UG editorial team. A group of people who are passionate about guitar and music in general.
Posted on Jul 05, 2016 10:42 am
The other day, I signed into Facebook to see a statement from a young band I'd been following. In the post, they announced that they were calling it a day because they cannot afford the financial hardships that come with life on the road anymore.
On reading this, I sighed.
I sighed because group in question had brought this upon themselves.
Don't get me wrong here. I'm aware of how expensive touring is for emerging bands these days.
There isn't the financial provision for emerging acts that there was in the music industry of yesteryear. Even for those with record deals, money can still be tight.
Received wisdom states that bands don't make a profit from their earliest tours. It takes time, and money to build up a reputation and a fan base.
Still, while you shouldn't expect to make a substantial return in your early life on the road, you shouldn't be in the red either. In my experience, there are many bands out there who throw money at touring with reckless disregard, making stupid financial decisions and whittling away vast amounts of capital in the process. And I knew that the young band making the statement was one of them.
Though life on the road is difficult and costly, I firmly believe that it doesn't have to bankrupt you. By planning ahead, being frugal and business savvy, you can make it out on tour without crippling yourself with debt.
There are two golden rules to doing this: minimizing your expenses and maximizing your profits. In the first of this two part series, we're going to address the former.
Minimize Your Expenses
When you head out on tour, you will spend a LOT of money on transport. There's no two ways around it. Walking or cycling from city to city is entirely unfeasible, not to mention exhausting, while traveling by train runs the risk of incurring delays, and is hugely impractical if you're anyone other than a solo singer-songwriter.
If you're planning on hitting the road, it's a given that you'll need to either rent or hire a van. You're also going to need to fork out for gas to fuel said van. Those expenses are unavoidable, but there are two ways to lessen them.
First and foremost, tour with as little gear as possible. Especially when you're starting out, make sure you take only the things that you absolutely need on the road with you. Consider whether those four 4x12 cabs are absolutely essential, or whether your 100w combo is big enough for the 100 capacity bars and clubs you're likely playing. Accept that you don't need to bring your acoustic guitar for that one bit in that one song, and that the effect of your acoustic simulator pedal is good enough for the job.
When on a bill with several bands, see if you can organize gear sharing. Ask the headliner if you can use their drum kit (minus breakables of course) and maybe offer to pay for a new set of skins to sweeten the deal.
Why should you minimize the amount of stuff you take with you? Simple. The less gear you need, the smaller the van you need to hire or buy(a side note here, but if touring is a part of your life for the foreseeable future, then buy rather than rent. It's an investment that'll work out much better for you in the long run). The smaller the van, and the less gear loaded into it, the less fuel you'll burn running it and the more money you'll save.
Secondly, plan your tour route to be as fuel efficient as possible. Admittedly, this one only works if you've got a say in organizing the tour specifics and is dependent on venue availability. Still, it bears noting that scheduling dates by geography will prevent you from darting up and down the country and running up a huge fuel bill in the process. Logistics matter, so make sure you plan for them.
Transport notwithstanding, the biggest expense for touring bands is accommodation.
Hotels ain't cheap, especially when there are several of you, and it's possible to rack up a bill running into the thousands after a few weeks of gigging.
Many bands see forking out four figure sums on rooms as an inevitability of life on the road. But, there is an alternative that will save you money. It isn't exactly glamorous, but sleeping on fans' floors is a great option for a band on a budget.
I've seen a number of acts cut down on the costs of accommodation enormously in recent years by staying at fans' houses between shows. Making effective use of social media, these bands put up posts well in advance of the tour, asking if anyone has a place for them to stay in a given city. (If they're a young band touring with a more established act, they'll also get the headliner to share the posts in order to spread the word). In exchange for their trouble, the act in need of a place to stay won't offer money, but free entry to the gig, and sometimes some free merch as a means of payment.
In my experience, this really works. You'd be surprised at how many people are willing to help a band in need by offering them the floor of their lounge for an evening. Crashing in a sleeping bag on an inflatable mattress or somebody's couch might not make you feel like a rock star, but it is much friendlier on your wallet than a hotel bill.
Chances are that you won't be able to stay with fans on every stop of the tour. If that's the case, you'll need to start thinking about forking out for accommodation. But even when you do have to pay for a hotel or motel room, you can still be frugal. Stick with the budget options where possible, and accept that you're going to have to get cozy with your band mates.
If there are four of you in the band, you can make do in one room with two double beds. Sure, the drummer is a snorer, but think of the amount of money you're saving with one room over four.
One last thing. While saving on accommodation is advisable, remember that getting a good night's sleep is essential to your continued ability to function on tour.
I say this because I once knew a band that thought they could save money by camping while on the road, which is among the stupidest tour stories I've ever heard.
Every night, after loading up their gear, they would attempt to find a campsite and pitch tents. Needless to say their attempts to do so at two in the morning, in pitch black and in the pouring rain, were largely unsuccessful. Three nights in, the shattered group threw in the towel and ended up shelling out an exorbitant amount on last minute hotel rooms. Ironically, their grand money saving plan ended up costing them more than if they'd just booked hotel rooms in the first place.
When you're touring, it's essential to eat properly. Unfortunately, eating well on the road is very difficult.
A lack of cooking facilities mean that you're restricted to whatever you can buy that's ready to eat, or take out. Both are expensive, and continuous consumption of them will likely result in you shitting for three days straight after the tour's end.
So what to do? The key to success in this area is being prepared.
Firstly, speak with venues well in advance of the tour and see if they'll give you a rider that includes a meal. In my experience, while venues aren't always great at paying up-and-coming bands much money on tour, at least a basic rider is often negotiable. Hell, if they're paying you jack shit, they should at least be willing to feed you - if it comes to it, don't be afraid to remind them of that.
If you've my advice on accommodation and have arranged to stay with fans, ask those fans if they'd be OK with you using their kitchens. That way, you and your band can buy some basic ingredients and prepare some home-cooked food - healthier for you and much friendlier on the wallet than buying something pre-prepared. If your fans are really nice, they might even offer to cook for you, which is certainly a bonus.
Finally, make sure you pack plenty of long-lasting foodstuffs for the times when free chow isn't available. In my experience, goods like tinned mackerel and baked beans are great, cheap sources of protein that come in very handy if you're in a tight spot (remember to take a can opener folks!). Ramen noodles are also excellent if you have access to a kettle. Eating cold food from a can might seem desperate, but it's a budget friendly option that'll keep you fed while on the road. Besides, they don't leave you with that gut rot feeling you get after bad take-out, and that has to count for something.