Posted: Apr 26, 2021
**Guest post written by Patrick McGuire for Bandzoogle.
"Poverty and DIY touring might go together in your mind like carrots and peas, but that doesn’t mean you can’t at least break even with some simple adjustments. Unestablished musicians can avoid encountering financial problems on tour through smart planning, resourcefulness, and sacrifice.
Even if you make music and distribute digitally, touring is still one of the most reliable (and fun) ways for musicians to earn money in this day and age. But responsible budgeting is just as important here as it is in any other facet of life.
If you’re just starting out booking shows on the road, or if you’ve had bad experiences that have cost you gobs of money in the past, here are four considerations to make so that you can safely avoid going broke on your next tour.
I can’t stress the importance of smart tour planning enough. Unlike an improv session with ideas that take shape the longer you play, touring will be a financial disaster if you don’t at least set targets and get some figures down at first. You need something to compare and refer back to, even if it’s a bit off… So make a spreadsheet!
What are your expected costs? How much does a full tank of gas cost with your vehicle? How many tanks of gas do you estimate based on mileage from Google Maps? How much does your accommodation cost each night? Figure those out first, at base, and then start thinking about ways to get those costs down (see #3 below).
And now think about your expected returns. How much money do you expect to earn each night at the door? How about average merch sales based on previous out-of-town shows? Can you integrate online merch sales creatively by offering to hand-deliver the items to your fans on the road? Are you doing a crowdfunding campaign to fund your tour?
Planning your estimates can help you think about potential reach targets as well. For example, if you expect not to sell a lot of merch based on previous experience, perhaps try to aggressively hawk it one night, or utilize lots of discounts. No matter what, thorough and conservative planning ahead of time will allow your band to focus on the extremely hard work of sharing your music in the best possible form.
Making use of every possible revenue source you can find on tour is a huge deal. It is not uncommon for bands to make more money from merch sales on any given night than from their split of the door. This means that having great merch to offer, in a visible way, will reduce your chances of losing money on tour.
I tell bands this all the time: you’re already creative with your songwriting, so why not get creative with your merchandise?
Of course, you should make sure to have the tried-and-true items fans might be looking for, like shirts, stickers, pins and of course… albums! But consider branching out and offering things that might make someone stop and peak at the merch table, things that reflect your personality or creative side, or items that aren’t physical at all; such as bespoke performances, original songs written, and band baby-sitting services (don’t look at me, it’s your band!).
And like I mentioned earlier, you’re going to have to find creative ways to optimize sales. Test out different ways of announcing your merch from the stage (funny, heartfelt, excited, etc.) and try to offer discounts if you think it might help you move more merch.
You might have big dreams of touring in luxury, but those dreams will have to wait if you don’t want to go into debt today. Bands get into trouble when they book expensive Airbnbs and hotel rooms every night of their tour, and the same goes for eating out at restaurants every day.
Most of the time, the easy fix is to sleep on floors and pack coolers of cheap food to save cash. But that can make you miserable—and on massive continent-spanning tours, this can cause sleep deprivation, sickness, and depression, job loss, and potential infighting. So one way of saving money might simply be to scale back the lengths of your tours and break them up into smaller chunks. Unless you have a label and PR agency behind you, national tours can often do more harm than good.
That said—no matter how long you’re on the road for—there are likely ways you can trim some of the overhead off just by making frugal choices.
If you’re touring in the summer, consider camping in state and national parks nearly for free. Alternatively, post to your social media channels to see if fans, friends, or family can help you out with places to stay in the cities you’ll be touring through. And if you’re playing any house shows, ask if the hosts can provide accommodations as well. Just make sure you’re keeping healthy and getting enough sleep.
If touring feels forced or needlessly difficult, following through with it anyway could get you into a financial mess. You might realize that you’re better off staying at home and writing or recording music most of the year—and that’s fine.
Smart, advanced planning could lead you to the conclusion that your band just isn’t ready for regional or national touring; whether that’s now, or even ever. It’s important to remember that touring is extremely hard, thankless work. Hitting the road is only worth it if you feel you have a real chance of earning new fans, money, and musical experience.
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Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.