7 Most Common Mistakes Touring Musicians Make

Thursday, March 6, 2014 


1. Running Out Of Merch

On the road, merch is your #1 income generator. Many times turnout is light or the guarantee or door cut is low. Musicians make up for this loss of revenue in merch sales. The arena shows I’ve played I received a respectable guarantee, but I made almost an equal amount in merch sales. Likewise, club dates that had very light turnouts where I made very little from the door, I made up for in merch sales because the few people at the show had the time of their lives (in an intimate setting) and all bought something – nearly quadrupling what I made from the door.

Make sure you have a merch seller at the table from when the doors open to when they close. Find a fan in each city to do this if need be (in exchange for free admission). If fans leave early (because they have to wake up early for work) and they really want a T-shirt, but don’t see anyone at the merch table, you just lost $20.

If you’re going to survive on the road, you need merch. Similarly, make sure you do not run out. On extended tours I sometimes have to re-order T-shirts multiple times. And yes, you need T-shirts.

Make sure the merch companies you order from can rush orders if need be and ship anywhere. Fast.

2. Not Getting Musician’s Insurance

One night after returning from a local gig I pulled into my apartment late and was exhausted. I carried in all the gear I could manage in one trip and passed out. I left my trumpet in my back seat. You know the ending. The next morning my back window was smashed and my trumpet gone. Dumb. I know.

I called State Farm who was my rental insurance provider. I explained to them what happened and they said:

“Ok, yup we have your trumpet covered here. So Mr. Herstand, what do you use this trumpet for?”
“Uh, taking massive bong rips from. What do you think? I play it like a trumpet.”
“Ok Mr. Herstand, do you perform with it?”
“Do you get compensated for these performances?”
“Well, last night’s turnout was a bit rough, but typically yeah I do ok.”
“And what kind of music do you play?”
Here I thought she was just making conversation.
“Well, I do a looping thing where I mix acoustic guitar, beat boxing, keys and trumpet. It’s kind of like acoustic pop/rock with some….”
“I’m going to stop you right there Mr. Herstand. We don’t cover professional rock musicians. Only classical musicians.”


Luckily I had the serial number registered and got a call from the police dept a week later letting me know it had been discovered at a local pawn shop. I got it back. I was lucky.

But I learned. Regular insurance doesn’t cover us. I found Music Pro Insurance. They cover up to $25,000 in gear for $150 A YEAR.

When my laptop was stolen out of a venue in Minneapolis while on tour, I called up MPI, explained what happened (without having to discuss my looping technique or lying about my genre) and 2 weeks later had a check for the laptop and all software: Logic, Final Cut, the works.

Get it before going on any tour.

3. Towing A Trailer

Sometimes this is unavoidable. But if you can, get a larger vehicle and stuff your gear in it. Towing a trailer drastically reduces gas mileage and gas is what kills most tours. It’s also a bitch on your transmission and reduces the life of your vehicle.

I know 4 piece rock bands who tour in vans or large SUVs and stuff all of their gear (drum kit, amps, instruments and merch) in the back.

4. Not Exercising

Life on the road can be exhausting. And monotonous. Getting free drinks night after night eventually loses its appeal, and may turn into a dangerous remedy for road fatigue and loneliness.

Make it a priority to exercise at the start of every day. It will keep tensions low and energy high. Everyone will feel better embarking on those day-long drives and you’ll perform better.

One tour I did with another singer/songwriter (just two of us in an SUV) we made it a goal to wake up early and run every day. Neither of us were runners before the tour. Not only did it keep us (get us) in shape (and reduced the desire to kill each other), but we got to see every city from an entirely new perspective.

Many times when all you get to see of a city is the highway, the venue and the hotel, getting a nice long morning run in can drastically increase your overall enjoyment of the journey.

5. Showing Up Late

Make sure you confirm with each venue (or promoter) a week in advance your load in and sound check time. And make sure you show up for it on time. The sound guy will most likely be there waiting for you. The quickest way to start off the night on the wrong foot (with THE most important person for the evening), is to make the sound guy wait for you, rush through sound check and force the club to hold the doors.

Review the 9 Things Every Musician Needs To Know About The Sound Guy.

6. Not Counting The Money

If you don’t have a tour manager, make sure you dedicate the most responsible band member to handle all of the money on the road. It’s best if this band member is sober – at least for the tour.

I played a show where a venue handed us a sealed envelope of cash along with a lit joint. Startled, we didn’t even count the money. Wouldn’t you know it, they shorted us $300. The most expensive joint of our lives.

Make sure when settling up with the club you have the agreed upon deal printed out. It can be the final email confirmation or the contract. Make sure they explain all numbers to you: Attendance, ticket price, advance ticket sales, day of sales, and your cut or guarantee.

Do not leave the club until you are sure you’ve been paid every dollar you are owed.

7. Forgetting About The Email List

Your long term success rests on the shoulders of your most dedicated fans. Not hits on the radio. You may get a hit and sell out tours for a couple years, but what happens when your next album flops? You need to be able to call on your loyal fans to prop you up.

Independent and DIY artists especially need to keep a mailing list up to date.

Aside from having a clipboard at the merch table, have a splash page on your mobile website with a mailing list signup form (like this – click from your phone). Announce from the stage for people to signup RIGHT NOW on their phones to get “this next song in your inbox by the time we finish playing it.”

I’ve also seen computer monitors and keyboards setup at merch tables that serve one purpose: email sign up. There’s no worse feeling than importing 50 mailing list names after a show and discovering 30 of them bounced because you couldn’t read the handwriting.

Offer free stickers for everyone who signs up (they can show you their email confirmation from the phone at the merch table).

Make sure you import these names RIGHT AWAY. If you wait 3 months after the tour finishes, your fans will be less engaged and more likely to unsubscribe.

Did I leave any out? Let me know in the comments!

Image by inkknife_2000 from Flickr used with the Creative Commons license.


Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based DIY musician who has played over 550 shows around the world and is the creator ofAri’s Take. His record release show is Saturday March 29th at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood. Get tickets here. Listen to his new single here. Follow him on Twitter: @aristake

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