It usually takes years of incredibly difficult, thankless work before a band is ready to bring their music on the road. For most bands, touring is the culmination of thousands of tiny failures and successes, so it’s no wonder that our culture has such a dramatic association with a band leaving their hometown to take on the world. Single tours have spelled the untimely demise of many talented bands, but musicians simply can’t develop their careers without it. If your band wants to avoid burning out on the road, you’ll have to bring a balance to the way you think about touring.
Your band should only tour if playing music around the country is bringing you a clear benefit, right? Well, yes, in theory, but it’s actually a lot more complicated than that. Many of the bands we all know and love developed their careers out on the road playing at tiny venues most of us have never heard of. Press, labels, and fans are often introduced to new bands this way, so there’s a potential benefit of an unknown band touring constantly to get their name out there––the key phrase here is potential benefit. If you’re a small band, the road is anything but a sure thing, and there are no guarantees.
You could book two months of shows, have nobody show up, and lose thousands of dollars. Or, a rep from Merge could show up to one of your east coast shows and you’ll get signed the next day. Who knows. The only certainty of touring as a small band is that it’s incredibly hard work that takes dedication and sacrifice from everyone involved. When is it worth it to venture out? Only you can decide that, but being gone from home constantly is not something you’ll realistically be able to do for very long.
Get rid of the martyr complex
Every band has a member or two who’ll sacrifice anything for the sake of the band. On its face, that sort of devotion is an admirable trait, but it can actually be a huge problem that could potentially end your band. For all you martyrs out there: it’s time to get off the road if you’re constantly in debt, can’t afford to feed and clothe yourself, or are losing a relationship because you’re on the road too much. Lots of band members, particularly dude band members for some reason, wear the sacrificial scars of their devotion like badges of honor, but it’s not sustainable. These kind of folks are typically the ones to decide mid-tour out of the blue that they’ve had enough, and that it’s over. Agreeing on a life/work/tour balance long before you hit the road is essential if you want to do this long-term. Also, a side note here, you’ll probably be a much better musician on tour and at home if you eat, sleep and pay your bills at regular intervals.
Match your band’s needs and goals with your resources
Want to write a new record? Well, if you’re on the road eleven months out of the year, you won’t be able to do that. Bands risk falling into stagnancy when they tour with the same record year after year. Part of finding the balance of your road and home needs is taking accurate stock of your band’s individual resources. Maybe you’re thinking of extending a tour a couple of months because you’ve been getting radio-play on your new record. Can you all afford to do it? Is everyone’s hearts in it? Pushing through without knowing if touring is what you all want is a good way to exhaust and alienate your band members. It’s time to get off the road when your factions of your band aren’t ready, willing or able to continue. It might be difficult or even heartbreaking to get off the road and come home, but it could be a decision that ends up saving your band.
Patrick McGuire is a musician, writer, and educator currently residing in the great city of Philadelphia. He creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.