As this year is moving on I’m planning my tours and performances. That actually sounds easy doesn’t it? Fact is that musicians need to tour. Maybe you are an indie artist planning to hit the proverbial road. I want to share some thoughts and maybe wisdom about my experiences as a touring musician. Now, I’ve been touring on and off for a few decades with an alternative band, as a drummer and driver with a jazz band and as a solo artist. The economics of how musicians make a living have changed dramatically with online streaming, Internet, MP3s, piracy, Napster, iTunes, YouTube and Spotify, almost disappearing record sales and of course the fact we can’t even pretend to compete for shelf space at Walmart.
Thankfully my listeners still buy my CD’s. I guess they want that physical record and maybe a personal autograph and message from me. I’m more than happy to stay for a couple of hours talking to fans and signing CD’s. Especially if I have help. Fact is unless you’re raking in big dough from online sales—you have to tour. Most importantly you need to plan as much as you can so that you don’t go broke or even worse, be 1800 miles from home with no reserves, no income, no gigs, no options. That is some scary shit and it’s happened to me.
Here are some steps to take before you ever gas up and leave the drive.
- Try to book a festival then look at your route. Backtrack and find cities where you may know people or send a note on social media asking for ideas on venues along the way. This requires persistence, patience and a lot of follow up. Don’t be a pest but this is your livelihood.
- Decide how long you can be out, travel time between cities and give yourself enough time to drive. Who cares about rest eh? Seriously.
- Write down how much fuel will cost and make sure you can cover that with a gas card or cash. Get your tires rotated, oil changed, windshield wipers replaced etc. This all takes cash so be prepared.
- Spend as little on food as possible. I pack those foil packs of Tuna and Salmon, which I always find on sale. Pack some Rice Crackers, some Tabasco, salt, pepper, instant coffee, etc. Pack those glass beer growlers with water so you can refill them. I bring unsalted nuts, good bread, good peanut butter and get fresh cut veggies when I can with hummus and always an avocado. You can live on a less than you thank and it’s better than drive through which you should avoid at all costs. Go easy on caffeine. It dehydrates big time.
- Research state parks, national parks, campgrounds and some Walmarts http://www.walmartlocator.com/no-park-walmarts/, which will let you, park in their lot as long as you register. Don’t count on friends or fans to house you. Believe me it would be nice, but it isn’t reliable and frankly very awkward having to always ask. IF you’re lucky you will find some cool people who will let you stay, but it comes with other issues and you need some rest. The Forest Service has free campsites which you can get at their offices or www.treadlightly.org
With all that in mind you must write out your daily budget and stick to it. Hide some cash in the car in a secret place too. Notice we haven’t talked about income yet? We’ll get there. But first you need to plan plan plan to keep your stress level down. I start out camping because honestly you don’t know how well ticket and CD sales will be in the beginning. Later, you might be able to spring for a hotel and sleep your butt off. It’s just prudent to keep costs down at the start. Plus, you don’t know what unexpected expenses may come up.
Touring for we indie artists isn’t like the big acts. The Rolling Stones income looks like this for example:
“Promoters of the L.A. concerts said the gross for the evening would exceed $275,000 if the Stones filled the 18,000 seats in the Forum both shows. Similar grosses, on a per show basis, were expected throughout the tour, with the Stones getting guarantees of $25,000 a concert and up, against take home percentages running close to $60,000.- Rolling Stones”
Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/the-rolling-stones-impose-high-ticket-prices-for-u-s-tour-19691115#ixzz47FRRM12j
Of course with touring trucks, crew, promotion, rooms, flights, etc. the cost of touring for the big acts is in the millions. Your goal is to keep your expenses down to a bare minimum. Part of that is booking low cost venues like House Concerts, Churches, Libraries. I have info on House Concerts on my website: http://randygranger.net/houseconcert/ Yoga and meditation studios used to be cheap but the last one I did in Utah needed $300 damage deposit, 80% of the proceeds and were kind of dicks about it.
I’m lucky to work in teaching and workshops, sell flutes and other merch and anything I can to increase my income. There is a really ugly saying in touring clubs that goes “well at least you got gas money.” Screw that! That is outdated and disrespectful. We can’t live on “gas money” anymore than bars live on tips. What we offer and bring to people with our music is a respite from a chaotic world, a balm, an ephemeral moment of healing and connection. Whether you do set door and ticket prices or operate on goodwill offerings/donations let folks know you are your own booking agent, promoter, Sherpa, roadie, driver and crew and that music is your living, vocation and avocation. Nothing wrong at all in making that point.
It is always surprising that civilians (non-musicians) don't think that professional musicians don't have actual car payments, credit card debt, utilities, rent, mortgage, medical etc. I've had people argue with me that since I get to do what I love that I can't really have bills or problems. I'm being serious. It's a symptom of how we've objectified and idealized those we consider celebrities, famous or popular. Yes, we have real bills, expenses and no safety net, nest egg, giant safe filled with gold bars hidden in our yards somewhere. I wish.
Everything we make goes back into our work just like other self-employed people and small businesses. As a musician you can’t survive, and certainly not thrive, on breaking even. So strategize on how to maximize your flow so that when those two hours of your gig are relaxed and not stressing about the fact that only six people showed up and you’ve got 550 miles to drive tomorrow. I welcome your comments and your booking inquiries. No venue too small or unusual to consider.
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