In this guest post, full-time DIY musician Ari Herstand gives you tips on how make a profit while touring. Ari has opened for artists such as Ben Folds, Cake, Joshua Radin, Matt Nathanson and Ron Pope. His songs have been featured on TV shows like One Tree Hill and various Showtime and MTV shows. His latest studio album debuted at #11 on iTunes singer/songwriter charts. He writes an independent music business advice blog, Ari’s Take.
I’ve played over 500 shows in 40 states. I’ve played every possible venue imaginable from arenas and theaters to living rooms and high schools. Every tour I go on is still a combination of all sized venues (well, not quite arenas as consistently as I’d like).
Once I quit working at Starbucks years ago, I made the decision that I would find a way to make a living with my skills and talents that didn’t include knowing the proper amount of foam on a caramel macchiatto. I hit the road and since then I have learned how to make every tour financially successful. Let me say that again. Every tour that I have ever done, after expenses, has been profitable.
It blows my mind that musicians tour and LOSE money. This is totally avoidable, but I hear many musicians just accept this as a reality of the road. Don’t. If you want to be a professional musician, you have to figure out how to actually make money with your music.
+Book Your Own Tour: A How-To Guide
Follow these tips on the 8 basics of touring. If you can think of anything else, leave me a comment below!
Every show needs a purpose for the tour. Too many bands think that at every show the CEO of Atlantic Records’ brother will be in the house and he’ll make one phone call and turn them into superstars. That doesn’t happen. So once you accept that this is a business and it’s a slow grow and not a quick dash to play in front of “the right people,” it will change your mentality on the purpose of your tours.
+Shows Sell, Events Sellout
The purpose of every show should either be (or a mix of):
a) To help fund the tour (and your lives)
b) To gain exposure and build a fanbase.
Every show I play I still put to this test. For the shows with the biggest amount of exposure (for merch sales), I’m willing to accept a smaller guarantee. The shows that won’t offer much for exposure, merch sales or career advancement, I need a much higher guarantee.
But don’t get into the trap of convincing yourself that every show you’ll sell hundreds in merch and DON’T take free shows from restaurants or friends of your parents promising a big crowd and “you can sell your merch.” This is a trap and it almost never is as worth it as you think it will be.
+Our Tour Page Is Totally Full (of Empty Shows)
Play house concerts! These are some of my most profitable shows. If you’re a singer/songwriter it’s much easier. The promo is done by the host and most of the people that come (even just 20) buy lots of merch. Charge the host a guarantee of about $350 (but ask them to charge their guests $15 and if 24 people come they get a free concert). Every tour I include a few of these.
Of course most of your shows will be a percentage of the door — so you need to promote each show in each town heavily!
+50 Is The Magic Number (Book A Headlining Tour)
Once you have a tour made up of a healthy balance of (more) money shows and (less) exposure shows then you are ready to begin.
Who to bring on tour
Only bring people on the road who are absolutely necessary for your operation to work while still making a profit. If you can’t afford a sound guy at this stage, well, then don’t bring one. Even if they agree to do it for free, it’s not free. You’re gonna have to feed them, lodge them and once they see all the money coming in from the door or merch they’ll make it uncomfortable enough where you’ll get guilted into throwing them something.
Merch is your #1 income generator on the road. Believe it. Some shows you’ll make next to nothing from the door, but hopefully you’ll be able to leverage those in the house to buy some merch.
Make sure you always have someone manning your merch table from when the doors open to when people leave. If you can’t afford to bring a merch person on the road find a friend in that city (post status on Twitter and Facebook to request help) to run the table in exchange for free entrance to the show (or even a small % of sales). It’s worth it.
Especially if you’re on a bill with multiple bands or are playing for hours, most people won’t stay until the end of your set. If they like what they hear (even after one song), but have to take off early and they want your CD, if no one is at the merch table to sell it to them, you just lost a sale. Get a credit card swiper (like Square – it’s free). I nearly doubled my sales with this.
+Double Your Income… No Really
Saving on gas
Gas can kill tours. Don’t tour in a larger vehicle than necessary and don’t pull a trailer unless ABSOLUTELY necessary. I know 5 piece bands that can fit all their gear and merch in the back of their van.
Or you can buy a super economical veggie oil bus and drive coast to coast on less than $100 like the rock band Blameshift:
The best way to save on gas is to make sure you’re not driving out of the way. No huge tour routing will ever be perfect, but keep the backtracking to a minimum (if ever).
Don’t get hotels until you’re making serious money. And even then try Priceline “name your own price” (not getting a kickback but I SHOULD) — I get $45 4 star hotels that way. It’s a nice little mid-tour perk to get off of the beer stained couch for a night. Invest in an air mattress and sleeping bag so you can keep your lodging portable and all you’ll require is floorspace.
You must (as a band) make a decision early on if you want this project to be just for fun or for profession. If everyone is on the same page that you want to be a professional outfit then you must act like it.
+Double Your Income…No Really
Most venues will give you drink tickets. Don’t ever buy drinks at the bar you’re playing — it’s a waste of money and you don’t need it (BUT always tip your bartender on free drinks).
When you stop to fill up you don’t need the $2 bottle of water or soda. Those add up. Get a water bottle and fill that up.
Saving on food
If you’re out for awhile, go grocery shopping as a band. Buying in bulk obviously saves and if you bring a cooler along, you can spend more on ice and less on Subway.
The road is a mix of saving money and making money (as is life), but it’s magnified when you’re on tour. Always keep coming up with ways to make more money (merch combos, house shows, PLAY COLLEGES, better targeted promo to get more to show up). Don’t tour to just say you’re going on tour. Tour to grow your base WHILE making money.
If you’re still stuck and need more specific ways to get your tours to become even more profitable or want to embark on your big first tour, let’s Get Specific.
And if you have questions or want to share your touring experience, leave us a comment below!