Sometimes the direction of your life can turn on an Internet post.
Story by Dale Short from the Daily Mountain Eagle
Back in 1999, a hot topic for young audiences was the heavy metal band Skid Row’s choice of a new lead singer. Super-fan Tommy Black, a Dora boy, went online to defend his favorite group from the haters. He was surprised to get a personal note of thanks from the band, and an invite to meet them at one of their shows. What developed was a friendship that exists till this day; along the way, Skid Row’s tour manager became Black’s mentor. And nowadays, Black has been traveling the country managing concert tours of his own.
“My dream was always to be in the entertainment business,” he says —at the time, he was playing in local metal bands himself — “but it turned out to be a different way than I expected.”
This weekend, for instance, Black was in North Carolina operating the merchandise booth for Larry the Cable Guy’s show; in the past he’s managed tours for country artists Chris Cagle and Jo Dee Messina.
In a business that’s notoriously stressful and dog-eat-dog, Black seems to have found a comfortable niche: “Promoters have told the bands that I’m one of the easiest guys to work with,” he says, “and I take a lot of pride in that.”
Which is not to say that life on the road is a pleasure cruise. “Every day there’s something new and unexpected,” says Black, from running out of a popular merchandise item, to occasionally a promoter’s check bouncing. “All in all, I try to stay ahead of the game as much as I can, e-mailing and texting to make sure details are taken care of.
“It’s strenuous being in meetings all day long —with security, and other people, so they’ll all know what to expect. The audience just sees what happens during the show, but getting ready is an all-day process. The most important thing is to keep the band happy.”
Keeping the artists happy has paid off in some unexpected ways for Black, over the years. One surprise act of kindness came when he was driving to a concert date and his car died. “Messina’s mom was recovering from a heart attack and her car was no longer being used, so Jo Dee got it out of storage and gave it to me. I’ll always be grateful for that.”
Recently he’s been more involved with the merchandising side of the business, “which can be a lot less hectic,” he says. But the laid-back atmosphere doesn’t necessarily mean shorter hours. “With Larry, we might set up the booth at two or three in the afternoon, but after it’s closed I might not get to bed until two or three the next morning, tallying the figures and making sure everything comes out right. But at least it’s not a job where you punch the clock.”
Black travels to venues by a mixture of car, plane, and tour bus. “I like the bus because you can go to sleep and then wake up where you’re going,” he says.
But overall he’s partial to driving: “I love seeing the country, and being in control. Driving gives you a chance to get in the right frame of mind along the way.”
He’s also still a fan of heavy metal music, and plans side trips to concerts whenever possible. This week gave him a chance to hear Anthrax and Motorhead, and to touch base with the network of friends he’s made through the genre.
And while managers in the entertainment business are no strangers to burnout, Black says he looks forward to working as long as he’s able. And he’s also considering writing a book about his years of on-the-road experiences. “It would be about a small-town boy who gets to do what he’s dreamed of doing,” he says. Chapters would touch on his early-days jobs in furniture rental and cable TV installation, and move forward to the friendships with Skid Row and his adventures on tour with country and comedy stars:
“I tell people that I used to be the cable guy, and now I’m working for The Cable Guy. Is that cool, or what?”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org)