By Andy Proctor
Artists, even the most successful ones, often make the majority of their money on the road. Not only is touring necessary to build and maintain a fan base, but if done well, it can also be very lucrative. In this article, I’ll attempt to share some firsthand knowledge from my tour managing days and personal experiences.
1. Booking the Tour
If you’re fortunate enough to have a team behind you, your manager and agent work this out. If you’re on your own, pick some acts similar to your in genre and popularity, and check the routing of their tours. You can use that as a jumping off point to contact venues and route your tour. Pollstar.com can also give you venue ideas. It depends on the venue, but it’s often a good idea to contact them 4-6 months ahead of a desired date.
2. Advancing the Tour
Once you’ve contracted with the venues, spend the week before hitting the road emailing or calling them again to finalize details. When do we load-in and do a sound check? Who is the contact running sound and handling production? Who pays us (settles) at the end of the night? Are you feeding us or giving us money (called a buyout) to eat? You should definitely also call the day before the show, or the day of, to make sure nothing has changed as well. For instance, the sound guy you had been talking to may have moved on, and the new guy doesn’t have your stage plots or input requirements.
3. On the Road
Bring about 2 weeks worth of clothes. Hopefully that works out to 1 large suitcase. Do laundry any chance you get because there may not be another chance for a while. You’re probably broke and need to make food last so you can bring a small cooler if you want, but it’s a luxury, space permitting. Here’s a good tip: ask for baby spinach and fruit on your hospitality rider and take it with you. Baby spinach is a green that will last and you can put it on sandwiches for the next few days with minimal refrigeration. Also, choose a bag of pitas over a loaf of bread. The bread takes up more space and will just get squashed. Do whatever you can to stay healthy and supplement your gas station diet.
Being on the road is a fluid situation so be ready to improvise, but planning and preparation are your friends. Good communication, as always, is essential. Create and share Google Docs with band and management regarding your itinerary and accounting. I honestly don’t know how people did it before all of this technology. Being on tour without GPS and a cell phone?!
4. Your Trusty Steed
Try to cram it all in a 15-passenger van if possible. Having a trailer can be difficult to park/back up. Not to mention the savings on gas. Be aware that if you take a toll on your battery by charging multiple devices off of it at a time, you may end up needing to replace it. Make time for oil changes every 3-4k miles. If you’re in a van, back into parking spaces so that your back doors are against a wall or post and so nobody can break in.
If there’s no shame in your game, send out a tweet to your fans to see if anyone wants to house you for the night. This always leads to memorable stories. Otherwise, “name your own price” on Priceline a day or two ahead of your arrival. You can usually find good rooms for $50-$75 a night. Another tip, you can often find the best deals (which are generally safe bets) at hotels near airports. 2 ½ star hotels are perfect. For some reason, many fancier hotels don’t offer free wifi or a continental breakfast and you will definitely want both!
Merch can be an undertaking, as you’re running a mobile pop up shop every night, but it’s very profitable. Keep it simple. 2 shirts in 3 sizes each, a couple CDs, maybe a vinyl piece for cool points. Someone will have to “count in” all the product at the beginning of the night, “count out” the money at the end, and make sure the money matches the difference. Buy a small cash box. Consider using Square to accept credit cards. Have an email sign up list.
Be aware of time zones. You will gain time as you move west and lose it as you move east. Save receipts for tolls and gas so you can expense them on your taxes. If you’re crossing into another country such as Canada, it’s not advisable to carry merch because you’re then importing goods to be sold and will need to declare them and pay tax. You can say they’re for promotional purposes and see how that goes, but be prepared for difficulty. There are strategies to get around it, like manufacturing in Canada and shipping to the venue, but it can be a hassle. Expect a 30-60 minute delay at any border crossing. Crossing at a small check point often means they have more time to scrutinize the artsy lookin’ weirdos, so keep that in mind.
8. Have Some Fun!
By all means, make time for some fun stuff. You never know when you’ll be out that way again. Go whitewater rafting in Colorado, take Route 66 for a bit instead of the interstate, hit up the world’s largest ball of yarn, anything to break up what can be the monotony of the road. It will build bonding experiences between you and your bandmates that will ultimately show up on stage.
Be safe and happy trails! Share YOUR tips in the comments below.