10 Tips for Saving Money on Your First Tour

By Jennifer Newman Sharpe, CEO & Co-founder of Sparkplug  •  November 17, 2016

So many great artists are stuck between finding hometown success and being ready for their first stints on the road. There are a lot of subtle but important tricks that touring vets know to save some cash on tours. Here are some essential ways to maximize your lean budget when it comes time to plan your first DIY tour. Hopefully these easy tips will help you save money on the road! 

1. Set your minimum guarantee – DO NOT PAY TO PLAY! 

When you are just starting out, you may not know what your guarantee should be set at yet. Your band may have done a number of hometown gigs, built up a growing local fanbase, and you are walking away with an average of $100 to $200 dollars per show. Now as you plan your tour you are trying to figure out what your guarantee is for, let’s say, a Tuesday in Milwaukee. If you do not have a following in a given city, the promoter will most likely suggest a door deal without a guarantee. If the promoter is charging a “pay what you can” or a “suggested donation” you may walk with $25 on a slow night. Unfortunately, for a three to five-person band touring around the country, that’s too low to play and you will essentially be paying to play. We suggest you set a guarantee scale of $100-$200 depending on how successful the event is. Encourage the promoter to charge a minimum of $5. If possible, book in bars/clubs with significantly less overhead than a DIY space, which may have to rent a PA, front-of-house, etc. Be reasonable and polite, but don’t be afraid to request a minimum amount as it will help you budget for the tour. 

2. Advance your shows thoroughly

Always advance your shows in an organized and thorough way one to two weeks ahead of your show. A proper advance includes you touching base with the promoter over e-mail and phone and asking them all the detailed questions you will need to know before you arrive like set time, door time, load in, soundcheck, loading area, parking details, who you collect payment from and when, on-site contact, and more. 

This is a really important component of a successful tour. Not only will it allow you to be super organized and for shows to run fluidly, but it will also save you money so you can plan ahead. For example, if the venue does not provide parking but the promoter tells you the name of a side street where you can park for free, you will know that on the night of, so you aren’t rushing around paying some guy at a lot $40 for the night. If you know where you can load in legally, you won’t get a ticket. So, advance, and advance well! Sometimes promoters can be hard to get ahold of for this information but stay on them by calling and e-mailing. It will save you time in the long run. 

3. Create a clear budget with contingencies and stick to it

Train yourself in building and maintaining a solid tour budget. Sticking to a budget will be the lifeblood of the tour. The essentials to include in a basic tour budget would be: 

  • Van rental, with insurance 
  • Gas projection When creating a rough estimate of gas expenses for the tour, do not just calculate by mileage as there will ALWAYS be additional miles (getting lost, extreme traffic, detours, running errands, etc.). Do a rough gas estimate (http://bit.ly/1HBehX4) and add an additional $20 to $25 per location.
  • Hotel/Accommodations (See tip #4 for free or cheap lodging suggestions)
  • Daily food allowance (per diems check out food buying tips in #9 below)
  • Backline rental (if not advanced with the promoter/venue – rent backline from your peers, more info in tip #6)
  • Contingency – One thing that a lot of early tour budgets neglect to include are the variable or “contingency” expenses. These expenses could include a replacement tire or other van maintenance, gear repairs, speeding tickets, parking tickets, etc. Factor in 5% of the total budget for this amount. So if the tour is going to cost $2000, allot $100 for variable expenses.   

4. No sleep ‘til…

Hotel costs can quickly add up when you’re on the road. If you’ve been sleeping on the floor of a friend, fan, family or promoter’s living room, after day 10, the need for a nice shower, bed and a good night’s sleep will soon become your number one priority. While it is recommended in the early days of touring to try to avoid hotel costs, if you are going to be staying a few nights in one city, a much cheaper option is to plan ahead and book an Airbnb or use Hotwire for last-minute cheap deals. You may also be able to find someone to host you on Couchsurfing.com. Couchsurfing is always free, but if you have any guest list spots, it would probably be appreciated to offer one or two to your host and give them a drink ticket at the show.

When your band is sharing a room in a hotel or crashing on the floor of a friend, one great trick to making your sleep slightly less uncomfortable is bring a yoga mat for the floor and put your sleeping bag on top of the yoga mat. As they say, the best kind of meditation is sleep- so pack that yoga mat ($10) and your sleeping bag, and try to get some (affordable) rest.  

5. Don’t bite off more than you can chew

Rather than go out on the road for 30 days straight, create multi-territory weekender tours in segments. There’s no doubt about it, touring is expensive! As a way to save money, build localized fanbases, and develop affordable tactics in regional marketing. You can break this down into East Coast, Midwest, West Coast, Northwest, Southwest, South, etc. and spread these tours out into six to seven tours in a year or album cycle. As you start to develop stronger fanbases in these regions and better relationships with promoters and local bands, it’ll be easier for you later to create a nationwide tour where you know your strongest markets and avoid playing too many expensive nights for very little reward. Find markets that work for your band and develop those first. Your fan base should create more marketing mileage than your van!  

6. Travel light

Bringing around all of your gear can be expensive and will cause you to rent or borrow a 12 to 15 passenger van. These vans take up a lot of gas, cost a lot in renting fees and can end up running your budget dry! Try to bring the necessary equipment that you will need but do not assume (unless previously advanced with the promoters/venue) that there will be backline available. A great tool to save on van space, backline rental costs, and gas costs, is to utilize peer-to-peer gear rentals via Sparkplug. Sparkplug allows you to rent gear affordably directly from fellow musicians as you travel across the country, often at a fraction of the cost of big backline companies. In addition to saving you money, Sparkplug can also save you stress if your gear gets broken or lost and you need a last minute replacement while on the road. 

7.  Create special, limited edition “only available on tour” merch

To help promote and market your band as well as to make some additional funds to cushion the costs of touring, we recommend that you create limited edition, personalized, “only available on tour” merch and album bundles. The more personal the items are the more connected the fans will feel towards your band and brand. Create tour specific “album bundles” where you match your vinyl with a limited edition t-shirt, art print, button, etc., and offer it at a more affordable rate than could be ordered online, creating incentive to purchase from the tour. Make sure to keep the earnings from merch separate from your main tour budget and do not dip into your merch earnings unless you have to.  

8. Set non-financial “wins” for yourself on the road

On your first few rounds of touring on the road, the financial gains may not be significant. Establish non-financial “wins” for touring such as connecting with a promoter, building stronger relationships with your fans or getting coverage from local radio or press. Set up a drink/coffee with a local talent agent, label rep, etc. Establish and cultivate relationships and networks while you are traveling through different cities. These relationships will prove much more valuable in the long term.  

9. Food for thought

Food will quickly become one of your largest expenses if you don’t create a lean food budget. Try to get to a supermarket every two to three cities and pack a cooler so you can make sandwiches and eat fresh fruit. Try to avoid restaurants as much as you can. See if food can be part of your guarantee at the venues you play. 

10. Pay it forward

There are so many bands in your shoes, needing places to crash and help connecting with local promoters. Become an essential member of the global artist community and always open your doors and contacts for them when they roll through your hometown. Your support and couches to sleep on will ensure you receive that kind of treatment next time you are in their town.

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Sparkplug (www.sparkplug.it) is the community marketplace where musicians rent instruments, gear, and space to and from each other.