Every summer, thousands of bands pack up and hit the road for tour in hopes of bringing their music to new listeners across America. If you’ve never been on tour, you might associate it with blissful scenes of a band playing a sold out show in front of a screaming crowd of adoring fans before heading back to party all night at the pool of a luxury hotel, but 99.9% of serious musicians on tour this summer will never experience anything like this. Touring is massively hard work, and if you don’t know that going in you run the risk of getting into huge trouble on the road. Lucky for you, I’ve got ten great tour tips to help keep you fed, safe and sane this summer.
I’ve spent the better part of my twenties playing tiny clubs, sleeping on floors and eating peanut butter and honey sandwiches. I’ve played clubs in cities as big as New York and San Francisco and as small and historic as Fargo and Savannah. I’ve had the best and worst times of my life while I was on the road, sometimes within the same tour, and I’ve learned that there’s definitely a right and wrong way to do things. I’m happy to share some of what I’ve learned here.
Tour Tips #1: Don’t expect to make money
Even seasoned bands who’ve found a small amount success often have a difficult time making money on tour. Depending on you and your band’s unique situation, tour will probably be a difficult way to make money for a couple of reasons, the most important of them being that it’s extremely difficult to bring people out to a show in a city you’re not from. And if you can’t get people out to see you, you can’t earn money.
There’s things you can do to increase your odds of getting people from new cities to come out to your shows, we’ll give you some ideas on how to do that in a bit, but because of the huge financial uncertainty that usually comes attached to touring, it’s better to see the endeavor as an investment into your band rather than a fun part time job.
Breaking even is a good goal for newer bands without a lot of proven experience on the road. Don’t be discouraged by this. Consider this: think about your local scene for a minute. Even if you think you’re plugged in and in the know about music coming to your town, I guarantee you there’s at least one incredible new band playing a tiny club in your city this week that you’ve never heard of. And if it’s hard to know about all the great music coming through your town, then it’s going to be the same situation when your band plays in a new city. Going into a tour with realistic expectations about money will help your band immensely.
Tour Tips #2: Define goals for your tour long before you hit the road
Want to get the word out about a new record? How about a tour to build up your following in a certain region to get noticed by labels, press and fans? Or are you new to music and just want to book a tour this summer to get experience playing more shows? Ideally, long before you set foot on stage to play your first show on tour, you and your bandmates have defined why you’re investing the time and money to tour in the first place.
There’s plenty of great reasons for an aspiring band to tour. Touring is a great way for a band to showcase a new record or for a new group to define their sound and gain valuable playing experience. But, like I’ve already alluded to, tours of any kind and duration can be a ton of difficult, thankless work. And if you’re out on the road putting in the time, money and effort without an overarching goal, then your tour will be mediocre at best and a disaster at worst.
Having a dialogue with your bandmates about what exactly you’re hoping to get out of tour is important because it gives you the opportunity to set goals, make plans and pinpoint what you need to do to have a successful tour. Different tours require different types of preparation, but all successful tours happen after months of serious planning. At least three months before you plan to tour, meet with your bandmates to make sure you’re all on the same page about touring and discuss how to reach your goals.
Tour Tips #3: Make sure your bandmates are all on the same page about finances
Like so many other endeavors, if something can go wrong on tour, it probably will. I don’t believe I’m being overly pessimistic when I say that you should be fully prepared and even expect a small amount of trouble to happen every time you leave the comfort of your hometown for tour. Stolen equipment, car trouble and venues cancelling shows last minute are just a few of the many disasters that often befall bands on the road. If something bad happens to your band that costs a significant amount of money, who is going to pay for it?
Even if everything runs smoothly on your tour this summer, you’ll have to have a discussion about how to handle to the money you earn or lose playing shows on the road. Like I mentioned before, it’s a good idea to set a goal for breaking even on tour, but you should have an idea of what you’ll do in case your band earns a little money from shows and merch sales. Some bands opt to invest any earned cash back into the band, but others divide the money individually to help band members cope with tour costs. Every band’s financial situation is unique, so make sure to have that awkward money conversation before you get out there this summer.
Tour Tips #4: Don’t waste money staying in hotels every night
This is absolutely one of the most important tour tips I have to share with you. Coughing up cash to stay in a hotel every night will bankrupt your band in no time, even if you’re making money. A part of the hard work musicians should expect from touring is being uncomfortable from saving money however you can, so expect to sleep on floors and couches when you hit the road this summer.
Couchsurfing.com is a community of homeowners that let travelers stay with them. Some of the best touring experiences I’ve ever had have been with Couchsurfers, and bands I’ve stayed with dozens of friendly strangers I met on the site around the country. With enough planning and preparation, your band could have accommodations lined up for an entire tour weeks in advance. Similar to other online communities, Couchsurfers build their reputation online with user reviews, so it’s a good idea to let travelers and other bands stay with you before you book stays for your band.
Another option is to ask to stay with fans, the bands you play with and any family friends you might have in the area. Most of the time people will be happy to have you stay with them for the night, but you’ll most likely only be welcome if your band is well-behaved. This means that you’ll have to thoughtfully feel out different situations when staying with people. For some folks you might stay with it’s rude to turn in early and hang out for a bit. For others, like if you stay with your bassist’s Great Aunt Helen, it’s probably going to be an early night.
If you do need to spend money on a hotel, make sure you only do so if you absolutely need to. Something that doesn’t get talked about a lot in the music industry is just how exhausting touring is. The average day on tour looks something like this: you wake up around 9AM and drive four to six hours to your next stop. You eat dinner and load in around six, but you don’t get on stage until 11 or 12 most nights. It’s pretty typical not to get to bed until three or four most nights. Save your hotel nights for times on tour when you’re completely exhausted and need beds to sleep in.
Tour Tips #5: Play as many shows as you can
If you want to get the most out of your tour as a small band, you’ll have to play as many shows as possible within a short window of time. This means that you’ll have to play shows in cities you might never even have heard of, but in my opinion there’s a huge benefit to playing in small towns. If your band plays New York City on a weekend, you’ll be competing with literally hundreds of other bands for attention, but smaller scenes, especially college towns, usually embrace and support music coming through because it’s so rare. One of my bands actually sold more tickets and albums on tour in Amarillo than we did in our hometown of Denver. Don’t count out the smaller cities!
But the main reason for playing as often as possible on tour is because as a small band you’ll need every opportunity you can get your mits on for earning money. Playing six nights a week gives you six opportunities to earn money, and your more lucrative shows can help your band cope with the sparsely attended shows you’re almost certainly guaranteed to have on tour. Playing this often will absolutely wear you and your band out, but it’s the best chance you’ll have at breaking even and a great way to see parts of the country you never knew existed.
Tour Tips #6: Always have a highly visible merch area filled with awesome stuff to sell
A superfan swooping in to save the day by buying everything my band had to sell has happened at least a couple of times during my tenure in music. Having a super-visible merch area filled with tons of unique band-related stuff to sell has the potential to bring in more money than ticket sales for your band. These days, lots of bands show off their merch by pimping out old luggage cases with strings of lights, but that’s just one example of the many ways you could potentially create a visible merch area.
The more merch you have to offer, the better chance you’ll have at selling things, but this requires a huge investment up front and only works if you have people at your shows to sell it to. In addition to shirts, stickers and albums, having some gimmicky items for sale is a good way to make money and get your fans excited about you at the same time.
If you’re able to, bring a friend along with you on tour to man the merch area. The best time to sell merch is immediately after your set, but this is a massively hectic time for bands for a few reasons, the main one being that unless you’re headlining, you’ve got to get your equipment off the stage as soon as humanly possible. Having a designated merch-seller takes the stress out of post-showtime and will increase your odds for making money on the road.
Tour Tips #7: Split food and booze purchases with your bandmates
Eating out three times a day can get expensive really quick. Add buying a few drinks every night and you’ve got a situation prime for getting in debt fast. Most tours won’t be able to pay for the food you and your band members eat each day, and this is one of the reasons touring can be so difficult. Instead of spending money at restaurants and at the bar after the show, consider hitting the store to buy food and booze and splitting the cost with your bandmates.
You’ll all stand to save a decent amount of money if your band pitches in for the costs of food and drinks beforehand. Eating meals from the cooler once or twice a day can save you a ton of money. Another bit of advice though here, this only works if you purchase food that you’ll actually want to eat. If you buy unappetizing food, you’ll most likely break any promises you made to yourself before you left for tour by putting meals you didn’t plan to buy on a credit card. Having a cooler filled with drinks and tasty food could save your band hundreds of dollars by the end of a tour.
Tour Tips #8: Make sure to tell everyone you’re coming
Many bands spend months planning a tour only to become disappointed when not many people show up to their shows. Unless you’ve hired a PR firm, your band should be responsible for getting the word out about your tour to as many blogs, media outlets and local radio stations as possible.
This, as you might have guessed, is a ton of work, but it’s an essential part of successful tours. Crafting a press release and contacting local area press, radio and blogs in each of the cities you’re playing in will up your chances of getting your shows the attention they need to be well-attended.
And press writeups and radioplay carries benefits that will outlast the your tour. Any positive press quote is great for your bio, and even a little bit of radio play has the potential of earning your band new fans. If one city on your route is giving your band more attention than others, consider investing a little money into a Facebook ad campaign focused there. This will help further your momentum in a city and increase your chances of people coming out to see you.
Tour Tips #9: Keep your tours short
In my opinion, it’s better for a band to embark on multiple short tour rather than long ones. A great tour can do incredible things for a band, but a bad tour has the potential to make a band never want to speak to each other again. If you’re new to touring, try booking a few weekend tours to get a feel for playing on the road. And if you’re already familiar with touring, try keeping your time out on the road down to one or two weeks at a time.
There’s a hidden cost to being out on the road all the time, and relationships often get strained when a band is gone for too long at a time. Being away from a job for too long also has the potential of hurting you or your bandmates financially. Rather than planning to be gone the entire summer or fall, try focusing on booking shorter tours in regions you think you’d do well in. Your wife/boyfriend/kids/boss will thank you for it.
Tour Tips #10: Take care of yourself
This doesn’t get talked about enough, but it gets easy to not take care of yourself out on the road, and it can become a serious problem. If you find yourself partying too much, skipping meals or forgetting to brush your teeth for days on end, then you’re not in a sustainable situation.
As musicians, we’re typically used to making huge sacrifices on behalf of our music, but if you’re not sober, fed, sane, safe and hygienic, then you’re setting yourself up for bad things to happen. Good bands are often derailed when they say yes to too many shows and tours, and that’s when resentment rears it’s ugly head. Taking care of yourself first and then your band second is the only way to ensure that what you’re doing on the road is truly sustainable. If you can’t take care of yourself on tour, then you shouldn’t be doing it.
Well, that’s my best ten tour tips for touring smart this summer. For more helpful articles about the world of music, check out the Musika Lessons blog. See you out on the road!