Local Current Blog

The sensational world of band riders (and the not so glamorous reality)

A rider from one of Hüsker Dü's shows at First Avenue. (Minnesota Historical Society)

Last winter, student journalists at the University of Oklahoma couldn’t have guessed they were breaking a story that media around the world would find absolutely delicious—even though it was a story about guacamole. Specifically, the story was about the detailed (“we want it chunky”) guacamole recipe that Jack White and his crew required backstage for a February show on campus, according to the tour rider that The Oklahoma Daily published with sardonic commentary.

During the show, White commented angrily about the student paper’s decision to publish the rider, saying, “Just because you can type it on your computer doesn’t make it right.” (The contract was available to the paper under Oklahoma state law, since the university is a public entity.) A representative of White’s booking agency told a student activities leader that the agency was so affronted, the agency wouldn’t be booking any more shows at university-affiliated venues. Later, White’s management issued a statement clarifying that White himself hadn’t “blacklisted” the university, but the statement elaborated the rocker’s belief that publishing the private tour rider was “unfortunate, unprofessional, and very unwelcoming.”

As the opening of that statement put it, “Holy guacamole!” Casual music fans must have wondered why everyone was making such a big deal about the tour rider—a part of an artist’s performance agreement that’s often, as White’s management pointed out, misunderstood.

“Rider” is a legal term denoting an amendment to a contract. An artist’s basic contract for a show will specify the time and place of the performance, along with financial details, and a rider further elaborates details about the artist’s requirements. The first thing to understand, said Sean McPherson—the Heiruspecs bassist who has also played with Dessa and other artists, and who is a host on The Current—is that there are typically two sections of tour riders: a section for technical requirements, and a section for hospitality.

“The technical rider says, ‘We need this type of sound system, this type of mixing board, here’s the equipment we’re bringing, here’s what we expect,’” explained McPherson. “The hospitality part is the part that’s really interesting to the layman: it says what stuff you need backstage—and sometimes what you need not to be backstage.” (White’s rider, for example, said “This is a NO BANANA TOUR.” The reason, White later explained, was that a member of his crew was allergic to bananas.)

Hospitality riders range from short and sweet to long and elaborate—but the food isn’t just for the headliners to nosh on while they wait for the opening acts to finish playing, said Robyn Lewis, who has been a tour manager for Poliça and other artists. “Some bands load in at 9:00 a.m. and they’re there until 1:00 a.m. in the morning. Hospitality riders need to include feeding the band and crew for that whole time.” The extent of the rider depends, said Lewis, on the size of the show. “Say my band is playing at the Turf Club—we can expect a hospitality budget of $250. First Ave might have $400, $500. For a theater show, you’re going to look at feeding a crew all day.”

By way of example, McPherson said the rider for Heiruspecs “is about seven lines long, and it hasn’t changed since 2003—meals, beer, tea, water, vegetables. A lot of artists put something unique on their rider so if it’s a festival and a lot of bands are getting food, they can tell which pile of food is theirs. Dessa, for example, always gets oranges. Mike’s Hard Lemonade is on the Heiruspecs rider, because I used to like to drink it back in 2003. These days, I only drink it when someone honors our rider and Mike’s Hard Lemonade shows up backstage.”

Lewis and McPherson both emphasize that demands that might seem peculiar or picky take on a different light when you consider the actual lives of touring musicians. “A lot of people think traveling on the road is super glamorous,” said Lewis, “but it’s not. It can be lonely and monotonous. You’re eating out of gas stations. A rider allows for small comforts.”

Consider, said McPherson, what it would be like if for your job every day, “you had to go to a new place and be there from 2:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. A bunch of the things you would ask for would not be that different. It would be nice to have coffee or tea. It would be nice to have the Internet password. That’s not indulgent at all.”

Riders also take touring musicians’ itinerant lifestyles into account, explained Lewis. “Depending on how a band is going to be traveling, a hospitality rider could include bus stock, bottles of water, nonperishable snacks—things you can bring with you the next day.”

When White bristled at his rider being interpreted as a diva-like list of demands, McPherson sympathized. “When Jack White was like, ‘I’ve never even had that guacamole,’ I completely believed him. There aren’t a lot of people in my world who are at that level [of stardom], but of those who are, I’ve never actually seen them eat their own food backstage. It’s really to make sure the environment backstage is comfortable” for the band, the crew—and the guests.

“When bands ask for a hundred beers,” explained McPherson, “they know there’s going to be 20 people that are going to be drinking for free [backstage]”—for example sponsors, VIP guests, music executives, and media representatives.

“You can’t look at an artist’s touring rider and decide they’re a diva,” said Lewis. “You don’t know how long the tour is, what’s going on behind the scenes.” Lewis didn’t think White’s rider “was excessive at all—and it had already been approved by the venue before the crew showed up, so there shouldn’t have been students having anything to say about it. A large touring crew is stuck in a venue for up to 18 hours. These are small comforts for people being asked to show up and entertain people.”

Venues and promoters account for both technical and hospitality riders when they negotiate contracts, said Lewis, and they have staff dedicated to meeting artists’ needs—within reason. “If you ask for black nail polish and weed orbs,” she said, “the venue can say they’re not going to get that stuff.” Fundamentally, though, “if I’m a promoter, my bottom line is to sell tickets. If a band comes in and they’re not happy, they’re not going to play a good show. Nobody wins.”

Patricia McLean, CEO of concert promoter Sue McLean & Associates, said “the unspoken guideline” is that performers’ contracts are “highly confidential on all levels,” from what artists are being paid to what food they request. McLean said that the publication of White’s contract was “unfortunate.” As concert promoters, she said, “we’re here to protect the artists. We go to great lengths to do that.”

McPherson said that when contract riders become public, artists can feel like their privacy is being invaded. “If I run into you in the grocery store,” he pointed out, “I probably won’t dig around in your shopping cart to see what you’re buying.” In the end, McPherson suggested, there’s a reason backstage is…well, backstage. “You want to keep at least a little bit of the mystique.”

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between 89.3 The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the August edition of The Growler.