Hitting the road can be a wonderful way to share your music, expand your fanbase, and have amazing experiences. But when you add up all the costs, it can be pretty expensive, so you’d better make a tour budget before you book those gigs.
As we discussed in “Budgeting for your recording session,” one of the best things you can do to financially prepare for a big musical endeavor is to have a good estimate of how much each element will cost. Spending some time with a spreadsheet — even if they make your skin crawl — will be more than worth the effort.
The last thing you want is to get five dates into your tour and realize you’re running out of money — with another ten dates to go. Given that, I recommend creating a basic one-page spreadsheet with categories like the ones described below, plugging in estimated costs for each category, and then adding them up to get an idea of what your total tour price-tag might look like.
Will you rent a van, trailer, or tour bus to get where you need to be, or will you book plane tickets? Do you think you’ll need to hire Ubers or will you be driving your own vehicle and paying for parking, gas, tolls, and general wear and tear? Regardless of the destination and mode of transport, do your best to imagine how you’re going to get you (and any band members) from here to there and tally up an estimate of the cost.
Successful tours have been conducted with band members crashing on fans’ floors, in plush beds in five-star hotels, and everything in between. Whether you’re looking at the Four Seasons, your cousin’s couch, or a local Airbnb, figure in the costs for yourself, band members, and any crew who will be traveling with you.
I’ve been on tours with my regular New York bandmates and tours where I’ve played with musicians local to the areas I’m visiting. Both can be great, but each carries its own costs. If you’re hiring musicians to travel with you, they may need higher levels of compensation to help cover time in transit — and while musicians who live in your destination city might not charge as much for the gig itself, you may have to schedule (and pay for) rehearsal time to get everyone up to speed. Regardless of how you play it, calculate the costs you’ll incur to get the bandmates you need in place and rehearsed for an amazing gig.
Phones and visas
If you’re traveling internationally, check in with your phone provider to see about charges for international calling and data. I’ve been quite happy with Verizon’s TravelPass, which, for a few extra bucks a day, lets me use my domestic calling and data plan when I’m traveling internationally. Different carriers have different options, so research yours. Plan ahead so you don’t come home to a massive cell phone bill. Also, make sure to check in with embassies and consulates when it comes to visas. You’ll want to know about any fees well before your departure date.
Seat and baggage fees
If you’re flying, check the fine print before you book plane tickets as hidden fees have become a pernicious phenomenon. Are you planning to check a road case or two as luggage? You’ll definitely want to know airline weight and size limits — and any corresponding fees — long before you head to the airport.
Do you have a custom hot-rodded Hammond B-3 that has to come on tour with you or a stack of heavy amps that define your signature sound? Whether you’re bringing bulky gear on the plane or shipping it ahead of time, make some calls, do some research, and come up with estimated costs.
Rather than shipping gear, many musicians rent what they need when they arrive at a destination. Figure into your budget not only how much it will cost to rent equipment for your tour date, but also if you’ll need to pay extra to have the gear delivered and picked up if you can’t haul it yourself. If you’re planning to borrow gear from a musician friend, calculate associated costs, like hiring a car to help get the instrument to and from the gig or buying your friend lunch as a thank you.
Estimate what you think you’ll spend each day to feed yourself on the road, whether you’re planning to dine regularly at the homes of friends, fans, and family; use the tour as an excuse to visit great local restaurants; or live off of rest-stop fare. Keep in mind that prices of food in airports, in particular, can be significantly higher than in the regular world.
Before going on any tour, I make sure the instruments and equipment I bring with me are all insured, whether I’m hauling a melodica, a synth, or a laptop I use for track playback. Instrument insurance costs are often lower than one might expect; I’ve had positive experiences with Clarion, but there are other options out there.
On the road, you may buy toothpaste, extra socks, or souvenirs. Incidental expenses can come up — and add up. Budget extra money to cover ancillary costs that might present themselves in the course of your tour.
Maybe your car breaks down and you have to take an expensive taxi to make soundcheck on time. Or your favorite guitar splits in two and you have to rent or buy a new axe hours before downbeat. Perhaps the hard drive containing your DJ set crashes and you have to buy a whole new computer, purchase fresh software, and rebuild your tracks from scratch. Unexpected snafus happen, so budgeting some spare cash or having space to rack up emergency charges on your credit card can be a lifesaver.
Do you earn decent income giving music lessons every week? If you’re gone for a month on tour, don’t forget that’s a month’s worth of revenue you won’t be earning. While this may not be a direct expense of touring — as in, it’s not money you will be spending out of pocket for goods or services — you may choose not to include it in your spreadsheet. But any lost income or opportunities are important factors to keep in mind as you’re considering the overall cost of your tour.
If you estimate the costs associated with categories like the ones above and the total makes you want to unpack your gig bag and never think about touring again, don’t despair. There are ways to save money on the road, from sharing rides or hotel rooms to borrowing gear from friendly local musicians to tapping credit card-sourced frequent flyer miles. Individually, these may seem like small savings, but they can add up and transform a tour from financially intimidating to affordable.
Remember that, even if you hate the idea of budgeting, having even a rough projection of your tour costs ahead of time will make life easier. After all, the less energy you spend managing your bank account on the road, the more attention you can devote to playing great shows, city after city.
Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.
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