Can the live music industry survive COVID-19? An interview with John Momberg, touring manager for Logic

Can the live music industry survive COVID-19? An interview with John Momberg, touring manager for Logic

Few industries have experienced as cataclysmic an effect from the COVID-19 pandemic as live music and entertainment. Even as cities reemerged from lockdowns, music venues and nightclubs remained closed or limited in capacity. It has created a situation that is financially untenable for musicians, as well as for the countless unseen workers who make sure the show goes on.

TMS interviewed John Momberg, the Tour and Production Manager for American rapper Logic, the Grammy-nominated writer of the suicide prevention anthem, “1-800-273-8255.” Logic announced his plans to retire from music following the release of his most recent album, “No Pressure.”

The coronavirus’ disruption of the industry has hit Momberg directly. Though he has adapted to the situation and is optimistic about live music’s future, Momberg believes a lot must change if the industry hopes to be sustainable for the artists and “road dogs” who make it possible.

Touring with Logic

Up until 2020, Momberg, who describes himself as a “lifelong musician,” had spent much of his adult life on the road in some capacity. He began as a touring drummer for Indie rock artists like The Appleseed Cast and Koufax, but years of hard work as a drum technician (for bands like Manchester Orchestra), stage manager and merchandise manager brought him into Logic’s orbit in 2013.

Momberg was brought on to Logic’s touring team by Warner Music Group as the tour merch manager (overseeing the artist’s merchandise). Since he had more touring experience than anyone else on the team, including Logic, he quickly took on more responsibility. Eventually, Logic asked him to be his tour manager.

This year was always going to be up in the air for Momberg as Logic was planning on taking a step back from performing live. But the COVID-19 pandemic completely changed everything.

With Logic recently announcing he would retire from music, will you actively look for a new gig, or will you wait until something comes along naturally?

I don’t think he’s going to go away forever. But with the pandemic and all touring stopped, having a new baby and working on other endeavors, I think this will give him the ability to focus on other things that matter to him, in addition to making and performing music. I always have to find other work. I’m never not working. I’m currently working at a grocery store to have some sort of steady income. And benefits. Almost forgot about those!

Did you have tours or recording sessions lined up when the pandemic began? Have they been canceled or just postponed?

I have been away from performing and 100% in the managing/working side of touring. Most recently, at the end of 2019, I had wrapped Logic’s first headlining arena tour [“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind Tour”], [for] 5,000-15,000 people a night.

I knew [Logic] and his wife were expecting a baby and it was most likely going to be a slow 2020 for him in regards to touring and shows and my role with him.

My wife and I were new in Los Angeles, so I started to look for some work with local and national production companies, as well as reaching out to all my contacts letting people know I was available. I knew at some point I would go back out with Logic but needed to find some work in the interim. So, then March rolls around, I had a tour lined up with an artist I haven’t worked with before. Rehearsals were beginning in L.A. … and COVID happens. And now tours are getting canceled or postponed. At this point, things are postponed. But I knew that could mean a year or more. I saw the writing on the wall.

I remember getting off the phone with the artist’s agent, sitting at the rehearsals in West Hollywood. I called my wife and said the tour was being canceled and we need to talk and figure this out. Went home that night and her and I had a long talk. We threw out the idea of packing up and moving back to Tulsa. We owned a home there. Her family was there. I just knew this wasn’t going to be a quick fix. We decided to give it a couple weeks, my wife was still working and had a good job. Well, a week went by and they started to close down her shop. So we decided that we needed to get moving. Los Angeles was still new to us. We didn’t feel attached and dedicated to stay. And the cost to live there while things were going down and we had no income coming in just didn’t make sense. We weighed our options and felt this move was best for us. So reluctantly, after exactly a year of living there, we started to pack up our apartment and move back to Oklahoma.

In a normal year, how much time would you have spent on the road?

A normal year would see me on the road eight months out of the year. That is spread out. Sometimes I would have two months off in a row. Sometimes it would be two weeks home and then I’m out again for six weeks. Just all depends. That’s a pretty normal life for most touring professionals.

John Momberg: First row, second from right

Which do you prefer, playing live or recording in a studio? Why?

Playing live. 100%. To me one is more like work. The other is artistic, physical release. Both can be fun and challenging. But playing in a small packed club, or on a big stage to a ton of people, or a basement with your friends, it’s always been my favorite place to be. Things happen. And you can’t redo it, so you push forward and adapt. The tempos fluctuate a bit. Really miss that. But it’s the little bit of my day as a Tour and Production Manager that I do enjoy. Getting to walk out while the artist is on stage and see all that my team and I have done to put that together. And just sit back and watch it happen. And the kids sing along.

Does your wife ever come on tour with you? How do you stay connected with each other while you’re touring?

When my wife and I met, I was touring in a band playing drums and she got used to coming to local/regional gigs. I think she caught on quick that outside of being on stage, I was kind of the guy that helped do everything. Sell merch, load in and out, drive, settle shows, talk to fans, etc. It was hard for me to turn it off and just hang out with her. So I think she learned that that was my work time. Also, she wasn’t always into my bands in a way that would make her want to come out all the time … hahaha. So, I think she learned that she didn’t need/want to be at all my gigs.

When I started touring as a Tour Manager/Production Manager was when I would start to be gone for really long amounts of time. The better part of two to three months sometimes. I would sometimes need to be in one city for a rehearsal. Then fly to the first city of the show early to get ready for production load-ins. And just all the preliminary work that would go into a tour, adding on top of the time gone for the actual tour dates and six weeks turns into two months. And on and on.

We try, on occasion, to have her fly out to a city when I might have multiple dates off. For example, a couple tours ago, I had two days off in NYC. So I flew her out. We got to hang and see friends and eat some food. She came to the show. And then I left that night after the show and she left the next morning to fly back home. Again, I think this is a typical way a lot of touring people handle their relationships.

Have you played any virtual shows since the pandemic began? Do you watch them? Do you think virtual shows are a viable path forward for the music industry?

In my opinion, virtual shows are not the path forward. I think they have their place. But the reason people go to shows is to be around other people that like the artist too! Or to be with other people checking out the artist for the first time at a festival. It all has everything to do with being with and around people. Without that there is no way to make this work. I’m all for trying different ways to do socially distanced shows. I went to a drive-in show here in Tulsa at the legendary Admiral Twin Drive-In (featured in the movie “The Outsiders”). And I got to see Marc Rebillet do his thing. This was an interesting and well-done way to do it. But were people adhering to the rules? No! So it’s just not safe still. And I just don’t really know how live music and events can happen without vaccines/medicines/etc.

Musicians have faced a lot of changes in the last two decades, from streaming music cutting into revenues to concerns over the environmental impact of touring. Are you worried that future generations won’t have the live music experience you’ve been a part of for so long?

I’m fully confident music and music performance will always be around. It has stood the test of time. People will find a way. I think the question might be, “Will it be the billion-dollar industry the way it’s been?” Maybe not. Will I have a job? Who knows? But will there be a person with a guitar singing their heart out on the street and we all sit around and watch? Always. There will always be something happening like that.

Prior to the pandemic, would you have said the live music industry was doing well? Why or why not?

This is an interesting question. “Doing well” is a funny saying right? Like when you ask someone in passing, “Hey! How are you?” “Doing well!” Like, are you really? Was the industry “booming” and was everyone touring and there was a new festival every month and were there a ton of jobs? Yes. But was there health insurance, job security, retirement, strict safety regulations, union protections, etc.? No. The industry is like a lot of others that seem too big to fail. It’s all based around things like COVID not happening. Or insert any other possible global issue. The problem with the industry is in fact the same thing that made it “do well.” It’s the same deep issues in all industries we run into. As much as I enjoy making good money, I also like knowing that if something happens I’m taken care of. And not left alone to figure it out.

What pandemic-related negative effects on the industry have you seen personally?

The biggest effect this has had, in my opinion, is changing people’s views on what they have been working on for the last 5, 10, 15, 20, 40 years. There is this large group of people (hundreds of thousands, if not millions) with specialized training and experience. And they (myself included) are wondering if it was all for nothing. By that I mean: Imagine working in an industry for 15 years and then it just shuts down with no end in sight. You start to question what the hell you were doing with your life. Standing on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans after loading in a massive tour of eight trucks into an arena makes it real hard to forget that this industry is not “essential.” But then you get into the existential questions of “what is essential?”

I think this all boils down to mental health. How are we supposed to react to [one’s] life work seemingly disappearing? On top of that you have Melania Trump out there telling us to just “Find something new.” Like that’s even in the cards for some people in their 40s and 50s who have dedicated their lives to this thing we ALL love.

[Editor’s note: The “Find Something New” ad campaign was promoted by Ivanka Trump, President Donald Trump’s daughter, not Melania Trump, his wife. The campaign encourages out-of-work Americans to find new careers and was widely criticized for being a “tone deaf,” overly simplistic response to record-breaking unemployment.]

What needs to happen for the industry to bounce back from this year, if it can?

A vaccine. Medicines to help slow the spread. A bigger and broader sense of community. Organization/unionization on a bigger scale. There really needs to be a broad and comprehensive change in the industry to protect all of us in the future. To make any lasting positive change. Will that happen? Probably not.

What are you currently doing to make a living?

So my wife and I had to make the tough decision to move back to Oklahoma after just a year in Los Angeles. We had a home here that we own. And my wife’s family is here. So instead of “waiting it out” in L.A. and having no income for the foreseeable future, we came back. I immediately started looking for work. ANYTHING. I had worked in bars on and off the last 15 years as my side gig. But bars are closed. My wife worked in restaurants as well. But those were closed or limited and not really hiring. So, we were really trying to find anything. I had worked in grocery stores from the time I was 15 until about 20, so I figured I would try to apply there. And there were LOTS of jobs at the grocery store.

I got a callback and started at the local grocery store here. I started at $12/hr picking online orders for customers. I did this for a month and eventually they asked if I wanted to take on more responsibility. I said “YES!” So, they trained me to be a manager in the grocery department. And now here I am, with a full-time job managing a department, with benefits and paid vacation. First time in 20 years I’ve had benefits. Last time I had a job with benefits? When I was working at the Merc Natural Foods Co-Op in Lawrence, Kansas when I was 18!

Can you talk about your recent experience at the grocery store where you manage? A teenage boy grabbed a woman and held her with a knife. In a Facebook Live video of the incident, you can be seen telling the boy to take yourself instead of the woman. Eventually, the boy let the woman go and he was arrested. You appeared calm, but it must have been a frightening situation. What were you thinking while the situation was happening? Have you been able to follow up with the woman or boy?

So this was a surreal experience. I’ve been in some tricky situations in my life on the road. Seedy hotels, backstage of hip-hop tours, parties and clubs … I’ve got stories. But this definitely takes the cake for the most surreal.

I was the closing manager on duty. Every other upper management person had left for the day. So when that happens, I’m essentially in charge of the whole store. I was approached by one of my grocery clerks. He ran up to me saying that some guy “pulled a knife on him.” He was understandably shaken. And freaking out. I asked him where this guy was and before he could answer I could hear a child screaming. I ran to the kid and he found me and just was crying “grandma.” I looked up and in the middle of the store, this guy had this older woman by knife point. He had his arm around her and was holding the knife near her neck. The woman was holding the blade of the knife with her hand. I came to find out later that her shoulder had just had surgery so she couldn’t do anything but hold the blade with her good hand.

I immediately asked one of my co-workers to take the kid. She took him off to the side. The man holding the knife looked confused. I asked what he was doing and just began 15 minutes of talking to him. I asked him his name and how old he was (just 17!) and I asked why he was wanting to hurt this woman. In so many words I believe the man wanted to die. He expressed to me there was nothing left to do. He seemed just distraught. I started to flash through all this shit in my life I’ve gone through in the last few months and just, honestly, saw myself in him. I told him how my life has been turned upside down. I pleaded with him that he didn’t want to hurt this lady. And she needed to take care of her child. I asked him to let her go and I would walk with him out the front door. I promised him I wouldn’t hurt him and we could walk out together.

He eventually let her go. At which point he just stood there shaking with the knife in his hand. I was worried the police would show up and something would lead them to shoot him. Which he was alluding to wanting. Thirty seconds after the lady was let go, the police show up with guns drawn. I stayed with the guy and tried to keep him calm. I was thinking, “I don’t want to see this 17-year-old shot in front of me.” I told the police officer things were fine. And “He’s going to put down the knife.” The cop was shouting at him to put it down with his gun pointing at him. I pleaded with the kid, I said, he still has time to make things right. And he would be helped.

He finally did put it down and was arrested. I walked with him to the front door like I said I would. And immediately went to the backroom and lost it. All the emotions were hitting me. I honestly just felt terrible for the kid. Here was someone who had no one to go to. To listen to him. I think that’s all he really wanted. Someone to tell him “Yes. The world is fucked up right now. I hear you. I know it. I understand.”

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