For as long as I can remember, music has always been such an important staple in my life, and through failed musical endeavours, learning to play guitar, bass, even badly attempting drums in my old music class in high school. This was before my eyes opened fully and I realised that musicians are only a small fraction of those who work in the music industry. Soon, I would discover music photographers and videographers online and drown in awe at their incredible jobs, knowing my whole life I had been snapping photos, stealing video cameras at family parties, unaware that my dream job even existed.
My teenage years were spent obsessing, going to gigs, coming home, and counting down the days until my next trip to Glasgow for a concert. When I was 17 I photographed my first show, picked up my first press pass and nervously stuck it to my leg. The more shows I attended, the more I understood what they were doing, and even to this day, when I’m not working at a show, my eyes are darting to photo pits, watching other photographers, intently looking to learn. From attending more gigs, I met more bands, crew, and realised that fans and fellow creatives weren’t sure how to get into those jobs.
This is where our new interview series, Tour Life comes in, these features are for every person who wants to work in the music industry, whether it’s as a musician or a tour manager. Kicking off Tour Life in style, for our first article I spoke to touring merchandise manager Rocky Rodrigues about her job, being the only woman on a male-dominated tour, and her career highlights so far!
Jen McAnally: Hey Rocky, for those out there who don’t understand your job and think slinging merchandise is an easy feat, could you give us your definition of a merch manager?
Rocky Rodrigues: “My definition of a merch manager would be someone who is in charge of the organisation, reordering, accounting, and sales of a touring band. It’s so much more than just hanging up displays and selling clothes. Your sales skills, visual display techniques, and organisation is the core of whether a band will actually make money on tour, which of course enables them to continue touring, putting out more merch, and paying off everything else involved in running a band. I think the art and soul of the music industry overshadows the very fact that at the end of the day, it’s a business. Numbers aren’t always fun, organising a messy trailer on an off day isn’t always glamorous, but it’s necessary to keep the band afloat. I take merch so seriously because I understand the importance of it. I also go above and beyond, even pushing myself further, so that I can make it fun, immersive, and impactful for fans as well.”
JM: How did you get into the job and how did you get on your first tour?
RR: “I got into touring because I absolutely loved going to live shows. I scheduled my entire life as a teenager and young adult around the shows I had already bought tickets to without actually knowing how I would get there. I ended up becoming friends with a guy who did merch, who later ended up touring himself in his own band. I was 19/20 at the time and even flew out to Texas from California to see his band play a Christmas festival with some of my other favourite bands and offered to do merch for them there. Their manager was at the show and saw the sales I pulled in for them and 2 months later they offered me a job on their first tour.”
JM: When you’re touring in male-dominated crews, have you faced any major adversity? How do you deal with it?
RR: “Every tour I’ve ever done has been male dominated, but that’s just how it is. The main hardships I deal with are definitely people not taking my role seriously or just assuming I’m a glorified groupie who they let sell shirts. Venue guys not treating me with the same kind of respect they show the male counterparts on the tour. Constantly getting my laminate questioned. The usual problems women endure in this field. At first it upset me wildly, and I would lash out. But now it’s just a fun social experiment to me in which I use these obstacles as teaching opportunities. If you make people explain their insults or micro-aggressions, you will see them falter and start floundering to try to justify their sexist or rude comment. In the beginning of my career I unfortunately did not have a supportive band or crew around me that acted like allies or stood up for me. I am fortunate enough to now work for bands like As It Is and Unwritten Law who intercept bullshit like that before I even get a chance to. I would encourage anyone who experiences discrimination in a field where you are a minority of any sort as a moment to prove everyone wrong. I am so damn sensitive, but I’ve learned to not take it to heart and let my work ethic, numbers and personality prove these idiots wrong.”
JM: On the flip side, have you had a moment on tour or working with a certain band or artist where you’ve had a “wow, this is my life” moment, what’s been the most surreal experience?
RR: “I honestly have so many “I can’t believe this is my life” moments on each tour. I am incredible sappy and always just shake my head in awe that I was able to make a living out of the thing I love the most: live music. One of the biggest ones was when I got the call that Unwritten Law wanted to take me to Australia with them. I was finishing my last quarter of college and had no idea when I’d have time to even eat between merch and finishing a thesis, but I found a way. One day the band had a tattoo artist come do tour tats for everyone at the venue before the show. I was sitting there, getting a tour tattoo across the world, eating a veggie burger the venue had given me, and I was like….”Is any of this even real?”. The fact that my job has given me the opportunity to travel the world blows my mind everyday. Touring with As It Is has also given me so many of those moments. Seeing them play shows to thousands of people overseas was mind blowing. Meeting fans who already knew who I was insane. This life is so good and I always make sure I work my ass off and go above and beyond so that I can maintain this career.”
JM: We’ve seen your incredible merch set-ups and inventive ways of getting fans involved, do you think this is where a lot of venues and merch sellers are missing the mark?
RR: “First of all, THANK YOU!!! I feel like a mad genius weeks before I leave for a tour because my room’s an explosion of crafts, I’m making labels for the shirts all night, ya know doing the absolute most. I definitely think people do the bare minimum, which is fine if that’s what they want and it gets the job done, but I’m always seeing what others are doing and thinking, “How can I do MORE? How can I introduce something else to merch and make the table even more immersive for everyone?” I remember being that kid who just loved going to shows, seeing all the merch, and getting to take home a piece of the band/show every night. I just want to make the merch table more than a place you visit briefly. I think we can all collectively take merch to that next level if everyone shared that same ideal. I think more people just need to give a damn and act on that drive.”
JM: As someone who has attended and worked at Warped Tour multiple times, give us your wildest Warped story!
RR: “Oh man, my wildest Warped story….amongst them is definitely any of the storm days! No matter where the Georgia date of warped was placed, it stormed and flooded every time. In 2018, I already knew what to do to be prepared. I had zip-ties, weights for my tent ready to go, an emergency plan on how to protect all my merch bins from flooding and everything. I started helping everyone around me secure their tents while the attendees of Warped got evacuated to the amphitheater. We were all just soaking wet, cold, waiting for the okay to either set back up pack everything up and close for the day. My friend Dakota, who literally survived Hurricane Katrina, was just walking around in flip flops handing out beer to everyone and visiting everyone at the their tents. It totally boosted everyone’s mood, and we all just started making the best of the situation. It’s in those insane moments where you see the people from production rushing around telling everyone to take their flags down and prepare for the storm, your entire outfit is ruined and you’re trying to protect all your electronics from getting wet, where you just kind of laugh and think to yourself, “We’re in this shit, we’re working warped tour, every day, doing the damn thing.””
JM: Finally, what is your biggest piece of advice for someone considering a touring lifestyle, particularly merch management?
RR: “My biggest piece of advice is to never let anyone tell you you can’t! If I could pull off doing almost 2 full years of college on the road while learning how to do merch on my first tours, anybody can. Get involved in your local music and art scenes, make your art and make friends for the love of it, not for the clout factor. Invest in yourself and network whenever you can. There are so many ways to get involved and so many jobs you can have in the touring music industry. Take every hardship and setback as a learning lesson and just keep pushing. The timing will work out for you when it’s meant to, trust me! Also, never let yourself think you’re too cool to go in a pit every now and then or dance your ass off during a set. We all joined the industry because we love music, never let anything kill that passion or the fun that comes with it!”
By Jen McAnally
Are you a touring musician or promoter at a local venue? Guitar or lighting technician? Photographer, videographer or tour manager? If you’re interested in joining our Tour Life series please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org!