies and the artist teams and concert corporations that hire them. So as COVID sparks conversations in the music industry about reorganization, the Roadie Clinic is reaching out to artists and manufacturers to request seats at the table.
“We’re building something that’s a long-term conversation. We are a roadie family. We don’t have kids, the road is our life, and roadies are our babies, our kids, our family.”
The Klimsons still have a call for help out to the music business for partnerships and funding, but they hope to open the doors to their 24/7 physical refuge by next summer. Currently, efforts are focused on an awareness campaign and merch deliveries to 300 industry leaders who’ve agreed to help promote the cause. A number of audio-centric vendors and manufacturers, like Sennheiser and Future Sonics, have expressed interest in helping; artists are starting to get on board as well, including OneRepublic’s Eddie Fisher, The Roots’ Black Thought, Halestorm, and Lights. Roadies who’ve worked with everyone from Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Ariana Grande, and Jonas Brothers to Korn, Slayer, Guns & Roses, and Aerosmith have also pledged support.
Paul points out that the majority of industry efforts to support gig workers have been in the form of COVID funds — but those are temporary solutions. “It’s very much just for now,” he says. “We’re building something that’s a long-term conversation. We are a roadie family. We don’t have kids, the road is our life, and roadies are our babies, our kids, our family. We just wanted to make a place that was safe, welcoming, and available for all — and one that provided services that would support this lifestyle.”
“There has not been one single person who, upon hearing the total vision of this place, has not fully jumped on board,” adds Courtney. “People are curious, excited, relieved, and truly just want to jump in to help so we can get this up and running before the touring season comes back to life.”
Read more in Rolling Stone’s Music in Crisis series, which follows people all across the music industry — thousands of whom have been out of work for months due to the global concert shutdown — coping with the coronavirus pandemic.