“Ain’t in it for my health…” Levon Helm
Since I’m becoming an agent, I decided to send myself on the road with a few bands. I wanted to see how they earn their money. I wanted to discover first-hand the joys of traveling with a rock band. I wanted to see what hardships they might face. I didn’t have the time, money or guts to try something like The Autumn Anxiety Tour: PASADENA and Bumpin Uglies going coast to coast. Instead, I did some long weekends with The Wayfarer Experiment and Bond & Bentley and an extended run with Lovebettie and Triphazard on their Unsocial Network Tour. Want the abridged version? Bands don’t make enough money.
Being in a band is expensive. You invest in gear and pay to maintain it. You have to pay for gas to get to and from the gig. You can’t always count on the venue providing food and drinks as part of your compensation. Before you can sell merchandise, you have to pay to produce it. And from what I’m seeing out there, bands get $150-300 to play a show until they really start to draw a crowd.
The hours are lousy. Accounting for driving and loading in/out, you might leave home at 5pm and get home at 5am. Have you ever tried to find gas, food or lodging after 2am? You might have luck in a city but be prepared to pay more. Time management skills only go so far when so few factors are within your control. You start and finish when the venue says so.
“Touring is for the young. You can only sleep on floors for so long. And you must have complete immersion to do it right. You can’t have baggage or responsibilities calling from home.” So says Loretta, who fronted and toured with several bands including Burning Bus, The Dive Bar Pretties and currently Shrimpboat. “It’s a great life. It’s a hard life. You must be completely into it to survive.”
Are all tour stories filled with hard luck and few rewards? Of course not. Imagine the best concert you’ve ever seen. Now imagine what it must have felt like for the band to make that connection with their audience. Now realize it can be you: if you make good music and find the right crowd at the right time. Ray Wroten, who fronts Bond & Bentley, has been touring 200+ nights a year for six years. He loves what he does and has plenty of stories good and bad.
“Man, our tour last spring is a great example. We had a send-off gig at home: great night. The next two nights, bam, great bars, great audiences. People into it, dancing, never seen or heard of us before. Made a lot of connections, sold a pile of cd’s. It’s crazy; we’re from Baltimore but we now have a huge fan base in Buffalo, NY. Night four we play a place in Indy that we’d done well at before. We had a couple friends there from a previous show. And that’s who we played to. Two people. So you play what they want to hear and mostly treat it as a rehearsal. But if you’re being paid as a percentage of the gross, you’re in financial trouble already and you’re four states from home. The next night we played to a packed house, but we might as well have been a fucking juke box. People sitting five feet away couldn’t give two shits about what we were doing. We made $600 and felt lousy. You just gotta shake it off, roll to the next show and pour your heart out again. You never know when you’ll find that Buffalo.”
So, you want to rock and roll? Good! Work hard at your music. Make it an art and a craft. Believe in yourself and the power of music to make the world a better place. We need you. Not everyone can do what you do.
Let me offer a few pointers and answer some frequently asked questions.
1. Pack a cooler and a set of “emergency” clothes. If you get hungry, thirsty or sprayed with who knows what, you’re set. Living on drive-thru and diner food will take its toll and costs double the price of groceries. Make sure there’s water in that cooler.
2. Learn how to read a map. Don’t let those commercials fool you. You DO NOT have cell service everywhere and if you think GPS always works, you are too dumb to tour.
3. Promote your own shows! Every place you play likely has a Facebook, Twitter, etc. When you have the dates set, start sending them photos, videos and links to stuff you want them to see/know/share. Make it easy for their audience to get to know you. It’s your job. The venue’s job is selling food and drinks. Allow me to suggest a Gigspots profile and let us help you with promotion.
Can I make money by touring? Yes, but not as much as you think. Merch is where most bands make a small profit. The audience already has pictures and video on their smartphones. Can you make them want a piece of you to take home? It’s not the shirt, music or poster they want. They want an artifact. Don’t say, “We have cd’s for sale.” Say, “Come meet us after the show by the merch table.”
Can I get laid by touring? Maybe, but usually only if you can get laid back home. You can get STD’s, arrested, beaten up and/or stalked very easily by the types of people who are still in bars at closing time. You can also really piss off your band mates who are hungry, tired and ready to leave. Better to focus on your job out there.
Why tour if it’s so hard with no guarantees? News flash: life is hard and there are no guarantees. But if music is your life, and you make it because you have to, then express yourself. If you’re tired of playing the garage and you’ve tested the waters at open mics, band competitions, etc, then bring it to us. If your music is genuine, your talent obvious and your heart open, you’ve got a shot. Taking music or any art public is to write an open love-letter proposal to the world. Touring is a blind date. If you can handle love and love lost, you can handle it.