For musicians who haven't been on the road, touring sounds like an idyllic lifestyle. You're out there seeing the country, playing music, and getting paid for it. What could be better? Don't be misled, however. Although touring can be fulfilling, it's hardly a fantasyland. If you're not careful, you can find yourself coming home from your journey exhausted, stressed out, and with a lot less money than you thought you'd have.
I know this only too well. I've been a road musician for more than 20 years, doing just about every kind of tour imaginable: album promotions for major labels, package tours, club tours, and self-booked van adventures. As soon as I realized that I'd be touring regularly, I decided to figure out how to make the process more efficient and manageable. Here are some things I learned along the way that I wish someone had told me when I started out.
In Your Suitcase
When most musicians are planning what they'll bring with them on tour, their thoughts tend to focus on gear. Although instruments, cables, amps, and speakers are clearly key items, you've also got to deal with carrying clothing (including stage wear) and other personal effects. Efficiency is important, especially if you're touring in a van and dealing with limited space.
Travel light. Carry as few things as possible. You'll likely accumulate stuff along the way; your bags will get heavier as the tour goes along. Ten days' worth of clothes is usually plenty, because that's probably the maximum length of time you'll go between days off. Try not to have more baggage than you can carry yourself in one trip. That helps when you're racing to catch a plane, bus, or train. If you can carry everything, you won't need a bellhop or skycap, which increases your mobility and saves on tips.
Unpack for success. When you get to your hotel room, immediately unpack what you're going to wear for that night's performance and hang it up to get the wrinkles out. If the wrinkles are really bad, hang the clothes in the bathroom, turn the shower on, and close the door. Travel irons are great, but I've gotten by without one for years. If you really need it, you can ask housekeeping for an iron and an ironing board, but chances are somebody else in the band has already called them.
Check this out. When checking out of the hotel, it's a good idea to have a standardized checkout routine. Work out a system for yourself and stick to it as closely as possible. After a while on the road, it's easy to start forgetting the obvious. I lost a Walkman, two pairs of really good stage pants, shoes, and a number of other treasures before I developed my system. Don't forget to go back and check the room one last time just before you close the door. You'll never be sorry you looked.
At the Hotel
You'll spend a healthy portion of your time in your room. Cushy as the room might seem (especially if you've been sleeping in the van), it's important to remember that many of the extras that hotels offer can really eat into your budget. You can obtain most services more cheaply elsewhere, so it pays to look around a bit.
Never eat in the hotel restaurant. Unless the meal is included in the room price, you'll almost always find comparable or better eating for less money within walking distance.
Forget room service. Few things in life yield less value for your money than room service. In my opinion, the only valid reasons to order room service are romantic ones. If you want to eat in your room, buy takeout or order out. Nine times out of ten it will be better and cheaper.
Don't let the minibar max you out. In-room minibars are hard to resist, with snacks, soda, candy, and booze all temptingly arranged to entice your consumption. Do yourself a favor and don't touch this stuff — it's overpriced and can add a lot to your bill.
Wash it yourself. Don't have the hotel do your laundry; find a laundromat and do it yourself. If you need dry-cleaning services, look in the phone book, find a place near the hotel, and walk your stuff over. Chances are it's the same place the hotel uses — doubling the price for you. In an emergency, you can wash light articles of clothing in the sink or bathtub. If you don't have detergent, use shampoo or hand soap. Dry your items using a combination of room lamp and travel iron.
Don't make calls from your room. Most hotels charge a fee for local telephone calls, and there's often a surcharge for collect, calling-card, and phone-card calls. If you're not careful, you can run up a huge bill. Don't even think about dialing a long-distance call directly from the room, or you'll get totally socked. It is best to use the pay phone in the lobby for all your outgoing calls. With no calls on your bill, you'll save time and arguments when you check out.
Let your fingers do the walking. Once I've checked into a hotel, the first thing I do (after making sure the plumbing works and the bedding looks decent) is open the phone book. Although most people use it simply to find phone numbers, it contains information for finding nearly everything you might need on the road. In the front of the book, you'll usually find maps, mass transit information (including fares), and a description of the locality. Find your hotel on the map first, then find the venue. Once you see how close together they are, you can plan your day. Estimate how long it will take to get to the venue; from there you can figure out how much time you have for errands or other adventures before sound check.
Find the right music store. When you need a music store, look in the Yellow Pages, write down addresses, and find them on the map. For generic items such as cables or picks, try the stores with the biggest display ads and the most brand names in their copy. That indicates that they have a large inventory (and probably decent prices). Such stores are more likely to be in tune with the needs of a touring musician than those whose ads make prominent mention of school-instrument rentals.
Don't leave the hotel without it. When leaving the hotel, take a matchbook, a business card, or a piece of stationery with you — anything with the hotel's address and phone number on it. It's not hard to get lost while walking around in an unfamiliar city or town. Having the hotel address at hand means you can always call for directions or show the item to a cab driver if you get stuck. This is an especially good idea in countries where you don't speak the language.
Food for Thought
Beyond avoiding hotel restaurants and room service, there are other ways to shave dollars off your eating budget.
Play the market. Whenever possible, buy your food in supermarkets rather than restaurants. It's cheaper, it's more like the meals you have at home, you can eat when you want, and if all the restaurants are shut down after your gig, you don't end up going hungry. You may want to invest in a cooler or another form of portable food storage, depending on how much room you have.
Eat apples and peanut butter. I once actually saved money out of a $10 per diem by eating nothing but apples and peanut butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread with orange juice. (Protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, roughage!) The first week, everybody in the band laughed at me. By the second week, people were asking me if they could have a sandwich. By the third week, several of them had their own stashes. Needless to say, I didn't eat any peanut butter for a while after I came home, but my entire salary was waiting for me when I got back.
Leave your cookware at home. I don't recommend trying to cook on tour unless you have really good kitchen facilities in your vehicle. Carrying pots, pans, hot plates, and food into and out of a hotel every day gets old fast. Even the tours I've been on with hired cooks were problematic: either the food wasn't ready when we were hungry, or somebody didn't like what was on the menu that day.
Be fruitful. Drink fruit juice instead of soda whenever possible. A multivitamin tablet every day is a good idea, too, as is lots and lots of bottled water. It's easy to get dehydrated in a touring environment, which is a good way to get sick. Once that happens, everybody else usually gets sick, too, and it's very hard to recover when you're doing four to ten hours of driving a day.
Water it down. When you eat in a restaurant, don't order drinks; ask for water instead. The markup on drinks is astronomical. The soda you get in a fast-food chain is about five cents worth of syrup and carbonated water, for which you will pay at least a dollar. Water is better for you anyway.
At the Venue
Besides the hotel and the van, bus, or car, the other place you'll spend a lot of time is, of course, the venue. Relations with club personnel (especially owners) can be dicey sometimes, so it's important to get off on the right foot.
Call first. It's important to confirm the load-in, sound-check, door, and show times well in advance. Unless you have a road manager, you or someone in your band should call the venue again as soon as you get into town to reconfirm the times. Make sure to honor them. Things often change at the last minute. Always make a note of your contact person's name so you know who told you what.
Carry paperwork. Travel with extra copies of your contract, production rider, and stage plot; distribute the last two freely. You'd be amazed how many times your fax of these important documents never gets from the production office to the people who actually have to set up the stage. In practice, the rider tends to be more of a wish list than a document people actually intend to honor, but it at least tells the venue what you think you need to do your job and serves as a starting point for negotiations. Professionalism, organization, and courtesy go a long way here. Remember that club personnel deal with dozens of bands each week; they aren't awed by your very existence, and you aren't paying their salary.
Scope out the scene. As soon as you get to the venue, find out a few things: the name of the manager working that night, the venue's food and drink policies for the band, the number of guests allowed, and who's supposed to pay you at the end of the night.
Keep your tabs in check. Be careful about running tabs for food and drink, even if you have permission. Paying as you go is infinitely preferable to running a tab. It can be a real drag to play three sets and then find out you owe the club more than they're paying you.
Be nice to the sound person. If the club has its own sound person, treat him or her with respect and consideration (unless you want your show to sound subpar). House engineers deal with a lot of bands and are unlikely to go the extra mile for your act if you treat them like the hired help. It's wise to offer a small gratuity if you ask them to do something above and beyond their normal duties. You should always give them a copy of your CD; it might help them to remember you the next time around.
Use your guest list. Invite people you meet during the course of the day to that night's show. It's a cheap and effective way of rewarding good service, building contacts, and spreading general goodwill for your music. Even if the guests don't show, you can be sure they appreciated the invitation. Once you invite someone, make sure they can get in, even if you end up eating their ticket. Check the list at the door before the show.
Be especially careful about adding “plus one” or “plus four.” If tickets are selling well, sometimes the “pluses” magically disappear and only guests whose names are actually on the list get in. Write each guest's full name clearly and correctly, and make sure you don't exceed the number of guests the venue allows. Few things are less conducive to making good music than arguing with steroid-crazed doormen over an inflated guest list right before you go on.
Keep gear from walking. If you are playing a club for more than one evening and you're leaving your equipment set up, be sure to take small expensive items such as microphones and foot pedals with you after each performance. It's more likely that someone will walk out of the club with your vintage Tube Screamer than with your Marshall 4×12 cabinet.
Follow routines. When you're loading out your equipment, a set routine saves time and keeps the loss of gear to a minimum. Don't forget to check the stage and dressing room for stray items one last time before you go. You don't want to arrive in Des Moines and realize you left your effects processor in Columbus.
In Your Wallet
If you're lucky enough to be on a tour in which you're actually pocketing some good money, it's wise to take some precautions so you don't spend or lose it.
Stick to a budget. It's really easy to spend money when your pockets are full. Avoid spending your entire salary on day-to-day stuff; set a daily budget and stick to it. If you force yourself to live off a fixed amount each day, you'll be more likely to save money to send home. (See next tip.)
Bring it on home. What's the best way to send money home? You could use a wire service such as Western Union, but it's expensive. Regular banks usually won't send money for you at all unless you have an account with them. My method of choice is to buy postal money orders (which can be replaced if lost or stolen) and mail them in an ordinary envelope. Believe it or not, I've never had a problem with this system in all the years I've been touring. If using regular mail makes you nervous, send your money orders by certified mail or Federal Express. Make sure you wrap them so nobody can tell what they are through the envelope.
Don't ever change (too much). On overseas tours, have as much of your salary as possible wired to your bank account in advance (you can generally arrange this through the tour's promoter). Convert as few U.S. dollars as possible into the local currency (multiply your daily budget amount by the number of days you'll be there to come up with a figure). When traveling to different countries on the same tour, convert whatever money you have from the previous country to the new currency instead of changing any more dollars.
You can send money home from overseas through an exchange bureau or (sometimes) a bank, but it can be painfully pricey. It can also take several days to find a town with a suitable bank or currency service, so try to plan ahead. In my experience, the Thomas Cook exchange bureau is a good choice when it's necessary to send money commercially.
Keep good records. It's important to keep track of your earnings so you can deal with the tax implications at year's end. If it looks like you will be doing a significant amount of road work, find an accountant who has experience with entertainers, and keep all your receipts.
On the Bus
You'll probably spend the biggest portion of your time on the road in a moving vehicle. There's no way to glamorize this; it can be dull, exhausting, and intolerable on a good day, and absolute torture on days when the tour isn't going well. But you can make it easier on yourself — and others.
Don't be a jerk. Show consideration to everybody in the vehicle. Respect people's physical space, psychological quirks, and personal belongings. Keep yourself and your area clean. Empty the trash at every stop; you'll be surprised how fast it accumulates. If you smoke, keep it away from those who don't. Try to agree on how warm to keep the vehicle and how much fresh air to let inside.
Take turns. Rotate shifts behind the wheel and in the least comfortable seats. There aren't many distractions while you're driving, and if anyone feels uncomfortable or put upon, they have plenty of time to notice it and complain.
Work on your chops. You can spend driving time productively, running through vocal harmonies, memorizing chords or scales, and even practicing your instrument (if space allows). Develop your ear by listening to unfamiliar songs on the radio and calling out the changes. One of the best bands I played in had a rule that we had to listen to and critique a board tape of the previous night's show as soon as we started driving. It was a painful but effective process.
Keep yourself in shape. Although a cramped van or tour bus isn't normally thought of as a good place for exercising, consider doing isometrics (which require no external movement) or perhaps some finger exercises to stay limber and develop your muscles during long drives.
Try the cheap-shoe trick. If you are traveling in a vehicle with bunks, buy a pair of really cheap slippers (I use kung fu shoes) and keep them on the bus. Rather than struggling in your bunk with shoes and socks every time you stop, slip these on. It's much easier and quicker. I keep another pair in my suitcase for hotel use.
Into the Sunset
A little thought and planning can go a long way toward smoothing your path and saving stress and money on the road. I hope you find some of these tips helpful and I look forward to meeting you all out there — in truck stops, laundromats, hotel lobbies, or on the bill with me. So what time is sound check again?
Bronx resident Andy Bassford has written instructional material on reggae guitar, available from http://truefire.com/music_instruction/author/281, and tours with various acts, most notably reggae legends Toots and the Maytals. He also leads his own band, the Blue People (http://tourdates.launch.com/tdc/act/141349). E-mail Andy at firstname.lastname@example.org.