Artists On Tour: Your Ultimate Tour Survival Kit


Sean McCauley

| Posted:

August 22, 2019

Artists on Tour Are Ready to Roll

Are You Ready to Tour?

Artists on tour aren’t always ready to do it. That’s OK if they pull it off — it usually makes for better musicians and can’t hardly hurt visibility. It makes much more sense to go when you’re really ready to go, though. Touring can be exhausting, and it’s really expensive if you don’t do it right.

So how do you know if you’re ready to tour? The most obvious tell is that you’ve overplayed your hometown.

Artists on tour go on tour because they’ve booked their hometown solid. Their fanbase is maxed out there. They can’t play the local spots again because they just played those places, again, and everyone knows they’re likely to play there soon, again. You’ve played all the venues within a two-hour drive of your hometown twenty times apiece. You need fresh ears and faces.

That sounds like you’re ready to tour.

Who’s Going on the Tour?

There are several jobs to do on tour (after all the routing, booking, promo and planning ahead, of course). The most obvious job is the wheel. Touring’s 80% driving, 20% everything else. Even if you love the open road, you’re going to appreciate not driving. That means more people.

But every person adds to both expenses and complications. Food, lodging, baggage, seat space … You can imagine. A five-piece music group has an easy time in one van taking turns at the wheel. But a three-piece band can often find a living room to crash in rather than pay for a hotel.

And those tour jobs I mentioned? You’ll need to split those up, too. Some depend on the kind of show you put on. Some bands on tour need their own lighting person, a sound tech, and a manager to take care of getting paid, handling cash and making phone calls. But all bands need someone to run their merch table and document the tour in photos, videos and blog posts.

It’s a balance. You don’t want anyone “just along for the ride,” but you do need these jobs taken care of. It’s possible to grab someone in town or at the show to help carry equipment (AKA free roadie) or collect email addresses or whatever, but getting some stranger to work your merch table is obviously a huge gamble.

So, who should go? A minimum of people to get the work handled.

artists on tour
One of the commonest sights on the highway, the broken-down tour van. – The Star

Know Who You’ll Play For

Artists on tour have a great idea who’s going to come to their shows. They’ve done their homework. Luckily for everyone reading this, the web and social media have made this easier than ever.

First, check your data. That means:

And finally, it’s the least a band can do to set up MailChimp or some other email-marketing service. If you’ve already got one, check the data there to see where your subscribed fans live. It’s a good idea to have that as a field on landing pages or form submissions that go to your email list — because otherwise, the data may not be readily available to you on the platform you use. Think ahead to what data you want to collect when you send our surveys or people join your fan club; it can help you make other decisions down the line.

Also always make sure to collect email addresses while on tour as well. No artist touring kit is complete without them. You can have fans use their phones on a QR code to automagically add them to an online list like this or like this. For fans who don’t want to bother pulling up their code reader, have a clipboard on your merch table. You can also set up a cheap tablet so they can tap it in. You’d be surprised how quickly you get hundreds of addies these ways.

That’s marketing gold, and it’s free. Catalog these addresses by city and venue. When you play there again, you can specifically target those fans and guarantee some ticket sales. Later on, you can offer them merch deals. Everyone likes to hear about good merch deals from bands they like, even if they don’t take you up on them.

bands on tour
Yep. The merch table needs one. Don’t skip it. –Dan Tappan

Bands On Tour Know Where to Play

Once you know which cities you have the most fans, you’ll want to consider cities and venues where you’re likely to gain new ones. There’s a trick to this. Ever see a shark on TV and it’s got a little pilot fish swimming under it? That fish eats scraps of food the shark doesn’t eat. You can be like that little fish.

Think of bands like yours, bands you’ve opened for, maybe, and bands in your genre about the same size or a little bigger. Go to their websites and social media and see where they played last time they came through your town. You can take hours off your research time just like this. You might even be able to strike up a conversation online with one of the band members. Ask which spots were hottest and if there’s a venue to avoid.

This is the quickest way to learn the venues which feature your kind of music everywhere. It’s also the quickest way to learn the names of festivals you can try to play, too. There are so many for every genre today, it’s possible to play two or even three festivals on a single tour if you’re die-hard enough. There are shows which tend to pop up in the area around the festivals when they happen, too, so if you can’t get on the bill, you can try to get on one of those.

Be sure, though, to think realistically about the size of crowd and venue your band fits best. If you don’t have many thousands of dollars of equipment and lights with paid staff to run it all, you’re probably going to want to stay below 300 people. And if you get booked at a festival but only have thirty people in front of that huge stage because somebody massive is playing right over there, that looks pretty bad. Smaller is by no means worse. Lots of people pay big money prices for itty bitty shows, and lots of the best bands play them.

College campuses are magical, too. All colleges have someone in charge of campus events. Send your EPK to them.  (That’s an electronic press kit — make one free here if you don’t have one. Every artist touring kit needs one). If they book you, you can make anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a couple grand playing to a full room because DORM KIDS LOVE SHOWS. And those lucky punks don’t even have to drive home. I’m not exaggerating about the money, though. Colleges have that cash to pay and they need bands.

And here are the top booking resources for indie bands online (you’re welcome):

How could anyone using all those resources not find gigs anywhere they like, right?

artists on tour
Festivals are great performance hubs. Try to get on one or two. –

Route Your Tour!

Place Your Shows on a Google Map or iCal

Every artist touring kit is based on three things: the place, the time, and the money. Where? When? How much? Every time you pick a show to play, those three questions should be answered. At what place are we playing, what time should we get there, and how much money are we going to make (or how much will it cost to perform)?

You can’t finalize your route until you know all three things. Some booking agents and promoters are happy to put a hold on a spot in advance until you figure out details. They’ll also put you in line for a specific date in case somebody on the bill drops out. Just make sure you call them back and confirm or cancel before too long, or they’ll hate you.

Place and time are easy to figure out. You can’t play New York on Tuesday and Seattle on Wednesday. But the third is much harder to answer at first. You can play New York, then Cleveland, then Chicago, and make your way west to Seattle. If you don’t get paid enough between Illinois and Montana, though (a tough area) you’ll never make Washington.

So at first you just do what you can. You know that you’ll want shows as close together as possible with as little driving in-between as possible. Start by putting all the venues you’d like to play on a Google Map. (Use whatever mapping tool you’d like, but GMaps is free and easy. Apple users can use iCal.).

Once you know where you want to play, you can start getting in touch with venue promoters. Use email, your aforementioned EPK and social media where possible, but the phone is still standard at lots and lots of places. If you won’t talk voice, you’ll miss some of the best venues. Plenty of joints like to screen the professionalism of their performers by simply demanding they talk. How can they expect you to own the stage if you’re afraid of the frickin’ phone?

When you pitch promoters, keep it short and sweet. Tell them you can get more than fifty people to the show, and plan to promote that show with that in view. Tell them how you’re going to get people there. One easy way is to plan a whole show. Find other likely bands in that area and get them to agree to open — or even headline — your show for you. You get five bands playing with you and each brings 10 fans, well that’s fifty people. (More on promotion in the next section).

You want to start this process at least six months ahead. The first calls probably won’t be for booking showtimes unless they’re your first couple stops. Everywhere else is more up in the air because you still don’t know the time and the money.

bands on tour
If 50 can book over the phone, so can you. – BWest187

Time Your Showtimes on the Map

Thanks to the smartypantses at Google, you can now set departure and arrival times on your GMap. This will simplify your planning by a mile and keep you timely. Don’t be the band everyone at the show has to wait for. That’s awful.

If you can manage it, drive no more than seven hours before playing, tops, and no more than 10 on days you have no show. Make sure you account for eating, gasoline, and bathroom stops. Remember that you do not go on when you get there! You’ve got to leave time for unloading, setup, soundcheck, merch table, meeting the venue promoter, handshakes, greets, signatures, and general schmoozing. You also need time to clean yourselves (you animals), preen yourselves (you rockstars), and war over who gets the bed.

Artists on tour gain an hour every time they cross a time zone going west. As they drive east, they lose one. So the math can get funky. It’s 6 hours to Cleveland from Chicago, but 4 hours from Chicago to Cleveland. And you’ll only spend 5 hours driving either way. That’s not a huge issue unless you forget and miss the soundcheck. Then you’ll hate life when you go onstage and your DJ can’t hear the vocals.

Artists on Tour Make Time for Promo, Too

Make sure everything is booked at least a couple months ahead. That will give you time to promote the show. If you don’t promote the show, nobody will come to see you. That. Is. A. Fact. People might accidentally be there, but you want to surprise as few people as possible. You want people showing up who can tell people who are just kinda there who you are. You want to be expected.

The least you can do is post your tour dates on your official social media. Website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest … Everything. You should consider making an announcement every time you book a show. People get hyped to imagine you blowing up Topeka, Poughkeepsie and Kalamazoo.

If you’re really serious, get a press release about your tour. Press releases go far and wide and stay online pretty much forever. The more of them you have, the more of the news your band dominates. People search your name online and, wow, OK, there are all kinds of articles about you. When your PR publishes, brag about it on social media. It looks way more professional than pretty much anything else because, you know, professionals make them and host them.

Have posters made for each show. Send them to the local music stores and to the venue. The cooler the poster, the better the effect. Remember those college shows? Call their college radio stations and talk to their managers and DJs. They’re hyped to have you on the air via cellphone a few hours or days before the show for a short interview. They’ll play your single on their public fm station. If you don’t think that’s good press, you’re crazy. And they don’t mind if you say you’ll be playing one town over the next day, either.

You can probably find a campus YouTube channel or two, also. And a channel dedicated to music in the town you’ll be playing. And an online fanzine in your genre who wants a video interview ahead of time. In other words, don’t just promo with posters and radio, but also video. These are things you can and should do. Get creative. Reach out. Take time.

Once you have a rough idea of where and when you want to play, you can start thinking in terms of money.

artist touring kit
This sort of poster is easy to make, but totally necessary. – Phatrick, Long Beach CA

Bands on Tour Know How Much Money It’ll Cost

Sometimes it makes sense, when you’re starting out, to barely break even or even pay a little to get a larger-than-usual audience. This should not be the norm, however. If you can’t make money on your tour and come home a little richer, you’re not ready to tour. And that’s OK! Playing in your hometown is easier money and often far more fun than playing in the boonies.

Among the things you need to know to calculate the cost are:

  • Gas
  • Food
  • Lodging
  • Presale tickets?
  • Band pay
  • Surprise expenses

Gas you can calculate, but remember your mileage is going to be way worse than usual. Even with just the added passengers and baggage it’s surprisingly low. You add music equipment to that and you’re basically an SUV trucking down the road at 15 miles to the gallon. It can be disheartening.

Save money on food (and time!) by going to supermarkets and eating fruit and nuts on the way. You’re going to eat more trash on tour than you ever thought possible, anyhow. Make an effort to combat this. You’ll thank yourself later. Two weeks of fast food can cause four people to fight with one another when everyone feels like crap. Nobody will blame the food. The food can be to blame.

You can sleep in your cars, trucks and vans, but you’re going to get cruddy sleep and maybe even hurt yourself. If the drummer falls asleep on his arm because he’s in a reclined bucket seat, everyone hurts at showtime. You’ll want to pay for a room sometimes just so everyone can shower. You might sneak the whole band in there if nobody notices you drive your caravan to the rear. You can often hook up with one of the opening bands, though, and crash at somebody’s house. And if you’ve really got the guts for this, you can mention on the mic that you need a place to stay in town for the night. This works more often than not if you play well.

And if you ask as well as Amanda Palmer (Dresden Dolls) you might make over a million doing it.

It’s cheap, but it’s hard. – HuffPo

Presale tickets … Musicians have been fighting the pay-to-play battle for decades. People will practically die for this cause saying you should never do it. Venues will say, “You buy sixty tickets and sell them yourselves, and you can play.” Or they’ll just sell you an opening slot. Same difference. This is a bad idea almost every time. Can you swing the cash? Will you give out promo tickets to radio stations? Is the time perfect and the place great for your exposure? You can consider it. But there’s almost always a better way. If they need bands to pay, that’s probably because they can’t get anyone to come.

Band pay. You’re not going to have much haggling power if you’re reading this. You’ll need to take what you can get. Sometimes it’s a door percentage, sometimes it’s a flat rate. Lots of venues will ask you to set a door cover charge. You should already know what they usually charge because you did your homework, but up-and-coming bands should cost 10 or 12 bucks.

Regardless, you need to know how much money you need to cover your expenses. Share this amount with the show promoter if a little more is going to make the difference between playing and not playing. Just keep in mind that bankruptcy means going home 100% of the time.

And never rule out surprises. You’ll always want a little more money than you absolutely need. Why? Because of tires, thefts, accidents, illnesses and injuries, that’s why. If you’re successful enough to have a manager on the payroll, they should be taking care of “surprises.” But most indie bands don’t and gotta take care of themselves. When you’re on your own, you need to think about surprises that can happen to the venue, too.

Familiar with the David Lee Roth brown M&Ms legend? In the middle of his contract, he said he was not responsible for any damages if there were brown M&Ms in a bowl backstage. He did this to check whether promoters were reading his long, technical list of electronic needs (AKA his rider). And one night, it saved him half a million dollars.

Mishaps can just be expensive, or they can be a mortal disaster like an unlucky blowout did for Of Limbo in 2018. Artists on tour want a cash net in case the worst should happen. You’ll all sleep better.

It’s nice to have a safety net in case horror should strike. – Of Limbo

Bonus Pro Tips

  • Post a Guard

You need to post a guard with the equipment. If you’ve got a pickup truck, put a camping mattress over those cabinets and amps and sleep somebody on them. If you think some drunk kid won’t peek under your tarp and decide to abscond with a Marshall head or two, you’re sadly mistaken.

  • Merch = Money

You’ll make more money on merch than you will from the door. Have a credit-card swiper you can attach to your smartphone. The Square app will work just fine for you on iPhone or Android. If you didn’t bring a merch person, you need to find someone in town every night to mind the table. You need to be able to trust this person.

  • House Shows Are Your Friend

House shows can be better than venues in lots of ways. The homeowner can charge whatever of their guests. You’ll get much more exposure because of the intimate atmosphere. People will have more money to spend on merch because they aren’t paying bar prices for beer. And they often double as a crash pad for afterwards. You’d be surprised how easy these can be to set up on social media.

  • Noise-Canceling Headphones for Alone Time

Tour is people, people, people all the time. If you’re an extrovert, that’ll be wonderful fun for the first few days. Sooner or later, it’ll start to drag. If you’re an introvert, it’ll suck a couple hours into the drive, maybe. NC headphones offer an affordable escape you should not overlook.

  • Create Public Events on Google Maps

Oh! And bytheway: As of March 2019, if you’re on Android, you can create a public event at each of your shows so everyone on Google Maps can see where and when you’re playing! Pretty nifty.

If you’re on Android, create a public event on Google Maps. — Brandon Hesse

Artists on Tour Make Money If They Prepare Right

And that’s that. If you take note of all the above and prepare everything ahead of time, touring should net you money. It should cost you nothing. It should be a possible career, in other words. And if you really do it right, phew! You can really rake it in.

But for sure it’s good for your band in terms of exposure, and you might be stunned to see how much better you play as a group when you’ve all been living together and playing the same songs every day for a month or more.

Not that you need to go out for a month. A couple weeks’ loop can be a great start. Start planning today, if you’re tired of your town! You can do it.