Chatting with Ethan Schwartz, Production Manager

“Behind the Show” is an ongoing series where we spotlight the work of people who help make concerts happen! Let us know who we should interview next:

This week, we talked with Ethan Schwartz. Ethan is the Production Manager at Sixthman. He created South Florida Jams and Langerado Festival, and was the Tour Accountant for Zach Brown Band on their Fall 2009 tour.

Backstage Pass: How did you get your start in music? How did that lead to where you are now?

Ethan Schwartz: I’ve always been a fan of live music. My first concert was Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden in 1984. Once I was in high school and grunge started, I tried to see as many shows as I could. In college I got into Phish and once I graduated I started traveling around the US and went to Europe to see them. For the millennium they performed at Big Cypress in the Florida Everglades for what, in my mind and I’m sure the majority of the people who were there, was the greatest concert that ever happened. When we left on January 1st, 2000 I turned to my wife and said, “I want to do something out here.” I’d never put on a concert or even really had a party at my parents house but literally within the next week my best friend and I started calling bands out of the blue and somehow convinced them to come play in South Florida and just like that I was a concert promoter!

Backstage Pass: What does a typical day of work look like for a production manager on a show day? What work goes in on days before the show?

ES: With my current position as Production Manager for Sixthman, we run back-to-back festivals one after the other, sometimes ten in a row on a cruise ship, so while we’re sailing it’s a never-ending process of ensuring that our production crew and our artists have what they need in order to perform before each event leaves port. We don’t have the luxury of sending a runner out to pick anything up when we’re at sea. I think that our advance process is pretty in-depth with each act, as they all perform on multiple stages, so whereas at a lot of festivals the stage managers are advancing with each act, we don’t really have that ability. I am lucky enough to work with a great group of stage managers who are able to make adjustments on the fly when things change due to weather or outdated riders. On a typical day at sea we can have 5-6 stages going each with 6-8 shows happening, tight changeovers, very little space to prep. It’s very high pressure but the team we have makes it look easy. I would estimate that 99% of our shows start and stop on time.

BP: How is being a production manager on a cruise ship different than on land?

ES: The advance is the most important in ensuring that each band has what they need to perform their show. My A1 and I work very closely together to ensure that our audio vendor has provided everything we need. My backline crew advances hundreds of different pieces of equipment for the 25+ bands onboard and is bringing in gear for 3-4 cruises sometimes that needs to be constantly shuttled from stage to stage. The audio/lighting vendor prep is one of the most important aspects of these events. Since we are in the middle of the ocean we need to make sure we are fully self-sufficient and covered in case anything breaks down.

BP: On a typical show day, who else are you usually working with, either from your team or an artist’s team?

ES: Usually on a show day we are actively working on the cruises that are coming up after the current one we are sailing on. But I am in constant communication with my stage managers and production department. In the case of threatening weather we try and plan out as many hours in advance as possible in order to move whatever shows from outdoors to indoors, try and keep the show flow as easy as possible so when we do have to make that decision to move it’s not a surprise to anyone and they’ve been prepping for it.

BP: Before working at Sixthman, you ran the Langerado Music Festival. Over the festival’s six years, it grew from a single-day to a multi-day event. What factors were involved in the decision to expand the festival from one to two days to eventually a full weekend?

ES: Langerado was an incredible event. We started a music scene in South Florida where there wasn’t one and then built a small grassroots event from 3,500 people with an incredible group of bands that were super underground into a world renowned festival with over 25,000 attendees that was featured in Rolling Stone magazine after our 2008 event. As the event grew the locations that hosted us just ran out of room. My end goal had always been to put on an event at Big Cypress. Plenty of very successful people in the concert industry told us we could never make it work out there but in fact in 2008 we had 25,000 people drive hours into the middle of nowhere and had 80 bands perform for them. To me it will always be a top highlight of my career. 

BP: You were also the Tour Accountant for the Zac Brown Band on their Fall 2009 tour. Can you tell us what being a tour accountant entails?

ES: I was lucky enough to work with this amazing band as they were literally blowing up. It was an incredible experience to be around that group of professionals. As the accountant I was responsible for settling all shows with the promoter at the end of the night, ensuring all expenses were legitimate and make sure the band got paid what they were supposed to be getting paid for selling as many tickets as they were selling. Having been a promoter for a long time it was an interesting experience to be on the other side of the table. I’ll always treasure my time with that band as I met some wonderful people and it actually led to what I am currently doing today.

BP: What’s the most challenging part of your work and what’s the most rewarding?

ES: The most challenging part is lack of communication. I am sure I am guilty of this as well, but in my current position we try and advance these shows as far out as possible since we do so many events back to back. A lot of bands are only advancing shows a few weeks out so when we try and get information a few months out and are stonewalled, it’s frustrating because we want to ensure they have everything they need to perform their best shows onboard.

The most rewarding part is seeing things come to fruition. When I started at Sixthman it seemed like the production, specifically on the pool deck was somewhat underwhelming. Coming from the promoter side, I felt that if we were to become a leader in the cruise festival industry, we needed to present a much higher caliber of production. Working with my A1 and my LD [lighting designer], we started making incremental changes over the next few seasons. It’s now a fully realized production that can host almost any touring band (in an albeit smaller scale) and give the audience a full engaging shows.

BP: Do you have a favorite story to tell from over the years?

ES: My favorite story is in regards to my booking the 2008 Langerado festival. For years we had been a jamband festival and in relocating to Big Cypress we needed to bring in more nationally renowned headliners. I had been talking to the Beastie Boys and R.E.M. but neither was willing to commit. Finally the Beastie Boys agent gave me the blessing to call their manager, so I did, and talked with him for 45 minutes and somehow convinced him that they should play this festival. A few days later the agent called me and said “I don’t know what you said but congratulations, they’re confirmed.” Five minutes later R.E.M. confirmed and I had my lineup complete. It was the most money I’ve ever spent in 5 minutes but those two acts made us legit. Without a doubt the Beastie Boys performance at Langerado 2008 was the best show I’ve ever put on. I just wish their tour manager hadn’t pulled the video feed and we had that footage to share.

BP: What helps someone be a successful production manager?

ES: In my case, as I hadn’t come up on the production side of this business and didn’t have 20 years experience pushing cases and plugging in consoles, I listen to my team. I ask for their input. Ultimately I will make the final decision, but I truly listen to people who know more than me about audio and lighting, etc. in order to make the best decision for the event. 

BP: What advice would you give someone who’s interested in working in production?

ES: Listen to people who know more than you do about specific topics. Make sure you have thick skin. Ask questions. Stay out of the way and be aware of your surroundings. Be careful. It’s not for everyone. People are going to say things that may offend you. If the stage manager tells you to move that case from point A to point B don’t take it personally it just means that case needs to be there now, not 5 minutes from now.

BP: What’s your favorite artist you’ve gotten to work with over the years? Is there any artist you’d love to see live but haven’t yet? 

ES: Not necessarily my favorite artist, but my favorite part of my job and the thing that makes me happy is when the artist’s production manager thanks my crew for a great and easy experience onboard. 

I’ve spent the better part of the last 30 years seeing concerts on a regular basis. The last 8 months have been extremely frustrating for everyone in this industry. I just want to be back either in an audience or backstage with live music blaring. At this point it doesn’t matter who it is, I just want to see and work shows again.

Well said, Ethan. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us!

Read more about the history of Sixthman on their website.

If you work behind the scenes in the live music industry (or know somebody who does) and want to share your story and perspective, visit our Contact Us page to let us know!

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