Originally published in Forbes.
“Mr. President,” said former roadie and production manager for The Police Charlie Hernandez in April 2011, taking a pen out of his pocket, “I can get this pen anywhere on Earth in 72 hours.” He was talking to Bill Clinton after an awards dinner for Clinton’s Global Initiative featuring Sting and Trudie Styler. “Wow,” Clinton answered in his Southern drawl, “Can I borrow your pen?”
Hernandez, who has received the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award, the rock concert industry’s highest honor, is a Long Island native who gave up medical school to go on the road with bands. He is a proud father with a warm smile and striking silver-white hair. Although he can handle technical problems, he really shines as a coordinator and problem solver. During the infamous 1992 Guns N’ Roses South America tour, for example, he dealt with gear getting caught up in a military coup in Venezuela, a Bogota rainstorm collapsing a stage roof, and threats from organized crime.
Yet when he offered his services to help recovery efforts in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, what he heard was, “You’re just a bunch of roadies. What can you do?” Sitting at home watching TV, he saw Bill Clinton and George W. Bush walking by a plane owned by Rock-It Cargo but not boarding it. Hernandez had his answer.
He picked up the phone and called his good friend and Rock-It owner David Bernstein, with whom he had collaborated on numerous rock tours. “I see you have an empty airplane,” he said. Just like a teenager asking to borrow his friend’s car and pay for the gas, Hernandez asked to borrow his friend’s plane. Except that in this case, the gas cost $50,000. To raise money for gas, Hernandez called his friend John Campion, CEO of APR Energy Group, which handles installation of temporary power grids worldwide and was doing business in Haiti. He said, “Hey, John, I’ve got an airplane, but I need some gas.” Campion’s response: “How much and where do I send the check?” He then got Upstaging and ShowMotion trucking on board and procured medical supplies from project C.U.R.E, which collects surplus medical supplies from American hospitals.
The plane Hernandez and his team sent over, which was full of medical equipment, was the first civilian aircraft that got into Haiti. Ultimately they did four rotations from Florida to Haiti, moving $2 million worth of medical equipment and 48 doctors, nurses, and medical support staff directly to hospitals run by Partners in Health. His organization, which he named Just a Bunch of Roadies, got 120,000 pounds of food to Pakistan after that country saw crops devastated by flooding in 2010. They have also been working with Sting’s One World Futbol Project to get durable soccer balls to disadvantaged communities around the world using slack space in their tour containers.
And now they are collaborating with Upstaging Transport Trucking, APR Energy, Rock-it Cargo, Project C.U.R.E. and Clinton’s Global Initiative to direct aid donated by entertainment companies to the Philippines using the same methods of rapid mobilizing. At first they looked into the option of trucking material from various points in the United States to available aircrafts and flying it to Cebu and Tacloban. “But because of the volumes of aid that has flown in to the disaster area,” said Hernandez, “We have shifted our moves to sea freight containers partnering with Project C.U.R.E. to help re-establish hospital infrastructures supplies, including large shipments of antibiotics. This will allow for a comprehensive door to door logistic based on long-term needs.”
How does a roadie make an impact on such a scale? By doing what the concert industry has been doing for years. “Disasters are just like a rock show,” Hernandez told me. “You need to establish communication lines, you establish power supplies, including electricity. Then from there you build the infrastructure, from there the lighting system, and boom, you have a city.”
Rock concerts descend upon a host site and then quickly disappear. Along the way, they face technical complexity, divergent regulations, multiple vendors, language barriers, and the certainty of unforeseen obstacles, all on a massive scale. And no matter what, the show must go on, on time, and without anyone getting hurt.
Touring professionals develop strong emotional connections to the places they visit, which makes them want to reach out and lend their skills when disaster strikes. When the band Linkin Park finished their tour of South Asia in 2004, they came home to horrifying images of the destruction caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami. They quickly organized a benefit concert and launched Music for Relief, which brings together musicians, touring professionals, and fans to provide disaster relief. “The hope,” told me Music for Relief’s chief operating officer Whitney Showler, “is to bring the music and entertainment community together to create a bigger impact.”
When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, musicians, managers, roadies, and fans reached out to Music for Relief offering help. Linkin Park, 30 Seconds to Mars, Jerry Seinfeld, Celine Dion, Hall & Oats and other artists have donated tickets and experiences. Even fans have stepped up, donating their signed Linkin Park memorabilia. The money raised by these efforts goes to International Medical Corps. Those who want to provide hands on help are directed to All Hands Volunteers, an organization that mobilizes volunteers on the ground.
Roadies are eager to help, which is impressive given their grueling lifestyle. “People imagine that life on the road is fun and easy,” Showler told me, “but these men and women work so hard. They have rare and infrequent days off. Their work is very physical. Sometimes they don’t have an actual bed to sleep in, they are sleeping on buses. So to find opportunities where they have a day off and then to get them to come help others is pretty remarkable. And they’ve done that.”
Roadies’ skills and work ethic make them particularly effective at providing disaster relief. One of the strengths of the concert business is follow-through, a skill that Just a Bunch of Roadies applies to its international relief efforts. Roadies do not just drop off. They work until the first note plays, and, after the show is over, they keep working until every guitar pick is safely headed for the next stop on the tour. The same goes for disaster relief. “You have to ensure,” said Hernadez, “that assistance is delivered directly to caregivers, hospitals and relief workers, rather than being dropped off somewhere when it could be usurped by black marketers.” Like planning a show, disaster relief begins with the end goal: getting supplies to the hands of the people who need them. The job is not done when the fuel trucks leave their place of origin. It is done when there are no lines for food, gas, or medicine.
Another strength is the fierce camaraderie among touring professionals. “Our guys are pierced and tattooed and they’re all wearing outrageous clothes,” said Carol Scott, an executive at the staging company TAIT. “But if push came to shove they’d probably all die for each other.” Their loyalty translates into no-questions-asked real-time help in the moment of crisis. “We have each other’s backs,” said Henandez, “If somebody stumbles, then we pick him up.”
Which is why the roadies are always the first ones in and the last ones out.