For many, the most alluring prospect of becoming a professional musician is the opportunity to take one’s music on the road. The romantic appeal of travel is something that seems to be universal among humankind.
Journeys are prominent in our myths and legends; and in our literature, music, and movies, as well. Whether it’s a tale of Odysseus’s decade-long journey home or of Dean Moriarty’s benzedrine-fueled treks across the country at ninety miles an hour, these stories of adventure resonate, unfailingly, with a fundamental part of our nature.
It’s a rare soul who can honestly say they’ve never heard the road’s sweet siren call.
I’ve organized and embarked upon many of these adventures in my own career and, although I don’t regret a single tour I’ve ever participated in, I’m not sure my pocket book would say the same. I’ve learned the hard way that, in order to have a financially successful run, one must become practiced in the arts of vigilance and deliberation.
It helps to think of the tour process in three distinct stages:
- The Preparation
- The Actual Tour
- The Review
During the preparation stage, you need to put in the proper amount of thought and planning in order to ensure a relatively smooth and fruitful journey. Below I’ll walk through my personal tour preparation process while offering some elaboration and commentary along the way.
Examine Your What and Your Why
The very first step to a successful run is to objectively analyze your motivations and expectations. You must ask yourself why you want to hit the road and what you hope to gain from the experience.
If you can’t clearly define why you are going or what you expect to gain, then, upon your return, you won’t be able to clearly state the degree of success (or failure) that resulted. This notion reaches back to goal setting 101; the idea of having clearly defined goals.
(Learn about goal setting in my free eBook: Quit Your Day Job – Inspiration, Tips, and Practical Guidance for Aspiring Musicians)
Ask yourself these questions in the early stages of planning your next tour:
- What professional benefit(s) do I hope to gain from this tour?
- What personal benefit(s) do I hope to gain from this tour?
List as many answers to each question as you can call to mind and make your answers as specific as possible. I like to write mine in two separate columns; one for personal and one for professional. These answers will serve as your tour goals.
Turn Your Whys Into Hows
Now it’s time to ask yourself another simple question:
What needs to happen in order for this tour to meet the stated expectations?
Spend some time with this one. Give it some thought and then write down each answer alongside its relevant tour goal. Again, it will help to be as specific as possible.
Next, take a look at your “what needs to happen” list. Separate out all of the items that you have control over. The things that you can personally make happen and the tasks you can delegate to someone else. Congrats! You’ve just created your action list.
An action list is, simply, a to do list that is strategically crafted to achieve a specific goal. Put your action list in a prominent place and refer to it often. This can serve you well as a gauge of progress during your tour preparations.
Plan well in advance
The big secret to successful tour planning lies in “taking the long view”. This is probably the most important thing I’ve learned in all my years of experience. I recommend that you start your planning AT LEAST nine months out. I generally start the work a year ahead of time.
There are two big reasons for doing this.
First of all, great paying gigs often book up to a year or more in advance. In my experience, lucrative show opportunities tend to come from grant-funded arts organizations, colleges, and municipalities. These entities do not operate on the same kind of timeline as a club or coffeehouse. If you’re looking for a significant pay off, expect to put in a significant amount of time and patience.
Secondly, this large window of time allows for the formulation of a “plan B” should the need arise. If, in the early months of preparation, your tour is not shaping up as you’d hoped, and you find that you need to go back to the drawing board, you’ll still have a reasonable amount of time to do so.
As a matter of fact, I once had to cancel a tour after four months of planning. Negotiations for the big anchor gig had fallen through, leaving me to start from scratch after I was already a good ways into the process.
After the next six weeks failed to produce any engagements with significant financial guarantees, I was left with the choice to either carry forward with a financially unstable tour or to cancel the whole thing. I decided to back out when it was obvious that I wasn’t even guaranteed to break even on the whole venture.
It was not fun contacting promoters I’d already confirmed with to tell them I was canceling my tour. I was worried that they’d be upset and would not want to work with me in in the future. As it turned out, I didn’t damage a single relationship. Each and every promoter was perfectly fine with the cancellations because I had given them six months notice! There were no hard feelings and they all had plenty of time to fill the spots with other artists.
Had we only been, say, four weeks out from the scheduled date, this situation would probably have caused me a lot more trouble.
*note: Of course, this is an extreme example of a “plan B”. I’m not suggesting that you should ever book a show with the intent to cancel at a later date. Canceling a tour-or even a show- should always be a last resort.
Establish an Anchor Gig
An anchor gig is a high-paying engagement that acts as a sort of financial stabilizer for your tour.
For example, suppose your planning a twelve day tour of Colorado and Wyoming and your projected expenses for the trip come to around $1500. Let’s also suppose that the University of Colorado has agreed to pay you $1000 to perform and speak to a group of students. This is your anchor gig. The $1000 guarantee allays a big chunk of the financial uncertainty you might otherwise face when on the road.
Establishing anchor gigs is an essential practice of any mindful tourist. Your anchor need not be a single show. Often times I rely on two or even three separate shows to anchor a tour. My general rule of thumb is that my anchor gig (or gigs) should, at a minimum, cover the projected expenses of my tour.
So, returning to our Colorado/Wyoming example, I would need another show that guaranteed at least $500 before I considered the tour properly anchored. Once these two anchor shows are established and confirmed, I can turn my attention to the remaining dates in my tour window.
Do not devalue your “non-anchor” dates. If your anchors are doing little more than covering the projected expenses of a tour, then the success of your “non-anchor” gigs will directly determine your tour’s profitability.
For this reason, you’ll want to be quite choosy when shopping for these opportunities. If you’ve established your anchors and you still have eight to ten months before showtime, then you’ve created an advantageous position for yourself. You’ve earned the luxury of saying “no” to the low-paying and generally undesirable gigs that abound.
Practice Mindful Routing
Routing is a common term in the industry that refers to the act of ordering and mapping your show dates. If a tour requires negligible drive time between dates and manages to follow a relatively intentional trajectory when plotted on a map, we say that is has been well routed. On the other hand, if you have a show tonight at 9 pm in Fort Collins, CO and your next show is scheduled in Kansas City, MO at 11am tomorrow, then your tour is poorly routed.
This is another extreme example but, you should know, I didn’t make it up. That is a schedule I actually experienced when touring with a former band!
Similarly, if you leave St. Louis, MO and head four hours to Indianapolis and then backtrack on a seven hour trip to Kansas City, MO the following day, only to turn around and take an eight hour journey to Chicago on day three, your trip has been poorly routed. I think you get the point.
Improperly routed tours cost you more money. The unnecessarily added gas mileage adds up quite quickly if your traveling by car or tour bus. Every avoidable expense is a hit to your profit potential so, again, plan your tours carefully and intentionally.
*tip: Bad routing can also take a toll on your health and your energy. Excessive drive times between engagements means you’ll be less active and more stressed. You’re also likely to become sleep-deprived as you find that you’re required to play late into the evening and then wake up early the next morning in order to allow yourself enough travel time to make the next obligation on schedule.
So, how do you avoid these common routing problems on your next tour?
- Plan Well in Advance
- Establish Anchor Gigs
- Utilize “the Hold”
As you can see, we’ve already covered the two most important steps to preventing routing issues. If you’re working well in advance of your tour and you’ve established an anchor or two , you’ll have the aforementioned luxury to say “no” to a gig that doesn’t make sense to your routing. Even if it pays decently well, don’t be tempted. Stick to your guns and use your “extra time” to search out routing-friendly shows in the vicinity of adjacent engagements.
A third,and very useful, tool is what’s known as a hold. When setting up a tour, it is quite acceptable to ask a buyer to hold a date for you while you work to coordinate other prospective shows. This is analogous to “penciling something in” on a calendar.
When used properly, holds can greatly improve the routing health of your next tour. The basic idea is that the promoter will, in good faith, give you first right of refusal on a particular date or group of dates for a short period of time before releasing said date to any another acts.
Don’t be afraid to ask for holds when necessary. This is common practice in working with clubs, theaters, and arts centers. There’s no guarantee that the venue will extend a hold to you, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Also, be sure that you don’t mistake a hold for some sort of iron clad agreement. A hold is nothing more than a courtesy extended by the talent buyer n hopes that you both might eventually reach a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Limit Your Time on the Road
More days on the road means more expenses accrued. Limit your time on the road and you’ll be fighting much less of an uphill battle.
Consider limiting your touring schedule to the weekends. I do a few Thursday – Sunday “weekend” tours each year and find that they generally have a much higher profit to expense ratio than my longer stretches.
Good weekday gigs are notoriously difficult to procure, especially for those without a lot of booking experience. Why not eliminate the weekday challenge altogether by sticking to weekend dates only? I’ve seen many bands use this strategy to great effect.
If you decide that a longer tour makes sense, I recommend that you cap it at around ten to twelve days. A ten to twelve day window allows for two weekends to serve as bookends. This can minimize the amount of weekdays that need to be filled thus allowing for a less stressful -and potentially more successful- booking process. You’ll also be minimizing your risk of physical and emotional “burn out” if you can keep your bigger tours to two weeks or less.
My personal tour schedule consists of one “big” tour and about three or four “weekenders” a year. You’ll need to determine what makes the most sense for you. While doing so, be sure to consider how limiting your time on the road might improve your income to expense ratio and bring you closer to the fulfillment of your musical goals.
Focus on Regions
Another important strategy for profitable touring is to focus on regions. Placing geographical limitations on your tour will add ease and clarity to many of the processes we’ve covered so far. This type of self-imposed “limitation” is what’s known as a positive constraint.
This is particularly helpful in making smart routing decisions. If I’m planning a tour in Kansas and eastern Colorado and an opportunity comes up in Utah, I decline. The opportunity is out of my target region. It would only serve to confuse my focus if I tried to append this distant show to my current plan of action.
The Actual Tour
When you finally hit the highway and find yourself in the throes of the actual tour, you must pay very close attention to the flow of funds. Your primary objective, while on the road, is to vigilantly track the money that’s coming in and the money that’s going out and to regularly measure these figures against your projected values.
At this point I’m going take a few steps back so we can talk about the mechanics of creating a simple budget for your tour. I reckon this information technically belongs in the preparation section but, since it’s also so essential to what I see as right practices while on the road, I’ve decided to included it here in the actual tour section.
Create a Budget
Start by estimating your income and your expenses for the entire tour. This step gets easier after you’ve actually tracked a few runs because you’ll have some hard data on which to base your projections. For now, it will suffice to take an educated guess whenever sufficient numbers are lacking.
While estimating figures, it’s wise to err on the low side when projecting income and the high side when projecting expenses. This will give you a little wiggle room in the right direction when the numbers don’t add up exactly as you had predicted.
It helps to use a simple chart or spreadsheet to organize and track these ideas.
You can download my Budget Chart in multiple file formats here: Basic Budget Chart
In the chart provided, I’ve included some fairly standard spending categories:
- Per Diem
- Music Gear/Accessories
You’ll likely need to add to or subtract from these categories to fit your unique situation but this should certainly get you started.
Track Income and Expenses
During the actual tour, it is of supreme importance that you track all of your expenses while on the road. Track everything that you spend, even if it doesn’t seem directly related to the task at hand.
You can download my Expense Tracker Sheet here: Expense Tracker Sheet
Keep your expense tracker sheet as handy as possible when traveling. If it’s not always convenient to access, you’ll likely start getting sloppy with your record keeping. I use a google drive spreadsheet and keep a shortcut to the document on the home page of my smartphone. Since my phone is generally in reaching distance, this is a very convenient way to assure all money spent is being properly tracked.
*tip: If you traveling as a duo or a band, everyone in the group can share the same document on their phone or mobile devices. This allows for any member of the crew to access and update the expense tracker remotely. This is exactly how my wife and I keep track of expenses during our tours.
Be sure to check your numbers once a day to see how you’re doing. If expenses are running over budget, you might want to restrict some of your spending. Perhaps you could scale back the per diem or place a temporary ban on dining out, etc. Alternately, you could just keep an eye on the issue and wait to see if it resolves itself as the tour unfolds. The choice is yours. What matters is that it is an informed choice.
Consistent and quality rest is at a high premium when you’re on the road. It is certainly one of the most critical components of a healthy and successful tour but, as many of you know, lodging can be one of the biggest money drains on your journey.
An average hotel room will cost you about $100 or more in most parts of the United States. This can cut pretty deeply into your potential profits and, if you’re traveling with a group that requires multiple rooms, this adds up pretty quickly!
So how do you mitigate lodging expenses on your next tour?
There are a lot of tactics that you can apply to combat this potential money drain. I’ll cover a few of them below while adding a bit of elaboration and commentary where I see fit:
Stay with relatives & friends when possible
When choosing your region of focus, it’s a good idea to consider towns and areas where your family and friends reside. It’s a great way to keep in touch and, if they’re willing/able to put you up, an effective way to save money.
If you decide to implement this tip, remember to talk to your prospective lodgers early in the game. Let them know, during the planning stages, that you are intending to head their way and are interested in staying with them. Give as much notice as you can. It’s inconsiderate to hit ’em up a few days beforehand or, worse yet, the day of!
*tip: whenever possible, have all of your lodging logistics settled before you leave town. This will eliminate a huge amount of stress and hustle from your tour and also give you a much more accurate expense projection.
Stay with promoters when possible
It’s not uncommon for a promoter to offer up their home to you, especially if they’re big fans of your music. In most cases, I recommend you take them up on their offer. This is a good opportunity to deepen a mutually beneficial relationship. You just may develop a friendship and it’s always more fun to work with friends than mere acquaintances!
For more on the concept of mutually beneficial relationships, check out my free eBook:
Get the venue to foot the bill
You can also ask the event promoter to provide hotel rooms for you.
Again, to be clear, this is something that needs to be addressed during the negotiations NOT when you arrive in town! Or really, not anytime after the terms are settled, contracts signed, etc.
Some gigs routinely provide lodging to their artists as a matter of course. For those that do not, it doesn’t hurt to ask.
If you do decide to ask, make sure you do so in a polite and inquiring fashion. Do not insist, just ask. If they cannot provide rooms for you, accept this news graciously. It’s not necessarily their job to house you and, besides, I have one more suggestion for you.
The Tax Method
Those of you who have read my eBook, know that I employ a “tax” system when charging for my shows. When calculating what to charge for a given event, I’ll add stock amounts to cover things like preparation time, travel and rehearsal time, and other expected expenditures. When playing out of town shows, I always add my lodging expenses into my price. This eliminates most of the headache of procuring and negotiating lodging, Provided my bid is accepted.
Finally, after all is said and done and you return home, it’s time to do the review. Take a good hard look at your spending and your income and use this information to draw conclusions about what is and isn’t working for you on the road.
Total all of your Expense Sheets and transfer the sums into your Budget Chart. Next, subtract the total expenses from the total income. What’s left is your profit.
Don’t be discouraged if you came out in the red or didn’t make as much as you’d planned. Using the data that you’ve collected, you’ll be able to craft a more accurate budget and to mitigate expenses in a much more effective way on your next go round.
Study how the projected expenses on the budget sheet compared with your actual costs in each category and consider how this should effect your approach to future tours.
Finally, store this information in a file folder and make sure to reference it when you start to plan your next adventure.
Return to the scene of the crime
It’s a good idea to make a habit of returning to markets you’ve already visited. This will help to build an audience base and will also help to keep your name and your music fresh in the thought’s of the locals.
I recommend returning to the scene of the crime every 8-12 months.
Pack your lunch
If you buy the majority of your food from grocery stores, as opposed to restaurants, you’ll save a very significant amount of cash!
Bars and restaurants can cause a major money leak on tour. The best way to plug this leak is to choose grocery shopping over dining out as often as possible.
Implementing a per diem system is a proven method for reducing excessive food and drink expenses on the road.
In case you don’t know, a per diem is a daily allowance.
Let’s say you set a $30/day per diem. If you attempt to dine out for every meal your per diem will likely run dry before the end of each day. On the other hand, if you spend $30/day at the grocery store, you’ll probably end up with more food than you can handle. Why not spend $10-15 a day at the store and save the rest up for a splurge every day or two?
*note: The $30/a day figure was chosen arbitrarily for the sake of example. You’ll have to decide, through your own experience, which amount works best for you, your band, and your budget.
If, like me, you play in a variety of musical configurations, then you may want to take a hard look at your personnel options.
If you’re in a group but also have the ability to present an interesting and entertaining show as a solo act, then consider exploring this option on the road. There are a lot of advantages to taking the “party of one” approach but the short story is that you’ll save money all across the board on travel expenses and you’ll get to keep all the pay checks for yourself!
My tours have become increasingly profitable in the last five years and a major contributing factor is the fact that they’ve all been solo or duo operations.
Consider Staying Home
Touring has been on the top of the professional musician’s do do list for so long that we tend to think of it as a mandatory stepping stone on the path to musical prosperity. With this in mind, thousands of bands and artists take to the road prematurely, often without a full understanding of why they’re doing so.
Are you less concerned about earning money and just hoping that your music will enable you to travel more?
By all means, get on out there! You will likely come home from each journey cash poor and experience rich, but you’ll have adventures. You’ll have a blast. You’ll meet a host of wonderful people and have some colorful stories to tell your friends and family for the rest of your life.
Are you trying to expand your market and the profit potential of your performance career?
Touring can certainly help you do this. Just remember to be watchful of the numbers and to practice deliberation in your tour planning. Perhaps some of the ideas presented here can help you to maximize the monetary aspect of your touring life.
Are you trying to get your music heard by more people…to gain more exposure?
Many artists rationalize breaking even or even losing money on tour because of the “exposure” that it can bring. I think this model should be thrown out or, at the very least, re-examined.
Have you thoroughly explored the myriad of possible “exposure” strategies that you might implement without even leaving your home? Today, household technology offers potentially unlimited “exposure” to any musician with a video camera (you probably have one on your phone) and an internet connection.
Before you start throwing money and energy at the road in an effort to expand your audience base and improve your engagement with your music community, try using your imagination, your creativity and the resources you have within your grasp.
You just might discover an experience that is much more rewarding- both financially and personally- than staring out of a tour van window for hours each day. Sometimes, when the sirens call, it’s best to lash yourself to the mast.