Expert Music Career Advice For DIY Musicians

Should You Buy or Rent a Band Van? A Look at the Cost Breakdown

tourvan-1Photo by Ty Trumbull

As your band prepares to hit the road for your first tour, one of the biggest obstacles you’ll likely run into is how you’re going to get from point A to point B. Unless one of the folks in the band has a vehicle of his or her own big enough to haul everyone and their gear around the country, and he or she doesn’t mind adding the mileage and wear to that vehicle, you’re going to need to look at getting your own van.

Buying a van is one of the biggest investments a band will ever make. And figuring out when to buy a van is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make. But there are a number of factors that come into play, and you need to take a realistic look at where you are and where you want to be in the next couple of years.

The average blue book price for a Ford E350 series (one of the most popular touring vans) seems to be in the $30,000+ range. But most bands will find a way to save money at this stage, so let’s say buying a van is going to cost you around $20,000.

Keep in mind, the more you spend at this juncture, the more you’ll save in the long run. Mechanics bills aren’t cheap, and the natural wear and tear that accompanies touring can really take a toll on the ol’ band fund. But for the sake of argument, let’s say $20,000 is the going price.

Now, let’s look at a couple scenarios and do some back-of-envelope calculations.

1. The weekend tour

You’re a new band, just starting out. You’ve played a few shows in your hometown, and now you’ve bagged a gig 124 miles away on Saturday. Just to make it worth it, it’s a good idea to try and book something else in between on the Friday, and maybe throw in a hometown show on a Thursday or Sunday. Now you’ve got yourself a weekend tour! But what you really need to look at now is how often do you plan on doing this. Can everyone commit to making these weekend tours at least once a month? Is it too soon to tell? At this stage in your career, the last answer is probably the most realistic. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Buying a van

At this point, buying a van is probably not a great idea. You’d end up spending tens of thousands of dollars on an unsure investment. It’s better to test the road-readiness of your band a few times before making the leap and spending all your cash on a van.

Cost: $20,000+, plus monthly insurance, plus gas

Benefit: $150 if you’re lucky, plus exposure

Analysis: Don’t buy.

Renting a van

Looking at the most popular car rental website, we’re going to consider this a four-day rental. You’ll pick it up on Thursday and return it on Monday. Also, since you’re relatively new, you can probably get away with using a minivan. This will likely mean sharing some gear with the other bands, but you can (and should) work that out beforehand. Which means you’ll just need to fit your amps, guitars, and drum breakables.

The cost for a four-day rental is about $226. So…

Cost: $226, plus gas

Benefit: $150 (if you’re lucky), plus exposure

Analysis: You’ll likely lose a bit of money with this option, but it’s a little easier to convince yourself that that extra cash is an investment. You’re breaking into new markets, playing in front of new people, and making new connections.

Other options

There are a couple other options. Many cities and towns offer car-sharing services for a monthly membership. This can be a relatively low-cost way to start getting out on the road. Using these means you really need to be okay with sharing gear with other bands, since you’ll probably only be able to fit your band members, guitars, and drum breakables. Everything else – including amps – will have to be borrowed.

You can also try and convince a friend to drive your band. Lots of people will jump at the chance to hang out with their friends on the road for a few days. Plus they’ll get into a couple shows for free, and if you’re nice people, you’ll buy them beer.

2. The weekend warrior

This is the next step up from the weekend tour. You’re hitting the road at least once a month for a couple days. So just for argument’s sake, let’s break this down over a year. You’ll need to travel a little further on these tours, or risk oversaturating certain markets. So let’s say the farthest you’re traveling is 280 miles. We’re also going to imagine you get $100 a gig from the bar. In 2012, the average cost of car insurance in the US was $815.

Buying a van

Cost: $20,000, $815 for insurance, plus gas

Benefit: $3,600 per year

Analysis: Keep in mind, this doesn’t factor in how much you might make off merch sales, which can go a long way to offsetting these costs. But that all depends on how much merch you have and how willing people are to buy it.

Again, you need to consider how long you’re going to do this for. If you’re going to do this for five years, you’ll start to come close to paying off your investment. But there are other ways to offset this cost. Once you own a van, you can start taking more gigs. You’ll probably start playing more than three gigs a month, and then you’ll be recouping your costs more quickly.

If you’re playing more often, that changes the equation. If you play six shows a month, you start bringing in $7,200 a month before merch earnings. It goes up from there.

Renting a van

If it costs $226 to rent a van for four days, then we can extrapolate that to $2,712 per year.

Cost: $2,712, plus gas

Benefit: $3,600 per year

Analysis: You’re at the break-even point here. This is a nice option because you don’t need to worry about paying for monthly insurance or massive repair bills. But you're left to the whim of the rental companies and whether they have anything available that will suit your needs on a given weekend. There’s also something to be said for the fact that you can’t really customize or stink up a rental van as much as you can one that you own.

Other options

You’ll be hard pressed to find a buddy who’s willing to drive you around this much. And if you do, you’re likely going to have to chip in for any repairs that are needed as a result of being on the road. Car-sharing services may be a viable option, but once you’re on the road, you start to need your own space a bit more. Cramped quarters can lead to grumpy bandmates.

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3. The long haul

If you’ve been doing weekend tours once a month for a year or more, you’re probably ready to start taking bigger trips. This can mean a couple of things. You may hit the road for two-month stretches three times a year, or you could take over for six months and go all around the continent. At any rate, you’re going to be gone from home for a good chunk of the time. That makes owning your own vehicle even more enticing. A good van becomes a home away from home on especially long tours.

If you’re on the road for six months a year, let’s imagine you’re playing about 120 shows a year with the same $100 guarantee.

Buying a van

Cost: $20,000, $815 for insurance, plus gas

Benefit: $12,000 per year

Analysis: If you can stick this out for a year or two, you’ll likely make back your investment. You’ll also be able to customize your space and cover it in that unique smell that only touring bands have. That will make it start to feel like home.

Renting a van

Cost: $7,522 for six months

Benefit: $12,000 per year

Analysis: So you have the potential to make back your money with this venture. But remember, this is still a minivan. There aren’t many rental companies that have passenger vans. And traveling around in a minivan for six months with all your gear and merch sounds exhausting. Not to mention that you’d need to line up gear to share at 120 shows a year. By the time you’re traveling this much, you need to have a consistent sound at every show, which means you need to have your own gear. Renting a van at this point just becomes impractical for most groups.

Other options:

Unless you’re one or two people, there really aren’t many options at this point for long-haul tours.

4. The summer hero

There’s one other category that’s important to look at. Many bands, especially when they’re starting out, will opt to only hit the road for a few weeks a year, usually in the summer months. This makes for a fun road trip, but not necessarily sound business.

These types of tours exist somewhere between weekend warrior and the long haul. You’ll likely be out for at least two weeks, playing as many nights as you can. But you won’t be doing it for much more than that.

It'll probably be hard to demand a $100 guarantee at this point, but let’s just imagine that’s what you’ll get each night. And we’ll say the band has 11 shows lined up over 14 days.

Buying a van

Cost: $20,000, $815 for insurance, plus gas

Benefit: $1,100

Analysis: Buying your own van for this kind of excursion really doesn’t make much sense. You can ask yourself how long you plan to keep doing this, but for your first outing, even one that lasts a couple weeks, it’s probably not a good idea to buy.

Renting a van

Cost: $755, plus gas

Benefit: $1,100

Analysis: With this, you actually come pretty close to breaking even. Gas gets expensive on tour, especially in the summer months, so don’t underestimate that cost. But if you manage to sell some merch on top of your guarantees, you’ll probably do okay. And at that point, your cool road trip with your buds has been paid for, plus you’ve gained some good exposure and gotten a taste for the road.

If you're traveling in a minivan, you’ll still probably need to borrow gear at each show. But doing that for 11 shows is a much easier task than 120.

Other options:

You may be able to talk a friend into driving the lot of you around for a couple weeks. But remember, the band is going to accrue any costs that come from damage on the road.

 

These are some very basic calculations. There are so many variables that go into touring. Gas prices fluctuate so drastically that that can have a big impact on your overhead. Distances traveled will affect how much you’re paying. And any time the driver gets lost, you’re going to end up doling out more cash for gas. And that all assumes that everyone is in this for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, you really need to sit down with your bandmates and figure out what you want to do.

Generally speaking, though, once you start hitting the road one weekend a month, you should start asking yourself if buying a van is worth it. Shop around and look for deals on used cars. But remember, the more you spend up front on a good and sturdy vehicle, the more you’ll save in mechanic bills and mileage.

 

Ty Trumbull is a Canadian musician and writer living in Mexico City. He's played banjo and guitar with a bunch of bands you've probably never heard of.