When I first started touring, I measured success by whether my band ended our time out on the road in debt or not. Personal spending aside, I considered simply being able to be on tour without having to spend money a success. But many tours and a decade later, I see things pretty differently not just when it comes to spending and earning money on tour, but whether it’s worth it for me to be out on the road in the first place.
If you aren’t earning money on the road, then you should at least be making fans and building momentum
Lots of successful musicians spend ungodly amounts of time on the road for a very good reason: money. Because it’s now harder than ever for musicians to earn a reliable income from selling their music, they often make the majority of their money touring. But for everyone else, touring is something done to find fans, make connections, and build careers.
For these musicians, breaking even financially is simply too low of a goal to shoot for on tours. But more important than that is the fact that breaking even and wanting to tour consistently leaves artists in an unsustainable financial position. Unless your music has found a large audience, most of touring is going to be an investment, not just in money but also time, energy, and relationships. This doesn’t apply to bands who tour a couple of weeks a year but the ones who spend months of their time out on the road.
How to define goals for sustainable touring
What do I mean by sustainable touring? Touring sustainably is planning time on the road that matches your goals with your resources. If your band makes great music but is new and doesn’t have fans yet, daydreaming about being on the road for the next year might sound fun, but is it realistic? Probably not. Take stock of the resources you can realistically put towards touring. Rather than a year on the road, maybe you’ll have to settle for a month or two.
Defining your tour goals is even more important than taking stock of your resources. Some artists want to build up their presence in a city or region in hopes of getting signed to a specific label. Others just want the chance to get on stage in front of new fans. The more specific you can get with your touring goals, the better. Everything from booking shows to the overall success of a tour is improved when goals are defined and shows are planned accordingly.
Breaking even financially is a fine goal to have for some bands, but it shouldn’t be their only goal. It’s tempting to get wrapped up in the fun of taking your music out on the road, but touring is too risky and demanding to be done without a real purpose. If you’re not trying to earn fans or money on the road, then why are you there in the first place?
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.