Touring Tips: How to Organize and Budget a Tour

Connor McCoy, Spire Contributor | December 12, 2018

How to Prepare Your Music Career For Touring

Whether you’re part of a rock band, folk group, producer duo, or a solo artist, touring will eventually find its way into the conversation. Learning how to go on tour is an essential skill to expand your outreach and reach wider audiences. Combined with other techniques, touring can make or break a musician’s success in the industry. It might not be a “glamorous” ride at the very beginning, but with enough preparation and knowledge, you can navigate the bumpy roads of touring and reap the benefits along the way.

The venues

The first plan of action is to filter out which venues you want to play at. It’s important to scout out locations beforehand, understanding the demographic that frequents the area, and if the venue has a history of hosting live music, what sort of acts/music groups play there. Be sure to pick venues where you think your music will be received well.

If you’re a band that relies heavily on external gear, you need to make sure the venue has enough resources to accommodate your set. Does the venue allow for merchandise to be sold? Is there an area that allows you to do that after the show? By doing some research online (finding videos of previous acts, pictures of the venue, reviews of the adjoining restaurant or cafe), you can get a better glimpse of whether or not the venue is the right one for you.

When you’ve found a venue that you believe you can see your musical act playing at, it’s time to start sending emails. Some venues known for having live music will have a section on their website for artists to inquire about playing a gig. If not this, email the general manager.

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Set your schedule

When planning how to go on tour, scheduling is one of the most difficult things to do. Lining up gigs at venues and chaining them along so that they run back to back smoothly (while also giving yourself ample amounts of travel time and rest) takes tact and time. Most tours for music acts starting out last around 2–3 weeks.

From experience on multiple 2–3 week tours with my band, I believe that it’s better to place more focus on slightly fewer tour dates than try and jam-pack as many dates as possible in a small period of time. If you’re driving to each venue (and depending on how far the venues are, some of these can be 3–4 hours a day of driving), playing gigs back to back every night for a long period of time can become stressful and tiring.

So a good rule of thumb is to give yourself a day or two between venues that you know are a bit far away from each other.

Know your rate

When preparing to tour it is important to know and when to demand compensation for your music, and more importantly, how much per hour of music. If you’re starting out, you might find it difficult to find venues in your area that pay for your music.

Generally, for solo artists, you’re hopefully looking to receive anywhere from $50–100 per hour for your craft. For any larger groups, the price range goes up to around $100–200 per hour.

These margins should set you in the right ballpark for most smaller venues or local commercial businesses hiring music acts.

If you’re looking to play at venues where compensation comes solely from tickets sold at the door, make sure you have a solid fan base in that area. You can end up losing money by owing the venue cash after the gig if you haven’t sold enough tickets. It’s good to aim high and try to book at larger venues, but keep this in mind and be realistic about how many people you can pull in on a certain night of the week (i.e. a Monday night is going to be hard to pull your friends/fanbase out to the local bar to see you or your band perform).

Negotiating pay

One of the most important parts of learning how to go on tour, and a helpful piece of career advice is how to negotiate pay. While touring on a smaller level when starting generally doesn’t generate tons of income, it’s important to emphasize your own professionalism when it comes to negotiating pay. Once a venue has agreed to host your act for a date you’ve both agreed upon, they might give you a rate upfront that they’re willing to pay. If so, you can assume that this fee is pretty standard for music acts that play at that venue, and it’s up to you to decide whether or not the pay and exposure are worth it.

If they don’t give you a rate, it’s up to you to bring up the topic of money. A good phrase to use is “but we are willing to negotiate the fee if this is unreasonable.” Start at the slightly higher end of your compensation range, and make your openness to negotiation known. Worst case scenario, you have to lower your rate a bit to meet their standards, but you’d be surprised how many venues will agree to an offer made upfront.

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Managing your equipment

Be prepared when it comes to knowing your venues and the equipment they have available for you. On my recent tour, for example, some venues didn’t have a PA system, so we had to find local audio rental places to rent PAs from (and make sure we had room in our van).

Keep a tech rider on hand, a documented list of the things you bring; run through the checklist after every venue. You can lose things very easily while touring, so it’s also important to have a label on every piece of equipment that you have to help ensure there aren’t any mixups late at night after the gig when everyone’s minds are on other things.

Practice setting up

Another tip for stress-free live performances is to practice setting up your show, regardless of whether you’re a solo singer/songwriter or a metal band. Figure out the quickest way get from point A to point B and optimize the time that you have in order to get really efficient at setting up your equipment. The stage engineer isn’t always going to have the knowledge necessary to help set up or fix your equipment, or there might simply not be anyone there to help you in the first place. A good sign of a professional touring musician is how quickly they can set up (and break down) their show.

And take care of your equipment while on the road! Traveling is where most damage happens, so everything you can to protect yourself from the worst case scenarios, again, even if it means buying the more expensive, padded case!

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Budgeting for travel

Last (but most certainly not least), the “fun” part. Gas, food, housing, celebratory/non-celebratory drinks...these things all cost money, especially when you have four or five people in your group. After calculating how much money you’re going to get from your shows alone (and how much money you’re putting into the tour from your own personal budget(s) in the first place), you can allocate a per diem.

The number one rule here: be realistic. Traveling costs money. It’s easy to underestimate how much you’ll spend over the period of two weeks. Consider these cash-conscious travel tips.

- Know the MPG of the vehicle that you’re driving

- Calculate the distances you need to travel and allocate money for fuel

- If there are flights involved, book them early to save

- Consider crashing on friends/families’ couches to save the often exorbitant costs of staying at motels.

Give yourself room to breathe in your budget. You shouldn’t be worrying about the price of every little thing on tour—your focus should be elsewhere. Once you have a very good idea of exactly how much the tour will cost when it comes to common expenses like food and gas, give yourself some room for emergency services/items as well. New strings, cold medicine, extra miles you have to drive because you accidentally read directions wrong, an impromptu trip to a local national park for a hike, extra beers after an especially successful gig, and food delicacies that locals swear you have to try before you go.

Get on the road

For all the ups and downs of tour, you should make room to enjoy it too. Worrying about money is a “before tour” sort of thing. Alleviate the stress of funds, planning, and scheduling before hitting the road so you can focus on the important stuff.