Posted: Apr 15, 2019
**Guest post written by Ellisa Sun, Jazz/Soul musician formerly based in San Francisco currently full-time RVing across the USA.
"100 days ago, me (Ellisa Sun) and my partner Ken Michienzi decided to leave our homes in Oakland, CA, purchase a used 30-foot Winnebago, and hit the road to play shows throughout the USA. Here’s what we’ve learned so far:
If you’re lucky enough to RV with a partner (or tour with a band), it’s easy to forget they’re awesome. Your partner is a badass, a sweetheart and an all-around beautiful maniac like you for pursuing this lifestyle. When living and working with your partner, even in a big house in the suburbs, it’s easy to get annoyed by them, to blow up at them for stuff, and to bicker about trivial nonsense. So you can imagine what it’s like in a 30-foot space.
Remember to appreciate your partner. Breathe deeply. Be patient with their quirks, their flaws and the way they pick their nails when they get anxious. Tell them you’re grateful for them as much as you can, even when you want to strangle them. And when you need space, tell them. Practice honest, forthright communication. Take space however you can: go into the bedroom and close the sliding door (if you have that option). Hang a curtain or a blanket to make an imaginary wall. Go outside, or tell your partner to go outside if weather permits. Go to a cafe if weather doesn’t permit. Call your friends or family and vent to them. Put headphones on. Do whatever you can to take time for you.
After our first few weeks on the road, we parked our RV in a Wal-Mart parking lot for the night and Ken noticed the damn thing wouldn’t switch out of Park. We got stuck there. Flash forward 4 days and $1500 later and it was all fixed up. A week after that our door broke and we had to order a new part for it. Flash forward 1 week and $200 and it was all fixed up. A few weeks after that our water pump broke and we got one of the leveling jacks stuck in the ground and couldn’t get out. Flash forward 2 days and $375 and it was all fixed up. Oh, then our shower valve broke. That cost around $150 for a new valve and tools to fix it ourselves.
This is after only 3 months, and this isn’t including the time we’ve—ok fine—Ken has spent fixing other stuff that just breaks around the RV that Ken’s fixed himself. We weren’t expecting this much money to go down the drain on repairs, and we don’t know if it’d be a different scenario had we bought a newer RV, but prepare accordingly.
Coming from living in Oakland, one of the most liberal places in the USA, I was scared to embark on this journey. With our current administration and everything I hear and read in the news, I was afraid of who we might meet, what situations we’d find ourselves in, and what sort of treatment we’d get. I won’t say I haven’t seen things that make me uncomfortable. But I will say almost everyone we’ve met has been kind to us, offered places to stay when they find out we’re touring artists, and/or been a great connection to have next time we come to their town. Don’t try to do everything on your own. Don’t be afraid to stay at stranger’s houses (but use your best judgement of course—if something feels shady, it is.)
This one’s for the musicians, and if you’re a touring musician you probably already know this, but house concerts are where it’s at. You get to play in a cozy, intimate space full of people who are intently listening to your music. We get our house concerts through a network called the Listening Room Network. You have to submit and pay an application fee but it’s well worth it if you plan on using this as a resource. I have some other friends who book house concerts on their own, but I’m honestly not sure how they do it.
House concerts rule because you usually make way more money than at bar/venue gigs. Don’t be afraid to tell your story to strangers. Believe in your music, your songs, and your voice—people wouldn’t come to the show if they didn’t like it. Don’t be afraid to push your merch, either. Easier said than done, I know. I struggle with this all the time and it’s easy for me to say. But try. Also, usually the hosts of the house concerts will let you stay there for the night and possibly do your laundry/take a nice long, hot shower!
If you're trying to get paid more than $0, play smaller towns. As much as I'd like to play Austin, New York City, Nashville, New Orleans, L.A. and San Francisco all the time and make tons of money doing it--I'm just not there yet. Look up live music spaces in towns outside the big cities. Use Indie on the Move (more on this in #7) or simply Google it. Breweries, wineries, bars, clubs, markets, lounges, coffeehouses--make lists and email the sh** out of them. If they don't email you back, follow up or simply call them. Don't be afraid of the phone, especially with small town venues. I've booked a lot of shows on our tour because I simply called.
For the RV life, we follow Heath & Alyssa Padgett and listen to their podcast The RV Entrepreneur. I have Alyssa’s book Living in an RV: Everything I Wish I Knew Before Fulll-Time RVing Across America. We also own the Complete Idiot's Guide to RVing, and simply use Google to find other resources or have questions about RVing. More and more folks are pursuing the RV or Van lifestyle and there’s an entire community out there dedicated to educating themselves about how to make it work.
As far as the music industry, we listen to Rick Barker’s podcast The Music Industry Blueprint, own Ari Herstand’s book How To Make It in the New Music Business and follow his blog Ari’s Take, listen to The Rock/Star Advocate, the DIY Musician Podcast, and receive articles from the ASCAP Daily Brief. Ken also gets regular newsletters from Michael Elsner on music licensing, BMI, SynchTank, Music Ally, AWAL Weekly, Steve Palfreyman of Music Launch Hub, and has taken many courses on LinkedIn Learning.
For all the indie musicians out there, I don’t need to tell you there’s an overwhelming amount of information out there for us and it’s completely insane. There is no answer to how to do this career—it’s a jungle out there and all you can do is educate yourself as best you can.
Say what you will about social media (what? What’d I say? Oh, that it’s evil and makes you feel terrible about yourself?) it’s got some good aspects to it. Facebook Groups have helped us SO MUCH. We’re part of the RV Entrepreneur FB group (regulated by Heath and Alyssa) and have made some great connections there, asking questions to the group when we have them—either about entrepreneurial endeavors or RV maintenance stuff.
Facebook Groups for music that have helped me a ton: DIY Tour Postings, Music Launch Hub, Balanced Breakfast: San Francisco (this is for Bay Area folks. Balanced Breakfast has branches in other parts of the country so look it up based on your city!), Music Biz Besties (women only), WomenCrushMusic (women only), Kollaboration (supports Asian-American artists like myself, with branches in SF and LA) and the Rock/Star Collective have been so helpful. I’ve virtually met tons of indie musicians doing exactly what I’m doing—and it’s so, so refreshing! It makes me so happy to know other people are pursuing this crazy dream and on the same crazy ride as me.
We’ve also made great connections and booked most of our shows through Indie on the Move (more on this in #7.)
Besides the internet, please remember to call your friends on the road. Don’t go into a hole of isolation in your RV! Make time to call, text, FaceTime, and/or email your friends and family, and keep them posted on all your adventures.
Ken and I have a spreadsheet the size of a small country with our route. It's broken down by city and state, with venues, contacts, and the status of each one. For you indie musicians, I don’t need to tell you that touring is simply CONSTANT EMAILING ALL THE F***ING TIME HOLY SH** THIS IS MY LIFE IS NOW I AM SENDING THE SAME EMAIL OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN OMFG I’M GOING F**** CRAZY.
Phew. Needed to get that off my chest.
So, like I said—keep track of who you’ve emailed. Write the date you emailed each venue and remember to follow up with them once a week, if not more. A lot of the shows we’ve booked were because we followed up. Most of the time venues don’t get back to you because they just don’t check their email enough or it gets lost, so sending a follow-up will pop it to the top and hopefully the venue will see it.
Our number one resource for finding venues throughout the country (besides just asking our connections and using FB groups) is Indie on the Move. If you don't know about Indie on the Move and you're trying to tour, get your sh** together and make it your homepage. You can use Indie on the Move to search for venues, post an ad for a show if you want to pair with local bands, and see show opportunities (but be careful with the "show opportunities", they're sometimes scammy.)
Remember to send emails with some type of personal note, if possible. Make sure you write the name of the venue in the email so it doesn’t look too generic. More on how to send booking emails and tour on your own on Ari Herstand's blog.
I’m an artist, sure. But I’m also a businesswoman. We’re entrepreneurs. I’m not sitting in the RV looking out the window 24/7 thinking about my next song. Far from that. I’m usually sitting in the RV working on booking, publicity, social media posts, newsletters, and educating myself on this crazy industry. We play a lot of shows, where I get to be creative on stage and let some of those feelings out—but when we’re off stage it’s hard to make time for creativity and fun.
I’m still working on this one. I don’t have a set schedule for when to be creative, but I try to spend at least 5 days a week practicing covers or working on new material.
We’re also still working on having fun—because we don’t have a ton of money, we can’t exactly go on fancy date nights. But we try to go out to dinner sometimes, go to museums, or experience something cultural in each city.
Move your damn body! It’s easy to feel sluggish, cranky and irritable when you’re driving around a lot. I go for runs whenever I can. I use Strava to track my runs. Ken uses The Daily Burn to do workouts. I have a yoga mat and roll it out if the weather is nice outside, or in the RV to stretch/do some pilates moves.
Ken just bought Planet Fitness membership. It's $22/month plus a yearly $40 fee, and he gets to go to any location throughout the country. Plus they have nice, hot showers with nice water pressure. That makes it worth it. I usually go with him as a guest, which is free.
You can plan everything to a T—make a spreadsheet, create a map, make reservations, even book gigs months and months ahead of time—and your plan will most definitely change. You could get caught in a blizzard. Your RV may break down for the 100th time. You might get an awesome show opportunity in a random city you never knew you had a fanbase in. Be prepared for this and do not throw a fit when it happens. Enjoy the chaos.
*A note on finances:
We’ve been embarrassingly bad at tracking our expenses and income over the past 100 days for several reasons: mostly just not having our sh** together, focusing on this new lifestyle, and managing our stress levels. We plan to get better at it over the next 265 days, we promise. We can say with 100% certainty that we’re losing money. Not a ton--but some. Most of the money we’re losing is on gas and RV repairs.
Luckily we had some financial cushion saved before we left, so hopefully we won’t have to cut this tour short. But like any new business, we figured it would be a struggle for at least the first 6 months, if not the first few years. We promise that we’ll have more numbers and concrete details on our finances within the next 100 days.
In conclusion, we're so grateful for your taking the time to read this. This is just the beginning of our full-time music and RV lifestyle journey. But your support and feedback means the world to us. If this blog helped you, please share it with your friends, give me a follow on Spotify, or subscribe to my YouTube channel to stay updated!"
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