Touring Fiction And Fact

This Road Starts With Metal

This post is borne from a series of blog articles in the metal community that went viral.

To start, MetalSucks posted an piece that corporate sponsors may be detrimental to some touring acts which was followed by a rebuttal to the contrary.  All of which lead to the latest “Hey here’s the economic reality of being in a touring band” post courtesy of Shane Bley of the band Oh, Sleeper.  He describes the group as a mid-level band which with a $300 guarantee in various venues is probably only a slight exaggeration in stature (Try getting a $300 guarantee from a club you’ve never played in x 10 or 20 venues.  You have to have some kind of stature to get that guarantee) .

I’ve posted some excerpts below (you can read the full post here):

“On tour bands have two ways to make money. Guaranties, and Merchandise.

On tour bands have big bills. The biggest are: Managers, Booking agent, Merch Rates, Merch bills, Food, and of course.. the Gas bill.  Our last headliner tour was an east coast run with 3 other bands. The average guaranty per band was 300$ per band, and around 300$ in merch. This was the average for all 4 bands, for the entire tour.So we have a 600$ gross income per night.

Now lets break this down.  Merchandise is bough, printed, and shipped on the bands dollar….$300(gross) – $150(merch cost) – $75(merch venue rate) = $75 (Net profit for the band.) BUT the breakdown doesnt stop there. If the band has a manager, he takes 15% of Net profit of merch.SO MERCH TOTAL PER NIGHT:$75 X .15 = $11.25$75 – $11.15 = $63.75( TOTAL Net profit in merch for the band.)

Guaranties:$300(gross guaranty) – $45(managers cut 15%) – $30(booking agents cut 10%) = $225 Average Gas bill is around $150. some days way better some days way worse….Most west coast tours we do the average gas bill is around 200–250…but ill use 150 for this example.$225(guaranty after manage and agent deductions) – $150(gas bill) = $75We have 6 people on tour, our 5 Guys, and our merch guy “The maze”. We give everyone $10 bucks a day to eat on. (This isnt enough when your 6 4 and 200lbs like micah and i by the way)6 people x $10 = $60$75 – $60 = $15$15 Total net profit in Guaranties.

$63.75(Net merch) + $15(Net guaranty) =$78.75 for the band for the night. out of $600 gross.if you divide that 6 ways its $13.12 a day per band member.———-This doesnt include hotel costs. which are usually 50–60 bucks. Most bands dont get hotels or shower to save money to pay for phone bills. This does not include Tires/Van payment/Oil changes/Van upkeep registration bla bla/Trailer tires/Gear/etc. This doesnt include taxes. This doesnt include ROAD TOLLS. Which in the northeast can add up to 20–40bucks a day.”


Is this an oversimplification of the economics of touring?

Yes it is.

There are a number of tweaks that could be made to the above example to make it more profitable.

But it’s also accurate of the current climate and, for many bands looking to this as an example,  it’s putting the cart in front of the horse.

Wait there’s history lecture here?

Touring – as described above –  is a dinosaur.

It’s a relic from the old music business model where you would:

  • sign to a major label
  • get in debt up to your eyeballs releasing a debt record
  • get label support to go out on the road an promote the record to sell more records for the label.

What was lost to most acts in this equation was the fact that touring expenses were generally recoupable to the label, so it was pretty much impossible for most artists to make their money back.  That was one reason why you had bands on the road for years that would come home and not have any money to show for it.

The labels had these bands tour relentlessly to sell records, but some of them ended up building a fan base.  This is a double edged sword for a label as a popular band that switches labels is now someone else’s money maker.  This became really important later on when the bands would break up and the singer or principle member of the band formed new band and had to take it on the road as there was a built in audience to draw from.


Punk (oddly enough like the folk, bluegrass and other musical examples that didn’t have label support before them) came along and turned this model on it’s head.  DIY had a new ethos:

  • bands did the legwork
  • they booked their own shows
  • released their own records and merch and
  • kept the money for themselves.

When DIY worked (and it didn’t always work) – it did so because of local scenes.  It worked because local scenes had loyalty and community.  There would be people who would go to the VFW on a Sunday afternoon just because some hardcore band was playing.  In other words, it was as much about the scene as it was about the music.  Each one built off the other.

We’re not in Kansas anymore Dorothy

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum.

We de-contextualized art with the advent of the internet.  Gradually, we didn’t have to go to a venue to see a band, or go to a cd store to find new music because we could see videos of bands playing and hear their music for free online.

We orphaned tracks from albums and took away the context for listening to songs.  We took away the ritual of finding something exciting in a store and getting it home and popping it in a tape deck or playing it on a turn table while reading the liner notes to find out more about what we were listening to.

Scenes gradually became online communities which has the potential to reach more people in more places but largely removed localization.

So to recap:

The way consumers acquired music changed and no longer required a physical place to buy or hear music.

The way music was sold, no longer required selling to people in person.

The way people experienced music was now (largely) relegated to another component in an ADHD addled cocktail of a lifestyle.

File under: not much of a silver lining

The thing is, the old system was already broken.  It was already unsustainable, and all of these factors coming together simply put a light on the accounting parlour trick that was the old label system that had run its course.

Most people were never making big money anyway.  It’s the old joke about a musician being a person who loads $5000 dollars worth of gear into a $1000 van to drive 100 miles for a gig that pays $50.

I previously posted an article that (allegedly) showed the houses the band Manowar lived in in upstate NY and the article was written with a lot of snark because there was a real disconnect between the fantasy of being in a band and the reality of being in one.  Manowar sells out several thousand seat halls in Europe and (according to the article) have members that still live at home with their folks.

So, we now see the little man behind the curtain.  That’s probably a god thing, because it means we can get real.

What to do

I think one answer lies in the idea behind kickstarter.

Mind you, I don’t think the answer is kickstarter.  Crowdfunding already has a stink around it for many people who see it as a sign of desperation but Kickstarter doesn’t just smell funny, it’s already dead.  It’s already passe.  The mainstream hasn’t fully caught up yet – but what was the last crowd sourced start up you funded through kickstarter?

Kickstarter isn’t the answer but the idea behind it is more important than ever.

The idea behind it is tapping into the online community.  Seth Godin would probably talk about building your tribe, I think of it as building a scene.

The future is regional and global.

Global access, regional development and support.

The future is in scenes, fans and community.

The internet was supposed to be the great uniter.  It was supposed to be the thing that brought us all together, and instead it put all of us alone in a room staring at a smart phone screen looking for the next thing to entertain us.

People feel isolated.  They want to experience things.  They want to belong to something bigger than themselves.

One thing I hear musicians say all the time is, “No one wants to go out to shows anymore.”

Locally, Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady had ticket sales for a Book of Mormon run there  that broke the theater ticket system from the crushing demand.  We’re talking about lines around the block.  My Valentines Day present of tickets for a show in NYC with  Mrs. Collins ended up running me $300 or so (and those were the cheap seats!) and, like it was for the months before and after that Valentines Day, the venue was completely sold out.

People will go out to shows that are events.  They will not go spend $10 on a cover and pay for a two-drink minimum to see their friend Dave’s band play at 11pm on a Tuesday night when, consciously or subconsciously, they can go see him anytime.

There’s value in scarcity.

Back to that touring thing.

I’m not saying don’t tour.

I’m saying tour smaller and keep your expenses low.  I think it was Ellis Paul who toured for years in a car with just his manager for company.  That’s a profitable touring model.  Taking your musical collective of 12 people on the road and making money?  No chance.

I’m saying tour smaller in scope – Think local then regional.

BUILD YOUR SCENE!  Be a big fish in a small pond, and support that small pond to keep it well stocked.  Find compatible acts and create events that people want to go to.  Give people something that they want to belong to.  Some of the pop up restaurants are a brilliant example of this idea.

Find alternate sources of income.

This is critical.  They days of making all your money from one thing are over for most people.  Musicians with diverse skill sets who do multiple things well will be more likely to  keep their head above water.

In the first article I mentioned there was a very interesting post from MattBandhappy, who it turns out is the drummer in Periphery.  Periphery is a djent band with a sizeable following.  They’ve been on the cover of magazines.  They play expensive custom gear and it turns out that none of them are making much money off Periphery.

“This article explains one of the exact reasons why i started teaching on tour and online. I play drums in Periphery, and believe me, we need more than just the band to make money. Because of this need, I created – A global marketplace for live, online, video chat and on tour music lessons. Through our video chat platform, working musicians can teach their fans all over the world without any geographic limitations right from home, as well as being able to schedule, communicate, get paid, and promote their lessons. Artists can also use our scheduling and payment tools to teach lessons on-tour from city to city at every venue they play…This site really gives working musicians a way to tap into their fan bases, make a supplemental income for themselves, and tour without the worry of where their next dollar or meal are coming from.


Embrace “tour support” when possible.

A lot of times it’s not DIY or Die but is instead DIY AND Die.

You need support when you go on the road.  This is traditionally been fans.  For some acts this has been corporate funded sponsorship, privately funded sponsorship (like grants)  or public funded sponsorship (like paid public performances).

There are acoustic acts that have done this for years.  They book a tour of school districts to play because they know they can get x amount of dollars to play a school assembly, book a series of house concerts and then book other events around those to fill in.

10 years ago, I would have said the way to do a tour for a mainstream type act would have been to partner with someone like Starbucks.  Try to get them to pay transportation costs to every Starbucks you could do an unplugged set into and then play the local venue.

Now I would say that there are better partners and after you have a few small successes you may even be able to crowdfund future efforts with real fans, and not simply faceless Avatars who have no connection to you other than to perpetually stalk you with cries of, “HEY WHERE’S THAT MONEY I PAID YOU?”

So, build a fan base.  Build a scene.  Build community.  And if you’re going to tour – tour smart in ways that make sense for you and not simply ways that are simply always the way they’ve been done.

As always, thanks for reading!


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