The image of a touring musician as portrayed by the media is a glamorous one – packed-out venues, parties in nice hotels, stages with full lights and sound, and a big, comfy bus to top it all off.
Sadly, the reality of touring can be a harsh wake-up call for many budding musicians. The truth of the matter is that touring is not for everyone. It can be hard on the body, mind, and spirit. You will be traveling long distances, eating sporadically (and poorly), sleeping in unfamiliar beds, dealing with financial hardship, and coping with the heartbreak of poorly attended shows.
And if that wasn't enough to drive you crazy, you may have to deal with the frightening existential crises that afflict all musicians and creative types from time to time!
That being said, I tour 150 dates a year and I love it. I love seeing my audience grow, and coming back to a city and meeting all the friends I made last time.
I love seeing my band get better, and I love learning more about the music industry every time I hit the road. I want to tell you all the things I wish someone had told me when I started DIY touring. So let’s dive in to the big question: should you be touring at all?
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Are You Road Ready?
There are a lot of bands on the road, and if you’re going to be one of them, you need to ask yourself, how does your show stack up? When you hit the road, you’ll only really be effective if your show is ready.
At this point you shouldn’t have songs in your set that are still being learnt! You should also have a good idea what kind of “vibe” you're going for with your show (i.e. a dance party, an intimate acoustic show, etc.), and it should be well-rehearsed with transitions, banter, and so on.
One of the best parts of being on tour is that even after all your careful rehearsal, your show will still improve a lot while on the road. There is simply no better practice than performing night after night after night! It's important for performing musicians to get out of their rehearsal rooms regularly.
I also believe that you should only really be touring when you have exhausted your local market.
Playing locally is the best way to develop your show, learn how to work a crowd, and learn the basics of booking and promotion. Developing your local market should also garner some industry attention, and these connections will help you develop and maintain industry contacts in other markets.
But you can also wear out your local market, and that might be a good time to start thinking about going on tour.
What Are You Hoping To Achieve By Touring?
Different people tour for different reasons. If you’re just starting out, you will not be making very much money, so don’t make that your goal. Instead, choose to tour effectively by booking the right shows, promoting smarter not harder, making each show count, and managing your finances correctly.
When starting out, your goals should be as follows:
- Making fans
- Improving your show
- Making connections with industry people
- Building a buzz
I call this kind of touring Artist Development Touring. Focusing on this type of touring will make your tours shorter and busier.
I find that this helps your mental health on tour, as your day is typically filled with promo and you avoid feeling bored and purposeless. Touring in this way also maximizes your impact on the markets you’re playing.
However, the drawback to this approach is the diminished income that comes with playing career-building gigs (i.e. shows in large markets on weekends, opening slots, etc.).
So, along with Development Tours, you can construct tours designed to generate income while still making fans, albeit in smaller markets.
For example, house concert tours typically generate my band between $800 – $1500 per night, and are also a very effective way of making 20 – 60 fans at a time. These fans are usually in an older demographic and/or in small towns, but still, the tour serves a purpose.
Do You Have The Right Mindset?
You are a working musician, and touring is your job. You are not going on tour to party every night, you are going out into the world as a professional and this should be your mindset.
Your tour will be 100% more successful if you plan correctly, organize effectively, and otherwise conduct your tour as a business venture.
With that said, your tour may not be as successful as you hoped when you set out. Your shows may be half full (or possibly less), you may have vehicle troubles, or you may have financial setbacks.
However, with the right mindset, there is no challenge too big to overcome. Realize that ultimately, you are playing music for a living, and that is the best job there is. Your job as a musician is to entertain, and people (probably) paid money to see you. So put on a great show, and perform/network in such a way that everyone you meet wants to come back to see you again.
Do You Need To Tour?
The truth is, not every band needs to tour. My band needs to tour, because we are all full time musicians and it’s how we make our money. Without touring, we would have very little income!
However, I know many successful musicians who have gone a different route. Whether it’s focusing on YouTube and social media, or working with a team of industry professionals to expedite their music’s path into the public’s eye, touring is not the only way.
Make sure that touring is something that will truly benefit your musical career. Sometimes the only way to know is to give it a shot, but other times it may be obvious.
If your show is well-rehearsed, your goals are realistic and aimed in the right direction, you have the right mindset, and your tour matches your musical manifesto, then you’re set.