Hacking the Performance Business: Part 6 – Touring


Touring is the most venerable institution in the entire history of the music business.

The first Neanderthal to ever pick up their bone flute and jog to the next cave over and play for seashells started a tradition that remains the essence of musicianship to this day.

You can write songs and record in your basement, but music comes alive in performance, and performance lives on stage. (And on a webcam — but more on that in Part 8: Telepresence.)

You don’t have to tour to live a musical life, but with value around music moving from the song to the fan-artist relationship, it is unquestionably harder to make a career from composing alone. And many dedicated recording artists are learning production to compliment their musical income.

Versatility is the name of the game in the music business these days, and performing is a growing part of the business. As digital music sales stagnate, there are more shows being booked with more bands than ever before. 2,200 bands played SXSW 2014, and that’s just a tiny percentage of the total number of touring bands across the world. That there are more shows going on every night across the globe than ever before is more proof that free access to music causes musicians and fans to flourish.

It’s no secret why performance is a growing business. Value is moving from the song to the fan-artist relationship. Performance is where that relationship is established and felt the most deeply.

To create the most value around your music, you need to build a fan base in different geographies. While virtual performance technology is rapidly improving, it will be years before we see its widespread adoption. Touring is still the best way to earn fans, and is an increasingly important part of making money.

To be crudely business-like, the relationship you establish at a single show with a single fan can be worth hundreds of dollars over the years. If that fan is an influencer of other fans, they in essence could be worth thousands of dollars.

You can make fans over the web. However, sharing a real-life experience is still paramount to deepening the value of the fan-artist relationship.

So, let’s hit the road. We’re going to talk about hacking tour planning and financing, and the touring process in general.

Your Tour Itinerary

The value of your tour (not to mention your mental health) depends on how well you plan your tour.

Your tour itinerary, at its most basic level, is a list of consecutive dates and venues, with addresses, phone numbers, contact names, show info, load-in times, food comp information, hotel info, etc. Think of the tour itinerary as the end goal of your tour planning. We recommend making a spreadsheet with all the info you’d want to help in your planning.

Now that you’ve got a blank spreadsheet, it’s time to ask some basic questions:

What are We Driving? You need a tour vehicle to tour. Maybe you’ve got a minivan. Maybe you need to crowdfund a minivan. Maybe you need to rent a 15-passenger van. Maybe you need a bus. Maybe’ you’re a solo singer-songwriter in a Prius. This is the biggest thing that prevents bands from touring: no reliable vehicle to fit everyone and their gear in for 8-12 hours a day on the road. Solving this problem also gets into insurance issues, which is why having some sort of business entity for your band can help immensely with tour financing. A vehicle is often one of the first purchases of a dedicated touring band.

• How Long/Far are We Touring? The actual show and subsequent hangout is only a few hours out of the day. The rest of the time is spent traveling. Distance equals time length of tour. How far you go depends on how much money you have available to keep going in case a show falls through, a piece of important gear breaks, or expensive vehicle repairs need to be made. It depends on the band’s ability to cohabit the same small space for long periods of time. Generally, you’ll work your way up, going out for weekends first, then full weeks, then half-national tours, then full national tours, and finally, your world tour. It starts with the next city over that has music fans who will dig your music.

What are Our Anchors? Tours are planned around anchor dates and venues. These are places where you expect a big draw, whether it’s your band or another. Sometimes the venue has a bit built-in crowd on a Friday or Saturday night. Sometimes you get an opportunity to play a festival that’s worth traveling to, so you build a tour around that. Planning a tour is daunting, but if you focus a handful of anchor dates as waypoints, your tour will in many ways route itself.

What is our Minimum Daily Cost? Figure out how much an average day on tour costs your band. This includes vehicle rental or maintenance, gas, lodging, per diem, and any other recurring expense required to keep your band on the road. Then add at least 25% for the unexpected. Then ask yourself: can we make this kind of money on tour? The number you come up with will be your rock-bottom target for a guarantee or a door share.

Get in the Circuit As you start to book ever-bigger tours, you’ll start to notice “circuits” popping up. A tour circuit is essentially a string of venues along a particular route. For example, there is a string of several dozen “punk” venues — most of them in houses or basements — that stretches up the East coast from Gainesville to Plattsburgh. Band after band will play consecutive shows up and down this route as the venues get reputations for being good places to play. If you’re a bluegrass player, there’s probably a string a bluegrass venues running up the same coast, and the same goes for any genre in any populated area. It’s far easier to find venues to play if you focus on finding your circuit. And that can be as easy as copying another band’s tour itinerary.

Mapping Our final hack for planning at tour is this: buy the biggest map you can find of your touring area. Buy map pins. Buy corkboard. Assemble the ultimate tour planning device. Start pinning your anchor dates, then pin possible places to play in between. As shows are confirmed, change the color of your pins to indicate which shows are booked, which are proposed, and which are possible. Something about this process makes the intangibles of traversing long distances that much more tangible. Of course, you can use Google Maps right now, we just think the pins are more fun and effective.


Touring and T-Shirts

I’m sure you’ve heard some musicians complaining, “nobody’s going to make a living off touring and T-shirts.”

That’s bullshit.

First of all, nobody ever said touring and T-shirts can finance a lifelong career. Even though it can — for example, in the jam band scene, there are bands that are millionaires from concert fees. But generally, a music career is financed through myriad revenue streams. Touring and T-shirts is just one part.

The second implication is that touring and T-shirts do not generate significant revenue. Yes, it is true that most tours are break-even affairs, but this fails to count the value of establishing deeper connections with existing fans, and new connections with new fans. Over time, this is where the value is in touring — not in tonight’s guarantee or tomorrow’s door share, but in monetizing that fan relationship over and over again, on the road and off, for the next several years.

The “T-Shirts” part really refers to merch. It’s common knowledge with touring bands that merch buys your gas, pays your per diem (a daily allowance for food and other essentials), and pays your crew. You hustle to sell merch so you have cash liquidity on the road, often because the investment in just getting the show on the road is so great, you won’t have much cash left.

There are some best practices when it comes to touring and merchandise:

Hustle Hard – Merch doesn’t sell itself. Ok, maybe it does, if you put on a great show. But merch is your lifeblood, so you want to maximize how much you can sell. So don’t just passively sit behind your merch table. Engage with fans, talk to people, don’t be pushy, just be friendly so they feel invited to check out your merch and buy it. When you hire someone to sell your merch for you, make sure they are even more attentive than you.

Avoid Merch Mistakes – Some common mistakes we see bands making at the merch table: (1) No variety. Have more than one T-shirt design. (2) No selection. Keep all sizes/types in stock. The merch you run out of are the ones people want to buy the most. (3) No signage. Have something clearly visible (or better, attention-grabbing) on your merch table that has the band’s name/logo and the prices of the merch. (4) Not having something free. You should have some sort of sticker or card to give to people who don’t want to spend money, but loved your band. (5) Messy arrangement. The more care you put into the layout of your table, the more you’ll sell. Have a standard layout you can repeat show after show. (6) Nobody at the table. This is the #1 mistake taking money out of your pocket. Especially before and after your set, you’re burning money without someone behind the table.

In addition to relying on merch and performance fees to finance a tour, you can also crowdfund a tour, as many bands are starting to do. There are even platforms coming out for crowdfunding individual shows. We’ll surely be exploring this more in the future.

The Touring Process

We’re focused on how value is built around performance. Generating value while on tour is mostly how you draw heads, deliver your performance, earn fans and sell merch. The touring process itself is a whole other can of worms, and is as much part human psychology as anything else.

We have a few books to suggest: Tour: Smart by Martin Atkins, and The Touring Musician. Both are very different takes on all things touring, and both are invaluable for an education on music performance.

Keeping morale high on tour is a constant challenge given the many pressures of a traveling life. Ultimately, the only way you can figure out how to negotiate the highs and lows of touring is to do it yourself. Some people thrive on the isolation of tour, others are simply not cut out to tour. The best practices of the touring process are personal everyone. Whatever gets you through the tour with great experiences, a bit of money, and lots of new fans is what works.

Ultimately, you will be getting a tour manager handle the day-to-day responsibilities of your performance business while on the road. Just as you’re the general manager until you get one, you’re the tour manager until you create enough value to attract a team member. Here are the keys to tour management:

• Get paid the maximum.

• Keep the show on the road.

• Keep everyone happy.

These three simple items are enough for a full-time job on the road. Much easier said than done, but if you don’t have a tour manager yet, try to focus on these three things above all else. Good luck!

Next time we’ll be looking at part 7: lifestyle. Being on the road for many days out of the year isn’t just a career choice, it’s an entire lifestyle choice. We’ll look at the ups and downs of maintaining value with a touring lifestyle.

top photo credit: Best New Band