If you’re going to ask anyone for advice on how to get a foot in the entertainment industry, ask DCR Nashville’s General Manager John Schirmer. After more than 20 years on tour with artists like the Black Eyed Peas, Bonnie Raitt and Keb’ Mo’, John’s experience is a true testimony of life on the road. While it’s been a few years since he’s hopped a tour bus across country, John can still sit behind his desk at DCR Nashville and recount each experience and challenge as though it were yesterday. From how he got his start in concert production to overcoming drug and alcohol abuse, John offers his unique perspective on why he ended up in the seat he’s in today.
What inspired you to choose a career in the Music Business?
I was in the sixth grade and it started with Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin III kind of changed my perspective on what music was. I started to realize that music was an art form, a passion, a means of expression and an emotion. Led Zeppelin III ignited my love affair with music. Throughout high school I listened to every record I could get my hands on and I learned to play each song note for note on my guitar. Eventually I started playing in bands but It didn’t take long for me to realize that I didn’t really enjoy being in the spotlight. I’m not a spotlight kind of guy. It wasn’t really for me, so I kind of got out of the band thing and started getting involved with working with the bands in my neighborhood that I knew, who were my friends and were making records and playing shows and I got into the production side of making records and doing shows for them.
After a while the question arose, as it does for every disenchanted youth, can I make a living doing this? Making music? Is this something that provides a monetary sustenance that allows me to have a family and a life? My dad was convinced it wasn’t possible, and so I had to convince him that it was possible, and in turn, convince myself. Turns out it was and here we are today.
What did you go to school for?
A year or two after I graduated from high school, I went to the Art Institute of Philadelphia. It actually proved to be a very valuable experience. It was a Music Business program that dabbled in production elements. The school was mostly centered around the royalty and business management side of things, like royalty payments and contract negotiations etc. The Art Institute also offered a studio class, a live sound class, a lighting class, and a video class. There was also a concert production class, where we all got assigned a job and had to put on a concert at the end of the year. It was really beneficial — especially as my career progressed and I started doing tour management and production management. I went to school for my love of music and I left with a love for music and music business. Those two passions have served me well.
At the Art Institute, I met a lot of people who played a very big role in getting me into the business. They believed in me and my skills and they put me to the test. I remember my teacher in my concert production class Ed Franco, who was also a promoter for then New Park Entertainment in Philadelphia, assigned us an essay on “why we should be the leader of our concert production class,” and I think I said I’d cut all my hair off if I was given the job of leading the production team. (I had very long hair at the time) He gave me the job which was a very big responsibility, whatever I wrote in that essay worked, so I cut my hair off and I got to be the production manager for the whole event. I got to run public ticket departments, backstage catering departments, marketing departments, production departments and more. Everybody in the class was working for and with me and I ultimately had to give them their grades at the end of the concert/semester. That was my first 4A into full-scale concert productions on all levels of business and management, and I loved it.
From there, Ed Franco said he admired my commitment to my haircut and the effort I put in to the production and he started putting me out on a lot of shows that he managed productions for. I got to work with the Rolling Stones, Dave Matthews, Phish, Blues Traveler and many other acts. That’s when I started doing a lot of touring.
Would you say that going to school is the right path for someone wanting to pursue concert production and management?
I don’t believe school really gets you to where you need to go in this business. I don’t hire people based off a piece of paper. I hire people based off of their desire and passion for what they want to do. If you’re not passionate about this business, you’re not going to be successful. This business requires long hours. It puts all of your relationships in jeopardy and at risk, because it’s kind of a selfish endeavor. School can teach you technical skills that help, but it can’t give you the success gene and honestly that is what I am looking for. Are you born to do this? You have to have this ingrained want and desire to be successful in this business or else it’s just not going to happen.
School helps. It definitely helped me in the sense of prepping me for the business experience that I needed. But I guess if there was one thing I would say for people who want to be in this business is don’t be narrow-minded. The thing that’s helped me be successful in this business is that I was both a recording engineer and a producer, a live sound engineer, and a manager and now a business executive. All of those jobs have given me all the experience that I needed to stay very busy throughout my career. It’s allowed me to find success because I can do either or, or both. When a company or an artist hired me, there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish for them. If I didn’t know how to do it I’d figure it out. Experience and connections will get you into concert production or management.
Does it all come down to the connections you make and staying open-minded?
Absolutely. I advise my students or our young employees of this all the time. You don’t want to say “no” to things. If you don’t know how to do something learn it and sculpt your career chisel by chisel. The connections that you make doing anything will help define a path for your career. If somebody says, “hey, I’ve got a tour doing backline or guitar teching for somebody” and you want to be a front of house engineer learn how to tech. I wouldn’t suggest holding off for that front of house engineer job. I’d take that job as a guitar tech and get out on the road. Start meeting the production managers, the tour managers and everyone else on those tours because everybody is going to place pavers in your path.
Who did you tour with?
I grew up in New Jersey, which is close to New York, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Maryland, D.C., and Boston, so there was a hodgepodge of artists to work with. When I first got started in the business, it was really easy to start touring. So I toured with a lot of the bands that were local to my area. Some of the early bands I toured with were Dragpipe, Monster Magnet, Reach 454, Smile Empty Soul, Non-Point and Thrice. I did some stuff with a bands like Quicksand, Into Another and Borealis. Growing up in New Jersey, close to Asbury Park and New York City, everybody was getting signed out of Long Island and Asbury Park. That was some of my earliest experience.
In 2003, I went to Los Angeles to work with a company called Schubert Systems, I was their lead tech and crew chief. There I went on tour with Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Brian Wilson, Black Eyed Peas, Ferggie, Pennywise and others. One year while on tour with Bonnie Raitt, Keb’ Mo’ opened up for Bonnie. It was this year that I met and built a personal and business relationship with Keb’ that would last over 10 years professionally and continues today as a friendship. At the end of that Bonnie Raitt tour, I started doing front of house for Keb’ Mo’, and then I became his production manager. After a year and a half of doing that, he asked me if I could work in the studio with him. And so, for 10 years, I was his front of house engineer, tour manager, overall creative production manager and his recording engineer/mixing engineer.
In 2013, I left Keb’ Mo’ and became General Manager of Morris Light and Sound. There, I had the opportunity to work with Kenny Chesney, Florida Georgia Line, Grace Potter, Montgomery Gentry, and others. And then, in 2017, I came here to DCR Nashville.
How many days out of the year were you on the road?
For me, it was over 200 days a year. For Keb’ Mo’, I averaged 230 days out of the year.
What inspired you to continue to want to work around music?
I’ve always had a connection in creating emotional responses out of people. I’ve always had connections to art forms and the way they can make contact with people, how they can touch people’s souls and their emotions. When I choose not to be in the spotlight as far as playing in bands goes, I still wanted to be a part of having that interaction with people. I liked being able to turn frowns upside town, dry tears, create tears or have the ability to lock into an emotion and have someone go “that’s exactly how I feel.”
I wanted to always be able to do that. Whether you’re in the band or part of the production, you have an outreach to thousands of people. So, there’s a moment every night where you get a call over the radio and there’s five seconds to show time. All the houselights go down and all the lights on the production come up and the audience kind of goes crazy. It’s an irreplaceable kind of feeling. There’s an excitement level for the fans because they’re about to see their favorite artist, and for those who produce the shows, there’s an excitement level, because that’s the moment that you’ve prepared for. That’s always driven me to be successful the need to have that interaction with the audience. I always wanted to be a part of touching people with music, because I feel like it’s healing.
What is your role as General Manager at DCR Nashville?
From the beginning, my role was to do an analysis of what the company was, how it was operating and how to make positive changes. From developing SOPs, hiring team members for the company to generating plans for how Howard and I envision the company to be structured with how we want the warehouse to work. I work on managing the finances of the company with our controller. As a team, we look at where we’re spending our money and on what assets. I operate and work as a mentor and leader to the guys who work for our company. Operating a business is just as much art as it is experience, and it’s very rewarding.
What were some challenges for you along the way?
Early on, I was put into high-level positions when I was really young. So, I had to be able to learn how to lead people and motivate people when I was considerably younger than they were. It was very challenging to be in a position higher than other folks when you’re trying to lead them, because they don’t really want to be lead by somebody that’s younger than them. I had to figure out a way to communicate with people and lead people, who didn’t want to be.
How did you overcome the challenge of being in high-level positions?
The way that I overcame it was by having a stronger grasp on knowledge in our industry. When I was in a situation where I had to lead people, who were older than me who were resistant to it, my work ethic was strong and my knowledge-base was very strong. I followed the rule: Lead by attraction, not promotion.
I was going to be the best at what I did. I spent every waking moment that I wasn’t in the studio, researching everything that I possibly could about music. I listened to music religiously. I analyzed music. I listened to the different nuances and different components that made a song successful. Learned to understand how a song is written or how the progression of the song is important to their language, I put a lot of time and effort into that. I wanted to know how musicians communicated to each other, so that I could be a part of the conversation.
I do think you’re born with some sort of passion and drive, and some of us don’t ever find that in our lives. I was lucky enough to find it, and to be able to pursue it. That’s the only explanation that I have as to why I’ve worked so hard to get to where I’ve gotten.
Any other challenges?
This is something that I’m openly honest about — I also had to deal with drug addiction and alcoholism. That was a major challenge through my career. I’ve been sober for 15 years now, and it’s actually a very positive part of my life and career path. I’m doing a seminar in October about drug addiction and recovery, where I’m going to talk to kids about the struggles of life in these situations. It’s definitely relevant.
Did you see drugs and alcohol as part of the draw into the entertainment industry?
Yeah, there was something kind of sexy about it. You start to do all of that stuff in high school, and you realize that you can continue to do all of that and work in a business that’s enjoyable, so yeah, I definitely think there was a draw to it.
What are some points you’ll make at the seminar for anyone looking to avoid or recover from drug and alcohol abuse in the industry?
It’s never too early to start managing your money and set up a 401K and retirement fund. You’ll wind up looking down the barrel at 40, 45 or 50 years old when your back and knees hurt realizing you can’t live the same life anymore, but not having any other option. There’s too many guys that love the roadie life, but then they get done and have an alcohol problem, don’t have a family and can barely move. You got to have an exit strategy.
At the end of the day, you’re being hired to do a job and that job is also pretty dangerous. It’s your responsibility to hang thousands upon thousands of pounds of equipment above people’s heads. The majority of what you see at concerts is all in the air above everyone. If you’re not in you’re right state of mind, that can be a very big problem. A lot of people can get very hurt, and a lot of people have throughout the years. Just like any job, you have the responsibility to perform for that job. Drugs and alcohol just don’t help that case.
Are there people who say they can do their jobs just fine on drugs and alcohol? What would you say to that?
It’s just not true. I’ve been there. I know for certain that it’s not true. When you get up at 6:00 a.m. after being up until 4 a.m., and then have to go into a venue to try to explain to people where all of that gear is getting hung and you have to start bringing it in off trucks, there’s a lot of people’s safety on your shoulders and you can barely see or function. It’s just not true.
How did you see your life change?
Clarity. Focus. Making the right decisions, doing the right things, treating people better, treating people the way I wanted to be treated. Seeing myself in a more positive light, really affected the world around me. It lead me to have better relationships with the people I worked with and the people I love. The artists respected me more because everybody surrounding them had issues and I was someone they could rely on.
What kind of advice would you give Someone entering into the industry?
For kids coming into this industry, the thing that I cannot stress enough is to expand your horizons and really develop a vast amount of knowledge in the areas that you’re passionate about. It’s very competitive as far as the workforce goes. People are successful and the people who are really passionate, put the most time into growth. The ones that get left behind are the ones who just show up to collect a paycheck and be a part of the business. It doesn’t work that way.
I think there’s been a generational shift. Kids these days think things should be handed to them. We have kids come through these doors and want to go out on major tours as the lead guy because they went through four years at “some big name” music school. It doesn’t work that way either. Like I said earlier, a piece of paper doesn’t matter. It’s about the amount of time you want to put in. I challenge our employees on a daily basis. If you’re not striving to improve yourself and do better than you’re not going to be here very long, because there are a lot of people outside the door who want the opportunity who will.
One of the questions I always ask our employees is what do you do when you go home at night? Do you listen to music? What kind of music do you listen to? Do you try to learn the newest piece of software? Because, if you’re not doing that than I need to find somebody who is.
What’s your hope for DCR Nashville?
My hope is that we can prove our validity, that we are a force to be reckoned with and that we can provide the same type of quality, if not better, then our competitors. I hope that we can distinguish ourselves as an entity that is different in every aspect and that we provide really great service to our clients. We want our clients to feel a part of our family and a part of our organization. Ultimately, we want our clients and the industry to view us as being really great in the way that we approach business. In keeping with the vision of our company, I hope that our employees are extremely happy to be here and that they feel valued and respected. We want DCR Nashville to feel like a place that they can call home.
We really want to change people’s perspectives on doing business in this industry. That might be a little too idealistic, but that’s OK. It’s a chance we’re willing to take.