Less than two weeks after my high school graduation, I found myself in the most paradoxical situation of my life. It was 1 a.m., I was lying on my back in the third row of a rented 15-passenger van, shivering out some ungodly sickness I had picked up from one of my travel companions.
I could not sleep, yet, I could not keep my eyes open, for the threat of visual stimulation would have made my increasing nausea even worse. The terrible twist of this situation was one — at the time insignificant — I was living my dream.
I found myself in this position because, at the time, my high school band was on tour. For years I had dreamed of spending weeks in a van, driving from city to city, performing for people whom I had never seen before. This tour, specifically, had been the product of several months of meticulous planning. Booking the venues, bands and van were each ordeals to solidify, but we pulled it together as a group. To this day, embarking on that journey is one of the proudest accomplishments of my life.
Let’s go back to the scene depicted above: a sick 17-year-old kid trying to sweat out a week’s worth of five people’s, situationally poor, hygiene. We were driving from Nashville, where we had just made seven dollars between five of us — a dollar for each hour we would continue to drive that night en route to Cleveland. When we finally would stop, the sun would just rise over the horizon. In an unknown Ohio rest area I would then sleep upright in the driver’s seat of the van for a few hours and choke down two Oreo cookies for breakfast.
Before you commit to pursuing the life of a touring musician, please hear out my understanding of what this life is like.
You Are in Close Proximity to Someone at All Times
Circumstantially, your bandmates will probably have become your best friends long before embarking on a first tour. You engage in the undeniably intimate act of writing music together, and that forms a bond stronger than most.
Aside from that, the time you spend rehearsing often melds into the time you spend enjoying various other common interests. Prepare for the established interpersonal dynamic between you to change vastly the second you hit the road together.
The first couple nights are fun; it feels like a sleepover where you also get to play shows. The further you get from home, though, the further the boundaries of what you want out of a friendship get tested. You will not sleep in your own room — perhaps not even a bed — until the tour is over.
Perhaps you did not realize that one of your bandmates snores, or maybe you never appreciated just how much your bass player talks. Aux privileges cause war-like conflicts, inside jokes makeup a larger portion of verbal exchanges than one would ever expect. Buckle up and find new ways to love these people because before long, your old methodology will prove obsolete.
If You’re in It for the Money, You’re Setting Yourself Up for Disappointment
Every DIY venue wants to help out the touring band. Not only is it good karma and common courtesy, it feels good to support kindred spirits in their pursuits. The issue that you will run into the most is the fact that there really is not much money for anyone in DIY music.
Keeping a venue open is not cheap, and the hoops owners and promoters must jump through are often higher than seem fair. The most pleasant attitude to have about financial complications is a gracious one. Anyone who lets you play in their space with the knowledge that you do not have any draw in their area is doing you a favor. Stay persistent with the places you want to build a following with, and the money will start accumulating naturally.
With that information, the power to limit financial setbacks lays within your approach going into the tour. Band merchandise is your responsibility to have ready before hitting the road; if it is good quality, and you are personable to show attendees, selling it can be an excellent source of additional income.
A lesson I wish I had learned touring with my first band was to actively seek out the college scene. A lot of the time, college kids will come to parties when they hear that live music is being featured. They will not, necessarily, care who is playing so long as somebody is.
Not only that, there is a much higher likelihood that college students will be less financially independent than some of their older counterparts in the DIY scene. As a result, there is a higher probability that they can afford to pay you more than a small venue and more people will show up.
The Good (Usually) Outweighs the Bad
The inevitability of long days on tour offers a conveniently numbing effect to situations that otherwise might feel stressful. Days of driving seven or more hours sound intimidating inherently, but, in context, the experience can be beyond tolerable, even fun.
Sleep deprivation builds camaraderie; the collective filth in the tour vehicle, which soon becomes apparent in everyone’s appearance, acts as a comforting joke that rings out stronger than the resultant frustration one might expect.
If nothing else, touring is an incentive to travel. These experiences can be incredibly hit or miss, but more often than not will fade into fond memory. The sketchy bar that you played somewhere in middle of nowhere, New Jersey, where you were the only band remotely your genre on the bill, carries the potential to be one of the funniest stories you will tell for years following.
Equally possible, you very well may encounter towns you would never have expected to have a killer music scene to be a pleasant surprise. Few other careers will provide you such a raw taste test of unending corners of your country.
Most significantly, you get to play a show every night. No matter how long the drive, how expensive the gas, how small the pay, you get to express your passion for music to new people on a daily basis. The feeling is indescribable, but it makes everything else about touring worth it.
Anywhere can feel like home when you look up from your instrument and realize that your best friends are right beside you, doing the exact thing that brought you together to the highest degree possible. It’s not an easy high to stop chasing.