Road Tips for the Touring Musician (and those who want to be)
If you are serious about creating a career as a musician or a band, the one thing you will have to come to terms with is the fact that the job IS on the road and performing. It’s not about radio airplay or CD sales (Both of which are used to support a Tour) and there is no shortcut to stardom. It’s about getting out there on a consistent basis, doing the hard work and developing a fan base. No matter if you are just starting out or an established act, touring and performing is the economic base of your career. If you believe anything different you are living in a delusional world.
If you cannot afford to leave the day job and hit the road, then my advice is to have fun and stick with the weekend gigs in your home town area and keep the day job. Going on the road is not for the faint of heart, it is a hard way to make a living and it is not easy. But, this is an essential choice for anyone that wants to make music their career. It is not a path to stardom, but a grueling and sometimes economically devastating lifestyle. But, as any touring artist will tell you, it can be filled with interesting people and amazing experiences that they wouldn’t trade for anything.
I am not going to get into the hows of getting on the road, such as getting a booking agent, booking a tour, etc. That is something for future articles. Suffice it to say that most booking agents will get interested in you only after you have created a history of touring and you are known on the particular circuit he or she works in. You will get a booking agent when you basically don’t need someone to make the hard sell for you anymore. In other words get on the phone and start booking yourself! If you want a good place to start check out our article on “Indie on the Move”.
Now that we have that out of the way, I am going to assume you have booked your tour, you are ready to head out on the road. Here are some really important things you need to know before to help make your trip successful and safe!
BEFORE YOU HIT THE ROAD
Tour Vehicle – If you own your tour vehicle the first thing you want to do before you hit the road is take it into a mechanic you trust and do a full safety inspection. Chances are you are going to be putting on some serious mileage on your van during this tour and you should make sure that it is in good shape before you even start. Have all the fluids checked, do an oil change, have your tires checked, front end, wipers, etc. And of course repair any defects that are found. It is also a good idea to have an Emergency fund or credit card with at least $2,000 available just in case you need to make a repair on the road. Also invest in some roadside service such as AAA, it can definitely make the difference if you breakdown in the middle of nowhere. If you have a larger Tour Van/Bus AAA may not be able to help you, look into services that cater to the RV community like Good Sam Club which deals with larger vehicles.
I was once on tour with one of my artists when we broke the rear axle on the van just as we pulled up to a venue. This was in the middle of the tour and had to have it repaired to the cost of over $1,000. Had we not had an emergency fund to cover that cost we would have had to cancel the rest of the tour.
Packing Your Equipment – Have a packing system! There is nothing worse than trying to play Van Tetris at 4AM in the morning. If you have a packing system in place that effectively uses the space you have available in the van, then write it down, remember it and pack it the same way after every gig. It is also a good idea to get “Road Cases” for your equipment. They protect your equipment and are easier to pack and stack.
You should keep in mind a few pointers when packing your van. First, Look at your packing system and think “What would happen if you got into an accident”. There is nothing more lethal than a ride cymbal flying through the air. Always make sure that everything is secured and nothing can fly into the area where you and your band mates are sitting. Invest in some tie down straps to help keep everything secure. If possible create a partition that separates you and your equipment storage area.
Next, Try to keep the heaviest equipment on or near the rear axle of the van. Also try and balance those heavy amps and speaker cabinets on either side your van. It does make a difference on how the van will handle on the road if you make sure you pack the equipment with this in mind. If you are using a trailer, try and keep the heavy equipment towards the front of the trailer. You should have at least 60% of the weight at the front of the trailer and 40% towards the rear. Also try to keep the weight evenly distributed on either side of the trailer.
Having a good packing plan for your equipment can not only speed up the load out after a gig but can help keep you safe just in case the unexpected happens.
Things to Pack – Beyond the obvious, such as your equipment, strings, drum sticks, and some clothes you should bring a few essential items with you when you hit the road. Let’s take a look at what might make life easier on the road.
- Snacks and Drinks – For a couple of bucks you can get a Case of water to keep in the van, if you have the real estate to have a small cooler, keep your ice in zip lock bags so the water does not fill the cooler. Try and stay away from the chips and those unhealthy snacks. They will bog down your system during those long rides, I recommend things like Grapes, Halos (those peal and eat tangerines), Cut up Watermelon, Nuts, Bananas, Cucumbers and Humas, etc. You are getting the idea. These snacks will keep you hydrated and energized, so when you get to the gig you are not bogged down with sugar and fats. And they are for the most part cheaper than chips and soda. NOTE: If you are doing a festival you can ask for a rider that supplies you with some of these items that you can then restock your cooler.
- Lunch Meat – It won’t take long to realize that fast food is expensive and not real good for your body. Almost every interstate exit has a food store or Walmart nearby. If you get a some good deli meat and cheese, loaf of bread you can feed the whole band for less than what it would cost for a couple of big macs. You can also get some other goodies that you can add to your van stash of food. Nothing better than coming back to the hotel at night after gig and have some good nosh food available for no extra cost. You can use the fast food places to get your ketchup, mustard, napkins and mayonnaise. Note: Walmart Supercenters have a marketplace section at their deli counter where you can get hot food, sandwich’s and salads for under $5. Also Public’s and other supermarket chains have both hot and cold food available for purchase most times significantly cheaper than fast food outlets.
- Bug Sprays – Yes, that’s right, have a can of bug repellent in the van! If you are doing an outside festival it can help beat off those nasty Mosquitoes from having a feast on you while you are trying to perform. I also recommend a good “Bed Bug” spray as well! Many times you are given “Band Houses” to stay in while you are on the road. Not all of them are of the 4 star type of accommodations, some are, well less than any star and it is always good to be prepared. I know of one female artist who was on tour and stayed at this one particular “Band House” and woke up the next morning full of blistering welts on her body and face, as fleas and bedbugs feasted on her during the night. She had an allergic reaction to the bites and had to use mega amounts of makeup and massive amounts of benadryl so she could perform at the next gig that night! Yea, the show must go on.
- Air mattress/Sleeping Bag – While on the road you sometimes don’t know what your accommodations are, or you may have to squeeze a few more band mates in a room then there are beds. Having a spare air mattress and Sleeping bag tucked away in the van can make the difference between a comfortable nights sleep and a miserable experience.
- FIRST AID KIT – You never know what is going to happen on the road, have a basic first aid kit is always a good idea. Some Band-aides, medical tape, calamine lotion, Anti-biotic cream, etc. It is also a good idea to keep a roll of toilet paper and some baby wipes on hand, just in case! Yea I know, strange place to put this item but hey where else would you put it?
- Basic Tools – sounds like a simple thing to have on board, but you be surprised how many people don’t travel with a very basic tool kit. Pliers, 4 way Screw driver, wire cutters, and several flashlights with fresh batteries. Also have a set of booster cables just in case you run down your battery.
Proper Planning – The best way to avoid unpleasant surprises is to practice proper planning. A few simple steps can help make your tour successful and productive as well as help present you as a professional.
Tour Itinerary – Proper Time management is a must. When you are creating your tour, you need to make sure you have enough time to drive from one show to the next. Give yourself at least two extra hours for each trip in case you encounter problems while traveling. Before you turn in at the hotel at night make sure all of your band mates know what time you need to hit the road to get to the next city at the correct time. There is no worse feeling than knowing you are running late to the next show. This may seem obvious, but you should also give consideration to things like traffic and “city driving” when planning.
Try not to schedule more than 8-10 hours of driving time in any given day. A long day on the road can take it’s toll on everyone in the band. Also it is important that you are aware of any time zones you may cross during your tour. You will gain time as you move west and lose it as you move east. Also have a folder ready to Save receipts for tolls and gas so you can expense them on your taxes. You should also schedule oil changes approx every 3,000 miles that you travel. So make sure you leave time during your itinerary to maintain your tour van.
Advancing the Tour – Once you’ve contracted with the venues, spend the week before hitting the road emailing or calling each venue to finalize details. When do we load-in and do a sound check? Who is the contact running sound and handling production? Who pays us at the end of the night? Are you giving us accommodations and if you are what is the address of the hotel and who will the room(s) be booked under. Also make sure you send at least 6 posters to the venue a couple weeks before the show so they can post them for their local clientele to let them know you are going to be there. You should definitely also call the day before the show, or the day of, to make sure nothing has changed as well. For instance, the sound guy you had been talking to may have moved on, and the new guy doesn’t have your stage plots or input requirements or for some reason they decide to cancel the gig altogether (yea it happens). If you have to book your own hotels, use some of the online discount websites to get the best deals. Also as a AAA member you get a 10% discount at most hotels. Once booked put the confirmation email into your folder so you know where they are and what you expecting to pay. And Again keep the receipts for your taxes.
Tour Support – Whether it’s your first time in a venue or you have been there before, it is always a good idea to think ahead and try to create a buzz about your upcoming show. Create a press release (see “Writing a Press Release“) and look for local music publications, local newspapers, etc. and send them the press release. Also look for any music related organizations that might be interested in the music you perform. For example if you are “Indie Blues”/”Blues” act try contacting the local Blues Society or find one of the Local Blues Dancing Groups and invite them to the gig. Spending a little time on Tour Support PR could mean the difference between getting re-booked and losing the venue for any future tour gigs.
HITTING THE ROAD!
Not Getting Lost – There is so much great technology out there to help the touring artist on the road today. GPS systems have become very sophisticated and even smart phones and tablets have great GPS apps that work really well for the touring artist. One of the apps that I swear by is WAZE a social media style GPS app that is my go to when traveling. It will tell me of any police activity in an area, objects on the road, route me around traffic jams and so much more. To learn more about Waze you can check out our Article on it. I also recommend that you have a good old fashion Map of the state or area you are touring through and LEARN HOW TO USE IT. Sometimes technology fails and it’s good to know how to work around it.
Respect your Band mates – Don’t be a dick! You are going to be enclosed in a small space with your fellow band mates. Keep any differences you may have or develop out of the van. Make sure you took a shower at the hotel or home BEFORE you get in the van. And yea, the Van is a No Fart Zone. (yea, I can see you all looking at the drummer)
Travel Comfortable – I cannot tell you how much of a difference this can make when you are out there touring. You are spending hours sitting in a van, jeans are great if you are riding a horse, but spend a couple hours in a van and they become are stiff and restrictive. You don’t find people wearing them to bed do you? Have a good pair of light sweat pants and t-shirt to wear while you are traveling. Take off your shoes (unless you are driving, and make sure you took a shower and have on clean socks), for some reason when you take off your shoes you reach a higher level of relaxation when you travel. Try it, it will make a difference.
Laundry – On Longer tours schedule a day to do your laundry on one of your off days. Also every band member should have one of those odor blocking trash bags to keep their dirty laundry in. Things can get pretty funky smelling in the van with a bunch of musicians AND their dirty laundry.
Charging Stations – Make sure there are enough charging ports for all the band members to plug in their phones/tablets, etc. The trip goes so much better when everyone can access their social media, watch movies, read e-books, etc. You can get those multi-port charging splitters, which gives you 5 USB quick charging ports. Two of those would give you more than enough ports to charge everyone’s phone and tablet, keeping you connected to the world and your fans.
Avoiding getting pulled over – OK, the chances a van full of musicians traveling down the highway 8 to 10 hours a day is not going to get pulled over sooner or later is pretty slim. Not like this is an obvious cliche, any officier that pulls you over is going to give your van one look and think, “Ok, This is a live one”. Do I have to say it? NEVER have anything in the van that is illegal! That should be a very strict rule. Don’t have open containers or give the officer that pulls you over any reason to give your grief. Be respectful and cooperate, nothing can ruin a tour faster than getting handcuffed and pulled in because someone was a dumb ass and had said something stupid or there was something in the van that should not have been there.
Use your cruse control! This can help you avoid those speeding tickets. I usually set the cruse control to about 5 miles above the speed limit. For the most part you won’t be bothered at this speed and it will help gain you some time over the course of an 8 hour drive. On an open road on a long drive it is easy to find yourself 20-30 miles an hour above the speed limit. Using the cruse control can help avoid this problem.
Gas up! – Most people don’t know that most vehicle gas tanks are calibrated to give you approximately 400 miles to the tank. That is about 100 miles for each quarter tank of gas. Now, I have found it to be a good practice to start looking for a gas stop when you start nearing that quarter tank mark or between 250 and 300 miles of travel (4 to 5 hours). It is a good time to stretch, hit the bathroom, re-stock some goodies or get something to eat and CHANGE DRIVERS.
Rest Stops and Driver Changes – This is very important section. When you are on the road every person’s life that is in that van is dependent on the person in the drivers seat. Nobody needs to be a hero! If you are feeling fatigued CHANGE DRIVERS. This is not a place for control freaks. If that driver is not 100% alert bad things can happen. You should also have someone in the front passenger seat that is the “Co-Pilot” and his job is to help keep the driver alert and remind him that it is time to change drivers when sees he might be getting tired. If you don’t think this is important well, just watch the video Below. This was very recent and illustrates the importance of having a driver that is alert at all times when he/she is at the wheel of the touring van.
WHEN YOU GET TO THE VENUE
There’s a big difference between playing gigs around your home town and being on tour. You need to think of yourself as a salesman, you’re demoing your product around the country and you want people to buy this product, love this product, and show this product to their friends. You also want the venue to have you back again on your next time through the area. Remember booking agents will only sign bands that have a good name in and around the circuit they book.
Be Professional – You always want to have a professional attitude when dealing with the staff of the venue. Arrive at the venue on time as stated in the contract for “Load in Time” and respect their clientele when doing your load in. Many times there will be people in the venue eating or drinking, respect their space and try and load in and do what you have to do without disturbing them. Always introduce yourself to everyone on the staff that is going to working your show that night. One thing I like to do is go to the barmaids and introduce myself and tell them that I want to apologize for our drummer ahead of time. The next thing you know all the barmaids want to meet the drummer.
Learn the sound engineer’s name – Everyone in the band should know it. The sound engineer should be your best friend and you should treat him/her as such. Sound guys/girls will be more likely to make you sound good if they like the way you treat them. Be patient when they are working through issues that sometimes comes up, and let them know that you are willing to work with them. You will be surprised how far that will take you.
Learn how to setup other pieces of equipment – If your drummer could use a hand and you’ve got your stuff setup, help out instead of sitting at the bar waiting. When you are on tour it is a team effort. Everyone should be working to get all the equipment in the venue and setup for the show.
Start on Time and finish on Time – If you are on a multi-band bill or festival you have to respect the other bands on the bill. No encores unless A) You’re the headliner or B) The situation is calling for it and you’ve sent someone from the band to clear it with the next band. If you are the only band on the bill, always clear it with the staff if you want to do an encore or extend your set. Some of these venues are under strict noise ordinances and you don’t want to get them in trouble.
Push your merchandise – When you are on the road, sometimes the guarantee is small or you are playing for the door. Your merchandise is gas in the van and food for the band. Make sure someone immediately goes to the merch table when you’ve finished your set. (see more about your merch table in our article “Merchandising your Band“) Tell some stories and let the crowd get to know you, Maybe they just may want to buy into you and take home your CD, T-shirt, hat or other of your Merch. Remember you job is to build your fanbase, be friendly, don’t run to the bar and brood. Make yourself available to sign CD’s talk to your fans and thank them for coming. The best place to do that is right there at your merch table where they can pickup a bit of something to remember the night by.
Get to know the other acts – If you are on a festival or a multi-band bill, you will never know when you’ll run into each other again (it happens more often than you would think, at completely different parts of the country) or when you’ll need to borrow their equipment. A lot of times it is these contacts that you make on the road that can mean the difference between having opportunity knock on your door or passes you by.
Get paid – Have a designated person within the band to handle the collection of finances. There’s an art to talking money with door guys, bar managers/owners and other bands so that you’re able to take of yourself while meeting the needs of the other people involved. This develops with continuous exposure so it’s best to get one person learning the ropes instead of taking turns.
The Idiot Check – Always have at least 2 people in the band do an Idiot check before you leave for the night. Take a flash light and go over every place in the venue that you and your band inhabited and look for anything you may have left behind. The “idiot check”, as we call it, is a final walk-through of the building to make sure everything actually made it into the truck. You should make this an absolute rule and I will guarantee it will save your butts countless times. Even when you are”absolutely sure” you have everything, a final walk-through will turn up missed items. (NOTE: it is also a good idea to do the “Idiot Check” before you leave your hotel room as well. Nothing worse then realizing your left your lucky underwear behind)
Make your Goodbye Memorable – Before you leave make sure you’ve said goodbye to everyone who works at the venue. Shake their hands, thank them for their hard work and tell them how much you appreciate them and the venue for having you there. Get to know them a bit, they’re your gateway to being re-booked. I like to make sure the soundman and the venue has a copy of the latest CD and a business card. A bartender or door person who likes you the most is the best person to receive the venue copy as they’ll push it around.
Stay connected to your fans – When you get up the next morning and get ready to hit the road, make a video with your phone/tablet Thanking the venue and staff for making it a great show and telling everyone where you are heading next. Tag them all on facebook so they see it. Post pictures of the show, the drummer sleeping and drooling in the van, all of which engages your fans in your tour.
SECURITY AND PROTECTING YOUR EQUIPMENT
Load in and Load Out – Never leave the van or the stage unattended at anytime during either load in or load out! Make sure there is someone is by the stage and the van is secured during all stages of the load in and load out. You can imagine how things can quickly walk if left without anyone watching.
Keep your Guitar Near – NEVER leave your guitar or bass in the van while you sleep in the hotel. Take them in the room with you. Think about it, it is just stupid not to. If you are flying to a gig DO NOT put your guitar in baggage, you have the right to carry it on and protect your investment.
Don’t Brand the Van – There is nothing that screams STEAL ME as a van that has your band logo all over it. What a crooks sees is a van that screams “LOOK AT ME I HAVE LOTS OF EXPENSIVE MUSIC EQUIPMENT JUST RIPE FOR THE PICKING“. The more discrete your van looks the less likely you are going to attract someone who see’s it as easy pickings. If you can see in the van, get some moving blankets and cover the equipment with them. Anything you can do to hide the fact that this belongs to a touring band and your equipment is in the van, do it. Also make sure your van has an alarm system installed and it has an indicator that shows everyone that it is armed.
Park Smart – When you park, back the van against a wall, pole anything that will make it difficult to open the back doors if you can. Always look for a good well lit area, or get a spot right outside your hotel room window so you can keep an eye on it.
Document your Equipment – Make a spread sheet that has the make, model and serial number of each piece of equipment you are traveling with. Place it in a drop box folder that can be shared with the whole band (it’s free and always accessible in the cloud). You should also take picture of each piece (and the serial number as well) with your cell phone and upload those into that drop box folder as well. Should your equipment get stolen, the local police can at least identify your equipment should it turn up in the local pawn shops. You can also add your equipment to the stolen equipment database on Musical Chairs
Property Stickers – It is also a good idea to put “Property Stickers” somewhere in your equipment where it is not immediately noticeable. Under a guitar pickup, inside rim of the speaker magnet, etc. This way you can have another means of identifying your equipment. The easier you make it for law enforcement to identify your equipment the better your chances are that you will get it back.
Music Equipment Insurance – If you do get your equipment stolen, no matter how much you tag it you are still in a position that you don’t have any instruments unless they are recovered by the police. Taking out insurance on your individual instruments is a good idea. Here are some links to companies that provide insurance to touring musicians. https://www.musicproinsurance.com/ http://www.clarionins.com/Default.aspx http://www.anderson-group.com/musical-instrument-insurance.html http://www.musicins.com/
GPS locators – You can now get GPS locators for your trailer, van or even your instrument case that will alert you when your equipment is moved out of an area you designate. If it is stolen the locator can give you and the police the exact location of your equipment so they can immediately retrieve it. If you have the documents and pictures we talked about before this can be a pretty straightforward procedure. There are a few on the market and here are some links to some that we found that seemed to be well reviewed. Spy Tec STI_GL300 Mini Portable Real Time GPS Tracker BlackHawk GPS Tracker Tempo GPS Tracking System for Instruments and Gear We suggest you do your research and pick the best system that works for you. But this is a great insurance policy if you do any extensive touring and want to protect your gear.
You are on tour! Enjoy yourself! If you have some down time, see the town and sights that are around you. Meet the people and get to know your surroundings. If you are traveling and your time schedule is open, take the time to visit the worlds largest ball of twine or a local flea market along the way. It will build bonding experiences between you and your band mates that will ultimately show up on stage.
This is also going to be an experience that is going to be ingrained into your soul and become part of who you are. This is the place where great songs are born!
If you planned well, your smart and you take some of the advice I have outlined here, you are going to come home with a feeling of accomplishment, good memories, great stories and you will look forward to your next tour.
Do you have a Road Tip or a good Road Story .. leave it in the comments below!