I just spent Independence Day weekend with my aunt and uncle. At one point my uncle, ever the curious gentleman started asking me about the basic finances of touring. This is obviously a tricky one since so often bands are hitting the road and losing their asses. They aren’t ready to tour and don’t understand the basic finances. When it comes down to it, touring is not the supreme goal to grow your band in a lot of cases. In fact, frequently touring is going to only hurt your band as it damages morale and reminds us how small we really are. That being said tour can also be an amazing experience with some of your best friends that leads to serious bonding. So take what I say with a grain of salt, I just want to break down some basic realities to protect you from doing something you later regret.
The Motivations For Touring
Before we really dig into this I want to talk about some of the basic motivations for touring. There are many but they boil down to three basic realities. As discussed in the intro, touring can be an amazing and life-changing adventure. This is a super valid reason to tour – but you need to be aware if this is your reason for doing it. Another big reason to tour is to promote your band. This is certainly very fair if you are touring strategically. Starting by building up in your region is essential but it’s an effective away to make people start to notice you. Then, of course, there are the people who tour to make money. This is what this article is about and what we will be getting into in-depth here.
Knowing When You Are Ready
This is the big one. A lot of people go on tour when no one in their own hometown gives a shit. The general rule of thumb I like to use is that if fifty people don’t want to come to see you on a Friday or a Saturday in your hometown you probably shouldn’t be touring on anything more than a regional level Why? Well, it’s simple – If in your five-person band each of you doesn’t have ten friends excited to see you on a night when they don’t have work the next day, then your music and live show is just not good. People need to be excited to see your band at home if anyone is going to show up and care when you are a few hundred miles away.
The Basic Economics Of Touring
So, what are the basic numbers you need to be meeting when you are on tour? Well at its most basic you need to pay for gas. This is probably fifty bucks a day, at minimum. Then you probably have to rent a van, this is going to be another hundred a day. If you stay in hotels every night or even a good chunk of nights you need to factor that in too for at least another fifty bucks a night. So, at this point, you’re already at $200 a day you need to be making to break even. This is before you pay for food or booking agent and management fees. Obviously, there are ways to reduce all of these – but still. There are a ton of small external costs that regularly come up too. When compared with the fact that even if you are fairly ready to tour there will still be dud nights and shitty door deals it becomes clear. There isn’t an impressive financial upside to touring unless you are routinely grossing five hundred bucks a night with merch and your door rate combined.
Your Follow Up
This is where it becomes clear that you need to really think about your approach to touring. I rant all the time about the advertising rule of sevens. It’s the basic notion that you need to see something seven times before you act upon it. For touring bands this needs they need to hit a market at least a handful of times before anyone starts to even give a shit. That’s fine and all, but it also means you need to be thinking about how much money you can lose. There is no problem to me if you are touring at a loss, but you need to know you are touring at a loss. Not only that, but you need to be thinking about when your follow up in this market is going to be. What I am saying is that sure, it’s cool you can tour out to California from your home base in Richmond, but what’s the point if you are only going one time every two years? If you don’t touch a market for a year the next time you go it’s going to be basically a new market for you. This is why it’s so hard to be a musician – you need to be everywhere all the time.
So if you are feeling sufficiently discouraged, remember there’s a flip side to this. Touring can be a whole boatload of fun and you can meet all sorts of cool people. At the end of the day – it’s still the best way to break your band as long as you do it intelligently and think about the numbers in a way that makes sense. I’m an extremely conservative guy when it comes to financial estimates and you need to be the same. If you aren’t sure how much you can expect to make, ask your friends in bands, especially the older people who have been doing it for a while. They will be happy to share their wisdom and hopefully lead you to less stress and lost money in the future.
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Matt Bacon is a consultant, A&R man, and journalist specializing in the world of heavy metal. Having worked with everyone from Glam Rock icon Phil Collen of Def Leppard, to post Black Metal titans Alcest, by way of legendary thrashers Exhorder as well as labels including Prophecy Productions and Ripple Music, he has dedicated his life to helping young bands develop. Having started his own blog at the age of 14 he views his career in artist development as ‘a hobby that got out of hand’. In 2015 he formed Dropout Media in order to better support the artists he loves. We sit here now, years later with countless tours booked, records released and deals signed, and loving every minute of it.
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