I came across this article from Metal Injection this morning, which is meant to represent the troubles experienced by mid-level bands as they work to make their living under a “music for free; money from tour” model. Written by Shane Blay of Oh, Sleeper, Shane’s breakdown of band finances shows how little money his touring band makes on the road.
This does not represent my experience on the road at all, and fortunately, it is not the only way to tour. Any band can make a few small changes to guarantee they are able to come out ahead, and keep themselves on the road.
Limit Driving Distance
When I was touring, I calculated gas costs at $0.30US a mile for an 8-cylinder Ford Club Wagon (E250) pulling a 5×12 trailer with gear for 1 band, merch, and no air conditioning. If you are driving a 12-cylinder with a twin-axle trailer and a full stage & lighting setup, you are looking at closer to $0.50US a mile.
Step #1 is therefore to limit driving distances.
The best driving distance limit is 300 miles. That’s 6 hours on the road per day, the importance of which we will cover later. With a small rig, that’s $90US per day, and with a big rig it’s $150 a day.
ADD Secondary Markets
Can you hit only major markets if you limit yourself to 300 miles per day? The short answer is no, but that is actually beneficial, as we will discover later.
Can you get across the entire US in 300 mile hops? Once again, no. There are three places where you will need to do long hauls. But on the West Coast, Midwest, and East Coast, all drives are under 300 miles, so you’re making money. If you are smart, you can limit yourself to only three major drives:
Iowa / Omaha – Denver
Denver – Salt Lake City
El Paso – San Antonio
Reduce Your Weight
If you can reduce your weight, you can turn the $150 a day gas bill into a $90 a day gas bill, saving you $400 a week, and even more on the three major drives.
Are you doing a tour with a co-headliner or a supporting band? Then you have the opportunity to share gear.
Leave Something Behind
Are you hauling a major lighting or stage rig with you everywhere? Aren’t you a mid-level band?
Mail your Merch
Are you taking the entirety of your merch supply on the road on day one? Use a merch company with free shipping, and they can ship the merch to you as you need it to any UPS Store for $7 a box. I had $2500 worth of merch meet me in Indianapolis, IN and it cost me $35.
Make Merch with Better Margins
Paying $7.50 for a shirt that’s sold for $15 is a clear indication that this should not be where your money comes from. Yes, you can still make these shirts, but diversify your portfolio to maximize the number of designs on the table.
What’s on Sale?
Talk to your merch supplier about what they have on sale, and take advantage of it. My supplier told me they had golf shirts on sale, so I had a run of 100 black done. Screen printing didn’t look good on the golf shirts, so I had an embroidered logo done for $1 per shirt with a $50 fee for digitization of the design. Cost per shirt was $8.50. Sale price was $20, and we sold maybe 20 on the first show. I also did a run of baseball tees the same way.
Make sure every purchaser (fan) knows that you are doing limited runs of either 100 or 200 shirts only, and that once they are done, you aren’t bringing it back. Your merch store should say “Limited run of 100″ etc on each item.
Designs, not Colour Variations
Skip the colour variations. Doing multiple runs in different colours hurts your volume discount, and kids won’t buy a shirt if their friend has it in a different colour.
You are better off spending the money on printing a different design. Kids have so many friends on Facebook now, and they won’t get the same shirt design if their friend already has it. You need a minimum of 6 – 10 designs on the table.
The first ace is 1-colour on white. You can get 1-colour on white t-shirts for $3, and sell for $10; every $300 grosses $1000.
The next ace is 1-colour on pullovers. These saved my ass after a major van repair, and they are now my go-to. Hoodies are also the exception to the “won’t buy if their friends have it” rule. Hoodies are like a uniform: entire friend groups will buy the same hoodie. You can get 1-colour on a heavy-weight pullover for $10, and sell for between $25 – $35. If you want them to move, sell for $25. $1000 grosses $2500.
Sell More Merch
When I was touring, merch earnings were always twice the guarantees or more. It came down to how well you sell (and probably all the $25 hoodies).
A person who is sitting behind the merch table playing on their phone is not selling. If someone wants to sit or text all night, they need to leave the merch area and be replaced by someone who doesn’t need to sit.
We even had a special merch stance which we would teach to new band members and merch guys, and it was surprising how well it worked.
Show goers are often on the fence about buying merch, and need reinforcement to convince them that the name they will be branding all over their body belongs to someone that is cool. Heaven forbid wearing your merch makes them less cool.
That’s why merch tables that appear popular sell more merch. The more local people you have talking to a band at the merch table, the more popular you look, and the more likely other people are to want to buy.
If someone is browsing your table, start a conversation with them about something completely unrelated to selling them your merch. We used to talk about the band on the shirt they were wearing. Keep locals talking to your band, and other people will be convinced your band is popular; you will sell more merch.
Offer Discounts for Advertising
If people wanted to buy one of our shirts, but didn’t have quite enough money, we would offer discounts on the condition that they wore the shirt at the venue for the rest of the night.
In today’s world, you can make them do more for you right then. Offer to be in a picture with them wearing the shirt if they’ll put it up as their profile picture on Facebook.
Take Your Business Elsewhere
Working with a booking agent can be a miserable experience. Booking agents will often be the contributing factor to your least successful tours. The simple answer is that your booking agent isn’t getting paid enough to put up with your bullshit. That’s why you need to be willing to take your business elsewhere.
On a $300 guarantee, a booking agent earns $30 on your guarantee. For a self-employed person paying themselves $30 an hour ($60k a year equivalent based on 50 weeks at 40 hours), that gives your booking agent 1 hour per city to negotiate a show.
Instead, your booking agent will leverage his bigger bands to get you a show in one of the venues that he already books.
What that means is, he will threaten to not book his $2000 – $5000 a night beer-selling band at a venue unless they take you for $300 at a later date. Gives you confidence you’re going to get treated well by the promoter, right?
Beer-selling bands make a lot more money than you, but they need to pack venues at $25 a night. So their markets are further apart. Which means your booking agent will laugh if you tell him you only want to drive 300 miles per day.
So what you need to do is find a booking agent that is right for you.
Get Out of Downtown Venues
This is not Singles, and you are not Citizen Dick. You are a mid-level band, not a radio-play beer-selling band. If you were, you wouldn’t be broke, and you wouldn’t be reading this.
Downtown venues are made for beer-selling bands. The cost of the venue, the sound guy, and the merch rates are expensive to you, but cheap if tickets are $25 a head. Plus, beer-selling bands are cash cows for record labels, so the merch business has nothing to do with the band anyways. Those bands are just there to enjoy the rider, get high on the tour bus, promote the radio singles, and get laid.
If you are a mid-level band, the first thing you need to do is accept that downtown venues are not a good fit for you.
How can I tell?
Ready for Downtown?
Well, if you were headlining for 250 kids a night, at $10 a head, your cut would be closer to $600 – 800 at a downtown venue. If you were doing 600 kids at $13, your cut would be $4k – $5k. And you would be doing a lot more than $300 in merch per night.
In 2006, I played with two other “mid-level” bands (at the time), Drop Dead Gorgeous and blessthefall, at a downtown venue. Tickets were cheap at $13, and the package did close to capacity at 600 kids. The two headliners were payed a total of $6500, not including merch. So are these two bands not “mid-level” bands? Or are you just less of a “mid-level” band?
If you are doing $300 guarantee and $300 merch on a downtown venues tour, I would wager turnouts are averaging about 75 – 100 kids per night on a $12 ticket, with $1000 going for venue & sound. If you are lucky enough to break even, maybe the promoter will let your band come back. Even if they do, they likely haven’t made enough to warrant their full attention for promotion next time, and are less likely to pay as much next time through, even if your band has become more popular in the meantime.
That’s why mid-level bands need the suburbs.
Play the Suburbs
In the suburbs, the same show would be priced at $7 – $8, and draw 200 – 300 kids because of the lower ticket and high school / Facebook word of mouth, and the fact that 2 of the support bands are the most popular local high school bands. Plus, a lot of local bands won’t have merch to sell, or won’t know the game enough to make serious competition.
Venue / sound costs would be about $250 – $300, and the local bands would get $50 each for gas. That leaves about $1800 – $2000 for the tour package. Summer / weekend shows in the suburbs often do closer to 500 kids. The lower costs also give the opportunity for the promoter to get paid, and actually want to work with the band.
Blessed By A Broken Heart headlined a show years ago in the suburbs at a hockey arena, set up by a 16-year old. The venue and police detail for security cost $500. The high school kids came out in droves, with 450 kids paying $10 a head. BBABH took their usual guarantee at the time, which was only $450. After paying the bands, the promoter walked away with $2500. BBABH have since replaced their management.
More Disposable Cash
Selling merch to kids in the suburbs is also a lot easier than at downtown venues. Downtown shows have high ticket prices and good shows come too frequently, and the lower turnouts for mid-level bands contain a higher proportion of jaded broke scenesters. Kids in the suburbs are less cool, especially in high school, and a band t-shirt is a low-cost means for them to fit in. Plus the limited local shows mean they have more disposable cash.
Know How to Work New Promoters
Booking agents hate untested promoters. If it was up to them, they would let everyone of your shows be a door deal booked by the venue. And continually trying to force you through the same venues each tour only lowers your guarantee or sours your relationship with the promoter.
Working with eager suburban promoters has it’s benefits, but also risks. Here are the best ways to minimize the risks:
Have multiple price points
That is have your flat guarantee, then discount it if food is provided, if accommodation is provided, or both. Be realistic. If staying at the promoter’s house and having their mom cook for you saves you $100, then drop your guarantee to $200, and ask for backend just in case the show blows up.
Limit the number of openers
Sometimes promoters will get a bit too eager, and decide that having a big band in their town is the perfect opportunity to give every single local band the opportunity to get some exposure as an opener. A festival typically ensues. When that happens, the high number of local band members means far fewer people paying tickets.
Play the “IT’LL BE Better Next Time” Game
You’ve branded yourself and presented yourself as a high-level touring band, but you know the truth – you just don’t draw in downtown venues. Suburban promoters do not need to know this.
Downtown, at a venue booked by your crap booking agent, don’t expect to ever play another show at a venue where the promoter had to pay you out because “you had a contract”.
In the suburbs, if the show doesn’t do as well as the promoter had hoped, they just embarrassed themselves in front of a band they love. The promoter will typically apologize, and let you know that “it’ll be better next time”. This is exactly what you want, because if you ever play a show with them again, they will promote it a lot harder. This is your fan; let the promoter know that you really appreciate their effort, but unfortunately that you can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to work together the next time you’re through the area; it’s not your decision.
The next time you are through the area, it is very important that you do not play a show in the same town or with the same promoter. If they message you about playing a show, let them know that you want to, but the guys upstairs weren’t sufficiently satisfied last tour, so… you know.
Play shows with different promoters in towns on either side of the town you hit in the previous tour. Hit Nashville this tour? Next tour, play Knoxville instead. This will reinforce your message to the promoter that you were unhappy with their performance.
Use Your Current Popularity
When I first started touring, I had a problem because Myspace kept telling me that a lot more people were getting stoked on our band every day. We were selling more merch, getting asked to play shows for more money & with better bands, getting a lot more daily plays, and having far more people come see us.
When it came time to book shows, I found that any promoter we had worked with previously would only pay less than what he had paid 6 months earlier. Meanwhile, show attendances had more than doubled.
This is why it’s important to skip cities and work with new promoters. It gives you the opportunity to negotiate guarantees based on your current perceived popularity, as opposed to being forced to take a lower guarantee based how poorly you drew last time through.
Talk to Other Bands
Eventually you’ll cross paths with other bands on the road. If the band is at your “mid-level”, and you’re in a similar genre, ask them where they played their best headlining show. Try to hook up with their promoter.
Use Flyers to Evaluate the Scene
Like it or not, the quality of graphic design on show flyers can make or break a scene. Unhealthy scenes often have poor flyers, and poor flyers can make your band look foolish and unpopular.
Review show flyers from a promoter’s prior events, and look for show photos with good crowds. If the scene doesn’t look healthy, price high or bounce.
Track you Favourites
Assign someone from your band to track promoter information for all your favourite suburban shows, and forward to your booking agent for next tour. If you’ve fired your booking agent, forward to the new booking agent for future tours. Keep the info in the band email account in case the band member assigned to the task quits.
Spend Less Earnings on Food & Accom
People that have worked with me will know that this is a major point for me. $10 a day for food per person is $400 a week. Add hotels and that’s another $600 a week.
Per Diem Tips
When I stopped touring, the per diem was $2 a person, per day, or $84 per week for 5 guys plus merch guy. Tips supplied the rest, adding about $4 per person. Our biggest score for tips was a festival in Alberta where we made $80 in tips that day.
Stretch your food budget by skipping fast food and shopping at Wal-Mart Supercentres. Whole cooked chickens can be had for $4, and many US grocery store chains have house brand cereals for $1 – $2 per box if you register for their membership. Spend the rest on fruits & vegetables.
Supplement with multi-vitamins and you can always add protein with Muscle Milk by Cytosport. Muscle Milk makes just-add-water protein milk shakes in a variety of flavours, just in case you get shafted on tips.
Hotels offer very little return on investment. If you’ve negotiated an accommodation deal, very often it comes with a home cooked meal. Often it comes with a party where you can meet local kids and be offered food, on them, at a later date.
Assign a person to get phone numbers and addresses for each person you stay with on tour. Upload this information to your band email account in case that person quits the band! That way you can hook up a place to stay on future tours. This is your on-the-road family.
If you can’t secure accommodation, you can still skip the hotel. With our 6 hour 300 mile drive, we would leave the after-party / Wal-Mart Supercenter around 1am, and do three 2-hour shifts in pairs. Each pair would drive for 2 hours, and sleep for 4 hours. Longer drives you would get more sleep.
Long shifts are deadly, especially overnight. One person drives, and the person riding shotgun is responsible for making sure the driver stays awake. Two-hour shifts may seem short, but if each drive is only 6 hours, it keeps the shifts equal and fair.
Arriving at your destination at 7am, you have the day to explore the town, which is good for your mental health. Tired people can sleep longer. Scheduling your drives appropriately eliminates the need for hotels, and can save a mid-level touring band significant cash on a 6-week tour.
Think Better; Tour Better
It may be hard to say no to a record label or manager that tells you that paying a $3,000 buy-on to get paid $100 to drive 700 miles a day to open for some big band is the right thing to do for your career. But getting into this habit of stress, exhaustion, and debt is why bands break up.
Smaller headline tours keep cash in your pockets for the time you need to figure out the whole internet marketing and image branding thing you need to expand your fanbase. It’s likely far better for your band in the long run. Think about the mid-level bands you know that have been doing it for a long time. You’ll find that many of them stick to headlining tours at VFWs and YMCAs. Now you know why. It’s not because they don’t draw. It’s because it pays the bills better.
Touring well is not difficult, but it’s also not simple if you want to get ahead. This is not an end-all be-all guide. If you need further info on anything above, I can always clarify.