A school trip backstage

Most finals weeks are the same – students walking around anxious and sleep deprived; professors dreading the last wave of grading; and campus facilities working on overdrive to match the round-the-clock demand for … well, everything.

But this semester the finals week for several U of Iowa SJMC (School of Journalism and Mass Communication) students and me was different. We got invited backstage to the Bon Jovi concert in Des Moines on May 12. Bon Jovi’s managers e-mailed our administrator Rebecca Scott and pitched the idea. Scott’s first reaction was, of course, disbelief. The e-mail joke of the day, she thought. Still, she responded. And soon it turned out to be real.

The Bon Jovi team has recently decided to launch an internship-for-a-day “program” for local students in the towns they visit on the tour, with the idea of showing them how big-ticket live entertainment works behind the scenes. Mike Savas, VIP manager of the band, gave students full access backstage and a free rein to talk to anyone or shadow anyone, as long as they are not in the way or get injured.

The lucky few were journalism and public relations students interested in the entertainment industry. Some were star struck with the prospect of meeting the band (we didn’t), others had their musical tastes set elsewhere (Lil Wayne), but they all learned a thing or two about the entertainment industry. As a professor teaching public relations and a long-time fan of Bon Jovi going back to my teenage years in Bulgaria, I have my own lessons to share.

DSCN0459DSCN0461

Lesson # 1: Many paths can lead you there.

The question of how the various staffers got this gig kept being asked and different answers kept pouring in. Some got there through word of mouth and building a reputation. Others were simply at the right place at the right time. The one consistent message was that there isn’t a direct path from school to backstage. Instead, creativity, flexibility and luck played a role. Savas’ career advice for making it in the live entertainment industry included three main strategies: 1) “Perception is reality” (i.e. make sure your work is being noticed), 2) Take initiative (i.e. pay attention to the small things and be proactive), and 3) Don’t burn bridges.

Lesson # 2: Life on the road is hard …

To me music tours are the modern-day equivalent of running away and joining the circus that every kid dreams of. Except that this circus was strangely organized and routine, a “It’s like a machine. Flip the bar and we run. Everybody knows what we’re doing,” said the backline crew chief Mike Rew. And it seemed extremely exhausting. By the time we got there at 10 a.m., the roadies had already been working for a few hours on setting up the stage. After the show ended past 10 p.m., they were to stay behind a few more hours to dissemble everything and pile it up on the trucks. By the time they themselves got back to the bus, it was probably around 2 a.m. Then, the bus rolled out of Des Moines and on to Atlanta for the next show. All this happened in 18-month stretches, away from friends and family, spouses and kids.

Lesson # 3: … but it forms lasting bonds.

The tough, routine and endless work on the road also brings the roadies closer. Some of them have been with the band for 20 years and completed two world tours, and as a result have received a gold medallion to show it. As we walked the hallways of the arena all day, we saw quite a few gold medallions. “We’re all good friends. We get along together really well with this crew. A lot of crews don’t get along too well. … You kind of have to cause we live with each other,” said Rew.

 Lesson # 4: This is a tough industry for women.

We saw very few women around us that day and Savas and Rew both admitted that it is a tough gig for them. One woman we kept hearing about was the lighting director, a 30-something powerhouse whose rise in the ranks was fast and unusual. The lighting control deck sits across the stage at the opposite end of the arena floor. Her spot on the deck has a sticker “Baby’s corner.” One night during a show in her early days, Jon Bon Jovi wanted a change of lighting and said on the mike, “hit the lights, Baby!” Her deck spot became known as “Baby’s corner” afterwards. And Jon learned her name.

Another powerhouse woman is Meg. She is responsible for the day-to-day needs of the roadies, which range from construction tools for the stage to AAA batteries. That Thursday it was laundry day, so Meg was coordinating several bags of dirty laundry with some runners (local people hired for errands).

Lesson # 5: Social media is an integral part of the engagement strategy.  

As of July 3, 2011, Bon Jovi have 13+ million fans on Facebook. For comparison, U2 have 9+ million, and Aerosmith have 3+ million. The band’s management says this lead in the numbers is due to a deliberate strategy. Early on, they consulted the Facebook team on how to use the platform to build and maintain a fan base online. This year they are using GroupMe, the group- texting app, which attracted a lot of interest at the 2011 tech conference SXSW.

***

The “internship experience” itself is an extremely savvy PR strategy, as it builds interest and engagement in a crucial target audience of college students. In the previous tour stops, these internships generated coverage in student newspapers and blogs, and the local mainstream media. Thus, something that could have been just another rock band coming into town turned into a highly competitive, very public and quite unusual experience for the participating students and those around them, who heard about it through their online and offline social networks.