Behind the Band: A Chat with Parachute’s ex-Tour Manager, Chris Jones

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Behind every successful music group is a Tour Manager, the unsung hero who ensures that life from concert venue to venue doesn’t become a traveling circus.  Before joining beer giant ABInbev, where he is currently the Global Marketing Director for Corona, Chris Jones spent two years globetrotting as Tour Manager for Parachute, a pop rock outfit from Charlottesville, Virginia whose albums have thrice reached the Top 10 on the Billboard U.S. Digital chart.  We sat down with Chris to chat about life on the road, roaming New Orleans with Kelly Clarkson, crazy fan encounters and more.

Trebel Music:  Your story with Parachute begins with your college days at the University of Virginia.  Take us from your time there to how you became a tour manager for the band.

Chris Jones:  While at UVA I was active in the Charlottesville music scene and played in several bands, most of which were part of the alternative and indie communities.  It was a relatively small scene, as most of Charlottesville at the time revolved around college rock and jam band stuff, so everyone knew each other.  Through that experience, I made several friends and it happened that when I was looking to transition jobs a few years out of undergrad, one of my buds was looking to leave his job as Parachute’s tour manager.  I had been working for a healthcare consultancy in D.C. and reached the point where I was uninspired and eager to dive back into a world I was passionate about.  Parachute had just released their first full length and was garnering a lot of attention with their single “She Is Love,” which was receiving national exposure through a Nivea ad campaign.  When I met the team, they told me they had just been confirmed for the Kelly Clarkson arena tour.  With all that momentum and as a fan of their music, I jumped on board.

What does it really mean to be a tour manager?  Walk us through a typical day on the road.

There really is no typical day on the road, but in general, you’re the nucleus and engine of a traveling music operation.  One day, you might be advancing a set of shows, and another day you’re keeping a group of wild banshees in order, going from commitment to commitment from the wee hours of the morning. As the go-to guy regarding all tour operations, you can expect to be managing all aspects of what happens on the road.  That includes organizing the shows themselves, managing tour finances, coordinating press interviews and events, making sure everything is taken care of for morning and late night TV performances, making meet and greets happen – you name it.  You’re the guy, the jack of all trades, making sure that everything that needs to happen, happens.

A kid comes up to you and says “I want to be a tour manager.”  What’s the first thing you say back?

Know what you want to get out of the experience.  At the end of the day, it’s a job like any other that requires commitment, discipline, and hustle to do it right.  If you’re in it for the glamour, you’ll fail. But it’s a great opportunity to meet people, build your network, and really get your foot in the door in other areas of the industry you might be interested in.  Like I said, you are the command center for all that goes on, so you’re constantly interacting with a diverse set of people connected to music somehow.  All this said, it’s not for everyone.  A lot of long days, long nights, unpredictability, and little privacy can be tough to deal with.  It’s a job that requires durability, organization, and patience.  You can’t get by without those three.

While a band is on the road, what type of interaction takes place between the tour manager and the other constituents (record label, lawyer, business manager, etc.) surrounding a band? 

For the most part, you’re working with artist management and business management on a consistent basis.  Artist management is focused on developing the act and setting up the right opportunities for them, and as a TM you’re helping shape and execute the full picture based on what’s feasible amongst all the band’s commitments.  On the business management side, they’re the ones who manage the act’s finances.  As the one responsible for making sure all tour revenue and expenses are taken care of, you are their right hand.

As for others, it’s a bit more on an ad-hoc basis depending on the band’s needs.  When we vere in LA and NYC, I tended to deal with those folks a bit more.

Who are the industry people you looked up to the most during your touring days?  Who “taught you the ropes,” so to speak, and what was the biggest lesson you learned from them?

At a high level, there are pioneers like Kevin Lyman, Brett Gurewitz, and others who’ve I’ve always admired.  People who turned their convictions into longstanding music institutions on their own terms.  I grew up on punk rock, so much of the DIY and entrepreneurial spirit of that community exists in the touring world.  The persistence, the hustle, and will to push on for another day because you care about what you’re doing.  That’s really what these guys all embodied.

Other than this group, I didn’t have any insight into the touring world before I started, so I really had no one to look up to.  But I certainly learned a lot from one guy who took me under his wing during those first few tours.  His name is Shane Haase.  He had spent the better part of a decade touring by the time we teamed up and I was always inspired by how professional and focused he was about his job.  Not only did he excel in his primary craft, which was running front of house for the band, but he was exceptionally great with people, always brought a positive spirit to the group, and was very direct and clear in his management style.  I believe he’s now tour managing with Alabama Shakes.

Parachute toured with Kelly Clarkson, Goo Goo Dolls, Hot Chelle Rae and many other bands while you were with them.  How does your responsibility change from a tour that Parachute is headlining to one where they are the support act?

When you’re headlining a tour, your entire agenda is planned around an album release.  You’re promoting the album beyond the shows themselves and there is hardly any free time in your schedule.  You have press interviews, early morning and late night TV obligations, radio appearances, video shoots, sponsor performances – it doesn’t end.  So there’s a lot of connecting the dots, last minute planning, unexpected flights, the whole nine yards.

As a headliner, you’re in the driver’s seat a bit more and have more flexibility to make things happen.  This means more convenient load-in times to the venues, guaranteed sound checks, venue staff  being more accommodating with your needs and all of that.  In the end, expectations are higher as the headliner, so all aspects of the tour are heightened and things get more professional.

As a support act, much of the experience becomes less pronounced.  The biggest differences are in regards to the shows and venue treatment – everything from needing to arrive to venues earlier to having your set played at a noticeably lower decibel level to not having your rider fulfilled.

Tell us about touring with Kelly Clarkson in 2009 and 2010.  Any funny stories?  What surprised you the most that you didn’t expect going in? 

It was a fun tour.  We did the North American, Europe, and U.K. legs, so we spent a lot of time with her and her people.  I can’t say anything surprised me, but that it was just an enjoyable experience being part of a friendly and down to earth crew.  Obviously, she’s a mega talent, but she’s also super personable, positive, and easygoing.

I have a lot of memories from that tour, including the last night of the U.S. portion, which was around the holiday season.  Kelly rented out a section of the House of Blues in New Orleans and we ran around the city in a torrential downpour to find ugly sweaters for the occasion.  It was just one big family party.

Busking in Switzerland is another one.  We had time to kill before our show in Zurich and set up a few instruments with Kelly’s band in the middle of a traffic square a few blocks from the venue.  It was a warm up of sorts for that night.  

As a tour manager and an overall music guy, did any part of you ever wish to be on stage playing with the band, or were you comfortable with your behind-the-scenes role?

No.  I loved what I did.  If you’re in this to be close to the band and the glamour, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons and won’t ever give it the focus needed to do it well.  When the days end, there are a lot of people counting on you for things to go smoothly.  Not just the band and the rest of the crew, but the band’s management, label, and everyone else who has a vested interest in the group’s success. There is a lot of responsibility with the TM job, and it’s not fair to anyone to have someone distracted by their desire to be up on stage.  That’s not what you signed up for.

What’s the one thing you couldn’t live on the road without?

Two things.

Granola and trail mix for sustenance.  You sometimes don’t know when you might eat next, or if you’ll even have a reasonable meal to choose from, so it’s nice to have some relatively decent and nutritious fuel on hand.

Secondly, my iPhone.  It sounds cliché, but when you spend so much time in tight corridors with the same people, escaping into your headphones might be the only way to get your own space. Music, podcasts, whatever.  They all help give you some privacy and alone time.

Where does Parachute fit into the scope of music you typically like?  What artists are in your rotation right now?

I love pop and pop crossover music.  One of the first groups I ever got into was Franki Valli and the Four Seasons, so I’ve always been a sucker for a solid melody and appreciate bands like Parachute.  At any given time, I’ll have a handful in rotation. But I’m a punk rock guy at heart. Right now, I’m giving Bad Religion, H20, and The Interrupters high reps.

What was your experience like interacting with fans of Parachute?  

I never wanted attention from working with the band, but the truth is the guys developed a digital video series to broadcast our adventures to their fanbase and I became a known entity through that.  Every one or two weeks, the guys would upload a new video to YouTube and I’d find myself in them.

Eventually, some fans caught on and would recognize me at shows, but it never became more than passing encounters and casual conversation.  As a representative of the guys, I felt it was my role to be respectful, but I never had a desire to become the star with fans myself.

What was the craziest fan encounter you ever saw or were a part of?

Honestly, I can’t recall any isolated encounters, but I do remember the rabid dedication of a handful of fans who would find a way to show up to almost every show and appearance against all odds.  For certain legs of a tour, we would have the same fans show up everywhere – the radio station appearance you thought nobody knew about, the Barnes and Noble acoustic in-store performance, and then the show itself where they’d always be first in line hours before doors opened.  What I always found perplexing was the number of photos they’d take with the band — any time they showed up, they would get in line for photos.  Maybe they made some great collages out of them, who knows.

It’s said that after you’ve toured the country once, the allure of checking out new venues goes away.  True or false?  

There’s truth to that, for sure. On my first tour, everything was new and I was constantly in awe of these new places I was seeing and experiences I was having.  But we’d never spend more than a day or two in a given place, so I’d leave feeling like there was more to explore. Over time, we’d visit a lot of the same cities over and over again and this sentiment became increasingly lost on me. In a job like this, the world becomes your home.  The stability and comfort of one place ends up feeling so foreign – I reached a point where I’d grow restless being home for more than a few weeks.

In terms of sound, cleanliness, staff friendliness and things like that, what are the most memorable venues that come to mind for you? 

All the House of Blues spots tend to be pretty professional and score high on the cleanliness and polish factor, but they lack that sense of character and uniqueness from venue to venue.  Dallas, Anaheim, Chicago, Orlando, wherever – it’s that old “Hard Rock” effect.

In terms of overall vibe and likeability, there are a few that come to mind.  Stubs in Austin, the Fillmore in San Francisco and First Avenue in Minneapolis.

Eventually you transitioned out of music into your current role at AB Inbev.  What prompted that decision?

I was looking for greater growth opportunities in my career.  The music industry is a wild animal.   I sure learned lot, but accelerating my development meant I needed to take more control of my future.

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