David Norman is a big fan of music, and has been since, as a small child, he would hear his mother playing the piano, his father spinning a vastly broad spectrum record collection, and a sister who also played piano and drums. Small wonder he would pick up on the drums as instrument of choice when he was just five years old.
Soft-spoken and easygoing in demeanor, he is the type of guy one is easily drawn to. That voice, with its hint of southern accent, brings on an instant connection, giving the listener a sense of wanting to understand and get on board with whatever Norman is discussing at the moment — which is a great tool to have at hand for a person whose main job is clear and precise communications that need to be understood.
As a tour manager and production manager, his experience is all about shepherding an army of creatives, technicians, and artists in a multimillion dollar mobile office every day on their trip around our globe. Those artists have crossed the gamut of genres, styles and color in the fore front of our culture for 50 years. A big fan of primarily country and rock music, he has been “lucky enough to work with people I have been a fan of” from Prince to Robert Plant.
Quite simply, “5-1,” as he is better known, holds a well-deserved place in the “legendary” ranks of the touring entertainment business. As such, he has worked with acts from Prince and Avicii to King Crimson, Alicia Keys and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, taken the Star Trek Ultimate Voyage live tour across North America, and John Legend around the world — to name just a few.
PLSN sat down with David in a small pub in the historical and hip Little Five Points neighborhood in Atlanta a day after he returned from The Kennedy Center Honors, where his current artist, Earth, Wind, and Fire were inducted.
Norman’s father was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force and, as noted, his early years were infused in music. As early as five, he knew he wanted to be involved in music in some way, shape, or form. His mother played a bit of guitar, piano, and tuba, while his sister became an accomplished drummer and piano player. “My father was a big influence on my musical tastes,” he says, “because he listened to literally everything.” David would take up the drums himself, laughingly recalling how his father was “my first roadie.”
Too young to drive, his father would chauffeur David to the auditions for local bands, help set up his kit, then tear it down and drive them back home. He was around 14 at the time and attending Catholic school, playing in their bands as well. “Between my military home life and the nuns, I got a very structured upbringing.” Rubbing the back of his hand, he smiles and admits that he’s “still scared of those nuns.”
Norman recalls doing “okay” in high school and being singularly excellent in math. “I just wasn’t motivated in school. Everything I did was geared toward music.” He took to the road, “doing it all; driving the van, setting up drums, mixing F.O.H. then tear down and repeat.” He also pursued work in recording studios when at home, hoping to make a “practical” career of it while still playing in bands.
At age 19, while on the road, he lost both his parents. “My sister and I received a fair inheritance, and I was going to invest mine in a P.A. System or recording studio,” says Norman. Fortuitously, he went with the studio, and partnered with the guitarist in a southern rock band called Grinderswitch. They agreed to partner and set up operations in Warner Robins, GA under the banner Hidden Meaning Recording Studio.
With the opening of the studios doors Norman would cross paths with several people who would become his greatest mentors and closest friends. “One of the bands we recorded got signed by Motown, and I went with them on tour as their F.O.H. engineer,” says Norman. Here, he met Karen Krattinger, who tour-managed the S.O.S. Band, the act they were opening for. A short time later, he would meet artist manager Tom Barfield, who managed a lot of bands around the Atlanta area. “These two had a huge influence on shaping both my career and me personally after I quit playing drums, and they remain very much so to this day.
“I’m a huge fan of Karen’s; in fact I still turn to her for advice,” 5-1 adds. Krattinger was called up to work with Prince, so she handed the tour manager reins of S.O.S. over to him, “and remained totally accessible for questions and guidance through that experience.” Krattinger also worked extensively with the Dixie Chicks, among others. Whenever Norman does an interview or speaks at conferences and various universities these days, he always takes a moment to acknowledge his mentors and emphasize their value. “They are central to the message of carrying it forward to the next generation.”
This was in the late ‘80’s, and Norman quickly took on roles as FOH engineer, tour manager, and production manager in a variety of combinations for acts like Peabo Byson, Arrested Development, and the Neville Brothers. He worked with another Atlanta band, Collective Soul, and managed tours for the Goo Goo Dolls and Green Day. Another equally important mentor who guided him through Europe was Bob Ward. “He carried some massive tours around the world, most notably Iron Maiden,” says Norman.
Big Moments, Breaks, and Challenges
David’s first “Big Break” came when he was hired as tour manager for Matchbox Twenty. “The tour was a success, everyone made money, but I have a few regrets, looking back on how I totally lost focus. I made several mistakes that I painfully learned from; most importantly is that the Artist always comes first.”
His “Big Moments” include the first time he met Robert Plant. “We were getting ready for his tour with Alison Krauss. When I saw him step off the plane, well, you know, I had a moment… I was literally shaking. I mean, I am a HUGE Led Zeppelin fan, and that’s Robert Plant standing there!” He kept his cool, though, and Plant never suspected a thing. Norman has not become jaded or immune to the star talent he works with. He is the first to confess that his love of music has made him a deep fan of many artists. He recalls Prince asking him into his dressing room in Amsterdam so he could riff on a bunch of jokes for Norman, (“some weren’t that funny but hey, its Prince, being a regular guy, telling jokes!”)
Norman’s most difficult challenge of his career springs readily to mind when asked. “Oh, that’s easy,” he laughs. “I got a call to do a Prince tour in 2014 as his production manager for a European run of dates. “The only pieces in place were the band, the backline guys and the LD.” Trucking, busing, lighting, video, freight, audio, (in other words — everything) needed to be sourced, setup and ready to open his first show in nine days. He gives huge accolades to the vendors, a lot of whom had worked for Prince in the past and had some insight into avoiding any landmines along the way.
They were allotted one day of tech rehearsals and things were, as every first time all the elements for a tour are assembled moving a bit behind schedule. Sound check did not get to take place until midnight, which clearly “miffed Prince.” The next day though, at the prescribed sound check time, found Prince and Norman standing at FOH.
“Prince is smiling, and I’m looking at the whole rig in front of us, thinking, ‘Wow, we did this!’ I really felt like I had accomplished something, and in that instant realized, ‘Hey, I’m pretty good at this!’ Launching that tour was my biggest challenge, and my greatest highlight,” Norman says, while shaking his head with a grin.
He points back to the fact, once again, that at the heart of it all, he is a fan. “I was a huge fan of Prince; no way was I gonna pass that opportunity up, and I admit, I wanted to prove something to myself. I was totally stressed out when we left rehearsals,” he admits. But he never flinched from the moment he was asked, given all the counter and non-productive aspects of what he was about to jump into. Instead, he again points to his list of “idols” who became mentors.
Being on tour with Alicia Keys in Dubai and getting the opportunity to meditate for an hour in the desert, visiting the Great Wall of China and seeing the Forbidden City — “I realize just how lucky I am to have these experiences working at a job I love.”
And how does he describe that job? “I am a tour manager that gets parties A and B to and from points A and B,” he says. “Along the way, I have to be a babysitter, a psychologist and an accountant.” Most of his work comes through Creative Artists Agency (CAA). It his work with country artist Chase Rice, a CAA client, that Norman met booking agent Meredith Jones. “I absolutely love that lady, not only for the doors she has opened for me, but she is just such an amazing person.”
Jones got Norman involved with “The Hubb” as speaker and lecturer. In an effort to promote diversity in the music business, Creative Artists Agency formed the Hubb, which is an invitation-only networking and professional development summit designed to provide diverse internship- and career-ready college students with the tools and resources needed to successfully enter the music business. The event was named in honor of industry icon Barbara “Mother” Hubbard, Executive Director of the American Collegiate Talent Showcase (ACTS), whose program provides scholarships to students pursuing careers in the performing arts.
“Meredith invited me to be a mentor/speaker at one of these conferences and it set in motion a lot of positive directions in my life. The program itself is just amazing. I gave all the students who sat in on my lectures my business card and invited them to call anytime if they had further questions.”
One of them took Norman up on his offer which wound up with a visit to his home by six other students from the University of Georgia. Since he works out of his home, Norman was able to walk them through his office and show them the real nuts and bolts, contract and otherwise, of the real world of tour management.
That same student relayed the trip to his music business college professor, who then invited Norman to be a guest lecturer at the University of Georgia. Upon hearing about this, his mentor and friend Tom Barfield introduced David to a professor at the University of Miami. Plans are underway to conduct a similar lecture experience through Skype in 2020.
“As I grow older, I realize the next generation needs to be given the benefit of the experience I received. Passing that information on through programs like CAA offers or lecturing in a mentor series at universities are just one of many ways I can pay it forward. We need to give the next generation a head start. And we need to diversify our ranks, especially with females. We really need a lot more females in our profession.”
David Norman teaches and exemplifies the concept that people of color need not gear themselves to only working “ethnic” music genres. “That is why I particularly enjoy working with country acts. Beside the fact that I love the music, my presence helps dispel that myth that only white tour managers or production managers, LDs and FOH engineers are qualified.” Still, though, he acknowledges that, while there has been progress, people of color still face more obstacles before they succeed in proving themselves in the world of country music, which is why diversity in the touring ranks needs to be addressed now.
“Years ago, I told my good friend, Kathleen Kronauer, I would love to meet Patrick Stansfield, who had worked with Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand, to name a few. She arranged that meeting, and for two hours I got to pick his brain. What an education! When I asked Patrick to arrange a meeting with Marty Hom, another idol on my list, he simply whipped out his phone, called Marty, and said he had ‘a young man who would like to meet you.’ The next morning, I’m having breakfast with Marty!” These are the two men who underscored the “pay it forward” philosophy in David’s life.
“There is a sure path to success, and that way is to do more than you are asked for,” Norman summarizes. “I learned this valuable lesson from my best friend, Katie Friesema. All this emphasis on paying it forward and sharing his hard-earned knowledge with kids looking for a future in this business comes out of his own experience.
“I still love the music,” Norman continues. “In the beginning, that was its own reward. I started out driving a van, humping gear and quickly saw there is no room for tourists on the road.
“What I like about EWF is they are a bunch of older guys,” David continues. “‘Yes sir, no sir,’ a pure class act, hands down. John Legend, much younger than they are, is that way too. It is why he is so successful. In this day and age there is no reason to be rude or condescending to people,” he says, with quiet confidence.
David has recently opened a new set of doors with his company, Tour Forensics. The new startup promises to be a one-stop-shop for artists, managers and record labels, as Norman, Gabi Parra and their support team draw from their extensive experience in tour direction, logistics, tour accounting, budgets, show settlements, staffing, vendor allocation, routing, travel coordination, hospitality, charter jet bookings, and executing domestic and international work visas and immigration paperwork to help any tour or event come to fruition.
With touring now the top source of income for musical artists, having a team of seasoned professionals is essential for any artist wanting to streamline their tours and maximize their revenue streams. Tour Forensics specializes in providing support services to tour and production managers, major and indie record labels (and management), as well as artists directly. Given the varied nature of each production, Tour Forensics promises to tailor their services to each client’s particular needs.