The touring life of a musician is often glorified in TV shows, movies, and popular culture. Not only are these sources of entertainment representing a small percentage of real musicians, it’s both very difficult to achieve and not an easy lifestyle, even for those in top ranks.
This is a realistic view. I’m not here to fill you with positivism and false hope. Just know what you’re engaging in is very difficult and extremely competitive. It’s just the nature of the music business.
Anything worth doing in life is never easy. That’s why there aren’t millions of NFL star players, actors, CEOs, and of course, rock stars. For the record, I never would like to demonize anyone who has achieved success. I firmly believe that if you believe in yourself and what you are doing, you can achieve greatness.
Being a touring musician at the lower ranks can be very grueling. I understand these hardships and do recognize many positive elements of being a traveling musician, as well. Let’s look at the ups and downs of touring life.
Most Touring Bands Travel in a Van
You may have seen fifteen passenger vans at the airport or when taking a hotel shuttle. These vans are super popular with touring bands and usually are either a Ford E350 or a Mercedes Benz Sprinter.
The van will most likely need to be outfitted with a trailer, unless you are an acoustic artist or a DJ who doesn’t have much gear. Trailers can get expensive, ranging from $2,000 to $10,000. Be sure to consider size, weight limit, number of axles, height, availability of a side door, and the shape.
Where To Find A Van For Touring?
Check your local area used car lots for 15 passenger vans. You’re probably going to have to spend between $3,000 and $6,000 for a decent used touring van. I personally like the UX and selection at cars.com when searching for used.
Many new companies are popping up like greenvans and Bandango who will rent you a van for your tour. It’s like a tour bus company, just much more affordable. Sometimes used cars can be unreliable and break down at a moment’s notice. Renting a van might be a good idea if you were considering buying a really cheap van.
A Typical Day of Touring
If you have the luxury of renting motels/hotels while touring, this is what a typical day might look like.
8AM: If you can get up that early, you’ll most likely be the first one in the shower and won’t have to wait. This part of the morning usually involves struggling to pack up your suitcase and get out the door before bus call (even if you’re in a van, it’s still referred to as bus call).
9AM: You and your band mates depart to the next city. Hopefully, you have some sort of driving schedule established so no one is arguing for who has to go first. Be sure to grab some of that cardboard breakfast from the hotel before departing.
12PM: It’s lunchtime. You and your band decide to stop at a travel plaza along I-90 in Ohio. Inside, you have a lovely selection of Roy Rogers or Burger King. After a quick bite, it’s back on the road.
3PM: After six hours of driving and too many stops, you finally make it to the venue. It’s now time to load in. Unfortunately, the promoter messed up and the venue owner won’t arrive until 4PM. Have fun sitting in the van for another hour.
4PM: Upon loading in, you and your band begin to setup the stage. The band you play with uses in ear monitors. You notice that on the stage are giant stage monitors. You know they won’t be used by your band or the opening act. Inquiring to the on-duty staff is useless because they can’t do anything about it until the sound engineer arrives to the venue. Have fun setting up all your gear around that and dealing with it later.
5PM: The sound engineer arrives hungover and stoned. He doesn’t care about who you are, what band you play for, or helping you for that matter. He’s become so jaded from arrogant and obnoxious bands he has dealt with in the past. The soundcheck begins.
6PM: As you finish your soundcheck, you remember that because the stage is so small, you have to strike everything from the stage, including the drums for the opening act (that or you’ll be sharing your kit with the other bands). It’s always fun to set everything up again in front of your audience! It’s time to find some dinner.
7PM: After eating dinner, you will most likely relax until your 9:30PM set time. Value this time, as it’s some of the only time you’ll get where you aren’t moving and can truly wind down.
9:30PM: You and your band hit the stage for your hour and a half long set. The room is packed and due to the small size of the room, it’s very warm. It’s good you planned ahead and had two water bottles next to you on stage.
11PM: After the set, you engage with fans for a bit by the merchandise table and begin to tear down the stage. After calculating the merchandise numbers, you and your band walk away with $452 in sales and a guarantee check of $500 from the venue, $100 of which goes to the local support act.
12PM: If you’re lucky, you’ll be back in the van and ready to roll. Get comfortable because you’ve got two hours to drive tonight to the next city.
2AM: It’s time for a very late hotel check-in. As expected, the person behind the counter is no where to be found for the next fifteen minutes. When the attendant returns, he claims you don’t have a reservation. Cheers to another half hour in the lobby.
3AM: Finally, you’re in the room. You are finally are relaxed enough to fall asleep, only to repeat the process tomorrow, and for the next 28 days.
Touring In The Early Stages Is Very Tough
You won’t be getting much sleep on tours like this, unfortunately. If you’re young, it can be easier to manage, but it’s still no walk in the park. You’ll be doing a lot of work for virtually no pay.
If your band isn’t actively splitting the money as you go, you’ll need to have saved up money to tour and hopefully you didn’t have to quit your job to go on the road.
What to Bring on the Road When Touring
I can’t stress this enough: pack light. The more stuff you bring along, the more space you’re going to take up. You only have a small area to essentially live in, so the less space you take up, the more people will appreciate it.
If you have the luxury of a trailer and space isn’t as much of a premium, remember you’ll have to lug around all your stuff when going in hotels and venues.
Here’s What I Recommend You Always Bring:
- A Laptop for Socials/Backing Tracks – This should be an obvious one. Keeping your social media accounts up to date is essential in today’s music marketing environment. Be sure to keep your listeners engaged and interact with them on a daily basis. If you use backing tracks, this will be already covered.
- Your Favorite Hooded Sweatshirt – You’ll be shocked at how often you’ll be wearing a hoodie in the van. It’s comfortable, warm, and you’ll be sad if you don’t bring one along in the winter months.
- An Aluminum Water Bottle – I have had my aluminum hyrdo flask for the last two years and have used it almost every day, even when at home. I fill it up with ice at hotels and rest stops. Usually gas stations are nice enough to only charge you 25 cents for ice water.
- Smart Phone Power Bank – This one’s a no brainer. You need to keep your devices charged and at some venues, you’ll struggle to find a power outlet. Perhaps they’ve already been claimed by your other band members. Here’s the power bank I’m currently using.
- Wireless Bluetooth Headphones – You’ll find that listening to music, audiobooks, or podcasts is essential on the road. Having a good pair of wireless bluetooth headphones will get you through the long driving days.
- Your Favorite Pillow and Blanket – You’re going to be tired. You’re going to be cold. Don’t forget to bring your favorite pillow and a blanket to keep you warm.
Becoming a Family With Your Band
As you will be spending a lot of time with your band members, it’s very important to nurture these relationships. You’re going to get to know everyone a lot more than you did before.
You’re basically living with them for an extended period. Don’t sweat the little things and keep a cool head. We’ve all heard the horror stories of bands who break up when they begin touring.
Bring Along Additional Percussion
For all those little acoustic radio gigs and intimate performances, be sure to bring some sort of additional percussion. Things like shakers, cajon drums, electronic drum pads, etc… are perfect for these shows.
Learn How to Drive A Van With a Trailer
The faster you step up to the plate and learn how to drive a van with a trailer, the quicker you and your band will be able to relax on the road. You should switch off drivers every three to four hours, potentially sooner if you’re doing an overnight drive.
I’ve heard many stories of bands who only have one driver. I feel terrible for this person. Not only do they have to perform well every night, monitor and engage with social media accounts, create content on a daily basis, they are responsible for driving everyone with no extra pay.
Driving a van with a trailer can be tough. You’re going to have to learn how to parallel park in front of a venue with lots of surrounding cars. New York City is impossible to drive through, but you’ll do it. Once you have experienced these situations, you’ll really appreciate driving a small car around at home.
Realize That You Won’t Be Getting A Tour Bus Any Time Soon
Tour bus rentals are extremely expensive. Put this one on your list of dreams because your band most likely won’t be shelling out for one any time soon. Let’s look at some of the expenses on average.
- Bus Rental: ≈ $650 per day – This number can fluctuate between $300-$1000, but this is just a ballpark number. Depending on the quality of the company, year and make of the bus, schedule, it can be anywhere between.
- Hiring A Driver: ≈ $300 per day – Bus drivers generally are hired by the company you rent from. It makes sense. You wouldn’t want someone driving your million dollar vehicle who you’ve never met before.
- Fuel: ≈ $500 per tank – While it will vary on how far you travel per day and the size of the tank on your specific tour bus, filling these up is not cheap. Tour buses have large tanks, some up to 250 gallons. If you’re tour is, let’s say, 15,000 miles, expect to spend almost $9,000 on diesel fuel (≈$3.25 / gallon).
- Tolls and Permits: ≈ $50 per day – We’re used to going through tolls in cars. Tolls are calculated based on the number of axles. A typical tour bus with a trailer has five axles, so you’re gonna pay more than double at each one.
- Trailer Rental: ≈ $65 per day – Assuming you don’t have a big enough trailer, you’ll most likely need to rent one from the company you use.
- WiFi: ≈ $10 per day – We know you can’t live without WiFi in today’s age.
There’s many more expenses associated, but these are the main ones. We don’t have to get super specific; you can see already how insanely expensive this is. Our made up tour bus is going to cost you a whopping $1,325 per day.
If you do ever get to the point where your band can afford a tour bus, you’re never going to want to go back. It’s insanely comfortable, and there’s really nothing like waking up in a new city, ready to explore.
Learning To Love The Van
Unless you have a very wealthy family who is willing to fund your touring endeavors, you’re likely going to be traveling in a van. While it might not be the most comfortable thing in the world, remember why you starting doing this: your love of music.
This type of struggle is something 99% of all bands endure. Yours is no different. It’s easy to get discouraged when doing something as difficult as playing in a band. Do your best to not focus on the negatives and keep your head on straight.
Do you play in a band? Have you ever toured before? Let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this post, feel free to share it around! 🙂
Hey there fellow drummer, thanks for reading the post. I’ve got a private Facebook group called Drum Junkies. It’s made up of people just like you and me who are sharing pictures of their drum kits, talking about industry trends, and sharing tips about drumming. I’d love for you to join! Here’s a link to the group; we’ll see you on the inside.