Richard Ashcroft will join Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and their touring band to headline Saturday 11 June 2016
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This year's winner of The Gaffer Award for production excellence talks about her career path and her hope to see more women attaining positions of power in live music
By Gordon Masson on 18 Jan 2023
As the production manager for Billie Eilish, Nicole Massey has become one of the most high-profile roadies in the world, thanks in no small part to presenting the young star to an audience of millions at The Grammys this year.
Her résumé includes working with some of the biggest stars to ever grace the stage – Coldplay, Beyoncé, Madonna, Prince, Rod Stewart, and Van Halen, to name but a few. But it was the Divine Miss M who first ignited Nicole’s passion for touring, while her insatiable desire to learn new skills has seen her seamlessly switch roles from performer to production guru. Unlike some of her peers who fell into the production sector, Nicole’s fate seemed sealed from the start. “My parents met while working on a theatrical production, so you could say it’s in my blood,” she reveals. Indeed, the smell of the greasepaint has never been far away. “I was a dancer and performer from a really early age – I was always being excused from school to go to New York for some audition or another,” she recalls.
Raised in the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania – in the same county as global production hub, Lititz – Nicole was given free rein to exercise her imagination, as her parents could obviously see where her natural talent might take her. “They encouraged my creativity. I had imaginary friends as a child – Shamen, Camen, and Amy – who we would pick up on the side of the road on car journeys. My sister’s friends would be wondering what on earth we were doing, but it was a regular thing,” she laughs.
Growing up surrounded by adult actors and performers may have helped instil self-confidence in the young Nicole, too, because when she had the chance to compete for a dance scholarship across the country in Dallas, Texas, she persuaded her parents to let her undertake the trip on her own. Needless to say, she won the scholarship.
Having made a name for herself in theatrical circles, Nicole found herself living in Los Angeles until her first taste of life on the road on a live music show changed everything – dancing for Bette Midler on her 1999 Divine Miss Millennium tour. “It was my first rock-and-roll-style tour. And, honestly, within days I decided that I never wanted to not do this,” states Nicole.
Nicole next found herself out with Backstreet Boys, which saw her having to use her passport for work for the first time. “I remember being in Buenos Aires and just so excited that I could go see the Eva Peron balcony, because I’m a dorky theatre girl,” she says. “At any opportunity, I’d do all the sightseeing and stuff, so I got the nickname Pollyanna because I was so excited to be everywhere… I’m just a girl from little Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and I’ve been to Uzbekistan; I’ve been to Prince Charles’s birthday party. I never want to take this for granted.”
“It was my first rock-and-roll-style tour. And, honestly, within days I decided that I never wanted to not do this”
Determined to keep touring, Nicole would offer artists her dancing prowess while taking on additional roles behind the scenes. “I was a professional dancer until about the age of 28 or 29,” she notes. “But even when I was on tour, I’d take jobs where I was dancing and doing wardrobe.”
Working for Rod Stewart offered such an opportunity and also allowed her to participate in one of the music industry’s favourite side-lines: nepotism. “Rod loves using people’s skills to the maximum – he has a drum tech who is also the percussionist, for instance. So, when we hired my sister, Danielle, for wardrobe on the tour and Rod discovered she was a Rockette – one of the dancing girls at Radio City [Music Hall] – he asked us to choreograph something for Hot Legs and for Sexy. As a result, we danced all of the 2008 tour. I would go from being a tour manager to dancing in the show and coming back, with full stage makeup on, to deal with promoters and stuff like that. It was funny.”
Taking on wardrobe duties for the likes of The Chicks and such costume-heavy outings as Madonna’s Re-Invention tour in 2004, Nicole’s curiosity for all aspects of production started to develop early on, but it was her long, on-off touring with Rod Stewart she points to as opening new doors.
“The first real production job was before working with Rod, when Bill Leabody asked me to be his production assistant on Enrique Iglesias,” she explains. “However, with Rod Stewart, I started out doing wardrobe, and then when the band’s tour manager was leaving, they were confident I could take on that role as well, so I was doing both for a while. And then that’s when we hired my sister.”
I didn’t change my number
Gaining a solid reputation for her can-do attitude, Nicole was on the end of a call from Craig Finley when he was planning Coldplay’s 2009 European stadium tour – drafting her in as production coordinator. And when Leabody took over for Coldplay’s 2012 world tour, the writing was on the wall. “I ended up telling Rod during a tour of Australia that I was going to work for Coldplay the following year, so I gave him about six-months’ notice.”
Rod Stewart’s influence continues in Nicole’s life, however, as his 2009 tour date in Ireland had life-changing repercussions.
“My dear friend, Tom McCarthy, who is an Irish guy that owns a couple of bars in New York, told me he’d be coming to Rod’s shows when we were in Ireland. And the night before the Dublin show, he asked if he could bring his friend, Dick Massey, who was in the movie The Commitments, to the show. Naturally, I said yes because I love that movie, but I didn’t know which one he was, and I hadn’t seen it since about 1991. In fact, one of my childhood friends reminded me that we had to sneak into the movie theatre because the movie was R-rated – up until Pulp Fiction came out, The Commitments held the record for the most F-bombs.
“But anyway, Dick came to the Rod Stewart show, and three months later I was living in Dublin. And three years later we got married.”
“I would go from being a tour manager to dancing in the show and coming back, with full stage makeup on, to deal with promoters”
Immersing herself back in the production side of touring suited Nicole perfectly. “I just fell in love with being part of the crew,” she tells IQ. “I truly love taking care of the crew and being the mama. When you’re the production coordinator or production manager, half of the job is just dealing with people, personalities, and managing their expectations.”
My strange addiction
Prior to her long stint with Coldplay, which took her from 2012 to 2019, many of Nicole’s jobs involved fulfilling more than one role – a work ethic driven by her determination to learn as many disciplines as possible.
“From the time I was on the road with Backstreet Boys, 24 years ago, I’d travel on the audio bus and ask, ‘How do you guys know whose cables are what?’ And they’d say, ‘Why don’t you come load PA with us to find out!’ And so, I started loading in and out PA on Backstreet with the Clair audio boys. That’s how I learned where everything was going and started to feel more comfortable on the floor, rather than hiding back in those offices.”
She continues, “I found out very early on that it’s good to push your cases to the truck: you have to find the things that actually help the whole tour, rather than just thinking of yourself.”
Eager to learn about different roles, Nicole would consistently volunteer for other production-related tasks. “I helped with confetti on lots of tours,” she reports. “I did confetti on The Chicks, on [Michael] Bublé, and I used to call the confetti cues on Coldplay.”
Her natural curiosity made every day an education process. “I just asked the questions. I realise that there’s no way that anybody can know everything, especially with how technology changes so quickly. But I guess it comes back to me being bold and not afraid to say I have a different idea about how to do something.”
Certainly, her work on arena and stadium tours offered countless moments to build her knowledge base, which for one of those rare people who can boast a photographic memory, has resulted in an encyclopaedic skillset. “Being a part of such big, heavy productions, you almost have to possess the knowledge just to operate,” says Nicole. “As the [production] coordinator, I had no freight knowledge until Bill [Leabody] let me be a part of the email chains, which really allowed me to learn.”
“You have to find the things that actually help the whole tour, rather than just thinking of yourself”
Citing other colleagues who nurtured her, she continues, “On Enrique, I had a tour manager called Jerry Levin, who encouraged me and made me his assistant. Through him I learned a lot about dealing with the artist directly in the sense of their needs, hotels, and flights, and all that stuff. Cary ‘Slim’ Ritcher was a production manager who I worked with on smaller shows, and he explained why we’d run the cables a certain way because we were near the [loading] dock, and you didn’t want to be rolling road cases over the top. There are a ton of dumb little nuances of touring, whether it’s in a theatre or whether it’s in a stadium. But if you treat every day as a learning experience, it all mounts up.”
Everything I wanted
As one of the most popular characters on the global tour circuit, it’s somewhat astonishing that Nicole’s work with Billie Eilish marks her debut as a production manager. Indeed, if she had not been vocal about her ambitions to become the boss, it’s conceivable she might still be waiting in the wings.
The magic moment came in South Africa on Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s 2018 world tour. “Bill Leabody and I were in a runner van, and I just said out loud that I wanted to be a production manager. I put it out into the universe, and less than four months later, Bill recommended me for the Billie job,” says Nicole.
Taking up the story, Leabody tells IQ, “I first met Nicole nearly 20 years ago on a tour with The Chicks when she was in charge of wardrobe. We shared an irreverent sense of humour and hit it off straight away. Nicole was always in a good mood and was wonderful at her job.”
Reunited on the next Chicks’ tour, Nicole became Leabody’s production coordinator. “Other tours followed and, when Coldplay came around, I of course took Nicole with me,” continues Leabody. “We did two stadium tours together, which Nicole handled effortlessly.
“When the OTR2 tour, with Beyoncé and Jay Z came in, Carmen Rodriguez was already in place as coordinator. However, there was an opening for someone to go in advance to deal with steel crews and make sure production needs were all ready for us coming in hot. Nicole took on this challenge and did an amazing job.
“To say that Nicole has excelled is an understatement. She is now universally accepted as one of the best”
“[When] Nicole [subsequently] asked me if I thought she could step up to be a production manager, I had no doubt at all that she could do it, and I told her so.” Within weeks, Leabody was made aware that Billie Eilish needed a new production manager. “Unfortunately, I had other commitments, but when Billie’s manager, Danny Rukasin, asked if I could recommend someone else, I immediately thought of Nicole.” Leabody adds, “To say that Nicole has excelled is an understatement. She is now universally accepted as one of the best, and I am so honoured to welcome her into the community of ‘Gaffers’: the first woman to be invited to join and a fabulous role model.”
Nicole comments, “I’m very proud to be the first female Gaffer, and more so because of the company I’m keeping. I’m just so honoured to join Bill and Jake [Berry] and Chris [Kansy], and all those guys. I’ve known them all for a long time.”
Turning to her first official PM job, Nicole states, “Having the backing of a Gaffer – Bill – on speed dial has been a blessing. I’m so fortunate that I can call upon all kinds of people who I’ve worked with over the years to ask their advice about something. But sometimes I’ll say, ‘This might seem like a stupid idea…’ And it turns out it’s a winner and the feedback is ‘Why didn’t we think of that?!’ So, I’m definitely putting my own stamp on being a production manager.”
She continues, “I’m sure I annoy some crew members because I’m very positive and try to constantly motivate them. I was so involved in dance teams and sports teams growing up that I thrive on the camaraderie. Nobody on tour does this for the crazy hours and the stressful times. They do it because of the people. I look out into that crowd every night. And I look at those kids. And I’m like, ‘Oh my god…’ That’s why I do it!”
As for Happier Than Ever, The World Tour, Nicole has nothing but praise for artists Billie and Finneas after the lengths they went to in order to make sure the crew were kept as active as possible when Covid shut things down very early in the original tour schedule. “We got three shows in, and then the pandemic happened,” says Nicole. “It was pretty scary, and I felt very responsible, trying to make sure that everyone was okay.”
“I look out into that crowd every night. And I look at those kids. And I’m like, ‘Oh my god…’ That’s why I do it!”
Two of the crew were easy enough to keep an eye on – husband Dick, who is Nicole’s production coordinator, and four-legged, tail-wagging production chief, Reggie, whom Mr & Mrs Massey chaperone around the world. “Dick and I worked together on Coldplay, but we were in different offices: he was doing VIP ticketing when I was production coordinator. So, we’ve been out together before, but when Billie was about to go out in 2020, I asked him if he’d come and join me and Reggie in the office.”
Come out and play
Despite the moratorium on live music, Eilish’s core crew were only side-lined for a matter of weeks before a plan was actioned to keep them busy. “We actually started going to LA in July of 2020 because Billie created a whole bunch of different live projects, such as an Amazon project and a Disney project at the Hollywood Bowl,” reveals Nicole.
“Then, when her documentary came out, we did a little video release party. And for all the stuff like that, she used her touring crew: the backline guys, audio control… A small group of us would fly to LA, where we’d quarantine for the first few days, then we’d all test and stay at a hotel that had an outdoor firepit so that, after work, we could sit outside and have a beer, like you would normally, and hang out, distanced but safe. We even agreed that nobody would eat indoors to minimise the chances of catching Covid: those were the rules if you wanted to keep working.”
While the postponed tour dates remained on hold, the various other projects eventually rolled into Eilish’s festival season. “And then that rolled into the tour for this year,” smiles Nicole. “We loaded in for rehearsals in Los Angeles on January 2, so we were pretty fortunate in terms of work compared to a lot of our touring colleagues.”
While Nicole admits she has worked on more fraught tours, the production on Happier Than Ever, The World Tour is a complex affair.
“This show is a beast,” she tells IQ. “Normally, a show comes in, the stage is built at the other end, lighting goes up, stage rolls in. Bam! You have a show. Billie’s production involves lighting coming in, then some of the staging, then lighting deals with some of the moving trusses, then we roll in the diamond part of the stage, then we finish the lighting, then we have the lighting on the sides, then we roll in the thrust. It’s like an onion that you have to just keep peeling, layer on layer.
“This show just shows what is capable with an amazing team. I relied on my stage manager, Jayy Jutting, and then he relied on the crew chiefs, who were so dedicated – if we didn’t have Mattie Rynes, my head rigger, Jack Deitering, my head carp, Wayne Kwiat on lighting, Scott ‘Bull’ Allen from Strictly FX, Matt McQuaid with audio, Dave Keipert and Racheal Hudson from Team Video, Brian Benauer with Tait Automation… every department needed a strong leader or else we were just going to fail.”
“This show is a beast… It’s like an onion that you have to just keep peeling, layer on layer”
That respect is patently mutual, as Nicole has been affectionately nicknamed ‘The Hammer’ by Billie’s crew members, impressed by the way that the PM quietly goes about making sure her plan is adhered to, without having to raise her voice. “I hate shouters; it’s my pet peeve,” she says. “If you keep it internal and then use your loud voice when you need to, people know that you’re serious.”
Indeed, despite the North American dates requiring crew to wear full PPE to mitigate against Covid-19, Nicole’s strategy for that leg set the benchmark for the entire tour, with zero dates being lost to the virus.
Moving to Europe where restrictions were more relaxed should have been a relief. However, while the majority of American venues have loading bays, the opposite is true in Europe, where new driving regulations further complicated being on the road.
“I had a little breakdown in Dublin,” confesses Nicole. “I was very nervous about a few of the overnighters and worried we weren’t going to make it. So, I got all the crew chiefs together and told them that I needed help. It turned out to be a good moment for me as a production manager – just to gather all the people who I know are really good at their jobs, so we could figure it out together.”
One of the major headaches for the daily routine was dealing with the B stage: a crane that takes Eilish far and wide around venues so that she can literally be just a few feet from fans, even when they are seated in arena balconies.
“That arm weighs 8,000 pounds,” states Nicole. “We took it from the US to Europe to Australia, and it’s now enroute back to Los Angeles for Billie’s December shows at The Forum.”
Explaining the intricacies of dealing with such a massive piece of equipment, she says, “To load the turret you actually have to tilt it on its side because the containers are not wide enough. We even took it to festivals a couple times, like at Austin City Limits. It just makes such a cool impact because the people that Billie is looking right at never thought that they could get the chance to be that close to her. But it’s complicated. In Dublin, for instance, we had to change the orientation of the arm so that it was parallel to the audience because of how short it is inside the 3Arena. Each venue had to be approached on a case-by-case basis, and every day was different because of the elevations of where the seats were, etc. Our programmer, Pat King, did a great job.”
“I got all the crew chiefs together and told them that I needed help. It turned out to be a good moment for me”
As for the tour’s trickiest shows, Nicole cites the visit to the Accor Arena as a date that literally led to sleepless nights.
“My scariest day was back-to-back Cologne then Paris,” she reports. “On that overnight, a couple of us jumped ahead on the catering bus and were in the venue in Paris to start just dumping things as they came in.
“The planning worked well, though. We did a pre-rig and motors were in the air when we got there. But it took a lot: I had the video crew chief walking around checking on all the other departments to see where he could help – people just stepped up to go that extra mile for Billie. I mean, at 5:45pm, I was on my hands and knees doing barricade because I was determined we were not going to be late for doors.”
She adds, “We had to come up with an A, B, and C show because of timing. We knew that it would take minimum two hours and 11 minutes to complete the building of our automated video tile ramp once the main stage was in place. But I have the most amazing head [carpenter] Jack Deitering. If it was not for that man, I really don’t know if the show in Paris would have happened.”
With the spectre of Covid requiring the services of EMT (emergency medical technician) Gordon Oldham, trying to keep crew healthy was a fulltime task. “I’m not gonna lie; I don’t think I ever want to do a tour without some kind of medical person on tour, now,” says Nicole. “Gordon did a great job and proved invaluable for all kinds of things outside of the Covid situation.
“The crew was very international,” she says of a crew that sometimes had to be patched together to deal with Covid absentees. “We had Lithuanians, Polish, Ukrainian drivers, so we had a lot of language and communication issues, but Robert Hewett at Stagetruck was beyond helpful throughout the whole thing.
“In Ireland, we had riggers from Budapest, I believe, and there were one or two places in Europe where we struggled, but surprisingly we were never more than 20 short, so we managed to deal with it.”
“I don’t think I ever want to do a tour without some kind of medical person on tour, now”
Such issues were a piece of cake compared to Australia. “In Sydney, we had only 45 people out of 110 on the load-in,” Nicole says. “Luckily, we had a full load-in day and we organised accordingly: we talked to the crew chiefs and said when they officially really needed the hands, then great. But otherwise, these guys would break off and give lighting six hands, and then the special effects hands would go straight to audio, and we just had to juggle around like that. Sydney and Perth were the only ones where it was a little crazy.”
Having made the grade as one of the world’s top production managers, Nicole is determined to encourage other women in the business that they have the skills to do likewise. Not that everyone universally recognises her as the production chief, yet. “As a woman, people come up and start to talk to the stage manager before me, because they just think I’m a girl standing there,” she tells IQ. “It happens all the time in the office, where Dick has to say, ‘Have you met Nicole, our production manager?’ It’s ridiculous, but I’m lucky that I have really wonderful people around me that support me in that sense.”
She also namechecks some of the many women who have helped her on her journey and inspired her to aim for the top job. “Working with Marguerite Nguyen on Coldplay, I was given so much of an opportunity to do different things that most coordinators would never do on a tour. So, I feel like I was prepared to take the step up to PM, more than most, because that tour is just so massive.”
Advocating that more tours consider elevating women to production chief, Nicole observes, “We’re multitaskers and organisers. There are lots of amazing female leaders out there – we have Emma Reynolds-Taylor running the production for Glastonbury; Duchess [Sue Iredale] has been running productions forever; Bianca Mauro runs a stage at Austin City Limits. So, we have all these women that are running big festivals and stages and events, and while it just hasn’t happened as much on the road, there are still plenty of amazing women out there, day after day, delivering shows to fans. There just needs to be more, in the crew chief roles and upwards, but also just more women in touring, in general.
“What I think needs to happen is that women need to be trusted with management positions in touring and throughout the music business. We need to start pushing more of these strong-willed women, like myself, forward a bit more. There are lots of them out there who have been working their ass[es] off for years and feeling very good about what they do but who do not necessarily know or believe that they can do what I’m doing. But they can, and it’s a situation that we can all work on together to provide more support and encouragement to drive the change.”
“Women need to be trusted with management positions in touring and throughout the music business”
Indeed, citing one example of where her own personal experience as a dancer came to the fore, Nicole remembers a dilemma ahead of Eilish’s February 2022 concert at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena. “Billie’s toaster had a power issue,” states Nicole. “It’s the mechanism that allows her to pop-up onto the stage at the start of the show, and we all worked hard to try to fix it, but I finally knew it was time to go and tell her. But before I did that, I went out with the carpenter; we looked at putting a set of stairs in place and a bunch of different things so that I had three options for her to make her entrance.
“I’m not gonna lie; I really was proud of myself in the sense that it was my dance background that made me figure out the best way for her to enter. That was the first time I had that realisation that I can bring things to the table that a male production manager wouldn’t necessarily come up with.”
Breaking such news to the artist may be daunting, but Nicole’s bond with Billie is strong. “She’s an amazing artist,” states Nicole. “The thing that makes Billie so special is she doesn’t need the bells and whistles. So as the tour progressed and that muscle memory, night after night, developed, it was so good to just see her so happy and having so much fun out there.”
Indeed, that respect goes both ways, when Billie asked Nicole to introduce her Grammy performance when the Academy wanted to feature women in touring.
“The Grammy thing was an amazing moment; I had so much fun,” she smiles. “My friend, Patrick Logue from the Rod Stewart Camp, once told me that chewing gum was easier to get off the stage than me – and it’s kind of true; I’m such a ham! But I didn’t realise the impact it would have. Two weeks after The Grammys, when we were at Coachella, I had people I didn’t know coming up to me and thanking me for being the voice of our industry; speaking out for women. So, a really proud moment turned into this thing where I just had people stopping me left and right. And I was so honoured that it was perceived that way because I truly, truly love this industry.”
And having attained the top job, Nicole concludes that it’s given her a newfound understanding of her peers and former PM bosses. “I have so much more respect for all the production managers that I’ve worked with, because I used to keep my inbox as a to-do list, while I’d look at the likes of Bill’s email and think, ‘Oh my god, how can you let get it that way?’ But now I understand – I have 64,000 messages in my inbox now. It’s never-ending.”
“The thing that makes Billie so special is she doesn’t need the bells and whistles”
As for what’s next, Nicole reveals that industry nepotism has benefitted her once more, while the enforced time off that she and Dick enjoyed at the start of the pandemic has made her a little more relaxed about looking at next year’s employment contracts.
“After Billie’s hometown shows in December, the crew will all go our separate ways, but we’ve also got a little Finneas tour in Australia starting in January, where he’s doing the Laneway Festivals. So, we’ll get back together for that. And then we’ll come back to do some rehearsals before Billie heads to Latin America, then have a break in April.
“After that… I don’t really know, there’s nothing 100% confirmed, so I’m just going to play it by ear. Everybody keeps asking me what I’m going to do when The Happier Than Ever Tour ends, but I don’t stress about stuff like that anymore.”
Unsurprisingly, remaining in the camp for whom she described at The Grammys as “The best 20-year-old boss in the world,” would be top choice for Nicole, who concludes, “When it comes to work, I trust my gut and am hopeful that it means we’ll get to continue working with Billie.”
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