Taking your music on the road is a great way to reach new audiences, see the world, and hopefully have a grand adventure — but any touring veteran will tell you that it’s not as easy as it looks. From maintaining peace among band members and staying healthy, to dealing with substandard accommodations and endless hours in transit, spending time on the road can present unique and unforeseen challenges.
Here are some tips from a pair of experienced touring musicians on how to thrive and survive on the road.
Play your best – always
Is tonight’s venue a run-down basement in a town whose name you can’t pronounce with an audience of drunk guys who seem more intent on playing chess than listening to you? That doesn’t matter, says Robbie Gennet, a multi-instrumentalist who has toured with acts like Nick Lachey, Saigon Kick, and Everclear. You should still play your best show ever.
“Nowadays with touring, thanks to YouTube and camera phones, there are no inconsequential gigs. Every moment may be posted online. You could be in front of ten people in a tavern outside Vermont, but if you do something great or terrible and somebody films it, it’s there for the world to see, and you don’t have any control over it.”
While this may be an intimidating prospect in some ways, Gennet sees it as a good thing. “The fact that every show could potentially go online and be there forever makes everybody step up their game,” he says.
Communicate and maintain respect
“If a touring band gets bored, you can start to get into the realm of practical jokes and insult hurling,” says Gennet. “It may be lighthearted in the beginning, but it can go from jovial to mean in a heartbeat.” When touring with Saigon Kick, Gennet experienced just that. “It got to the point where it wasn’t fun for anybody, but we couldn’t really stop it. Best to avoid that situation before it starts.”
To avoid uncomfortable and damaging interpersonal scenarios, Gennet recommends an upfront discussion with all touring members. “Try to have an agreement that, no matter what, there has to be respect and communication, since everyone’s sharing tight quarters,” he says. “If anybody feels disrespected, it has to be put on the table and dealt with immediately, since things fester.”
For drummer Jake Wood, who tours extensively with Super Adventure Club and Diego’s Umbrella, and is the author of the upcoming book on touring, None-Hit Wonders, getting rest while on the road is essential to enjoying a tour. It’s also a key to maintaining a good attitude and playing to the best of your ability. “Some younger musicians will say that it’s all about partying,” Wood says. “That may be fine when you’re twenty, but when you’re thirty, you want to sleep as much as you can.”
Gennet agrees, saying that “sleep and hydration are huge, especially when splitting van driving. It’s important to understand that partying all the time is not going to make you last. If you’re out there to perform, everything else has to come second to keeping yourself in performing shape — especially if you’re a vocalist. If you’ve got a lead singer who’s under slept and sounding terrible, that’s the face you’re showing to the world. Some singers can get away with that, but most can’t.”
If you’re traveling on a budget and not always staying in hotels, finding a comfortable place to lay your head can be a challenge. To help, Wood recommends bringing along inflatable AeroBeds or Therm-a-Rest mattresses, in case you find yourself sleeping on a floor somewhere.
Last but not least, bring at least one pair of earplugs; after crashing at 3:00 AM after a gig, the last thing you want is to be woken up four hours later by a construction crew getting to work next door. A sleep mask is a great thing to have on hand as well, to help block the light if you’re trying to catch sleep at odd hours.
Drive for safety
If you’re piloting the band’s van, be sure to pay attention to your physical limits. “We make it a golden rule that if you ever feel tired, don’t be a hero,” says Wood. “Even if you’ve only done a short shift, somebody else in the band will gladly take over. It’s much better than crashing and dying.”
Pay attention to diet
“Pack as much food as possible,” Wood advises. “I’m so sick of trail mix, but healthy stuff that’s non-perishable is nice to have. I’ve done so many drives where’s there’s nothing healthy on the road — just a bunch of fast food places — so having your own food is great.”
If you stumble across a supermarket between gigs, consider yourself extremely fortunate, Wood continues. “I’m not a health nut, but man, what they feed you at venues is usually crappy,” he says. “Planning ahead with food has really helped me a lot.”
“It’s very easy to stop at a truck stop and get crap,” says Gennet. “You are what you eat, so try to pick up a bag of almonds and eat fruit and vegetables to keep your diet from going downhill. Remember that you’re out there for the purpose of getting on stage and sounding, looking, and feeling your best, and putting on a performance that you’re really proud of. So plan your meals with that in mind.”
“If I’m in a tour bus, I can do yoga in the back lounge all day long,” says Gennet. “If you’re doing a van tour, it’s harder to do that.” It can be easy to default to a sedentary lifestyle while on the road, so grab any opportunities to get active. “When you stop at a gas station, get out and stretch or do some jumping jacks to get the blood flowing,” he says.
“If you’re on a tour bus for eight hours and have your own bunk, you have a private space to retreat to,” says Gennet. “If you’re touring in a van, you have to deal with everybody’s sounds and smells, and you’re only as good as your least annoying member.”
Every band may have odd characters and problem children, he continues, but they don’t have to ruin your experience. “Especially if you have people who are passive-aggressive or like to push buttons, it’s important to rise above that and not take the bait,” he advises. “You have to diffuse situations like that, or be bigger than the situation and ignore battles that other people try to start.”
Gennet offers a devious tip for dealing with difficult band mates. “If someone’s doing crazy annoying stuff, video it and put it on the web for your fans to enjoy — or use it for blackmail!” he says (half-kidding). “Seriously, somebody who’s trying to get attention by being annoying is usually narcissistic and all too happy to be on camera, so use the opportunities. You just have to make a lot of lemonade if you’re given lemons on tour.”
Connect on the road
“If you can get Wi-Fi access on the road, I highly recommend it,” says Wood. “Sometimes you can get a router that will sit in the van, or you can hack your iPhone, tether to it, and get business done that way.” If you’re lucky enough to travel in a tour bus, Gennet adds, they often come equipped with internet connections you can access in transit.
One of the bonuses of connecting on the road is that you can reach out to fans and push upcoming shows. “With services like Facebook and FanBridge, you can focus on specific regional areas, instead of sending out giant email blasts,” says Wood. “Also, just posting daily show reminders on Facebook and Twitter can really help.”
Another way of engaging fans is with DIY videos uploaded to YouTube, says Gennet. “Bands should look at hours off as opportunities to shoot footage to promote their music and personalities,” he advises. “One band I know would shoot footage every day, then edit it into a cool daily video diary. Even if it’s only a minute long, things like that can really draw fans in, and you can have a lot of fun with it.”
And even if you’re not using web-on-the-go for business reasons, it can be a great way to pass the time and alleviate road-induced boredom. “Watch TED talks, or educate yourself on non-musical stuff,” advises Gennet.
Get resourceful with accommodations
Depending on your budget, staying in hotels or motels may be a fine option — or if weather permits and your band mates are amenable, camping can be an inexpensive way to go as well.
“Most of the places we stay on the road aren’t actually hotels,” says Wood. “They’re houses of people that we’ve met at gigs, and they usually end up being places we stay at, tour after tour.”
If you or your band chooses to follow Wood’s example, don’t forget to be a good houseguest — and remember that you’re cultivating relationships that could be very useful to you on future tours as well. “When we stay at people’s houses, we attempt to make them breakfast,” says Wood. “Many times they decline, but being respectful is a big thing. Sometimes we just buy them toilet paper to show that we are aware that we are creating some impact on their house.”
Wood has had some great experiences with home-stays — and some that weren’t quite so outstanding. “There have been some awful sleepless nights on top of disgusting beds of dog hair and parties that raged until 9 AM,” he says. “Most of the experiences, however, have been grand and thus repeated.”
Stay musically and artistically creative
“One of the things people don’t think about when it comes to touring is the sheer amount of time spent not playing,” says Gennet. “The music business is so often about hurrying up or waiting. Either you’re in a rush or just hanging out.”
While headphones, iPods, and books can help pass the time between venues, Gennet sees other possibilities as well: transit hours create an ideal space to work together. “We want to take advantage of the time,” he says. “We whip out a yellow pad and collaborate on things like song lyrics and video treatments.”
On a techier level, a small, two-octave MIDI controller and a laptop with sequencing software like Apple Logic, Abelton Live, or Propellerhead Reason can help you piece together song demo ideas, wherever you may be. “It can be hard to focus enough to work on production when you’re touring,” he says. “But the tools are good to have. You can end up having a great idea in a hotel room, so it’s good to have even basic tools to work on it.”
Embrace the journey
“Enjoy the road!” says Gennet. “Check out local lakes or parks while you’re travelling, or visit a museum. If you’re in New York, go to Central Park. If you’re in Cleveland, check out the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
From Wood’s end, some of the beauty of touring lies in the personal connections he continues to build with his bands’ overnight hosts. “There’s something monotonous about staying in hotels, but staying at people’s houses can be a mini adventure each day,” he says. “You never know when you’re going to stay up until 4:30 AM having a chat with somebody new you’ve just met, or the next day they’re going to show you around their town because they feel like ambassadors to your touring rock band.
“It’s a great element of DIY touring. If you can learn to appreciate it, you’ll have a very good time on the road.”
For other perspectives and tips on touring, check out:
11 Tips for Touring (Philadelphia City Paper)
Touring Tips (Indie on the Move)
Traveling Safety Tips for Touring Musicians (Auto Save)
Michael Gallant writes, produces, sings, and plays keyboards for the indie rock band Aurical. He is also the founder of Gallant Music, a custom content and music creation firm based out of New York City. For more, visit auricalmusic.com and gallantmusic.com.