This post was written by guest-contributor Richard Lee Jackson, drummer and co-producer of the independent rock band Enation. Their music has been featured on ‘One Tree Hill’, ‘General Hospital’, and MTV.com.
Touring is expensive. My band Enation has at times lost thousands of dollars doing it all the wrong ways. I have talked with other musicians who have had the same problems: working months to get on the road only to be met with a lot of debt at the end of the tour. You’ve probably made some amazing memories and had a lot of fun… but if touring becomes a consistent financial drain then chances are you won’t be able to sustain it.
There is one lesson that seems so basic I can’t believe we ever really needed to learn it the hard way, but we have: when planning a tour, make sure you understand ahead of time where every expense is going to come from, and be sure that your pre-determined income is at least helping you break even before you leave for the tour. Either that, or truly understand how much money you’re going to lose at the end of the day and be okay with it.
When you’re traveling, you have to figure out ahead of time how much food is going to cost, per day, per person. How much hotels are going to cost, per day. How much the airline flights, van rental, gas, and gear rental will cost, per day. If you have additional expenses like crew members or management/booking agent commissions, you’ll want to factor those expenses in, too.
It’s incredible how fast things add up.
For instance, we didn’t realize until we were less than two weeks from leaving that each third bag we checked on the airlines would be $100 per bag, per trip. That meant that on a one-way trip, if three of us had a third bag (of merch or gear or whatever), we’d be paying $300 extra! That was on top of the fees already associated with the first two bags (between $20-$35 per bag). Once we realized we had those expenses, we had to play musical chairs with our gear — figuring out what basics were needed to fly with, which things we could rent somewhere for cheaper than flying that third bag, and who would carry what bag, all in order to limit us to two bags per person, plus our carry-ons.
That small detail alone helped save us hundreds of dollars. It came from research online, looking at the fine print of the airline baggage fees. Not fun stuff, (who wants to read the details of baggage fees?) but in the long run, it was worth the extra few minutes of time.
Another example of budgeting came from doing research between companies and finding out which company had what we needed at the best price. Google and FareCompare were our best friends in that. With Google we found companies offering similar products we needed (like renting a van in New York) and then compared prices, sometimes by looking online, sometimes by calling around. We saved hundreds of dollars by not going with the first thing we found – like using Bandago instead of another higher priced van rental company, and also using Bandago for gear rental vs. SIR NY. (Note: SIR is an amazing company for many things. Located in many major US cities, they’re a tremendous resource to have. We played our showcase in Nashville there, and they had the studio/room we needed, all the gear, with tons of options, and great customer service. But for weekly backline rates, Bandago is less expensive.)
We also did budgets for different ways to get where we were going. Driving, flying, renting a bus, renting a van, one-way tickets, round-trip tickets plus bus rental, round-trip tickets plus van rental, etc. In the end, we saved thousands of dollars by researching all our options and comparing them. When we found the right means for our trip, it allowed us the best chance of being successful from our small tour before we even left home.
Once you have adequately budgeted for the entire trip, and compared different options, trying to find the most cost effective and efficient plan, then you need to make sure that your solid income will get you to (at the very least) a break even point.
For instance, when we budgeted for one trip, we realized with six weeks before the concerts that the ticket sales weren’t going to cover our expenses. We made the tough decision to reschedule those dates for later the following year, to give us more adequate time to promote them to our fans.
It wasn’t fun telling the booking agent that we needed to reschedule, and it wasn’t fun for them to tell the venues, or for us to tell our fans the news. We even had to pay an advertising ‘fee’ to one of the venues for the cost of advertising our cancelled event (that ‘fee’ came off our ticket sale income after the rescheduled event took place). However, it was within our contractual right to cancel with six weeks out, and we decided to be honest with our fans and let them know, quite frankly, the pre-sell tickets weren’t up to the minimum we needed to play.
Instead of a backlash from our fans, they took it as a personal challenge to help us get the ticket sales up so we could come to their area. We also took the opportunity to involve our fan-base in a more direct way through using the band-fan-engagement website PledgeMusic to invite our fans to help us raise funds particularly for touring that year. The response was tremendous, and knowing we had a certain amount of our hard costs covered through that campaign made the necessity for ticket sales to be higher less imperative.
Months later, with a good amount of promo on all of the usual social media and email campaigns, our ticket sales were, in some venues, almost twice as high, our expenses were covered before we left for the tour, and the trip went in the black for us within the first three shows because of a good amount of merchandise sold.
The worst thing you can do, (and I know this because we’ve done it), is not to do the mundane work of planning out every expense and offsetting it by every known (not hoped) streams of income. Just winging it with a hope and credit card is a big mistake! We have lost thousands of dollars ‘planning’ that way.
Being in a band, if it is more than a hobby to you, requires a decent amount of business sense. ‘If we continue to spend more than we make, how long is that going to be sustainable?’ is a question we should have asked ourselves sooner and probably more often. Thankfully, we are learning in time and turning the preverbal touring ship around!
Learn from our mistakes and plan your tour out in as much detail as possible. Give yourself the most likely bet for making a return on your investment – so you can continue to be the artist you were meant to be.
Richard Lee loves music, writing, and hoverboards — and can’t wait to buy one when they’re finally on the market in 2015.
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