Touring is part of life for many musicians. Love it or hate it, if you plan to “make it” in this business, you’ll probably do a lot of it. Once the novelty wears off, it can get challenging - from strange smells in the van to crazy people in the crowds to very questionable motel rooms - so how do you deal?
Remember that what starts as a horror story will usually become a comedy when you get home, and one with a lesson woven into it, if you look hard enough. With that in mind, we asked experienced musicians for some of their touring tips and war stories. Here are their hard-won insights:
Make Friendly With Security
Not every venue will have security, and fewer still will have specific stage security, but find them if you can and make them like you. You never know when you’re going to need them.
Levi Weaver is a multi-instrumental singer/songwriter who is permanently on tour since he recently packed his family in an RV and took to the road. His unique brand of post-folk music lends itself to his imaginative one-man-band live performances that captivate audiences. He knows too well the pain of absent security, and the influence of a creative alternative:
In Houston, an older gentleman was trying desperately to sing along with my songs, but he did not know any of the lyrics. I don't just mean that he couldn't remember the words. I mean that he had never heard any of my songs, even once. I could tell a lot of the audience was getting annoyed, so I had to deal with it. I tried to be polite. I joked, "Hey man, I know you're trying. You're doing great, but I'm just not used to having backup singers, and you're throwing me off." To which he replied, and I quote, "ROCK AND ROLL IS MURDERRRR!"
I later found out that the reason he didn't say anything else after that war cry was that one of the opening band's members whispered in his ear, threatening him with a particularly grievous method of bodily harm. I don't usually endorse this tactic, but cannot argue with its effectiveness.
The Silent Scene is a four-piece band carving out a new niche in the electronic dance scene, and waiting for their chance to tour with The 1975. Their experiences from the road highlight the need for security in another bizarre way:
We were playing a festival in Connecticut, and this guy was dressed up as a banana. And then he set himself on fire during our set.
If you find yourself in a small venue with no security, a brave fellow musician can also be a great ally too. Somehow, make sure someone has your back, or at the very least, know where the fire extinguishers and emergency exits are.
Prepare to be Humbled
There are a lot of big egos the closer you get to the top, but the music industry is also full of fairly quiet, humble artists. Ever wondered how that’s possible? Probably because they’ve been on the road for so long.
Just ask The Vespers. They’re a four-piece folk/roots band from Nashville who would love to go on tour with Robert Plant & The Band of Joy, and they’ve had to deal with one of the smallest bullies in music history:
There was a real, live cricket in the venue we were playing - like right in front of the stage. Every time we ended a song, it would immediately start chirping and it was LOUD. At first we couldn't tell if it was somebody in the crowd making the noise somehow, which really made us mad and insecure about ourselves at the time - thinking that somebody would do that intentionally. But we later confirmed that it was indeed a real cricket. We weren't as confused, but it was still really frustrating. Right on cue, the song would end and it would chirp. It had to have been a huge cricket.
City Rain is Ben Runyan and Scott Cumpstone, two experienced musicians who joined forces as an electro-pop duo based in New York City, in 2012. Their top picks for sharing a tour bus are Muse, Washed Out, and Tycho, and they can relate to feeling like they’re in second place at their own show:
We once played an in-store performance in NYC during the day. The room was essentially hidden from the public, but word got out that there was a free buffet. Subsequently, the room filled up with about a dozen homeless people. Meanwhile, the in-store "sound guy" couldn't figure out how to operate the high-tech sound system. So we performed with the monitors facing out to an empty room - aside from a handful of disinterested homeless folks. Bizarre.
From misplaced insects to ulterior motives, if you’re going on the road, don’t forget to pack a sense of humor and prepare to be served a little humble pie along the way.
Beware of Dog(s)
Be ready for anything, because you just never know. Make plans. Set a budget. Prepare as best you can, but then - be flexible.
Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band hail from the Twin Cities area, and have taken their classic rock ‘n’ roll sound across the country. Nato Coles is waiting for his chance to tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, but he’s run into plenty of the unexpected on the road so far:
From power outages to food fights - I've had dogs and small children join the band for a song here and there. I've been attacked by cake-throwers. Fireworks have been detonated. Lots of stuff has happened.
The Riverboat Gamblers are a five-piece punk rock band from Texas who are willing to tour with The Rolling Stones, “If they can meet our demanding rider of a freezer full of Otter Pops (no imitation popsicles).” They’re not strangers to the unexpected:
During a show at a big squat outside of Paris, the stage was rushed by half a dozen large dogs determined to find a ball that was thrown onto the stage. The dogs were completely oblivious to the loud music, and entirely focused on finding the ball. It was a better stage effect than any that could be planned and/or bought with money.
If you can’t be prepared for anything, at least be prepared for dogs.
Simplify the Stage
It can be tempting to try to emulate some of the elaborate lighting and special effects you see, and it can be easy to go overboard trying to create something new and unique. Start small, and don’t lose too much of the focus from your music.
The young pop/indie/folk group, The Colton and Zara Band, from Kansas, play 100 to 200 shows every year, although they’re still waiting for the chance to tour with Eisley, Switchfoot, or Mutemath. They’ve learned to keep the effects minimal:
Currently, we don't use much lighting or special effects. We like to stay raw and natural, with lots of energy and excitement within that.
On the other end of the genre-spectrum is Dead Day Revolution - an aggressive neo-punk three-piece from Los Angeles. If they never get to tour with The Rolling Stones, they’d go with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club or The Black Keys, but their time on the road so far has helped them brand a simple, unique stage presence:
We haven't gotten too crazy with special effects for live shows because of budget constraints. We usually stick to red lighting and, when possible, project an obscure silent film behind us while we play our set.
No matter what style of music you play, remember that it’s about the music first and special effects second.
One (or Three) for the Road
All the bizarre stories and close calls just fuel the passion if music is what you love, so here are some final tips from these touring musicians:
1 - Get some cheap Christmas lights
I use dollar-store Christmas lights on my mic stand. (This is a nice effect that also says, "I'm very poor.") Also, my guitarist, Corey Horn of Remedy Drive, installed some LED lights in my pedalboard. (This effect says, "My songs may be sad, but I know how to party.") - Levi Weaver
2 - Or just get creative
We try to get creative with lighting. Bruno puts light bulbs inside mason jars, which makes for a pretty cool mic stand decoration. We just try stuff to see what looks cool in all the different rooms we play. - The Vespers
One time we were playing in a basement at a party and the only light in the room was a bare bulb, it was much too bright and harsh, so we took a beer can, poked a bunch of holes in it, cut out the bottom, and put that over the bare bulb. That lighting was perfect! - Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band
3 - Hydrate, and never check your guitar on a flight
You have to stay hydrated or you will burn out. Also learn how to exert your voice in a way that doesn't shred it the first night. You have to break it in so its usable over a longer stretch. Guitarists, never, ever check your guitar. Bring it through security and store it in the overhead, or make nice with the flight attendants and ask to stash it in the front closet. - City Rain
On the Road Again
Whether you’re packing up for the first time, or losing count of how many months you’ve lived in a van, there are always more experiences to have and more to learn. One of the best things about touring is that you’ve never seen it all. Brace yourself for the challenges, remember to pack light, review some conventional wisdom, and go make music with your friends.