It’s easy to daydream and imagine ourselves in perfect situations, living ideal lifestyles, but in doing so we often leave out the hardships and inner battles faced along the way. While it is easy to romanticize and glamorize life at the top, understanding that the journey isn’t a smooth one is important.

In this chapter of the Aspire to Inspire series, we have had the pleasure of working with Owner & President of On Tour Management, Manny Zelaya and discussing his path to becoming a tour manager for the likes of legendary producer/DJ, Hardwell.

From a young age, Manny knew that he was destined to have a life in music. At just 13-years-old he made his way in to the New York City club scene, which immediately had him falling in love.

“I always knew I wanted to be surrounded by music. When I was just 13-years-old, I attended my first nightclub called “Mars.” I must have waited outside in the blistering New York cold for about 2.5 hours. Once I was in, I knew then I fell in love with house music or what we call EDM today.”

It wasn’t long until Manny found himself dreaming of running his own clubs and getting heavily involved in the club scene, but knew he had to go about it in the right way and learn as much as possible as he worked his way up. By starting out as a bartender and eventually a bar manager, Manny learned everything there is to know about customer service and how the club business worked behind-the-scenes. This taught him the value of preparedness, how to communicate with people, and most of all…how to be taken seriously.

“I believe this approach benefitted my career because it helped me learn in my early years of tour management that one of the most important things an artist wants on the road is for their lives to run smoothly. I’ve always said if I were an artist what would I like? What would make me want to pay my tour manager all this money to make my life on the road easier? So learning how to be a problem-solver at a nightclub surely paved the way for me. I’ve learned that you need to be as cool as the other side of the pillow.”

With all of these lessons learned, Manny’s career truly started to take off.

“About 10 years ago I was asked by Erick Morillo to be his tour manager. I can remember it like yesterday. Everyone said I would only last 30 days. Erick taught me everything about paying attention to detail. I had no clue what a tour manager’s responsibilities were? Yet I was blessed to work with some of the best in the business like Helen Coates, Erick Morillo’s former manager. I used to be in charge of downloading all of Erick’s music, burning CDs (yes we had CDs back then), and pressing labels for close to 100 CDs a week. Besides all my other responsibilities and oh! Don’t forget I tried to have a personal life.

As time went on I started to realize a need for well-trained tour managers in the dance music scene. I was lucky enough to mentor Gabriel Escobar and together we started On Tour Management. We have had the opportunity to work with some of dance music’s elite like Hardwell, Erick Morillo, Nicky Romero, Jamie Jones, Nicole Moudaber, Danny Tenaglia, Markus Schulz and the list goes on… Sky’s the limit now and OTM hopes to one day get into the development and stage concept of shows.”

But as one aspect of our lives begins to soar into success, the others sometimes fall by the wayside. For Manny, his busy life of constant travel and events took a toll on his family and personal life.

“One of my biggest struggles as a tour manager has been the loss of time with my family, loved ones and friends. In my early days I did my best trying to keep calling everyone that was close to me. I learned quickly if you are not around, well it goes like the old saying – “out of sight, out of mind.” Friends just stop inviting you to their BBQs, and Thanksgiving dinners become a distant memory because if you’re not around, chances are you just want to sleep and rest. People never really understand how lonely being on the road can be. I always say ‘never alone, but always lonely.’”

This sort of separation is already a lot for a person to carry on their shoulders. But with the loss of a loved one added into the mix this year, followed by devastating news about his mother, Manny took a step back to truly look at all of the things he has in his life and appreciate it all.

“This year has been one of the hardest of my life. Earlier this year, I received a phone call that my workout trainer was shot and killed. He was a trainer at the Equinox gym in Miami and had to fire an employee. This employee returned hours later and shot Mario twice in the chest. This man then shot the manager in the head before killing himself in the facility’s bathroom. That was tough for me to process.

Nearly a month later, I found out my mother was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. This news brought me to my knees with tears in my eyes. It really hit me emotionally because, in my opinion, I’ve never been the best son growing up. I made my mother cry so many times over me.”

As Manny tells us, he did not have the strongest relationship with his mother as he grew up. His rebellious youth that lead to many fights in school and even an arrest made things difficult, but they were there for each other every step of the way.

The news of his mother’s illness had a powerful, yet negative effect on Manny at first. Keeping a smile on his face in his day-to-day life felt fabricated and he became bitter towards those around him. But as he began to allow himself to process the news and adjust to the new normal in his life, he found a way to cope and keep his head up.

“Talking to my mom every day and hearing how positive she was made me start changing my outlook on life. My mother has been my hero and she reminds me every single day to keep my head up. She stresses the importance of staying positive and to always thank God for all the beautiful things we have. I keep saying to myself, “what doesn’t challenge you doesn’t change you.”

His mother has been undergoing chemotherapy over the last few months and though the tumor has significantly shrunk/the doctors are optimistic about completely removing it from her pancreas, she has lost over 40 pounds. However, she is in good spirits and believes she is already cured. Next week they will perform another CT scan to determine how much the tumor has shrunk and how soon they will be able to operate. If they can remove the tumor completely, his mother will have to undergo four more chemo sessions to be sure the cancer is gone. We’d love it if you could keep Manny’s mother in your thoughts and prayers as she continues her fight against this disease!

As Manny continues to find balance in his personal life, there are still more achievements to be made in his professional life as well. One of those goals is to help bring the passion back into the industry side of the dance music scene. According to Manny, there are far too many people in the industry today that only do it for the money. The most important thing to remember about working in a creative industry is the fact that it is driven entirely by passion and love for art. Without that, it would go nowhere.

“Once upon a time the people throwing some of the coolest parties loved, breathed, and ate dance music. Now, you have all these Mickey Mouse promoters and bookers who are in it just for the money. How many festivals do you see now in a parking lot and they slap a Ferris wheel or carnival ride and call it a three-day ‘festival.’ Wow, that took a lot of thought? To me, the market is oversaturated and what’s happened is the consumer has finally woken up! People are realizing that there are better event promoters who are thinking outside the box. We need more people that are creative and are willing to take risks.

One of the biggest challenges I see now is that there are too many people doing jobs that they aren’t qualified for or haven’t been properly trained. You may think that’s not a bad thing… some may say “fake it till you make it,” but that only goes so far. Shows are getting bigger and we need more qualified techs getting paid accordingly for their knowledge and hard work. You may hire someone who is great at their job, but you can never compare that to years of experience.”