Imagine you’re a DIY band booking your own tour, and you’re wondering how to come home with cash. Four musicians pile into a van and drive up to 8 hours, load in to the club around 5pm, soundcheck, perform, sell merchandise, and load out at 2am. Congratulations, you’ve worked 16 hours today, which multiplied by 4 band members, is collectively 64 hours of work. Your group made $250 from the show and spent $100 on gas, which totals a pay rate of $2.34 per hour for each of you. So where do you stay for the night? How can you afford food? How do you manage each of these variables to come out ahead after two weeks of shows?
I played out of town in a power trio called Hot Machines back in 2002, then toured longer stretches of America and Europe in a four-piece called Miss Alex White & the Red Orchestra in 2004. The shows were awesome, though they were break-even propositions at best. Now that I’ve played almost 1,000 shows on three continents with my brother Francis in a rock n’roll duo called White Mystery, I reconciled three important aspects of how to make money on tour and avoid debt:
1. Negotiate Pay
What you earn at a show depends on several factors–the venue promoter, the city, day of the week, and attendance pull for your band. The reality is that you need to lock in a rate with the promoter, whether your band is on its first tour or its tenth. Here are three ways you can negotiate to get paid:
Guarantee: Request a flat rate based on how much you want, how much you usually earn, or how big the event is that you’re about to play. The promoter may offer a different amount, and you can meet in the middle or stand your ground.
Door Deal: Many promoters want you to accept a door deal, which is payment based on tickets sales. This is a risky way to get paid if the promoter withholds a percentage of ticket sales to pay expenses, like the sound-person’s payment, or advertisements. Sometimes there is very little left at the end of the night for your band and there’s little incentive for the promoter to push the show, since there’s much less to lose. At the same time, a packed DIY show at a reputable venue could yield a decent amount with a door deal. Follow your instinct on whether this is the best route for you.
Guarantee + Percentage of Door: This is a highly recommended, conservative way to negotiate pay for your first tour, or first time in a new city where you need to develop an audience. Request a modest base guarantee to cover your expenses and a bonus when ticket sales exceed a certain dollar amount.
2. Keep Costs Low
The best way to make money is to save what you have. Here are practical tips for the road:
While it may seem cool to have a big passenger van with a trailer, it’s impractical for a small or mid-size band that earns less than $600 per show. Large, heavy vehicles require more gas, which is expensive on a DIY musician’s shoestring budget. A stereotypical band van is also a red flag for highway patrol and thieves in parking lots. The alternative is to downsize and bring essentials. White Mystery toured almost 200,000 miles in a hatchback that was incredibly fuel efficient. So instead of a full stack guitar cabinet, I play an Orange combo amp that fits in the car. Francis skips a high-hat because the stand fits awkwardly in the vehicle, and now his “no-high hat” drum technique is his signature style. Skip the heavy luggage and bring a squishy backpack or duffel. Haul weight that earns you money, like merchandise to sell at shows, in lieu of multiple pairs of shoes and other extraneous items.
The reality is that you work hard out there, and you need fuel for your body. Eat well to stay healthy and happy on the road. No one likes a “hangry” musician. Negotiate with the promoter in advance to “comp” your band meals. A lot of clubs have kitchens, so confirm your complimentary hospitality for each show ahead of time. Here are more affordable food options:
•SNACKS Purchase big bags of snacks from a grocery store. Drive more throughout the day with jerky, almonds, green apples— and stop less for costly dine-in meals or fast food. Microwaveable bags of quinoa and popcorn taste great at night and prevent late night binges on fatty, expensive food.
•LUNCH Buy loaves of bread and enough cheese or meat to make sandwiches during the day. It’s fun and cheap to buy groceries to make multiple meals that sustain your band. Every time a gaggle of musicians eats at a restaurant, that is less cash to pay your bills when you get home.
•STAYING HYDRATED Have everyone in the band bring refillable water bottles to save money on liquids. For parts of the country where you cannot drink tap water, buy big gallons of spring water for 99¢ instead of tiny, wasteful bottles of water that are a buck plus each.
Hotel costs add up quickly on tour. For the first six years of White Mystery, we exclusively stayed with promoters to make lodging costs zero. The extra cash you save goes in a band fund to ensure future tours are more comfortable. Soon you can afford hotels for more privacy. I prefer the Choice Hotel network, specifically Comfort Inn, because they have microwaves, free strong coffee, tea, makeup remover towelettes, complimetary breakfast in the morning, and even cookies. Earn points toward free nights when you stick with a particular hotel chain.
3. Plan ahead
Tune-up your band vehicle two weeks before tour begins. Poor car maintenance can equal cancelled gigs, lost time, and money for costly repairs. Avoid malfunctions with simple maintenance. For instance, rotate your tires, check the brakes, oil and fluids regularly. People’s lives depend on your vehicle condition, and your trusty steed will reciprocate the love and care you put into it.
Repair questionable items at home instead of on the road. Fix broken equipment so it is 100% functional, otherwise, replace it before you embark. Slightly damaged items quickly break beyond repair due to the accelerated pace of touring. This goes from music gear to footwear to the belt holding up your pants.
Relationships with your family, friends, band members, and romantic partners experience compounded stress on tour, so repair those issues at home as well. Once you’re honest with bandmates about serious matters, you can think more clearly on the road. Confirm all on board are mentally capable to rock every night and proceed with strength.
There are endless ways to save money and make a liveable profit, even as a DIY band, on tour. This first chapter instills a spirit of thriftiness that will help you understand future discussions of booking, merchandising, and more. Make money on tour and avoid mistakes so you can keep on trucking.
Editor’s Note: Vote for White Mystery here, and check out the video for “Bad Neptune” (from their new album Fuck Your Mouth Shut) to see what it looks like to be a DIY band on the road!