An idiot’s guide to touring cheap.
Last night, I spent about an hour throwing a temper tantrum over an article by a certain car-and-laptop slangin' sensation band detailing how a 28-day US tour netted them negative $12,000, despite raking in close to $140K. Some of their expenses were unavoidable. But I think it's obvious to most touring musicians who read it that there was also a ton of excess that could have been avoided [ahem, thousands of dollars on stage lights].
Shit like this pisses me off because it implies that being in a band in the US is financially impossible for smaller groups like yours and mine. It puts a stigma on the idea of touring—that it's too complex and commercially driven. But the truth is, on my band Direct Hit's first longer US tour, despite playing to probably 15 to 25 people every night in basements and dives, we came home with enough to at least take our pissed off girlfriends out for a night on the town to say sorry for leaving for more than a month. How is it that a tiny, G-list group like ours makes more than one with more than 100 million views on YouTube? Turns out, it's fucking easy.
It's cool that the band mentioned above tried to do it right by paying their members a salary, covering hotel rooms, and shelling out $25K in "production expenses," but reading through their tour accounting highlights, there were plenty of obvious pitfalls that you and I have the luxury of avoiding. Following a few basic, common sense steps while you're on tour—with a band of any size—will ensure you won't end up destitute. It doesn't matter if you're Beyonce, or a DJ in a 1,000-cap venue, or some dumb punk band playing for nine people who think you suck.
Speaking of, let's review the basics from my band's 2013 tour accounting:
Days on the road: 37 (June 20, 2013 to July 28, 2013)
Total cost of gas: $3,488.45
Van repairs: $494.15
Bank costs: $92.00
*"Cost Of Goods Sold"
Door money ("ticket sales"): $4,225.00
Merch sales: $4,373.00
How'd we do it? A few easy tips:
Figure out how much it's gonna cost before you leave
"We don't care about money! All we want to do is drive around and party like it's a vacation!" A lot of groups I've talked to take that approach to touring. And that's awesome! None of us are getting rich off this shit. But really, when was the last time you took a vacation and didn't stop and think for at least a minute or two to at least ballpark how much that trip's gonna cost?
Figuring out a basic budget for a tour takes about 20 minutes. You know the cities you want to visit. You know how quick your vehicle of choice eats up gas. So just go to Mapquest—Google Maps if you're making 10 stops or less—and enter in every city (specific addresses if you have them already) on your whole route, making sure your starting and ending point is your own address. Take the total mileage of the trip, and multiply it by 1.15. That gives you your total mileage, plus a 15% buffer for when you get lost, and make a quick detour or two. Then divide that total by whatever MPG your van or hearse or whatever you drive gets. That'll tell you how many gallons you'll go through. Then multiply that number by the cost per gallon of gas at whatever pump is closest to you. That'll tell you how about how much gas is going to cost for the whole trip. Divide that by the number of shows you're playing, and that tells you on average how much you have to profit each night to cover the cost if you feel like it.
Fuel is far and away the biggest expense a DIY kind of band makes on tour. Everything else basically pales in comparison. So if you know how much gas you're gonna have to buy, that at least tells you the majority of how much it's going to cost you to drive the whole trip and get home.
Always ask about money and a place to sleep
No one wants to be the asshole who asks a promoter for more than they should. And you don't have to. But when you're booking a tour, at least make a point to mention to everyone booking you about how much you're spending on gas every day, and ask if you can expect to make that back each night.
Asking about money isn't about getting rich. It's about making sure that the person who's booking you actually gives a shit about getting people to show up. When I tried booking my first tour, I made the mistake of telling promoters that I didn't care about money—I just wanted a place for my band to play. The result? Half the time, we'd show up at a place and the bartender wouldn't even know there was a show happening that night because the promoter didn't even give a big enough shit to mention it to him or her. And why should they? If they haven't guaranteed anything and no one shows up, it's no skin off their nose because they're not on the hook for anything. Even landing a $25 guarantee ensures they at least have to tell five people to show up. And if a promoter can't guarantee you that much, they'll take the money through the door that you earned yourself by getting your friends in town to come hang. So fuck them.
Same goes for a place to crash. Asking if your promoter knows about a couch to crash on at least shows them it costs you something to show up and play for 20 minutes. Hotels are fucking expensive—there's no easier way to blow a budget than getting a room even a night or two a week. If you get stuck without a floor to crash on, suck it up and sleep in your van. Or pull into a campground and sleep on the grass. It's way cheaper than Motel 6.
Keep your transport small
It's tempting to travel in the closest simile to a mobile apartment possible when you're on tour, but it's maybe the dumbest move you can make. The bigger the rig, the more you spend on gas, maintenance, repairs, parking, and tolls. It's a lot less safe, since it's tougher to brake quickly, tougher to navigate in the wind, and tougher to maneuver through tight passages, through mountains and hills, and around corners. It might seem like a great idea to drop just an extra grand ("just") on a trailer, but you can kiss underground and covered parking goodbye since you definitely won't make clearance, and most street parking since it's tougher to efficiently parallel park. That means you'll end up hitting open event lots which usually cost three times as much as basic underground or sidewalk spots. Unless you have a history of selling so much merch that you NEED the extra space, it's a bad idea to bring it.
If you're a two-piece band, tour in a Ford Escort. If you're a 4-piece, tour in a minivan. If you think you're gonna sell a bunch of merch, upgrade to a 12-passenger van. In all cases, do your very best to clear extra space in your ride by setting yourself up to share speaker cabinets and a drum set at every show. The smaller you can keep things, the more cost you'll be able to cut. And ONLY go after a big, ridiculous rig when you absolutely have to. Justify that shit with numbers, not your own ego.
Keep track of how much you make on merch, and keep the total separate
"This shit is easy! We made $112 at that show, even though there were only 14 people who showed up!" I hear this one a lot too. Most bands make money on tour from two different sources: Door money and merch. It's important to remember though that merch costs something, while donations don't. So you have to keep separate records of both.
When you sell stuff, keep a running total of what you've made each night off shirts and music. It's easy to think you're on top when you walk away from a show having sold $40 in merch every night, when the fact is that stuff you sold cost something before your tour even started. You don't have to be an asshole about it—if you feel like keeping a detailed account of what exactly you handed out, and how much you got in return for it, then cool. But at the very least, mark down a ballpark figure for how much you sold versus how much the six people at your show donated to your band when the hat got passed around three hours after you played. When you get home, total up the amount you got for merch, and subtract how much you paid to make it in the first place. At least that way the dude who got suckered into paying to print it, or pay for the shirts you printed on, knows how badly he got fucked over.
Make time to go to the grocery store, and hold on to old water bottles
Peanut butter, jelly, canned tuna, whole grain bread, multivitamins, and tap water are so much cheaper than Dollar Menu and Coca-Cola. You might spend $5 at a drive-thru instead of $10 at the store, but the shit you buy at the store will last for five days rather than 10 minutes. And if you're lucky enough to get a buyout at a show, it means you can add that to your door money instead of blowing it on heavy-ass bullshit that makes you want to puke onstage. By stopping at a grocery store and buying a bunch of cheap nutrition ahead of time, you'll spend less than half of what you would on fast food. If you take a multivitamin every day, you won't even be losing out on the nutrients all that bullshit iceberg lettuce and mealy-ass tomatoes your Subway would provide you with anyway.
Nick Woods fronts a band called Direct Hit from Milwaukee, WI. Check them out on tour with PEARS so they don't go broke:
12/3 - NASHVILLE @ FOOBAR
12/4 - BIRMINGHAM @ THE NICK
12/5 - NEW ORLEANS @ BANKS ST. BAR
12/6 - AUSTIN @ RED 7
12/7 - HOUSTON @ WALTER'S
12/8 - DALLAS @ GAS MONKEY
12/9 - OKLAHOMA CITY @ BLUE NOTE
12/10 - ST. LOUIS @ THE DEMO
12/11 - OMAHA @ THE HIDEOUT
12/12 - MILWAUKEE @ THE BORG WARD
12/13 - MADISON @ DRAGONFLY LOUNGE
12/14 - MINNEAPOLIS @ TRIPLE ROCK