Getting Creative: Four Ways to Earn & Save Money on Tour

Julia Wilde  •  January 28, 2016

These are challenging times to be a working musician, signed or unsigned. As record sales continue to decline, touring is many artists’ primary way to make money. But funding and promoting live performance is in and of itself an expensive endeavor, and the financial burden is falling on individual musicians with little (if any) assistance from labels or other partners.

Luckily, there are ways to trim costs and increase profit margins, some of which are riffs on the tried and true, and many of which come via new opportunities on the Internet.

Route an unusual tour.

While the home-show circuit is in some ways the most traditional form of live performance, the process has become substantially more innovative in recent years. House shows allow you to establish genuine, lasting connections with your fans all over the country, while often keeping costs low and cashing in on ancillary earners like CD and merch sales.

According to singer-songwriter Mikey Wax in his article Get Out of Your House & Into Theirs — Booking a House Concert Tour, “The power of house concerts is the intimacy and ‘once in a lifetime’ vibe they have.” Because of that unique feeling, Wax found that everyone at his shows wanted to walk away with a t-shirt or a CD to remember the night; he was selling two to three times as much merch to 25 people in a room at someone’s house as he would to 100 in a traditional venue.

There are a number of innovative platforms on the internet that enable artists to plan non-traditional tours. For example, Fanswell takes the process online, providing streamlined opportunities to play non-traditional venues all over the country. The site was cofounded by singer-songwriter Graham Colton (he’s been on the road with Dave Matthews Band, Kelly Clarkson, Maroon 5, Counting Crows, Colbie Caillat and John Mayer), so it also sports the booking and payment tools he knows musicians need firsthand.

A similar platform, Sidestage, allows artists to connect directly with fans who want to book shows in their living rooms . They also offer additional benefits like pre-selling merch.

Booking shows no more than one tank of gas apart from one another, Wax, for example, plays two to five homes in the same city, sometimes two in one night, and makes great money while keeping costs low. While Wax advocates for charging hosts eventually, he found house touring to be very profitable from merch alone, whether or not he was playing for free.

Commit to your partner(s).

I’m not talking about your girlfriend. I’m talking about your airline, car rental company, hotel chain and credit card.

The best strategy for picking your travel partners is to evaluate your specific needs: What airline operates most frequently in your area and is therefore priced competitively with plenty of options? Sign up as a Frequent Flyer. Pick a credit card company that offers a rewards program specifically tailored to that airline. What hotel partners do they have? Car rental companies?

By allying yourself with preferred travel partners, you’ll earn award points that you can convert to free trip segments, hotel stays and car rentals. Start with the partners that make the most sense for you— if you don’t fly much, first pick your hotels and see what affiliates make sense from there.

By traveling with consistent partners, you will also gain status sooner. Upgrades and free checked baggage may sound like frivolous perks when compared to balancing your entire tour budget, but those little costs add up. Plus, life on the road can be a slog. Small comforts make a big difference when you’re away from home.

Tap into the burgeoning share economy.

Transportation, accommodation and backline are barebone necessities for any tour and are often the greatest expenses. While making smart, rewards-driven choices with rental car companies and hotel chains will provide some savings, you can unlock even more value by renting resources directly from your peers. With the emergence of the sharing economy, there are many new rental options that allow you to fulfill these needs by connecting and sharing resources with real people, while saving a lot of money in the process.

Whenever we hear the term “sharing economy,” we think first of Airbnb — and for good reason. Airbnb has changed the way people book accommodations. The platform connects folks with a spare house, room or futon with those who need a place to lay their head. Everyone is identity-verified and hosts always approve who rents. Lesser known, though longer-running site Couchsurfing is also a great bet, particularly for those on a budget.

Turo pairs vehicle owners with people who need a car, often a cheaper alternative to using a traditional rental car company. Just Share It does the same, though they also provide options from smaller rental companies and have a wide selection of vans and larger vehicles.

Sparkplug allows musicians to rent instruments, gear and space from local musicians and studios, often at a fraction of the cost of rental alternatives. Bonus tip: You can also rent out your own gear on Sparkplug when you’re not using it, so your instruments can make you money back at home while you’re away playing your tour.

Team up. Share costs.

Bands often partner on billings and hit the road to take advantage of shared fans, bigger turnout, and wider exposure. But they don’t always take advantage of the potential cost savings.

Finding another band to tour with can cut your costs almost in half. You can split van and gear rental (of course, it helps if your instrumentation is similar), and housing costs will also drop per person because it’s cheaper per room to rent a bigger place. Plus, if you’re able to rent a whole house, you might opt for the grocery store instead of a local restaurant and save on food costs.

There are all kinds of other benefits to touring with another band in tow, such as connecting with their fanbase and the potential for collaborations.

The Bottom Line

When planning a tour, sometimes you need to extend your creativity beyond the music and into your finances. There are all kinds of hidden ways to save money on tour if you take the time to look for them and think strategically ahead of time. Then, all that’s left to do is hit the road.

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Julia Wilde is co-founder and CEO of Sparkplug, the community marketplace for musicians to rent instruments, gear, and space from one another. She has worked as a session singer, voiceover artist and musician for over 20 years. She was also with independent label Downtown Records from its inception in 2006 through 2012, working in A&R with artists like Mos Def, Miike Snow, Santigold and Cold War Kids. Julia graduated from The Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. www.sparkplug.it