Is Touring Even Worth It?
A half-dozen Twin Cities musicians break down the harsh economics of touring—and explain why they still hit the road anyway.
8:18 AM CDT on October 18, 2023
With an international fanbase built off a 2021 viral hit and a brand-new album under their belts, the Burnsville brother-sister indie-rock act Durry embarked on a European tour this past summer.
“We sold out every show. played a couple festivals that were at capacity,” says singer/guitarist Austin Durry. “It couldn’t have gone better. It was an incredible experience.” He pauses. “I’m sure we lost a bunch of money doing it anyway.”
Durry isn’t complaining. He’s currently drawing “a small but not indie-band-small paycheck” as part of the band while building Durry’s reputation and investing in its future. But he’s far from the only Minnesota musician who’s found that touring can become an expense rather than a money-making proposition.
Take Matt Allen, better known as the Twin Cities rapper Nur-D. His first major tour was in support of Brother Ali in 2019. “It was a great experience,” he says. “I made $250 a show and if I wanted they’d take $50 out of that for a van and a hotel. I made money; I had a good time.” His own tour this past summer “without label support or name recognition” was a different story.
“I brought my DJ, a merch seller, and two support acts,” Nur-D reports. “I was paying them all $200 a show and I covered their hotels and Airbnbs, as well as the van. I realized, doing it myself, just how much it cost to tour. I could only do it because I had been saving up for a year and a half. It was definitely an expense.”
As music streaming gutted album sales and diminished artist royalties, “there’s always touring” became the go-to answer whenever anyone wondered aloud how musicians could support themselves. Just as musicians had for centuries, you could take to the open road, and even if the club owners tried to screw you, you could peddle T-shirts and vinyl after shows. (Assuming, of course, that you didn’t have a family to care for, or any number of other responsibilities or life complications that might prevent you from driving around the country in a van for months at a time.)
Yes, the money is certainly out there for whoever’s playing Xcel Energy Center on any given week. But what about the band just trying to make a name for itself, the MC who’s never played a show outside of the upper Midwest, or even the established but far from famous musicians who have fans across the country who want to see them live? Can they make any money on tour—or at least not lose too much of it?
Earlier this year, Leor Galil of the Chicago Reader talked to a slew of musicians in his own city about the economics of touring. Never averse to stealing another publication’s ideas, I decided to duplicate his methodology, more or less, and see what local musicians had to say on the subject. Most of the people Galil spoke to had difficult road experiences and questioned the feasibility of going back out again any time soon. I expected to hear from plenty of bands who’d abandoned the idea of touring.
Pat “Doc” Dougherty shares one such story. “When I was playing in EllePF, one of the reasons we didn’t tour is [bandleader] Ranelle [LaBiche] ran the numbers and said, ‘I legitimately do not know how to do this without losing $10,000.”
I’m certain countless musicians have made those same calculations and stayed home, or learned the hard way when they returned from tour broke or in debt. But for whatever reason, the musicians most interested in talking to me remain committed to touring, and not just for the hell of it. They either make money at it or expect to in the long run. Keep in mind this is a group of artists who either sought me out or are prominent enough that I thought to contact them. All acknowledge that they’ve been fortunate, and most have a strong enough local fan base to rely on, so they’re not going on the road without a financial cushion.
Even so, they were happy to talk about how the challenges of touring, many of which have always existed, seem increasingly severe. And they also mentioned ways they’d found to make life on the road more affordable and less punishing. They may not endorse the austere punk life of sleeping on floors and eating gas station food, but they’ve discovered their own forms of frugality.
It’s been out of necessity. As Durry puts it, “When you want to make art, everything is stacked up for that to not work.”
It’s hard to pin down exactly what’s made touring harder in recent years, just as it’s hard to say exactly what’s made the day-to-day grind harder for many of us in general. Such is life in a declining empire, maybe. Touring musicians looking to complain can point a finger at any number of culprits: inflation, gas prices, a decline in club attendance. But the obvious disruption to begin with is the pandemic.
“The pandemic showed that this industry—that this whole country, everything—is a house of cards,” Dougherty says.
The first musicians to suffer economically from Covid-19 were those already out on the road. “Our last Europe tour before Covid, two shows canceled,” says Drew Christofferson, the drummer for Poliça. It was a reminder of how tight their budget was. “That doesn’t seem like it should have that much of an impact, but it basically meant zero profit for the whole tour.”
For most bands, the pandemic meant an end to live shows, and a reminder that whatever income came from live performing couldn’t be relied on. Dougherty, who performs as an acoustic solo act called theyself, was one of the fortunate ones who could play outdoor patio shows. “I kinda had survivor’s guilt, I actually did really well,” they say. But Dougherty noticed a difference once clubs opened up again.
“The guarantees are going down by $50. It just seems like the pie is shrinking. I don’t know where the money is going.”
Taylor Kraemer feels like their band, VIAL, benefited from the energy that got pent up when clubs were shut down. “I think people really want to see people they were introduced to during the pandemic, and we’re one of those bands. We were basically a Covid band.” But even they note that the 500-cap venues their band has been playing are hard to sell out, “People are still a little nervous.”
Everyone I spoke to agrees that the touring circuit is a different world than it was in 2019.
“It’s not that the gigs aren’t there, but they’ve gotten a bit more modest,” Dougherty says. “Some of it is venues trying to survive. Some of it I’m sure is just greed.”
Are You Sure Hank (Rollins) Done It This Way?
The “get in the van” days of the ’80s are persistently romanticized in the world of punk and indie rock. But one major reason that independent touring took off back then is that gas was relatively cheap—by 1986 they’d fallen below a buck a gallon. I don’t have to tell anyone with a car that’s not the case now. Several of the people I spoke to shared nightmare stories of having to shell out over $5 or $6 a gallon when they returned to the road in 2021 after a year of being sidelined by the pandemic.
And these days, it’s not always that easy to find a van to get in. “Locating a van about six months in advance in the Twin Cities was impossible,” Christofferson says. “We could have rented a [Mercedes-Benz] Sprinter van in Chicago, but it was cheaper for us to buy a Mercedes van in the Twin Cities and then sell it six months later. It saved us probably $10,000.”
The van that Nur-D rented for his August 2023 tour was $4,000.
“It’s almost impossible to find a massive van now,” he says. “And van rentals are harder if you’re trying to go for any length of time. You have to reserve it seven months out, and even then you don’t have it for as long as you would like.”
Even if, like Gully Boys, you own a vehicle, there are unexpected expenses that arise while on the road—and reminders of the danger of highway driving. In March 2022 the band left Denton, Texas, to drive to Boise, Idaho, and play Treefort Music Festival—a 1,500-mile haul. Then the winds started blowing and it started snowing. Yes, in Texas. In March.
“We drove past a semi and the force shattered my driver’s side window,” McGill recalls. “It burst into a thousand pieces and it sounded like a gunshot. We lost a whole day of driving and had to drop out of Treefort.” They lost income from the show cancellation and had to shell out for repairs. “After that, we had to drive for five days straight with no shows. That was the longest drive of our lives. It reminded us how scary touring actually is.”
“You can make a plan, but if one or two things go wrong, all the sudden your books are way off,” Christofferson says. “On our last tour our van broke down and we had to rent a Dodge Ram for four of the dates and squeezing five of us into a pickup truck—that was the only vehicle available to rent in Missoula, Montana. A few thousand dollars of additional expenses, when you’re hoping to end the tour with a couple grand each for four people, a few thousand dollars is gonna affect that. Everything has to go according to plan, and that’s never the case.”
Then there’s lodging. While sleeping on floors may be a hallowed DIY tradition, it’s not for everyone, especially if you’re a woman/femme with safety concerns or, you know, just someone with a body that has existed for more than 30 years. In finding places to spend the night, bands have learned to adopt the same money-saving techniques as any frequent traveler.
“We have a max budget of $150 for hotels,” McGill says. As Gully Boys’ “mom-ager,” they’ve learned to plan ahead online. “I use Expedia like it’s my right hand man because we get so many points on it.” And the right hotel can save you a few bucks. “We like Holiday Inn Express because it comes with continental breakfast and coffee.” When all else fails, you work whatever connections you’ve got. “My friend works at Hilton Hotels and he’s added us to his ‘friends and family,’ so when we can we stay at some bougie Hiltons.”
McGill rattles off other penny-pinching techniques. “I have a Costco membership. We put all the snacks that we want in our rider and then we take them to the van afterward so we have veggie trays and lots of chips. And Covid tests—we put those on our rider so we can stock up.” Gully Boys also use an app that scans for the cheapest gas prices in the area.
“We stay in shitty motels every night and we just drive in the shittiest van,” VIAL’s Kraemer says of the beautiful vehicle pictured above. “We use a point system with a certain hotel chain so we get a lot of nights free with that because we’re platinum members. And we have a credit card where we get points back on travel and gas and that helps keep costs pretty low.”
As for Nur-D, he’s come to favor Airbnbs over hotels, because you can save money by grocery shopping and cooking your own food. It ain’t the ’80s anymore, after all. Why pretend otherwise?
Don’t Grow Beyond Your Means
Poliça’s Drew Christopherson wishes he knew then what he knows now.
“Bigger shows don’t necessarily mean a bigger check at the end of the tour,” he says.
The touring crew supporting Poliça’s grew fast. “When you start out touring, there are things you dream of having," he says. 'You really want a tour manager, and you really want a front-of-house person, because every night you’re having to go through the same routines. Having more people on your team to help out is priority number one. And then you’ve got a bigger ship that needs more income to run it.”
Durry, whose band is in its growth stages now, agrees. “The name of the game is just keeping things as cheap as possible,” he says, committing himself to what he calls an “indie-band mindset.” “We have a five-person team, and a four-person band, and then the merch person. We’re driving ourselves. I don’t think we could go any smaller.”
Durry has even streamlined their gear, investing in smaller, lighter-weight equipment to make their load-in and load-out smoother.
“Our whole setup is tiny. Slim is the name of the game,” he says. “You want to just kick your feet up and let other people take care of things and that’s just not how it works. We have won the ability to… work. To work with confidence. That’s all we have achieved.”
His idea of splurging? “A van that’s less than 10 years old.”
If keeping it simple is the goal, a solo act like Dougherty has an advantage. “I consider the arts to be a working class profession and I treat it as such,” they say. Though theyself plays plenty of club gigs, Dougherty’s happy to soundtrack a yoga session at a farmers market or “pretend to play jazz music” at a restaurant. Most bands, they say, “don’t fit in at the North Shore Winery gig that wants you to play two sets and just provide a nice vibe."
Dougherty works a circuit that starts 100 miles outside of the Twin Cities and stretches as far as Chicago taking in St. Cloud, Fargo, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Duluth, Rochester, and Winona.
“It’s hard to say that I’m even touring,” they say, “I feel like what I do is more like a minor league baseball player. I have some markets I do well in, and I visit them regularly.”
“It’s about learning what your actual needs are versus what you thought they were,” Christofferson says. This past year Poliça went out with just the band and a sound person, paying 250-cap rooms. “We ended the tour with a decent monthly income, comparable to what our day jobs would have paid us.”
Oh, and What About Those Merch Cuts?
As other sources of income have dried up, sales of merchandise have become more important to a touring musician’s bottom line. Maybe Spotify determines your royalties and club owners decide your pay, but merch was the one part of the music business artists had control over.
And several of the bands I talked to are now essentially supporting themselves off merch sales. “That’s how we’re making most of our money,” says VIAL’s Kraemer. “On a good night we’re making around 2K.” McGill says Gully Boys can make a grand in merch sales on a good night, with average sales closer to $700. These numbers are significantly higher than any guaranteed fee those bands could get from a club right now.
But recently, a viral tweet from Long Island musician Jeff Rosenstock brought to light something few music fans had thought about: The cuts that venues take from a band’s merch sales. Rosenstock broke down the percentage in merch cuts he was paying by market, sometimes as high as 25%, and said he was forced to raise his merch prices as a result. “We're 100% down to give a merch cut any night we get a cut of the bar,” Rosenstock said—a quip that several of the people I spoke to echoed.
As you might expect, musicians don’t have a good word to say about these club-imposed fees. “Merch cuts suck, man,” says Austin Durry, noting that the cut is a percentage of the total sale price, not just the musicians’ actual profit. “It makes our profit margins tiny. We’ll sell merch that costs us thousands of dollars and we won’t make a dime on it because the venue is literally taking our profit.”
Durry seems resigned to merch cuts as an unfortunate fact of life (“That’s the industry,” he sighs), which for the 600-cap rooms he’s now playing may be the case. Others have found ways to work around the issue.
“I don’t do that. Ever,” Nur-D says. “It’s… stealing,” he adds, breaking into an incredulous laugh.
He says the clubs that have tried to take a cut from him haven’t pressed too hard because the stakes are still low. “They might be missing out on $500 maybe on a really, really good night, and then they’re already a full house and their bar’s getting money, so they’re not really gonna fight me over it.”
Several of the bands I talked to say they’ve been able to avoid or finesse merch cuts altogether.
“We’ve never had a cut enforced on us,” Kraemer says. “Quite frankly we play at a lot of cool venues where when they’re like, ‘Time to do the merch cuts. Let’s say you sold nothing. OK, we’re good, buh-bye.’ The people who own the club are the ones who want to take those cuts, not the people who are settling with you at the end of the night.”
So, Is It Worth It?
The life of a touring musician isn’t as easy as some day jobs but it’s more fun than most. Still, every job’s got to pay you sometime, or it’s just an expensive hobby. And performing on the road is a hobby that can get harder to justify as you get older.
“Most people who have a mortgage or a family or any kind of responsibility can’t just hit pause on everything and go party,” Christofferson says. But then he quickly adds: “It doesn’t have to be a lot to justify doing it, it just needs to be enough.”
“It’s an investment,” Nur-D says of touring at an early stage in your career. “I don’t think touring is where you make your money. I don’t think it’s a money maker, and I don’t think it needs to be. But eventually you’re going to have to show that you can go other places and do this.”
And no, ultimately, it isn't all about the money anyway.
“It’s this awesome world to exist in,” Nadi McGill says of life on the road with Gully Boys. “When we’re home we miss the part of touring where we get to pretend that our entire world is just music.”
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