What a band wants

A look inside the odd backstage requests of touring musicians

| January 15, 2014
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A tub of hummus. Tube socks. Wild Turkey. Ammunition. "Smokeable herbs for relaxation purposes." A cardboard box to kick back in. "Equestrian or midget porn." A private area for a Satanic pre-show ritual.

These are all real-life, Charlotte-based examples from the weird world of concert riders, the contractual clauses where musicians' quixotic whims, dietary compulsions and random fetishes get listed in perpetuity. From the practical (tube socks) to the ridiculous (sock puppets), the rider is part of a legal contract between band and booker, and it's the latter's obligation to fulfill the "hospitality" portion — no matter how freaky or finicky — to the best of their ability and budget. Keeping the talent happy explains why local booking agents can often be found scouring town for everything from specialty condoms to old Baywatch posters.

These days, meeting a band's contractual demands means more than just supplying its technical needs — a decent P.A. system, lights that actually light, and the like. They also have to be fed and watered, as it were, and that's not always as easy as you'd think. Touring musicians are on the road for weeks and months at a time, so requests often seek to recreate some of the comforts of home — however weird or idiosyncratic that home may be.

Alt-country heroine Neko Case, for instance, suffers separation anxiety when she's away from her farm and menagerie of pets for weeks at a time. So, her rider includes a polite invitation for venue staff to bring their animals backstage before a gig.

Other acts like to stock up on supplies to take with them on the road early in their tours, while a band at tour's end will often forego most of their rider's food requests as long as they get a square meal that night.

Plenty of riders request sundry clothing items because doing laundry on the road is no easy feat (hence the tube socks) and because having some poor schlub actually do the laundry is a perk reserved for the top of the superstar food chain.

So, concert riders are usually a blend of wish lists and must-haves, the latter revolving mostly around alimentary needs and specific liquid refreshments. Failure to come through with something essential can activate a promoter's nightmare clause — the "Artist shall be paid full compensation without the necessity of performing."

Even if events rarely ever reach that nuclear option, an unhappy experience can be as toxic as the plague, spreading via word of mouth or social media. If things get ugly, it's not just return visits by that artist that are in jeopardy — if the performer is tetchy enough and word gets back to a powerful national touring agency ... well, woe unto that local talent buyer.

Local agents do their best to comply because contented artists usually translate into contented audiences, opening the door to future contentment for all concerned.

"I want artists to leave Charlotte saying, 'Hey, MaxxMusic treated us really well,'" says Gregg McCraw, founder and owner of the 17-year-old, Charlotte-based booking and promotion company. "That's what gets back to the agent. That's what gets back to other artists and helps me bring other acts into town. I don't want other artists or agents saying, 'Oh, that guy throws some bread and water in the green room and that's all he's willing to do.' It's not in my best interests."

More and more, being a promoter requires a scavenger hunter's skills for the quixotic. In fact, that aspect of the gig inspired the new Web-based reality series/game show, The Rider Challenge, where contestants let bands humiliate them with idiotic rider requests. It's a notion that doesn't necessarily sit well with the people whose job might consist, on a given day, of hunting down Kinder eggs and crash helmets.

"The requests are written in large print, bold font, not in riddles that lead you to a paper lantern with a cookie inside," says Philip Shive, who's been booking bands for the Milestone and other similarly sized rooms in the region for more than a decade. "If a band has a particularly difficult or extravagant rider, I'm rather unexcited to meet said artist."

EXTRAVAGANT CONCERT riders have been a source of parody and offense ever since the mid-'70s, when rock 'n' roll morphed into big entertainment and bigger business. The peculiar hospitality demands of spoiled superstars have been mocked on Saturday Night Live and in This Is Spinal Tap, and the public's prurient interest in them drives traffic to websites like The Smoking Gun and Gawker. And the further up the food chain you venture, the more slavish and weird — and costly — the multi-page documents become, evolving into demands that would make Marie Antoinette blush.

Van Halen's 53-page tour rider in 1982, with its "no brown M&Ms" clause, remains the benchmark of douche-y rock star arrogance. They may claim the demand was in there to make sure bookers were paying attention to the details, but promoters (or their assistants, often called "runners" for obvious reasons) still had to schlep through bowls of the chocolate treats to avoid the "will not perform" wrath of Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth.

Even today, pop royalty like Jennifer Lopez, Ludacris, Beyoncé and Katy Perry can shock the conscience with frivolous and narcissistic demands. Perry's rider includes a 22-point instruction manual for her limo driver, who is not allowed to talk to the star or any of her guests. Ludacris requires not one full-length mirror, but four, in addition to the latest in top-shelf video gaming. Beyoncé's majestic bottom requires new toilet seats at any venue she plays. But the holy grail of current riders belongs to Lopez, who demands that everything backstage, from the tablecloths and drapes to the candles and couches, be white.

Riders turn out to be pretty good cultural barometers. After all that sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll excess from the '60s to the '90s, the extravagance in today's riders reflects a health-conscious elite with particular concerns about the environment — the one they alone inhabit as often as the one we all live in. For every eco-friendly "green" alternative (think, no styrofoam, no plastic silverware), smoke-free venue and meat-free food tray, there's a clutch of bookers and their runners burning gasoline and courting angina to meet the talent's demands.

And as for all those aging party animals who set the template for rider excess, McCraw says they're now more likely to want massage therapists and on-call doctors with oxygen and B-12 injections rather than "rock 'n' roll doctors," the MDs whose prescription pads ask no questions.

These days, you're as likely to find a sober artist's clause banning all alcohol backstage as you are one asking for 20 cases of Grey Goose vodka, 15 magnums of Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque champagne, and another 20 cases of Bacardi rum (which Pharrell Williams demanded for his 26-person entourage on a recent Australian tour).

CLOSER TO the real world, where Creative Loafing talked to a half-dozen Charlotte bookers, riders remain memorable more for the occasional head-scratch-inducing requests than spoiled rock star excess.

"I've been fortunate to keep it pretty free of 'dickery.'" says Shive. "In my case, I'm doing most of my shows in a place that looks like an abandoned building without a green room. The agents realize this and don't send me douche bands with high expectations."

(Acknowledging the ludicrous nature of many rock star requests, Shive's own band, Black Oatmeal, includes faux requests in its rider for "Caviar Smoothies, with a photo of the fish that the eggs came out of," and "Prison hooch made by an inmate with at least three felonies.")

Lisa Barr, the talent buyer/general manager at Tremont Music Hall since 2009, emphasizes "full-on Southern hospitality" — including catered home-style meals — to please the out-of-town acts that roll through the venue. If that hospitality also includes covering all the backstage furniture in plastic so the touring band can splash pig blood all over each other to make sure Satan's on hand for the show — yes, that was a real request — then so be it. It is, after all, rock 'n' roll, not etiquette class.

But Barr has to draw a line, too, beyond just what her hospitality budget decrees. Her business card does not, she says, include any of the following: "Head of marketing (guerilla, street, social media, print, radio, etc.), bar manager, babysitter or Estrogen dispenser in a testosterone-fueled business." She also refuses to buy bands underwear ("Ask your mom for extras at Christmas!") or, as is the case in many riders, indulge demands for cigarettes or batteries.

For Micah Davidson of Blue Mountain Artists, who's been promoting shows locally for a decade (formerly as the talent buyer for the Double Door Inn), denying a rider request for ammunition was a no-brainer: "Guns, liquor and a crowded room full of people ... a recipe for disaster!"

Some requests are, in fact, there just to make sure the booker is doing his or her due diligence. When Leo Kotke's rider requested a box to relax in pre-gig, McCraw faxed back and asked if there were any specific dimensions required — mostly to make it clear that he was a rider-reader.

MaxxMusic now books 500 shows a year at half a dozen different venues in town, and McCraw knows that a rider's hospitality section has wiggle-room enough in it for negotiations. Bartering over what he's actually willing to provide within the budget is part of the process.

"What I've learned is that before you send it back, you mark it up," he says. "If it's totally unreasonable and you just basically write in, 'Sorry, we're not going to do this, we're not putting an elephant in the room,' they're usually fine with that."

McCraw says he's never had an act cancel over rider negotiations: "They're not going to let it come down to whether you have the right kind of mayonnaise in the green room." But he's also learned not to take anything on the final rider for granted.

As Davidson reiterates, when something promised isn't there, that's when things "can get funny." Before a recent Robert Cray show, McCraw put out wine glasses for the band to drink from — and was immediately informed that if the musicians couldn't drink the wine from red Solo cups, as clearly stated in the rider, they wouldn't play.

"It's a ritual with the band," the road manager said, whereupon McCraw quickly hunted down the specific drinking vessels.

Other band rituals don't always result in happy endings. A few years back, a '90s industrial metal act showed up at Tremont with its arena rock attitude still intact. The lead singer sent his rep to Barr asking if they'd lined up a rock 'n' roll doctor. Still fairly green, Barr had to first find out what that entailed. Then she had to inform the singer's "people" that that particular request would go unfulfilled. To communicate his displeasure, the singer defecated all over the venue's dressing room after the show.

In other words, meeting musicians' rider demands and pre-gig requests isn't all fun and games. The thanks bookers and promoters get for their various scavenger hunts is usually an on-stage shout-out, maybe some free merch from the band, and, if their pornography or dietary needs have been met, a band's best efforts on stage that night. In a business where getting rich better not be the goal, that's often the best reward of all.


Local Bookers' Weirdest Concert Rider Requests

Gregg McCraw, MaxxMusic — Baywatch poster, pre-gig windowless relaxation box, backstage petting zoo

Phillip Shive, Voice of Pizza — Laughing gas, 30 Kinder eggs, adult magazines (the more perverted the better), crash helmets

Lisa Barr, Tremont Music Hall — Underwear, free space for Satanic ritual

Zach McNabb, Zali Presents — Condoms, naked women, sock puppet, spare tire

Micah Davidson, Blue Mountain Artists — Ammunition

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