Your band Death Hippie has been paying its dues locally for awhile, and the time seems right to take the act on the road. Almost any musician that’s ever played live has wondered what it’s like to go on tour. It seems like the next logical step toward world domination for any band bold enough to head out on the highways in search of fame.
Like many things involving playing in a band, there are lessons to be learned about planning and executing your own tour, and some of them are tough lessons.
1. Your Tour Vehicle is Very Important. Choose Wisely (You Probably Won’t).
Whether you’re just playing a week’s worth of cities in your own state, or going across country for three months at a time, any touring band will be depending on their vehicle. In rock music lore, there’s the legendary “Tour Bus,” but no one starting out is going to have one of those rolling clubhouses sitting in their garage. Tour buses and the professional drivers that shuttle larger bands around are very expensive.
Most bands end up touring in some form of van or a similar vehicle. It’s a good idea to buy a dependable one, and renting might be a better option.
That thirty year old Chevy van that’s for sale down the street might seem like a great deal at $2,000 with its wizard mural and waterbed, but it will quickly lose its appeal when Death Hippie finds itself broken down in a mountain pass 700 miles from home, drawing straws to see who gets to eat the others to survive.
It’s also important to try to find a vehicle that’s not uncomfortable to ride over long distances. Four or five (or more) people forced to be around each other for long periods of time are going to get on each other’s nerves anyway, so any features that make those journeys less pleasant will quickly lead to the singer stabbing the drummer with a salad fork (all bands travel with a full set of dueling silverware, it’s a requirement of the “rock code”).
2. Your Band is On Its Own.
This may seem obvious, but any band members hitting the road for a tour are leaving behind most of their individual safety nets. We may be more connected than ever – I’m sure a band that’s sitting by the side of a country road watching their surrounded van get closed in on by cannibalistic mutants will have time to post a status update on Facebook or Twitter before merciful death finally takes them, but the only people you’re going to be able to count on to help in an immediate crisis are the people you’re with, i.e. your bandmates (and that includes the bass player who eats his own snot when he thinks no one is looking).
It’s true most of us will have people that we can call back home if there’s a problem, but short of sending money, there’s not much they’re going to be able to do fast in a pinch. By the time any of them can come to the rescue, those cannibals will already be wearing pants made out of your beautifully tattooed skin.
No matter how well a band plans their tour, there will be problems that crop up unexpectedly, and sometimes those problems are serious ones. Any band that can’t come together as a solid unit to solve those problems needs to safely stay in their home town.
3. Any Bad Habits or Issues Your Band Members Have Will Be Amplified.
Let’s say that Death Hippie’s rhythm guitar player likes to get drunk after every show, and occasionally makes an ass of himself sloppily hitting on women. Sure, that can be irritating when your band is playing local clubs, but imagine him doing that repeatedly on a tour when everyone in the band is accountable for everyone else’s behavior.
All it takes is for that rhythm guitarist to drunkenly put his hand on the wrong woman’s butt, and the rest of you end up tied naked to metal chairs in some psychotic guy’s basement, wondering why the drummer’s screaming stopped in the other room, and who will be next.
Even if no one’s personality quirks or problems get the band in trouble, they’re still likely to cause trouble among the members themselves. Members of the band will be spending a lot of time together in close quarters, and any irritating behavior is going to get a lot more annoying than it might back home. At least there, you can always get away from your bandmates if you want to. Try getting away from someone when they’re two seats down from you, and there is still 400 miles to go before you get to the next venue.
4. Touring is Physically Grueling.
Unless you’re already famous, or happen to be independently wealthy, no one is likely to hire you any helpers for your tour. Rock and roll is full of legendary lore about “roadies,” but you won’t have any. YOU are your roadie.
That means that the members of your band will be unloading all of the gear for the show themselves, and also breaking it down later that night, and packing it back up. This is a huge task, and a lot is on the line. If you forgot some important piece of equipment at the last gig 500 miles back that’s a problem. Under the best of circumstances, most bands will be carrying a lot of heavy equipment around on a daily basis. If a club is up or down any stairs, that chore becomes much more difficult. Your awesome steel “Death Throne” prop that looks great on stage will become a lot less appealing after you’ve had to carry it up or down three flights of stairs twenty days in a row.
A busy tour schedule will also ensure that you’re not getting very much sleep. Unless you’re good at napping in a moving van, and are not the person driving it, you will probably go for days without getting a real night of sleep. The hectic pace of touring just doesn’t allow everyone to settle into a nice comfy bed for eight hours at a time. Not to mention, most bands starting out aren’t going to have the money to consistently stay in a nice motel room anyway.
Whenever my old band went out on the road, I felt like a zombie after a week. You learn to adapt. You learn to live off of caffeine. You learn to hate clowns, because the lack of sleep will have you hallucinating those white faced bastards in no time.
5. “Hurry Up and Wait”
So finally your band arrives at the venue they’ll be playing later that night, and no one has killed anyone yet. That’s good, that’s very good.
But now it’s time to face the tedium of waiting for the show. Any small band that tours will be familiar with this routine. The band has to rush to get to the club and meet whoever is opening the doors for them. This usually happens in the afternoon or early evening before the place opens. If there’s a long distance between destinations, there can be a frantic scramble to get there on time, just to be met by some unenthusiastic club manager, and then after the band loads in, hopefully a sound check.
Then the wait.
Nothing is more boring than an empty club or bar in the daytime. It’s no wonder that some people in bands develop drug or alcohol habits, hours of waiting around bored in a bar will drive people to drink (or worse) just to have something to do.
If you’re lucky, the club is in an area of town that has a few interesting things to do and see to kill time. Otherwise, it’s a lot of hanging around a dressing room (if there is one) until show time. If you’re unlucky, and that is more likely, the venue will be in some awful “warehouse district” or equally dismal area of town, and you’ll have to amuse yourself for several hours by naming and racing cockroaches with the hobos living in the alley.
6. You Will Rarely be Comfortable For Long.
This is related to the “grueling” aspect of touring in a unsigned (poor) band, but is it’s own challenge. It is likely that such a band won’t be rolling in dough early on, and might actually be losing money while on tour, spending more than they take in. At the very least, money will probably be tight, particularly if the tour goes on for several weeks or longer. So the fantasy of staying in awesome hotel rooms while beautiful groupies lavish attention upon your groin area are probably going to stay in the realm of fantasy.
What’s more likely to happen, is a lot of crashing with shady promoters or fans, sleeping on couches or floors, or even in the van. Maybe you’ll get lucky and get to stay in a motel room once a week, but that gets expensive, so you might be sharing a bed with your bass player, “Farting Charlie.”
Wherever you’re staying, things like showers or having the bathroom to yourself for more than a few minutes will become complicated maneuvers, where you try to get in line before all of the hot water is gone, or the singer’s back hair has clogged the drain. Routine things like washing your clothes can become rare treats, and you’ll have to adapt. Did you know you can make dirty clothing wearable by spraying them with Febreze? That’s a pro tip. Enjoy.
7. You Will Have to Deal With a Lot of Weird People.
Sure, fans can be weird. Goes with the territory, right?
Yes they can, and yes it does, but you’ll be getting constant exposure to some weird folks. You will be hanging around and sometimes depending on lots of people you don’t know and have just met. Any touring band will have to rely on numerous strangers at every town they play in. Besides the people that run the venue, they’re also likely to have a local promoter or two at each stop, and others. I can’t count how many floors and couches I slept on, offered at the last minute by a fan or friend of the promoter.
What happens is that a small-time band ends up depending on the goodwill and treatment of a lot of people they just met. This will give you a feeling of vulnerability at times. As you wonder if your new “friends” are going to treat you nicely, or are serial killers that want your heads for a special art project they’re working on. You end up in the strange cycle of meeting new people, rapidly forming some sort of bond or at least mutual goal, and then the band leaves town, and you might never see those people again. Repeat. It’s a weird way to interact with folks.
More importantly, you will learn just how much your band depends on the promoter and other people they barely know. If your band is booking their own tours, chances are you’re relying on some stranger, maybe someone you have emailed a few times, to help promote your show. It’s not like a band driving across the country can really do much to promote a gig hundreds or thousands of miles away. That’s where the promoter comes in, and promoters tend to be a weird bunch of people. They come in two basic models – people that promote for a living, and people that do it for fun. Of course, there is usually some grey area between these two extremes, but generally they trend one way or the other.
Either scenario can turn out good or bad, but it’s definitely not a good sign to discover huge piles of flyers that you sent the promoter laying on his desk, never having been distributed, or discovering that he’s a local drug lord.
8. You Will Probably be Broke.
The sad truth is even if you start out a lengthy tour with a decent amount of money, you will probably soon be nearly broke. It costs a lot to travel around the country, and unless your band is making serious coin at each show, the members will quickly burn through any funds they brought along. It’s not uncommon to be barely scraping by, limiting yourselves to a $10 a day budget or something equally spare, and hoping that Death Hippie sells enough t-shirts that night to fund truck stop sandwiches for everyone (except the drummer, he seems to live off of cigarettes and hatred).
It’s a tough way to travel, but the plus side is you’ll soon be able to squeeze into those old leather pants that you’d gotten too fat for. Bonus!
9. Speaking of Truck Stops…
You’ll probably come to look forward to them. They are Meccas of convenience for weary travelers. That’s a weird thing about touring, you learn to go where the truckers go. If you see a stop with no big rigs outside, keep on going. They probably use dog meat in the burritos or something. What you want to see are the big, modern truck stop centers. Huge places with comfortable bathrooms and a restaurant inside, preferably some kind of inexpensive buffet. The people that work in those places are used to seeing all sorts of freaky stuff roll through, and that probably includes other bands. If you’re still in your stage clothes from the night before, covered in the fake blood that Death Hippie famously bathe in on stage, the people at a big truck stop probably won’t bat an eye. Whatever you’re likely to need can usually be found at such a place.
10. The Fans.
Yes, the people you’re (hopefully) enthralling with your nightly performances. You’ll be interacting with a bunch of people that come to see you play, and it can be a lot of work. Unless your band is already somewhat famous, it’s not like you’re going to be insulated from the people that come to watch you perform. Huge bands never have to personally meet and mingle closely with their fans unless they want to. They’re shuttled to and from the venue, whisked backstage while an army of minions attend to their needs, and then play the show, and are whisked away again. Unless they actually want to meet their fans, they never really have to.
Your band, on the other hand, is likely not in that position, and will instead be hanging around the same club with your audience members until your show begins. Yes, most places will have some rudimentary backstage area where the bands can hole up before the show, but some don’t. So unless you want to stay in the van until show time, you’re going to end up mingling with people that came to see you play, or maybe just showed up to see anyone play, and don’t care about your band at all.
Some musicians I’ve known love hanging out with the folks that come to their shows, and others do not. Obviously, these people will cover all sorts of personality types, and some will be easy to deal with while others won’t be, but you’re going to have to take the good with the bad. Becoming famous as a stuck-up prick isn’t going to be doing your band any favors. So when the ugly guy that’s been following your band around the Midwest shows up AGAIN, and wants the members of Death Hippie to sign his pimply ass AGAIN, keep that in mind.
11. You Will Not Be ABle to Escape The People in Your Band
Traveling across the country in a rolling metal box with four or five (or more) other people doesn’t allow a person much personal space or private time. My old band would go on three month national tours, and in that whole time, I might have a few minutes each week where I felt like I was alone.
Since a tour is a group effort, your group will be around you constantly. It’s not really conducive to band business for members to disappear for hours at a time, and it can be really disruptive if that member goes off on his own and then runs into some kind of trouble in an unfamiliar town. If you’re lucky, you might get a few minutes of alone time when you take a shower or use the bathroom, but even then, the rest of the band is probably right outside the bathroom door, possibly plotting to throw you out of the band for using up all the hot water.
These are but a sampling of the scenarios that a small-time band will likely become familiar with when hitting the road seeking fame and fortune. There are many more lessons anyone with that ambition will soon discover, but I’ll save them for another day. Just remember, you may be the main talent in the band, but you’ll need your bass player. He can drive for hours without a break, and he doesn’t smell too bad after five days without a bath. He also looks like a fitting sacrifice to the cannibals if such hard choices should become necessary
Not to knock the good advice in this article, but… are you saying the only things you’ll learn are negative?
Hell no. I wouldn’t trade the years I spent touring like that for anything in the world. There’s nothing like it, and for the right person, it becomes part of who they are. But the fantasy and the reality are different, especially until your band succeeds enough to move up from traveling in a band, doing everything for themselves.
Nicely put. I didn’t find it negative so much as realistic.