We want to give country music fans an inside look to life on the road. While it may seem fun and glamorous, there is a lot to be done before, during, and after each show. From concessions to meet and greets, and trash cleanup, it takes teams of people to put on a smooth, successful country music concert. We’ve teamed up with some of our country music industry friends to present you with a new monthly, behind the scenes Q&A series.
First up on the Country Clones Blog is Ethan Helms. This Mississippi born, now Nashville resident, is currently on tour and taking photos with Luke Bryan. He works with KP Entertainment, who in addition to managing Luke Bryan, also manages country artists like, Adam Craig, Jon Langston, and Cole Swindell (check out some of their songs featured in our monthly Record Roundups).
Q&A | Ethan Helms
Country Clones [CC] | What is a typical day like on the road for you?
Ethan Helms [EH] | If I can make myself get up early enough, I’ll try to get a workout in. It probably doesn’t happen as often as it should, though! Once our production office backstage is set up, I’ll go there and set my computer up and go through the photos I took from the night before and start editing. I’ll take almost a thousand photos each show, narrow those down to 30-40, edit them, then narrow down again to 15-30. If there are things that need to be done for the other artists that we work with (I.e. designing a graphic for their or shooting and editing a video for their socials) I do that. Afterwards, our Assistant Tour Manager, Mike, and I set up the backstage vibe room. This room is designated for any personal guests and music industry people we have at the show that night, so they have a place to hang. After lunch on the road, I go out and hide tickets to that night’s show for a scavenger hunt through Luke Bryan’s Snapchat. I love seeing the reaction of the fans that find them! After the tickets have been found, the Record Label Rep who works with the radio stations we have coming to the show gets to the venue – I give them the credentials for their radio people, and show them where the radio room and meet and greet are. Once Luke starts doing his meet and greets and radio hangs, I sometimes go with him to capture that for content to be posted in the official Luke Bryan App. Once he hits the stage, I’m in full photography mode, running all over the place trying to get as many photos I can. When the show is over, everything gets taken down, we pack up, and head to the next city we’re playing or go home to Nashville.
CC | What do you enjoy most about your job?
EH | The people I work with. I know it’s cliché, but we really are a family. We hang out even when we’re not on the road! Also, getting to see Luke put on a great show every night never gets old. I love that I’m able to run all around the place while taking my photos and being in the middle of the crowd, getting to see their reactions to the show.
CC | What kind of camera do you do?
EH | I use a Samsung NX1. I have two Samsung lenses to go with it. A 16-50mm and 18-200mm. These are versatile and allow me to get shots from angles all over, whether I’m right inside the barricade, up against the stage, or if I’m all the way back at front of house.
CC | How did you get to be a tour photographer?
EH | Honestly it feels strange to say I’m any type of photographer. I didn’t have a background in it before I started working for Luke. Actually, it isn’t even technically the main part of my job, although the photography and the graphic design thing is growing more and more integral to what I do. I was hired to help run the Luke Bryan app that was released around the time I got hired, capturing a lot of the content that goes into it. At first I was taking shots with my phone. Of course, I was having a hard time getting many good shots with just my phone! Eventually, I started borrowing the camera (a Canon Rebel T4i) we use for the meet and greet pictures and learned how to use it. I looked up typical settings to use for concert photography, talked to guys on the crew that had some camera experience, and learned what camera terms like ISO and shutter speed etc. mean. Eventually, I was able to get my own camera which I still use two years later. I’m still learning so much about photography, so again it’s weird for me to call myself a photographer, but man do I love it!
CC | What do you use the photos for that you take during a show?
EH | Every show gets its own photo album in Luke’s App. So needless to say, our app users have no shortage of live Luke photos! They also get used for press releases, Luke Bryan merchandise, they’ve been used as tour admats, and of course for his other social media platforms. Let me tell you, it’s a trip to see those pictures being used like that because as I said earlier, just a few years ago I didn’t have any photography aspirations, I just kind of fell into it.
CC | How do you pass the time on the tour bus?
EH | Typically, we get on the bus late at night after the show is over, so fortunately we can go straight to sleep in our bunks and wake up at the next venue. Other than that, my bus loves playing NHL on the PlayStation 4 or just watch movies on HBO.
CC | What’s your favorite festival to play?
EH | I think I’ll have to go with Tortuga in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. We played there this year on the first day of the festival and it was so nice having a show right on the beach that some of us decided to stay there the whole weekend. It was a nice little last minute vacation!
CC | Do you enjoy bigger shows or smaller shows?
EH | It’s hard to choose because they both have their own vibes. When we have a stadium show it’s so cool to see all those people, how loud they are, and the bigger production our team sets up for those places. When Luke does “Drink A Beer” in a stadium, and everyone use their cell phone lights to light up the place it always gives me goosebumps. At smaller venues, it’s cool to have the crowd up close and personal. You can really feel their energy and excitement right in your face. On one of our recent runs Adam Craig, who is an artist I also work with, was opening up for Luke. He opened for Luke at an arena in Moline, IL, and then the next night Adam played a club gig in Peoria, IL, so I went with him. It was cool getting to witness the energy of an arena one night and then the very next night seeing what it’s like in a club setting. Adam was great in both environments and it was a lot of fun.
CC | Do you still go to concerts as a fan?
EH | Absolutely! I especially enjoy the bands and artists I grew up loving before I ever even moved to Nashville, seven years ago. It’s a little harder now with us being on the road most weekends, but when I can I definitely go. I find myself not only watching the performance, but also what their stage production is like and how it compares to ours. It’s kind of like watching two different shows go on at the same time so it’s much more engaging for me than it was before I was on tour.
CC | Who is your favorite artist or band to see live?
EH | Outside of the country world, it would have to be the Foo Fighters, hands down. I saw them last year in Nashville, and Dave Grohl had a broken leg so they made this “rock throne” for him to sit on and it moved around the stage! He still rocked it too, he’s such a great front man. Other great shows I’ve seen are Needtobreathe, Switchfoot, and Tyler Hilton. Tyler was just him, and his guitar. It was every bit as engaging as a big rock show. He is my favorite singer/songwriter so I was just transfixed on the songs.
CC | How many states have you been to?
EH | I literally just had to look at the list of states and count them out because I haven’t been keeping track! 42. We’re going to Alaska this year so I’m really excited to cross that off my list.
CC | Do you have any advice for anyone who wants a career on the road in the music industry?
EH | I’d say be open to every opportunity even remotely related to what you want to do. Not only do you gain more experience, it can also put you in the same room with other people in the industry. Even more important than saying yes to those opportunities, have a good attitude while you’re doing them. Being a good hang can go a long way.
CC | Anything else?
EH | Thank y’all for having me, never done an interview before! Good luck with CountryClones.com. I think it’s awesome y’all want to pull the curtain back and talk to behind-the-scenes guys like me. Thanks again!