So many great artists are trapped between finding local success making it out on the road. No one hands you a guidebook when you buy your first touring vehicle and hit the interstate.
Here are some tips on keeping spending to a minimum when embarking on your first tour.
Don’t pay to play.
Set a minimum and get the venue to agree before you show up on stage. While you may not know yet what that amount should be, if you’re playing regularly around town, you’re probably walking away with an average of $100-200/night.
When planning your tour and the dates and cities you’re booking to play, the most common thing you’re going to encounter is the venue promoter who will hype the show as a “must” for your group. He or she will then go on to charge at the door via suggested donation or a “pay what you can” model. Most of the time it’s because you’re new in town, and have likely little if any following.
Assuming the show goes well, you’ll walk with a few hundred bucks in your pocket – enough to cover your time and expenses. Without a guarantee, on a slow night, you may walk with as little as $20 to show for it. Unfortunately in this case, for a 3-6 member band touring around the country, you will essentially be paying to play the gig.
We suggest you set a guarantee scale of $100-$200 plus a cut of the bar, if appropriate. Encourage the promoter to charge a minimum amount at the door (we suggest $5-10). Always be rational and courteous, but don’t be afraid to request a minimum amount because without it, your tour might cost you more to go than it’s worth.
Budget, and stick to it.
Build a solid tour budget and stick to it no matter what. Tour essentials are vehicle costs and upkeep, gear rental, insurance, gas – calculate your total mileage and add 20%. Trust us. Detours, construction, unplanned stops, the world’s largest whatever it is. They all happen.
You’ll also need to budget for hotels or Airbnb, couch surfing (it’s not scary, we promise), or wherever it is you’ll be staying. If you’re sleeping in your van or tour bus, make sure you budget for a few emergency nights in a hotel in case it needs service. Add food allowances for each member per day, plus parking costs, tolls, and gear maintenance, if needed. Factor in 10% of your total budget for variable expenses – so if the tour is going to cost $4000, allot $400 for those surprises. You’ll be glad you did when they rear their ugly heads.
Don’t book everything in sight because it’s there.
Rather than go out on the road for 45 days in a row, create multi-territory weekend tours within a reasonable driving distance. If you live in Washington, DC – try for New York City. It’s 3-4 hours each way, but if you were to hit traffic, you’re looking at a manageable addition of 1-2 hours. The difference here is that if you decided, say, that you were going to Chicago, and you hit traffic every step of the way, your 11-12 hour trip may quickly turn into 13-15 or more, which could force you into a hotel for the night, especially in bad weather.
Another way to tour without committing to several weeks on the road – break your dates down into East Coast, Midwest, West Coast, Northwest, Southwest, South, Central, etc. and spread these micro-tours across 4-6 tours a year. Eventually, people will come to understand who you are in these areas, allowing you to create better relationships with publicists, venues, promoters, and local bands. Once you’ve laid this groundwork over a few tour cycles, you’ll be able to create a more substantial tour. You’ll also know which markets fit best for your genre, and which ones don’t pay off.
If you bring all of your gear, including the stuff that’s “just in case,” and then the stuff you literally scrape dust off of for those once-a-year shows, you’re gonna need a bigger van. 12-15 passenger vans suck up a lot of gas, are expensive to rent, and need to be driven more cautiously than a smaller vehicle. Additionally, you may have trouble finding parking, and some rental companies charge extra for insurance because they know this isn’t your daily driver and they assume you probably don’t have much experience.
Only bring what you need, rent when it makes sense, and use as much of the venue’s equipment as possible. One tool that we’ve heard great things about is Sparkplug – a band to band rental system with an app that can grab you a replacement guitar amp when yours takes its last breath during sound check.
Merch. Don’t skip it.
Half the reason you’re going on tour is break into new markets. It’s important to create special, limited edition merch that fans can only get on this tour. To help promote and market your band as well as to make some additional funds to cushion the costs of touring, we recommend that you create limited edition, personalized, “only available on tour” merch and bundle it with your CDs.
Personalized items will help your fans will feel connected with your band, and its brand. Create tour specific bundles, where you match packages of items together, i.e., shirt, album, sticker, poster, etc. and offer them for a cheaper rate than they can get online. There’s the incentive right there for attendees to buy from you. Just don’t forget to advertise the discount.
Always be sure to keep merch earnings completely separate from your main tour budget. Don’t dip into these earnings unless it’s an emergency. The profits from merch should be what your group uses to buy new merch and pay the marketing costs surrounding getting new gigs. If you spend this, you have to start over and buy your next batch out of pocket.
Take every opportunity presented to you.
On your first few rounds of touring, you’re probably going to walk away with very little in profit, if any at all. Make sure that you establish non-financial “wins” for touring, such as an invitation to play again, selling out of merch, landing a radio interview, etc. While money pays the bills, it’s not common for local groups to come back with sacks full of money. These little wins should help you get through.
Network like crazy, with everyone who’s willing.
When you visit new places, make sure that you take the time to establish and cultivate relationships and networks while you are traveling through different cities. Visiting organized jam sessions, coffeehouse open mics, and other local events will help you build these networks. It also doesn’t hurt to reach out to local radio hosts and public access TV for a chance to get on their schedules. These relationships will prove much more valuable in the long term, if you continue to nurture them.
Don’t eat your wallet.
Food will quickly become one of your largest expenses if you don’t stick to a budge. Get a nice, durable cooler. We hate Styrofoam because they leak, and they break – they’re bigger headache than they’re worth. Get one you can drain from the bottom, that will stay cold, and that won’t break if it gets knocked over. Hit the supermarket every few days and get stuff to make sandwiches. Buy snacks that will fill you up and avoid high-cost snacks like beef jerky, gourmet pretzels, and all that other fancy stuff you can eat at home. Try to avoid restaurants as much as you can. Where possible, see if the venue will feed the band – oftentimes they will.
Pay it forward.
If you’re touring, there’s a good chance someone you know is too, or knows someone who is. Much like you rely on the kindness of others to get from town to town, there are other artists out there doing it too.
When you’re able, give touring musicians places to crash and help them connect with local promoters. Become an essential member of your music community and always open your doors and contacts for them when they roll through your hometown. Not only will you give someone a place to stay, but you’re probably going to receive the same treatment when you’re in their town. It’s mutually beneficial.
We hope that this has been helpful to you while looking for touring advice while on a budget. Like we said, no one hands you a “how-to” manual when you start your first trip. It’s all stuff you pick up on the road, whether it’s smooth sailing, or 3am and you’re on the Pennsylvania Turnpike with a flat tire.
If you have touring tips or stories you want to share, we’d love to hear them! Get in touch with us on social media.