Whether you’re a seasoned touring musician or about to embark on your first tour, there are many things to take into consideration before hitting the highway. Here are the 16 questions a touring musician should ask before loading up the van:
1) Are Your Gigs Confirmed & Contracts Signed?
This might seem like an obvious starting point, but I know numerous touring musician friends and clients that have shown up at a venue to play, only to find that the promoter has double booked another band or event (or has completely forgotten that the show was booked in the first place). As you can imagine, things don’t go well from here. Make sure all your shows are confirmed and all contracts are signed. Verbal acceptance over the phone or written acceptance via email will not suffice. Unless you receive a signed contract from the promoter, you will not have any remedies if things go south. An experienced touring musician knows the important of a signed contract.
2) Have You Received Deposits for Your Shows?
One way to help avoid being double booked or cancelled last minute is to receive a deposit in advance. Fifty percent of the guarantee is an industry standard deposit. Once the promoter has spent their own money, they are less likely to forget about the show or cancel it last minute. If you’re working with a major booking agent, they will likely demand half the guarantee well in advance of the show. If you’re self-booking, I would still ask for half the guarantee in advance, but this will likely require that some sort of contract be in place.
3) How Are Gig Cancellations Dealt With?
Shows are cancelled all the time. Whether you’re AC/DC or a regional touring musician, you need to know how what will happen if the show is cancelled. Reasons for cancellation might include sickness, injury, force majeure (legal jargon for “act of God”, i.e. tornado, hurricane, flood, etc.), a change in availability, a breakup of the band, or a better opportunity arising (for either the artist or the venue). Whatever the case, the contract signed with the promoter should clearly state how the cancellation will be dealt with. I always suggest inserting language indicating that if the promoter cancels less than thirty days in advance of the show, the entire guarantee must be paid to the artist. If the promoter gives more than thirty days’ notice of their cancellation, then only the deposit is forfeited. If the artist if forced to cancel, typically the deposit is simply refunded to the promoter.
4) How Will You Get Paid?
The currency in which you’ll be paid might seem obvious, but I assure you it’s not. Whether you are being paid in cash, cheque, e-transfer or beer, the discussion needs to be had ahead of time. I’ve had promoter’s cheques bounce when I tried to cash them two days later. I’ve had e-transfers denied because the promoter’s bank didn’t work with the artist’s bank. I’ve had dozens of promoters attempt to avoid paying tax on the guarantee (innocently or not). Remember: touring musicians must pay the tax on their guarantee to the government anyway, so if you fail to collect it, you are actually reducing your guarantee accordingly. Tax is applied to the entire guarantee, not just the half of the guarantee that you collect at the show. More times than not, promoters will think the tax applies only to the remaining half. Depending on the size of your guarantee, this can cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars.
5) Will You Receive Per Diems?
A savvy booking agency will negotiate per diems in to your guarantee, so that each member gets a little extra cash to cover food and expenses. But you don’t need a booking agent to ask for per diems. Don’t ask for the moon if you’re a start up band, but proposing a per diem of $20 per touring musician would be in line with industry standards, and might actually come across as more professional. Again, it depends on your draw and the level of your band, so be reasonable.
6) Who Will Be Paying You?
Having a signed contract and knowing the amount that you are to be paid is great, but tracking down the person that will be paying you is a different story. I always recommend that touring musicians advance this information with the promoter ahead of time, and asking for a cell number and email address for your day-of contact. Many times, the person who books your band is not the same person that will be paying you at 2am. Reach out to this person via text or email the day of the show, and establish that line of communication. And then plan to meet shortly after your set at a certain location (venue office, back bar, etc.) to settle up. Bigger artists will sometimes demand payment before they go on stage. Unless you’re playing arenas, this is not likely going to be the case.
7) Will the Venue Take a Cut of Merch Sales?
This is a big one, especially in recent years. As a touring musician, I’ve seen this really expand in recent years, and not in our favour. More venues are taking a higher percentage of your merch sales than ever before. Whether this a shameless money grab or a reflection of the current economic realities of live music venues is a debate (and an article) in and of itself. Not all venues take a piece of merch. However, what I’ve seen in the last few years is that most venues will take 10 to 25% of your gross merch proceeds. As an artist myself, I always fight this as much as I can, and try to push this number as low as possible when negotiating the show. For me, merch is what puts food in your belly and gas in the tank, and venues should leave it alone. Venue owners argue that without their venue, you wouldn’t sell merch. I would argue that, without your music, they wouldn’t sell any liquor that night. So by their logic, you should get a piece of their liquor sales. Not surprisingly, I’ve yet to be successful with this argument, but feel free to use it when negotiating the merch issue. Tell them LawyerDrummer sent you 🙂
Another thing to bear in mind is that the venue will charge you an additional fee if they are providing someone to sell your merch. Depending on the size of your band and the size of the venue, this vendor fee can range from $50 to $100 per vendor. If you’re travelling with someone who can sell merch for you, then you of course save this fee. However, there are obviously other costs associated with adding to your touring entourage. From my experience, you can often get a reduced vendor fee if you agree to give the person slinging your merch a signed t-shirt.
8) Have You Confirmed Travel Route & Accommodations?
This is simply a logistic consideration. When you’re planning your travel route, make sure you’re avoiding any closed highways, heavy construction, natural disasters, etc. Many touring musician friends have missed gigs because they’re stuck on a highway waiting for a highway to reopen. Also, if you’re driving through the night, make sure you choose a route that will have open gas stations along the way. My band once embarked on a 55-hour straight drive from Toronto to Vancouver, through the Northern United States, and we had to plan our nighttime gas stops accordingly. In case you’re wondering, I don’t recommend driving that long without a hotel stop J
When it comes to accommodations, I strongly suggest against leaving the hotel booking until the day of the show. Hotels book up and/or rates shoot up unexpectedly, so book ahead. If you need to request a late check-out or early check-in, most hotels are accommodating and it can make all the difference on a long tour.
9) Do You Have the Right Documentation for Border Crossings?
Once you know your routing, make sure you have all documentation necessary to cross international borders as needed. There are countless stories of touring musicians both big and small that have been turned away at the border (or fully detained), causing them to cancel shows or an entire tour. The modern reality: border crossing is a serious thing and not to be taken lightly. Have all documentation ready, including updated passports, a work VISA if needed, a gear manifest and merch manifest, and a complete list of tour dates and routing when crossing international borders.
10) Do You Have Insurance on Your Gear?
Sadly, the number of times I’ve heard of touring musicians having entire vans or trailers full of gear stolen while on tour is quite high. And they never seem to have gear insurance. My band has a lot of expensive, top of the line gear, and we pay around $800 a year to insure it. Prices vary from state to state and country to country, but the principle remains: if you take your career seriously and plan to do any real touring, you need gear insurance or you’re playing with fire. Insurance will protect your gear from more than just theft; it will also protect it against damage from fire, flooding, etc. It’s worth making a phone call to get a quote, in advance of your next tour.
11) Do You Have the Right Phone Package?
This might seem simple but it’s something that every touring musician should consider: what additional costs will be incurred based on your tour routing? If you’re travelling outside of the country, this becomes more important. But perhaps your data plan is small and in order to properly promote this tour you need to increase it. If you are touring Europe, for example, perhaps you cut roaming costs by having one phone that all band members can use. The bottom line: you don’t want to come home with several hundred dollars in extra phone charges.
12) Do You Have Enough Backup Supplies?
This can mean extra drum skins, sticks, even an extra cymbal or two. There have been a few times on tour when I’ve broken my kick pedal and had to rely on the opening act’s drummer to rescue me. A backup pedal isn’t the worst idea. I’ve also broke through the beater skin on my kick drum a few times, and finding a replacement 26-inch skin at the venue wasn’t going to happen. So pack extras of everything and throw them in the van or trailer, and be prepared when this happens.
13) Have You Sent Out Your Tech Rider and Hospitality Rider?
Giving your sound tech an idea of what gear you’ll be using, what your stage setup looks like, and what special requirements you might have goes a long way for any touring musician. The tech will likely appreciate it, and it will help avoid any last minute technical issues. Perhaps you are using in-ear monitors and don’t need him to spend time working on wedge monitors. Perhaps you have an pre-recorded intro that you play as you walk on stage. Perhaps your singer has a wireless mic that won’t get good reception in the basement bar. Perhaps the venue cannot accommodate 8 vocal mics. All of these points should be dealt with ahead of time by advancing your tech rider to the promoter.
The same applies to your hospitality rider. Don’t expect to get pulp-free, non GMO coconut water and gluten free, artisan bologna sandwiches unless you advance this with the promoter and have them sign off on it. If your expectations are too high in terms of hospitality, the promoter will let you know.
14) How Long Are You Playing Each Night?
This should be confirmed in the contract and reiterated at sound check, so every band knows how long and what time they are playing. A smart promoter or venue rep will print out set times and tape them to the stage and dressing room. Going beyond your allotted time as an opening act, even if you start late, is a major faux pas. It doesn’t matter that the band before you went over. Let them be unprofessional. Finish before your cut-off time, not after. When my band toured arenas with Def Leppard, their stage manager told us stories of bands that had been kicked off arena tours for going two minutes over their set time. An experienced touring musicians will finish two minutes early instead, and tear their gear off stage immediately. The headliner (or more likely, their people) will appreciate it and it will go a long way. As a headliner, my band has had opening bands play 15 minutes longer than they should, and we never had them open for us again. It’s just unprofessional, and will undoubtedly close doors for you.
15) Who is Providing Sound Equipment and Backline?
This might seem obvious but trust me: I’ve seen many touring musicians show up at venues expecting that a sound system has been provided, and the dumbfounded look from the venue owner confirms otherwise. The resultant dash to the local music store to rent a full sound system (if you’re lucky enough to find one) is never cheap, and never a good thing. Advance these details with the promoter, and get an idea of what sort of gear you’ll be playing through. They might not have enough microphones for your 18 piece Neil Peart inspired setup.
The issue of backline becomes more of a consideration at festival shows, where headliners are flying in and drums/amps/etc. are provided for each act. But I’ve seen it apply to club shows as well, where all drummers are expected to share the same kit. It can be awkward when four sets of drums are lugged up a stairwell and the shared kit news is shared with everyone. A smart touring musician will advance this information with the promoter, and if you need certain instruments to be provided, be crystal clear in what those instruments are.
16) Can Your Performance Be Recorded and Exploited By the Promoter?
One final consideration to ponder is whether your performance can be recorded and released by the promoter. In the content-obsessed era that we live in, this is something that I’ve seen come up more and more as of late. Many festivals, for example, require that the performer’s set be filmed and used by the festival as they see fit. Perhaps you don’t want this, or you want to be the first to release this live recording to the public. If the festival or venue has the ability to sell the live performance in any form, that’s a red flag. Obviously, a great deal depends on the bargaining power of the promoter and the touring musician, but for now, it’s something that you should at least be aware of.
There are other things to think about before touring (what happens if your van breaks down), but this is a good start. As always, feel free to email me with any questions and best of luck on the road!!