Maybe You Shouldn’t Tour

Derek is an MBA in entrepreneurship, painter, and bassist for Onward We March, a local progressive metal band. He teaches business skills to artists and writes weekly music business advice for his blog Derek Thinks Music. Got a business question about your art? Shoot him an email at derekmiller5@gmail.com

“I’m going on tour!”

Next stop, Atlantis!

Those words burst with coolness. The romantic ideal of hitting the road with your best buddies to see the world and play your music strikes a lovely chord in our hearts. And the hearts of our other friends, tied to a their less-creative lives. It’ll be a trial, for sure, a marathon. But you’ll have the stories of comradery forever. But beyond the adventure aspect, do you actually have a compelling reason to tour?

Tours cost money. Lots of it.

Every day you spend on the road your band is bleeding cash. Hotels, food, gas, merch and money foregone from missing days at work, everything adds . As nice as it feels to have a day off, a tour day without a show at night means a large hit to your overall cost as you drain your bank account without any show to offset this drain.

You need to think about:

How big of an audience will we be playing in front of? The logic of touring looks much different when you’re opening for a national headline act that pulls 500+ fans than when you’d be touring with another local band from your town.

Will we be able to play this location again within 6 months to 1 year? The more recognizable you are the more highly you are rewarded and the more “famous” people perceive your band. Since we build our love for music largely through repetition of the hits we love, there’s a strong multiplicative effect on the number of times you can expose a fan to your music. Ideally a fan will see you the first time and love your show so much they drag two more friends to the next show. If you won’t be able to hit the region in the foreseeable future, you miss out on this huge boost to your fan base.

How well do the other bands fit your sound? Not all exposure is created equal. You may well be touring with a substantially larger band, but if their fan base probably wouldn’t like you than you’re wasting your time.

How much do you expect to make at each tour stop? Are there guarantees for the show or is it based on head count? How many shirts, tickets and CDs do you expect to sling?

What kind of promotional effort can I put into this tour? Do you have time / energy / talent to put together a marketing push for these shows? Are the towns you’d be visiting friendly to your genre?

How well is your current lineup of merch selling? Do we need fresh gear? What would you estimate the percentage of people at a show who buy your merch would be?

Do you have enough merch to last through the week or month that you’ll be gone? If we sold everything, what’s the most money we could make from merch?

How much gas will we need? Use google maps and your vans’ MPG to estimate. Then figure out the cost.

-How many nights at a hotel / hostel will we need? Do you have any friends / fans who would let you crash at their place? You’d be surprised how helpful fans can be. This’ll make a big difference on the overall cost of your tour.

How much mental energy / sanity do I have to spend? Cash isn’t your only limited resource. Being away from home takes a mental toll on everyone. If your bassist is already having a terrible run of luck lately, he’ll be more likely to have issues throughout the tour. For your working members, taking time off from work means more stress when they return. Make sure everyone has enough willpower to spend that they won’t come after you with a chainsaw before the end of the tour.

What’s your budget? Can your band afford to lose a few grand without breaking a sweat or would that money be better spent on recording a few extra songs on your album?

After all this we’re left with the question of “Will we actually make money going on tour?” There’s a limit to the number times a business can undertake a large project without any positive return. Simple as that.

In no way am I saying that you shouldn’t tour. Far from it. Live shows and merch are becoming the primary means for independent musicians to make cold cash money. And I’m all for traveling, too. It makes you more creative and gives you great perspective on the world. But if the only compelling argument you can make for touring is the adventure, take a roadtrip with your friends instead. It’ll be cheaper and much less stressful when you’re not carring trailers full of gears and watching a dwindling bank account.

If you’re going to tour, make sure it’ll feed your band’s energy more than it drains it.

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