The Toll of Touring

Music industry veterans Paul, left, and Courtney Klimson established The Roadie Clinic in Niles to support roadies and their families. Photo credit: Brian Campbell
Niles couple establishes clinic to aid roadies

Roadies, the unsung heavy lifters of the music industry, spend grueling months on the road doing the hard work necessary to support musicians on tour. But what happens when they need a little support of their own?

“In our community, we’re all a bunch of freelancers, so there’s no support for us,” says music industry veteran Courtney Klimson, wife of a roadie. “There’s no union.
There’s no health care. Anything that you would expect in a typical work environment, it’s not offered in touring.”

That’s why Courtney and her husband, sound engineer Paul Klimson, developed The Roadie Clinic in Niles. It provides roadies and their families with resources and connections to services, including mental health therapy, insurance plans and financial assistance.

The term “roadie” refers to workers who travel on tour with musical artists in support of their shows. Typically, it means the workers who set up and maintain equipment, but they can be sound engineers, wardrobe crew members, or anyone else who makes the show happen each night. While many people think that the life of a roadie sounds glamorous — that whole sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll thing — in reality it can be emotionally taxing and mentally and physically harmful, not only for roadies, but for their families as well.

Paul and Courtney Klimson have experienced firsthand the joys and the difficulties of the roadie lifestyle. Paul has worked as a traveling sound engineer for more than 20 years, touring with some big-name artists like Drake, Justin Timberlake and John Legend. Courtney has also been a part of the music industry for two decades, working for several record labels.

A typical day for a roadie involves constant motion. The team comes to a venue, works all day to set up, then, after the rehearsal and the show, takes everything down and travels all night to the next venue just to do it all over again. The job offers little to no security, as most roadies are freelancers. That means no benefits such as health insurance.

Those left behind

While Paul knows life on the road, Courtney knows another side of the roadie life, one not often thought of: being a family member at home while a loved one is away on tour.

“Every time that the partner leaves, the house blows up or the car breaks or you get into an accident or whatever the case may be. There was never any place that I could go and ask for help, at least a place where people would actually understand what I’m going through,” Courtney Klimson explains. “All my friends were teachers and business people, and while they loved what I did, they didn’t really understand the toll that it took.”

The Klimsons have lived in Nashville, Tennessee, and New York City, two hubs of the music business. There were times when Paul was gone for most of a year and the couple hardly saw each other. And while both reached successful points in their careers, the immense stress of this life caused them to step back and reevaluate what really mattered, Courtney says.

“It was the culmination of 20 years of just witnessing every aspect of the music industry and touring,” she says. “(Paul’s) done everything from the smallest of the small to the big. He’s done the Super Bowl, the Cannes (Film) Festival, the Grammys, and he’s done the Oscars. We asked, ‘What else is there you could possibly do with your career? Do we really need to focus on the next biggest and the greatest tour, or do we need to focus our energies on taking care of our people?’”

By “our people” she means fellow roadies and their families. In 2019 the Klimsons settled down in Niles to be near family and established The Roadie Clinic there. Courtney says that in the last year, the clinic,which she and paul staffed, helped about 60 individuals or families with everything from therapy recommendations to finding support groups to assisting in locating financial resources.

“When I started The Roadie Clinic, it was specifically to become a hub for this part of the industry,” Courtney says. “My goal, my objective, is to reach out to all of these pre-existing organizations, get to know who they are, what they do, what they provide, what the stipulations are, and that way I’ve got a person on the inside.

“When people say, ‘What do you do?’ the answer is, ‘What do you need us to do? What’s the problem?’ You present us with your problem, and we’ll do our best to figure out a solution, one that already exists or one that we need to create. Either way, we’re going to stick by you and help you through it.”

‘Saved my mental health’

Starlet Burney, who has taken advantage of The Roadie Clinic’s help, has worked in the entertainment industry for almost 40 years, spending most of that time as a photographer touring with musicians.

A Nashville, Tennessee, native, she was surrounded by the music industry growing up and says music was ingrained in her from a very young age. She started working as a photographer in 1973 and has worked with artists in nearly every musical genre.
On a tour, Burney’s job is to capture every moment of an artist’s day, taking an average of 800 to 1,200 photos on each tour stop.

“Anything that remotely has to do with the artist that is on the artist’s schedule from their day-to-day routine is what I do,” Burney says. “I even go to the restaurants and eat with them. I’m attached to them like Velcro.”

While Burney says she loves her job, she echoes Klimson, saying the road life is grueling.

“There’s a lot that happens, because the road life is very hard,” Burney says. “You’re in a different city every day. You have serious demands of you. You have people grabbing at you left and right. You get to a point where you’re not real sure what city you’re in.”

Facing “serious burnout,” Burney put her camera down most of the time for nearly a decade, taking only a few jobs a year. She says she was experiencing mental and physical health issues, including breast cancer, when she met Courtney at an industry event in December 2019.

“I would say that Courtney, in a way, has saved my mental health,” Burney says. “She asked me what my personal needs were at that moment in time. I shared with her that I was going through an awful lot. At that particular time I was struggling with paying rent and utilities and things of that nature, and The Roadie Clinic gave me the funds that helped me pay my electric bill.”

A space to heal

The Klimsons know that even when roadies are off the road, they often need time to recuperate, so they are in the process of constructing a physical building for the clinic that they are calling The Lofts. When it opens late next year, The Lofts will provide a physical space where roadies can come to rest, get therapy, connect with other roadies, and recharge. It will have accommodations that roadies can stay in, therapy rooms, a sound mixing studio, a retail shop, and community spaces for people to connect.

Since being a roadie involves a grueling schedule and sometimes hard physical work, some people may wonder why anyone would choose it as a profession. Paul Klimson says that the energy and excitement of the shows keeps him coming back.

“It’s kind of cliché, but, much like the circus, the road chooses us,” he says. “It’s a job that gives instant feedback, and when that’s the crowd losing their minds, there is nothing better. The energy from the star, the crowd, the lights, the sound, the video and all the other crafts that go into touring create something bigger than all the singular parts. We are an extension of all of those pieces. I’m not sure where else you can find that type of relationship.”

“The perception of who we are and what we do is so much different than the reality of what we do and why we do it,” adds Courtney. “People don’t realize that some of the best experiences and best memories of their lives at these shows and festivals are actually some of the hardest and most devastating for our careers at times.”
Burney agrees.

“There are real issues that have to be resolved,” she says. “The people at The Roadie Clinic are some of the first who want to address them. Paul and Courtney are trying to do all they can to address these problems.”

Maggie Drew

Maggie interviewed the owners of two very different but equally interesting Kalamazoo businesses for this issue. She met with Tim and Tracy Lynn Kowalski, owners of Bio-Kleen, to talk about this company whose products have gained a national reputation for being among the best and most environmentally safe cleaners on the market. “What I loved about Tim’s story of success was he just listened to what the people around him wanted or needed and he made it,” says Maggie. “It was also really great to see that someone at his level of success really cares about giving back to people.” Maggie also interviewed Adam Weiner about his LEGO store, Bricks and Minifigs, which opens in Kalamazoo later this month and will sell new as well as used LEGO products. “Adam’s personal LEGO collection is very impressive,” she says. “I was intrigued by the community of people who love LEGO and the intricate details in all the sets.” Maggie, who graduated from Western Michigan University in April, worked at Encore as an intern during her senior year.

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