THE FACE BEHIND MODERN LIVE MUSIC: DOUG MIDDLEBROOK
There is a reason it’s called the “music business.” Since the days of the Medici family there has been a means of support to allow artists to create. Ironically, there is an artistry to the business side of this equation. The professionals who excel in music business have more than just an appreciation of the arts, they possess a style and temperament that results in a fame among artists. There is a mutual admiration which exists and enables your favorite artists to perform for you without you ever getting a glimpse behind the scenes. Tour and production manager Doug Middlebrook has seen and done it all from massive events like the One Love Manchester benefit concert in 2017 (55,000 attendees and a global viewership of 22.6 million people) to world tours (Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman”tour, one of 2017’s top international tours earning more than $70 million), to overseeing show’s at iconic venues like Birdland and 54 Below (formerly Studio 54) for some of Broadway’s hottest stars. The eclectic group of artists and venues he works with reveals just as much about this music industry professional’s zeal for live music as his popularity among said artists. Since his first concert in his home of Cape Town, South Africa, watching Sir Elton John, he’s been enamored of the magical moments of live music performance. Middlebrook openly admits that he seems naturally wired to handle the intense environment which others can find crushing. A discussion with Doug is a VIP pass to his own trade secrets for anyone wondering what it’s like to work in his field or how these famous artists make it to perform and create special moments for us all.
The first requirement is passion. While this applies to music artists, it most certainly applies to professionals like Doug Middlebrook who work with them. Days and months away from loved ones, highly stressful circumstances…all of these are shared situations but those offstage do not receive the compensation of applause. To flourish in this environment one must be skilled and care deeply. Tour managing is not a 9 to 5 career. Little moments must outshine the majority. The uniqueness of each live music performance moment has been the deciding factor for Doug in his career. The opportunity to see the same songs change each time they are performed is a physical manifestation of living art. For Doug, retaining the fascination of this moment allows him to rekindle his love of live music on a daily basis.
There’s a common misconception that every leader must be gruff and overbearing in order to keep his/her team performing well. Middlebrook contradicts this very premise stating, “I am headstrong and by all means fierce but compassion and my love for the craft is what I always lead with. I approach my co-workers with a true sense of who I am and the excitement of getting to know them on every project. If you’re touring, you are likely going to be with these people for a very long time so you might as well all get along. I understand that pressure and stress get to people very quickly. I pride myself in being unique in that I do not let pressure and stress affect me in a negative way. This means that I can keep my sense of calm and will be seen as a grounded person; someone people can rely on, trust, and feel confident around.”
It’s not all stadiums and enormous arenas on Middlebrook’s schedule, yet the setting of more intimate venues comes with its own challenges. Huge scale concert tours focus on the logistics of moving a large team from city to city and country to county but offer the full control of the performance venue. Doug’s work with Broadway/Social Media/and TV’s Big Brother star Frankie Grande may have been smaller in scale but still demanding. Middlebrook notes, “Taking Frankie’s show to Telluride Colorado was a test of my abilities. The show was booked only days before the performance. This would not allow for the typical vetting that is part of my process. I didn’t meet many of the members of his tour team or even see the performance venue prior to the show day. Rehearsals were set up for the day of the show at the venue, which is not ideal because you don’t want your artist to be overworked and tired. Keeping a cool head and a calm/supportive disposition in a situation like this is a requirement. I’ve always been able to stay calm in situations that upset most people, which has been a key ingredient to my success.”
Doug is often approached by other stars of Broadway like Orfeh and Max Von Essen to oversee their performances in New York at prestigious clubs like 54 Below and Birdland. The diversity of artist like these, performing on Broadway one night and signing form the American songbook the next, is congruent to the course Middlebrook leads in his own career.
Asked to offer up advice for those passionate about following his career path, Doug Middlebrook pauses and relates, “You should be aware of the empathy and care that has to go into this line of work. You are not just in charge of a group of people, you are in charge of an art craft, a production. Art has to be vulnerable and truthful for it to be good. Although there is pressure, you have to make sure that you allow the people you work with to be honest and feel comfortable. As the person in charge it’s important to let them know that you care and will support them. Be headstrong. Have thick skin but an open heart. This industry moves quickly and can seem daunting or cold, but it is not. Creating live performances is so rewarding. Be a devoted watcher and listener. Take everything in that you can about live theatre. It is easy to put all of your focus into one part of live performance but the truth is that there are many incredible things going on around it; there are so many parts of this machine, learn as many parts as possible.”