Learning Drums

What It’s Like Being On Tour With a Small Band

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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.

Update 2019: My sincerest apologies if this post comes off a bit cynical and snarky. Not everyone’s experience will be the same and thus, your mileage may vary.

How Long Does a Typical Tour Last?

Depending on your act’s level of success, tours can range from a couple of weeks to months at a time. Some larger groups can tour for upwards of a year or more, only taking short breaks in between legs.

If you’re starting, I’d suggest booking short, weeklong runs to get a feel for traveling.

How Much Does a Touring Musician Make?

Touring in a Band
The Depot, Salt Lake City, UT • Supporting Misterwives • October 9, 2017

If you’re a hired gun for a band, chances are you will make more money than the members themselves (if the act is small).

Hired Guns

The typical salary of a hired gun on a tour hovers between $1,000 and $2,000 a week. For musicians looking to get into playing live and touring, becoming a hired gun can be quite the lucrative gig.

But this isn’t always a correct number. If you manage to land a gig playing in Beyonce’s backing band Queen Bey, things could look a little different.

Her On The Run tour reportedly grossed more than $100 million in ticket sales across 19 shows in North America. According to Billboard, each show earned $5.2 million a night with an average attendance of 45,000.

Official Band Members

In the early days of your band’s tour, it’s not all that uncommon to only take a PD (a per diem) each day. Per diem is your “day money” for things like food and drink.

PDs are often between $10-$30 each per day on a small club tour for all band and crew. This number is rather low, and I’ve heard of more significant acts giving out PDs as high as $100 per day.

If you’re in this situation, it may be wise to figure out other ways to bring in some extra income whilst traveling. Check my guide on how musicians can make additional money while touring.

Many bands playing small clubs and bars will not take a salary, as paying for gas, hotels, and maintenance is expensive, and newer bands do not always break even on tour.

If you’re fortunate to be at a bit of a higher level, you may be able to take a salary each month.

For a medium level act, playing 300-600 capacity rooms, expect to bring in $1,500 to $2,000 a month per member, depending on the size of your band.

How Much Does It Cost a Band to Tour?

Touring is very expensive, especially for bands with little to no following. Since you won’t make a guarantee from the venue (a pre-arranged payment for you to play), you’ll have to rely on ticket sales at the door.

If you’re lucky, you’ll make $100 a show. $100 to play with each day on the road is not very much, is it?

Let’s consider all the factors and expenses you’ll have while traveling:

  • Gasoline
  • Oil Changes and Maintenance
  • Hotel Rooms (possibly)
  • Food
  • Per Diems
  • Salaries for crew members

I managed to dig out an old tour budget from our run with Dashboard Confessional. Despite being on such a massive national tour, we still projected to be in the red at the end.

The reason we aimed to lose so much on tour was because of one fact: we were first of three.

Being first of three on a big act’s tour is great for many reasons:

  • Exposure
  • Experience
  • Endurance

First of all, you have the chance to play for another band’s crowd. If you are lucky like us, they’ll welcome you with open arms.

Touring with a larger group also grounds you and gives you real-world experience for when you are doing your headline tours.

Finally, the last point is endurance. In most circumstances, you’ll be touring in your van and trailer following the headliner on what is known as bus routing.

Following Bus Routing in a Van

Bus routing is challenging to keep up with, as the headliner travels overnight city to city in a bus with a driver. A band in a van is at a disadvantage because, in general, you’ll wake up the morning of the show and drive to the venue.

Getting to sleep at 3 AM and waking at 7 AM is no fun for anyone.

In the case of the headliner, they are already at the venue by 10 AM and have gotten a well-rested night’s sleep. You have not.

This problematic endeavor prepares you for the endurance you need on the road.

My Worst Experience Traveling

Our first real tour was with twenty one pilots after signing to Atlantic Records’ subsidiary label, Fueled By Ramen.

We were extremely grateful for the opportunity and experience, but the bus routing was ridiculous. We jumped right in (this isn’t exclusive to anyone; it’s just bus routing).

The hardest drive of our career as a band.

One particular drive near the end of the tour was from Vancouver, BC to Dallas, TX. We had to do the drive in 48 hours, and the total drive time is 34 hours with no stops.

Do Record Labels Pay For Tours?

Sometimes, yes. In a lot of situations for bands working with bigger labels, the company will provide what is known as tour support.

Tour support is financial support for a touring band. This help covers things like per diems, travel, hotels, equipment, vehicle rental, and other expenses.

When we toured, we did receive tour support for the majority of our tours until we no longer needed it.

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 traile 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 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.

4PMUpon loading in, you and your band begin to setup the stage. The band you play with uses inear 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.

Touring Band Soundcheck

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.

Playing at Gramercy Theatre in NYC

How Do You Survive Touring?

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 lightThe 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.
What To Bring On Tour

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.

Driving A Van In A Band
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, but they are also 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.

Tour Bus
How Much Does A Tour Bus Cost to Rent?

Tour bus rentals are extremely expensive, averaging between $1,000 to $1,500 per day. Put this 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 are 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! 🙂

Nick Cesarz

Nick is a drummer, percussionist, and blogger from Milwaukee, WI. He toured extensively with Vinyl Theatre, opening up for acts like twenty one pilots, Panic! at the Disco, and more. Now no longer touring, his passion lies in gear and playing the kit as much as time allows.

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  1. I enjoyed reading your post. Back in 1993, was my last year to tour as a drummer, and I only landed at home a few days that year. While there were many family and friends who were not in the know, it was an incredible amount of work! They thought it was all just party time!! Ah,the glory of rock and roll. As a drummer, it’s the nature of the beast to have twice as much work as the rest of the band. Just miking up your kit is testament to that. Musician’s grub was Ramen, as it packs away nicely in luggage. Tee Hee Good memories. Definetly easier for young people. I ALWAYS carried a full tool box and extra heads, sticks, replacement parts. I wasn’t going to get caught with my knickers down! That tool box that everyone thought was “over the top” saved our butts, and gig, on more than one occasion. You’re right about travelling light though.

  2. Hey am learning to play the bass guitar have been taking lessons for over a year would like to get involved with a touring band preferably older country or country southern rock and getting really good at the bass guitar how could I get involved with a touring band maybe later this year any help would be appreciated thanks and take care.

    1. I would get on Facebook and join some local musician’s groups. I see posts all the time asking for people to play in bands, usually locally. But that’s a good place to start out. Craigslist is another option under the Musicians section.


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