Touring efficienly on an independent musician’s budget

I’m currently on tour with my music partner Emily Zisman, and thought I’d take some downtime to talk about how I try to get the most benefit out of our touring time. We both have commitments back in our home town, so we can’t stay on the road for an indeterminate amount of time. And make no mistake, touring can be expensive.

Here are some tips I’ve learned over the years on making the most of the tour time and money we have.

1. Have a reason to tour

The concept of touring is romantic in the ideal, but the reality is that touring should be done for a very specific reason – to go where your audience is.

As an independent artist in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are a lot of ways to build a fan base locally without ever leaving the area. From local weekend street fairs, to performing with other groups, to hosting a songwriter series, there’s a lot that can keep us busy while gaining new fans. And there’s not a real risk of running out of potential fans, especially when a lot of festivals are attended by out-of-towners. Given that, why tour?

Well, over the years we’ve started finding a large enough group of fans in other cities that would come to a headline show. Or an out-of-town festival wants to have us perform. Either way, these are both great situations to be in and can form the basis of a nice compact tour. I call these “keystone” gigs, because without them the rest of the tour might not stand on its own. These gigs have enough audience to make it worthwhile, and the compensation is enough to pay for our travel expenses.

2. Route efficiently

I often browse through tour schedules of other small independent acts, and wonder how they’re not burnt out from driving.  One night they are in Portland, and the next night they’re in San Francisco. Which is 8+ hours away!! Or their route takes them back and forth across the same stretch, wasting unnecessary gas, rather than following a more linear route.

I understand that sometimes these schedules are forced upon them because of situations outside their control. But given the option, why not divide a leg like that up into 3 parts, playing in smaller towns like Ashland and Redding along the way? As an independent, we don’t require huge stages or audiences. All we really need out of these stopover gigs is food and gas money, with the possibility of selling some merch and getting new fans.

Keep your downtime to a minimum (two days off a week is great, I find), and always keep moving so that you’re exposing yourself to as many fans as possible with the time you have.

3. CouchSurfing

The largest expenses we incur as touring musicians are lodging, gas, and food. My number one choice for lodging is to stay with friends and family. Which works great if I’m touring along the westcoast in larger cities, but there are many places where I don’t know anyone personally. Some musicians have made a point of staying with fans, which is great, but I have used CouchSurfing to good success.

Of course, make sure to bring a sleeping bag and pillow in this case, though you might get lucky and find someone with an extra bed. And be sure to bring gifts for your hosts – CDs and t-shirts work great if they like music, though wine is usually appreciated most everywhere. You can even cook a meal for your host, which is still cheaper than eating out. Don’t be the leech that makes people feel like they’re being used purely as a free hotel.

4. Busk for entertainment

By no means should you be using your downtime when touring to do shopping. Thats a recipe to financial disaster (unless you’ve had a wardrobe emergency arise for an upcoming performance, of course). Treat this as a work trip and make sure you’re spending your time wisely.

That’s not to say you can’t have fun, of course. I find that busking is highly enjoyable in a new city. You’ll need to do some prep work, to find out the busking laws in the city you’re in, as well as the unwritten rules among performers (you don’t want to step on any toes at the more-established spots).

This is a great way to stay rehearsed when on the road. Plus, you might even draw some more people to your gigs!

5. Appoint a finance person

Rather than letting everyone pay for things themselves and trying to settle up at the end of the tour, I find it easier and better to appoint someone in charge of the money. When you get paid at the end of a night, sell CDs, or collect your tips, immediately give it to the finance person.

It’s also their job to pay for any tour expenses like gas, food, etc. and record all transactions. Hopefully your tour ends up profitable after expenses. The finance person will then calculate payouts to everyone and distribute money.

This way, there’s no surprises at the end with expenses, and it becomes a team decision of what expenses should be made. Hopefully avoiding the situation of one member going overboard on drinks or buying food for their new “friends”.

Now get out there and enjoy touring without worrying about going broke!


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