For a new band, there’s nothing more exciting than hitting the road to play shows in new, unfamiliar cities. Touring can be an unforgettable experience that can tighten performances, form industry connections, widen audiences, and foster lifelong friendships among musicians. There’s an air of legitimacy surrounding bands that perform outside their hometowns, and this is because touring is a massive challenge for musicians of every level of experience.
Despite what you may have heard, unless you’re in that coveted upper echelon of professional musicians who’ve achieved widespread popularity and financial success, touring is unglamorous, difficult, and thankless work. Being on the road too much can even prove to be destructive for some bands.
Musicians have a unique relationship to their work in how they make sacrifices for the good of their craft. This especially goes for bands, where members are often asked to put the needs of the group above their own. Working musicians now face more challenges than ever, and tours are prime situations for difficulties to be brought to the fore.
Even if your band has a following, touring will most likely mean sleeping on floors, occasionally skipping showers and meals, never getting alone time, and performing almost every night of the week just to make a little money or break even. Add long stretches of time spent away from loved ones, missing weeks of work or school, and the stresses of the road, and you get a situation that can lead to feelings of resentment, especially for hardworking bands without a following.
For bands promoting a new record, touring is essential. Building a regional or national presence is something you have to do if you want to attract the attention of fans and labels, and the inherent sacrifices of touring are well worth it when the benefits outweigh the difficulties. But all too often, up-and-coming bands with an all-or-nothing attitude spend a year or two non-stop touring, burn out, and break up.
When musicians adopt a martyr complex and continually place the needs of their band above themselves, they create an unsustainable, untenable standard that they won’t be able to live up to for long. I should know because I was one of them.
After years of hard work, my band began to receive a small amount of acclaim and a modest regional following. After performing at CMJ, we signed a publishing deal and played hundreds of shows across the country over the next two years. We had some momentum, but we weren’t making any money. Leaving for a month-long tour with less than $20 in my bank account was a frequent occurrence during this time, but I was elated over our success, so I set my financial needs aside and pressed on.
As the months rolled on, however, I began to resent my situation. By the time of our breakup, we’d been playing the same set of songs for two years, and we’d forgotten how to make new music. By opting to be on the road over staying home to create music, we painted ourselves into a corner by removing everything that made our band worth being in.
Bands need to find the sweet spot between making time to tour and staying home to write music, maintain relationships, and make a living. Some musicians are lucky enough to be able to make their living by being on the road most of the year, but for the rest of us, touring means being away from a stable, consistent income.
Success is going to be defined differently by each band, but it’s vital for bands to have conversations about what they want and what it takes to get there. Touring in itself isn’t necessarily destructive, but it does set the stage for a band’s problems that were there all along to become front and center.
If you value your band and your place in it, start talking about what you need to be successful. Staying home and taking a break from playing might seem like a momentum killer, but it’s actually a move that might be just what your band needs.
Patrick McGuire is a musician and songwriter currently residing in Philadelphia. He creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.