I’ve been a full-time touring musicians for three years now. It’s been an incredible learning experience, and I’ve played some shows that have made every hardship worth it.
Something I’ve enjoyed doing is figuring out how to make touring more fun. For me, this means a few things: Being more profitable, more comfortable, and more interesting.
This may seem weird to you, because if you have just started out, or haven’t toured at all, touring will be a novel experience in and of itself. And of course, it still is from time to time – I’m touring Japan in the New Year, and that is very exciting.
But for the most part, I play the same 20-odd markets I’ve been playing for the last three years over and over again.
The most novel part of the experience is playing shows. Shows are always exciting and interesting. It’s awesome to see your fan base grow, or to play a great show somewhere you’ve always struggled.
Touring is a lot more than just playing shows. In fact, touring is a lot of sitting around and travel, and then two hours of performing. Maybe you get a few radio engagements, but that’s about it. It can become monotonous.
And then, there’s the money. Sometimes it’s okay, sometimes it’s not good. Losing money sucks. Being on the road hemorrhaging money for a month is not financially sustainable.
Finally, it’s possible to become sick of the road. If you don’t find ways to enjoy it, you’ll end up quitting.
I’m hoping to share some things I’ve learned that make touring more profitable, more comfortable, and more fun.
How To Make More Money On Tour
Making more money helps everything else. You’ll be more comfortable, you’ll have more money for fun, and it is good incentive to keep doing it. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make a lot of money doing this.
The truth is, you shouldn’t really be touring for the money when you’re starting out, you should be touring for your career and for the sake of your music.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t make any money. Because you definitely should.
Over the years my band and I have figured out a few ways to make more money and a few ways to save more money on tour. Here are a few of our tips:
Tour In A Small Van & Bring Only Necessary Individuals
The bigger the van, the greater the insurance costs, the more often they seem to break down, and the more you’ll spend on gas. You’ll get way more mileage out of a good small van.
It’s also worth buying a van if you can. Renting a vehicle from a rental company can be exorbitantly expensive, and stressful. My band has gone through three Dodge Grand Caravans, and we’ve spent very little on them.
This way, it’s your car and you can beat it up and drive it to the ground. You can get it dirty and not care. It can also double as a daily driver.
Buy the nicest van you can afford, and buy the smallest you can.
Save As Much As You Can On Accommodations
Accommodation eats into a tour budget very quickly. Sleep at friend’s houses whenever you can, buy cheap motel rooms, use Airbnb, and stay at hostels.
I’m not a fan of sleeping on the floor or having an uncomfortable night in a gross house. Doing too many of those make you unhealthy and unhappy.
Basically, I advocate for compromise in the accommodation department. Get the cheapest thing you possible can, that provides the best sleep possible.
If that means a cheap hotel on Hotwire, fine. If that’s a friend’s house, even better.
One benefit of touring often is that you’ll eventually make friends everywhere you go! On our last tour, we only had to pay for two hotel rooms, and we slept well almost every night.
Don’t Skimp On Merch
Merch money may not seem like a lot at an individual show, but it adds up quickly. We usually make enough merch money to cover either our food or the gas for the day at every show.
The problem is, to make any money on merch, you need to actually sell merch. You’re not going to sell merch to people who don’t want to buy it. In order to sell merch, you need to have attractive merch that people want to buy.
Buy less if you have to, but buy merch that fits your brand and your target audience. Make the shirts fitting and comfortable. Make the CDs cool looking. Consider other cool, original ideas.
Merch can make or break a tour. Don’t skimp.
Push For Meals & Drinks
If you’re playing somewhere that serves food, you should get free food. Or at the very least, heavily discounted food. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I believe that a venue should be understanding enough to provide this.
Wherever you’re playing, push to get meals and drinks. Also, don’t ever pay for drinks at the bar you’re playing. It’s a waste of money, and you don’t need to drink. If you want drinks, go buy them at the store where they’re not so expensive.
Note: If you’re drinking and eating for free, always, always, tip. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s good business to be friendly with the staff.
Pick Up Some Cover Gigs & House Concerts
If your band is able to play covers or background music, ask around and pick up some extra gigs to make money. One or two easy cover gigs might be enough to help you break even. It’s totally worth doing if you’re capable.
If you’re not able to do covers, try picking up house concerts. House concerts are often the most profitable gig on an indie band’s tour. Whoever is putting on the concert usually does all the promoting, you can charge $10 – $20 at the door, and easily walk away with a few hundred dollars.
Merch often sells well at house concerts because they are so personal.
Don’t let these gigs take over your tours – they don’t build very many fans. However, there is no shame in lining a few of them up. Everybody has to make money.
Making Touring More Comfortable
Making touring more comfortable is a matter of organization. Planning for the future, learning from the past, and anticipating problems.
Touring doesn’t need to be uncomfortable, but if you’re disorganized, it will be. Having to drive five hours in a giant rush because you forgot about an interview is super stressful and uncomfortable.
Not having a place to stay at night is stressful and uncomfortable.
Forgetting to pack enough underwear is stressful.
Forgetting your gear at a venue is stressful.
Don’t do this. Be better! There are tools you can use to keep yourself organized.
If you’re the “band dad” like me, you’ve got all the dates swimming around in your brain. You can be the most organized person in the world, but still screw things up every once in a while.
Making a tour itinerary is important for everyone in the band. Everyone needs to know where they’re going and when they need to be there.
Making the itinerary is also the perfect time to make plans. Book hotels, ask friends if you can crash with them, advance shows, and otherwise make sure everything runs smoothly.
Road Trip App
Road Trip is an app that can track your fuel economy, document maintenance records, and keep receipts. It’s a great way to keep your costs straight, and you can also compare this tour to old tours to see where your money is going.
Artist Manager App
If you want to take things up a notch, try out the app Artist Manager. It’s designed for professional tour managers, and it is seriously amazing.
The app has many of the same features as Road Trip, but is literally designed for music. You can put in relevant advance details, load-ins, remember names, send schedules to band members, and more.
It’s seriously incredible, and if you’re touring all the time, it’s worth a monthly subscription. The subscription is paid month to month, so you can unsubscribe when you’re off the road.
Tiles are small devices that you can attach to your wallet, keys, instruments, laptop, suitcase, and whatever else. These little things have saved me hours of time and stress. I’m not exaggerating.
Basically, you get the Tiles, put them on stuff you don’t want to lose, and then you use the Tile app to keep track of them. If you lose your Tile, you can figure out where you left it. If you lose your Tile somewhere nearby, you can “ring” it, and track it down.
It seems excessive, but I have a Tile on everything important. Both my keyboards, laptop, suitcase, wallet, keys, and spare keys. Whenever I load out of a gig, I take a look at the Tile app, and if everything is in the van, the app will tell me.
There are other devices that do the same thing. Don’t lose your wallet. Don’t lose your keys. It’s such a huge pain.
Finally, here are some quick tips for making touring more comfortable:
- Get noise-cancelling headphones and a sleeping mask for car rides.
- Get earplugs for shows. Don’t damage your ears while listening to the opening band.
- Get slippers and a neck rest for the van. Seriously – slippers are awesome.
- Every time you find yourself wishing you had brought something, write it down. By the end of the tour, you’ll have a list of things to make the next tour easier.
- Don’t get drunk very often. Being hungover in a van or on a plane is a very bad time.
- Find activities that feel productive. Books, podcasts, math questions, etc. Don’t waste all your time on TV.
How To Make Touring More Fun
Making more money and organizing well will make everything more fun. It always does.
It’s also way more fun to play good shows. Work your butt off to make the shows good. Touring is not fun and games, it’s work.
But I’m not some grump. Touring is supposed to be at least a little bit fun. Here are some things you can try for yourself.
Get Out Of The Van & Look At Things
It’s easier to do this when you’re organized (see above). If you have extra time, stop at a lake. Eat outside. Go walk around. Look at things.
If you’re in a city, check out TripAdvisor and see what the top free activities are. Do it solo or do it with your band mates! It’s a great way to see a city that you’re only in for one day.
Develop Habits & Relationships With People
I love finding a great coffee shop or a killer restaurant in a new city. Then, when you come back, you go back to the same place and it feels familiar.
In Edmonton, I go to the same Thai place every time. In Saskatoon, I always end up at the same coffee shop.
Even better, I’ve made friends in a bunch of cities that I can call up for lunch the day of a show. You never know when these connections will come in handy, and it’s just plain fun to have friends across the whole country.
Sometimes, Just Do Fun Things
If there are water slides and you want to go, just do it. Same goes for movies, theater, and roller coasters. Life is for living! If you have the money and the time, it’s always worth giving yourself a break from the madness of touring.
This doesn’t sound like much fun, but neither does getting sick and sore and grouchy. Exercising in the morning or whenever you can makes the whole day better, you’ll feel better, and you’ll just be happier.
Plus, if your band members are still in bed when you get back from your run, you totally have bragging rights.
Touring is the best and it’s the worst. It’s so full of ups and downs. You can have miserable shows night after night for a week, but having one good one totally changes your whole perspective.
Finding ways to get better at touring makes it more fun, more profitable, and easier to do for a long time.
I hope these tips will help you improve your touring experience. they’ve made a difference for me, and I didn’t even get to touring by air – that’s for another article!