BILLBOARD: Confessions of a Touring Musician
Band Members for Beyonce, Chainsmokers and More Talk Life on the Road, Being Recognized & Gaining Followers
By Kristin Corpuz
Everyone knows who Beyonce, The Chainsmokers, and Fifth Harmony are -- and pay enormous amounts of money to see them live -- but seldom do audiences know the names of the instrumentalists behind the artists who make the shows possible.
Billboard had a chance to talk to some of the industry’s most in-demand touring musicians to learn secrets of being on the road, including Ashlee Juno a.k.a. JUNO (guitarist for Camila Cabello, Fifth Harmony, Machine Gun Kelly), Arnetta Johnson (trumpeter for Beyonce), Tony Ann (keyboardist for The Chainsmokers), Angie Swan (guitarist for Fifth Harmony, Nicole Scherzinger, Will.I.Am), Francesca Simone a.k.a. Simone (guitarist for Beyonce), and Michel’le Baptiste (drummer for Fifth Harmony, Beyonce).
How did the artists you play for find you?
Juno: Early last year I started posting videos on Instagram in hopes of getting discovered by a major artist for a tour. One day out of nowhere, I received a DM from [producer] Rob Lewis asking if I wanted to tour with Fifth Harmony. I sold almost everything I owned and packed up my whole apartment in 3 days to go on the road with them. After doing 2 tours with them, I started getting calls to work with other artists.
Ann: The Chainsmokers found me on YouTube. In 2016, I did a lot of covers and wanted to find some new music and stumbled across [their hit song] “Roses.” I loved the song so much, I decided to do a cover of it -- but I love doing medleys more than single songs, so I [looked through more Chainsmokers songs and loved] “Don't Let Me Down” as well, [so I arranged] a mashup of the two.
Swan: I've gotten most of the gigs through word-of-mouth, from peers or colleagues recommending me. I've auditioned many times as well, via invite or a “cattle-call" -- meaning countless people could come to the audition, and I would literally stand in line for hours for a 5-to-10-minute audition.
How often did those artists post about/tag you on their artist or personal social media accounts?
Johnson: It depended on the artist. Sometimes, behind the scenes photos would be posted on Instagram or on their websites. Afterwards, tons of my friends would see the pictures and go on tagging sprees, and there were times I’d be caught on Instagram or Snapchat stories. When I toured with Terri Lyne Carrington, there would be some pretty amazing pictures floating around from various stops we made in Europe.
Juno: While on tour, the artists would post about us maybe once a week. They would post clips of us in rehearsal or on the bus just goofing around and having fun. It was always super casual and random. They posted a lot on Snapchat and sometimes even on Instagram.
Baptiste: I am frequently tagged on social media by Fifth Harmony -- these posts are permanent, and also temporary Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter stories. We’re constantly on the road, so you would catch us clowning on our down time or see videos of us performing.
Ann: [They posted about me] pretty often on their Instagram story. Before the tour, they shared a few of my covers -- which they always tagged me in -- on Facebook. During the tour, I showed up a few times on their Instagram stories and Snapchats, which they also tagged me in.
How have the fans of those artists engaged with you on social media?
Baptiste: The fans of these artists often engage with me on social media by commenting on pictures, liking videos, and also direct messaging. I’ve experienced a lot of support through social media from them of these various artists. The fans want to know what’s new, if there's anything they can help promote; they want to feel included. They’re drawn to me because of the relationship I have with the artist, and they stay connected because they relate to the person I am through my social media.
Juno: They are super sweet and supportive. No matter what I post, they are always commenting and showing love. I think it’s really cool how involved and interactive they are. They love the artists so much, and they love [me] just because [I am] connected to them! They also crack me up because they don’t seem to miss a heartbeat, I sometimes wonder if they ever sleep! They are adorable and honestly they’re the best!
Swan: I recall when I joined Fifth Harmony’s band, Lauren Jauregui [hinted] to me that once she started following me on Instagram, my fan base would grow exponentially, and it did. My followers grew from 1,000 to about 8,000 overnight. My inbox was full of messages from people, welcoming me to the Fifth Harmony family. It was a little strange, since I'm about 15 years older than most of the fans, let alone the rest of the band and girls of Fifth Harmony.
In any of these situations, there are always those megafans that are following you just to get the inside scoop of the artist you're working with. Fans would ask me personal questions about the artist(s) I was working with. It is my job to perform the music and put on a great show, not tell the fans how the artist likes their eggs in the morning.
I noticed that when I left Fifth Harmony, I lost about 1,000+ followers on Instagram. I really appreciate the ones that stuck around and acknowledge the hard work that musicians put in behind the scenes in order to promote the artist. I also appreciate the fact that they realize that I, as a “hired gun,” don't work exclusively for one artist or group. In general, being a touring musician is not an occupation that pays a livable wage anymore, so you find value in different ways. it's very valuable to have a growing fan base and support for your own personal projects that may come in the future.
How often are you recognized off stage?
Swan: In some instances, fans would recognize band members off stage. Especially when touring with Fifth Harmony, each airport we went to, there were fans there waiting for us. They actually knew the band members’ names. In one city, they actually knew the names of our stage hands and my guitar tech -- he got a kick out of it.
Juno: It all depends! I get recognized a lot after shows, obviously, because they just saw me on stage. But sometimes I randomly get recognized at the store, or the beach, or even the airport. A fan will come up to me and ask to take a picture with them or say, “Oh my gosh, you’re Camila’s guitarist?!” Usually I say yes, but one time I lied because I looked CRAZY, and I just said “Who is Camila?” [Laughs.] But it’s kind of hard to hide who I am, because I have blonde dreadlocks with the side of my head shaved.
Johnson: It doesn’t happen too often, but every now and then when I go out to a jam session, or if I’m just on the bandstand, someone will recognize me from social media. They always mention a video, an article they read, or picture where they saw me. There was one time where I was in the airport watching a movie, and someone recognized me from a video they were watching as they were walking.
What's your craziest fan interaction story?
Johnson: I’d say it was the time I went to visit a friend in Boston. We were on the way to get something to eat and this guy stopped us and was like “OH. MY. GOD. Are you Arnetta?!” Then he FaceTimed his friend, and she screamed like crazy. Of course I laughed, because I’m not use to people being a “fans.” They went to tell me how they loved my single “Juice & Candy” and how they’re always inspired by my social media posts. I wouldn’t call the interaction crazy but it was definitely an experience to remember.
Swan: I have too many to pick just one. Most recently though, we had fans that followed us from Japan to China while on the Asia tour with Fifth Harmony. Or better yet, when in Guatemala, one of the fans used my name specifically to try and get in through security gate. I was very nervous about that, as that was only my second show with Fifth Harmony, and I did not want to get in trouble with management. To this day, I have no idea who did it!
Simone: My favorite moment with a fan was at an event for Step Up, an organization whose mission it is to encourage high school girls to attend college. I gave a presentation, and afterwards, I played and sang a cover and an original song. When I finished playing, many of the girls asked me questions while we took pictures.
There was one girl in particular who hugged me for at least a full minute. After we hugged, I realized she was crying. With tears streaming down her face, she said that my performance was beautiful and she wanted to play guitar and sing just like me. I almost started crying too! Twelve years ago, I was that girl, crying at a Carlos Santana concert because his music moved me and made me want to play the guitar. Realizing that I had become the person to inspire others was so fulfilling, and truly a dream come true.
Juno: I’ll never forget when I was in Mexico City, right after a show, I stepped out to make a call and the door locked behind me so I had to try and find another door. I saw a bunch of fans outside, and didn’t realize they had seen me. When I turned back around I felt like Simba in The Lion King when he got chased by that stampede! [Laughs.] I ran for my life because I had never seen so many humans running at me like that. This girl ran up to me and said “Ashlee, this way!” She grabbed my hand and sprinted off, leading me to a parking garage. I followed her because I thought she was a security guard, but it turns out, she was just another fan. She led me to a safe place, and she probably low-key saved my life!
What's your favorite memory from being on the road?
Simone: My favorite moment on tour was playing solo on stage for the first time in front of an audience of 36,000 people at Marlins Park in Miami. Prior to playing for Beyonce, my largest audience was about 500. She gave me the opportunity of a lifetime when she let me play an interlude solo during her costume change. I was super anxious before the solo -- my heart was beating so fast, my hands and legs were shaking. But when I walked onto the main stage and played my first note, all my anxiety disappeared. When I heard the audience cheering for me, I almost lost it. My heart smiled. The more energy I gave the audience, the more energy they gave back to me. I had such a blast!
Ann: It has to be during the final show [of the Memories… Do Not Open tour] when the guys brought the band out on the catwalk for a group photo with the crowd. It was a very memorable moment because it was the last show. Everyone was super emotional and it was just the perfect way to end such an awesome tour.
Johnson: I remember when I would take long bus rides to get back to school [from Philadelphia to Boston], and on each ride, I’d close my eyes and imagine myself being on the way to my first tour date. All this is to say, my favorite memory has to be when I took my first international flight and thought to myself, “I knew those long bus rides would pay off.” It may seem minute to others, but it was such a full-circle moment for me.
Juno: Definitely touring Europe. I had never really been anywhere in the world, and I just remember being in a new country every other day. It was so surreal. That was the moment that it hit me, that everything I dreamed was happening. I couldn’t believe I had made it to Paris, and I will never forget standing at the Eiffel tower thinking, "Man, I’m really here." It was the most amazing feeling in the whole world.
Baptiste: Being able to travel all over world and explore new cultures and make memories is such a blessing to experience. But by far, the best memories I have are the pranks we played on each other at the end of every tour. During the finale of the U.S. tour in 2016, one of the girls from Fifth Harmony thought it would be funny to throw a pie in my face. The best thing about pranks is, what goes around, comes back around!