I’m in a rock band called The Shrike. We go on a small tour annually in October.
As we just recently completed our Chase the Sun tour, I have lots of recent memories and observations to blog about.
Most of my friends probably don’t understand the gritty realities that being on tour actually entails. It’s certainly not glamorous or particularly easy. Touring is quite possibly the most fun I have playing in a band, yet also the most challenging. Many better writers than me have written entire books about tour life. But here is a glimpse of my shift from regular dude to on-the-road musician.
Before leaving for tour, my life centers around the regular things that we all do.
I am a new stepfather, so I spend a lot of time with my step kids. We have one girl and one boy in elementary school. I wake up at 6:15am no matter how tired I am to get them ready for school and walk them to the bus stop. I’ll go to their school with their Mom to meet with their teachers. Set up some volunteering opportunities at their school.
Of course I take care of my own mundane life needs like paying bills, grocery shopping, and keeping the household and vehicles going in smooth order
At night I enjoy running the bedtime routine for them. I’m in the bathroom with them, all brushing our teeth together. Or sending them through bath-time. The girl loves to create concoctions like she is a chemist making new cremes and body washes imbued with magical powers and named after celestial bodies. The boy likes to hold his breath underwater while I time him, also searching for bath toys and identifying them by touch. Every night I’ll read out loud to each of them for a long time until they fall asleep.
Before I headed out for our tour I printed a map of our route so they could follow along and know what state and city I was in while I was away.
Then before you know it….we launched our tour.
Now the focus of every day is event planning, coordination, networking, traveling, and juggling the minutia of spending 11 days on the road and managing 9 shows in 7 states.
Most of us have extensive background in attending the Burning Man festival and regional events, so packing some clothes and food in coolers for two weeks is something we can do in our sleep. Most of us have dietary needs and restrictions, so packing our own food is helpful and cheaper. Eating on the road is necessary but challenging to say the least. Some days you really only have time to find some food at the deli in the gas station while you’re gassing up. They’re known mainly for deep fried, unhealthy meat-based items. Or processed desserts and chips and donuts. Teriyaki beef jerky, goodbye to you.
We’re already spending too much time sedentary sitting in a car. We don’t have any opportunity to exercise or work out, so any poor eating choices we make we will pay for later. One of our band members is vegan and one is vegetarian. I decided to try eating vegetarian this tour out of solidarity, and for ease of choosing places to eat. The other band member decided to take that challenge along with me. So when we stopped at the gas station food marts, my stand-by item became egg salad sandwiches. Or, as they became known on this tour due to my tired slurring of my words, exile sandwiches. I must have eaten a dozen of those. Pro-tip: grab the condiment packets before you leave and add relish, mayo, and mustard to the exile sandwich to spice it up. Also, buy one to eat immediately and one to save in your cooler for later.
Your entire day is structured around the 45 minute set you will perform later that night. Sometimes it will be a longer set, depending on if we’re headlining and how many other bands are on the bill. But you don’t really think like you do when you grind away at an office job for 8 hours, looking forward to your breaks, slacking off, and trying to look busy. We are busy. Traveling, securing housing at friends or getting a cheap hotel. Reminding yourself the names of the people I’ve been communicating with for weeks if not months. The minute we enter the venue it’s time to interface with the booking agent, talent buyer, security guard, sound engineer, bartender, the other bands, managers, promoters, radio staff, and anyone else you might need to. Loading in heavy gear, making sure we locate safe storage and never leave the trailer unattended. Staging my drums, warming up, practicing. Creating a custom set list for this venue. Securing any food and drink tickets if applicable. Determining the correct person to find after the show se we can get paid out. Is it a door split or did we work out a guarantee? How much does the venue take out of the money for their expenses? How much does the sound engineer get paid from the door? Are the bands doing an even split, or if we are headlining is it more like 60% for us, and 20% each for the two opening bands?
This year we got to make a stop at a drum store so I could replace some gear. I noticed not one but two cracks in one of my cymbals during one of the early gigs. That makes the cymbal sound like crap, and it could easily destruct onstage during a show. I went to a drum store in Boulder, Colorado and found a great Zildjian rock crash cymbal. I also bought all new drum heads because I hadn’t changed my drum heads in months. I beat the hell out of my heads when I play, so they need more-than-regular changing otherwise they sound bad.
Then let’s load all our gear onstage for a sound check. This is where the sound engineer mics everything and tries everything out to ensure good sound. Each musician tries out their instruments while the sound tech dials it in so it sounds distinct and balanced. We’ll run through a song or part of a song so they can balance everything out in relation to each other. Supposedly these levels are recorded and saved for when we return to the stage later. Often we then remove all gear from the stage and store it backstage somewhere while the other bands go onstage and do the same thing for their soundcheck.
We wait. We get in our stage clothes, put on make up, put in contact lenses, try to find some healthy vegetarian food, finalize the set list. Put some friends on the guest list so they can get in free. We are all crashing on their couch later tonight, after all. If there is a green room, that’s the perfect place to tune guitars, play a challenging solo, warm up, and try to get in the right head space. Often our friends are outside and want to talk with us. Honestly, sometimes we’re on a mission and don’t have time for more than a 30 second check in. I used to think musicians that hid in their dressing rooms before the show were being arrogant wanna-be rock stars who wouldn’t take time for their fans or friends. Now I get it. It’s possibly the only time where you won’t be ‘ON’ and having to be talking with someone about something. It’s the last-minute calm before the storm. And we’ve got shit to do.
This tour we were on the ball and had a few live interviews set up with some of our favorite internet radio stations and honest-to-goodness real FM radio stations. Gotta set those up from the hotel room, at the venue, or even on the road when we pull over to talk on the phone with less road noise.
Did we make money at the door last night? Great. Let’s use it to fill the gas tank so we can drive for 7 hours to get to our next gig. Did we make more money selling merch last night? Cool, we can use the band bank account card to fill the tank up with gas. Some gigs don’t bring much money at all. But some gigs bring enough to splurge for a Motel 6 room with a shower, and a couple tanks of gas. I call that slingshotting us to the next gig with the money from a show where we actually have a following/crowd. If you can stagger those shows so you either have a decent guarantee, or you know you can bring a bunch of your friends, you’re golden. For this tour, our slingshot gigs were Portland, Billings, Reno, and Boise.
Hopefully we’ve delegated and divided duties so the merchandise table is set up and ready. Our cash box has appropriate change for people buying with cash, and our Square card reader is working and compatible with the smart phones of the band members or friends who are staffing the merch booth for us. For the love of all that is holy, please PLEASE buy some merch from a local band you like. That usually ends up being the only area that they may actually make some money. Door money is unpredictable and at the mercy of many factors and fees and charges that you often don’t know about until you’re being handed a too-small wad of cash at 2am. If you like a band at all, please drop a little cash to purchase their product and you will be loved forever. It really makes a huge difference. Much as we love playing music in a venue live, most bands are actually trying to run their band as a business and profit from their art. Bands are up against it already. I’ll blog another time about all the expenses and dedication and trying to get people to attend your shows.
Further, all the big established bands that you love started like this. There’s pretty much no such thing as an overnight success. Bands grind it out in clubs for years and put out numerous albums before that one thing happens that gets them on the radar of a crowd outside their hometown. Support local music. Bands play in small rock clubs charging a cover and trying furiously to build a following and a strong fan base for years before ‘making it big’.
So after the show it all begins again but in reverse. Break down our gear and get it the hell off the stage as fast as possible. Get it in the trailer. Thank all the other bands that played with you and try to get them to play with you again either in your town or theirs. Try to sequester some of your biggest fans to help you load out your gear quickly. Grab the money from the manager, sign any forms you need to sign, and drive to the hotel.
Your night is not over yet. Bands get all of their gear stolen all the time. Any trailer is a target. Any evidence that you are a touring band will draw attention you don’t want. Much as you’d love to have a huge tour bus that has your band name emblazoned across the entire side panel, don’t do it. That basically says, “Hey, there could be $20K of musical equipment in here. Want it?” We spend the extra time to load all of our gear into the hotel room with us. Piece of mind is priceless. If we had any of our gear stolen while on the road it would bankrupt us and possibly end the tour. Can’t take the chance. We have a story of a band we played 2 shows with on tour having this exact thing happen to them. So after loading all of our gear in the tiny hotel room, we might scarf down some leftover Chinese food and take a quick shower before passing out on the beds. Send a quick text to our partners back home so they don’t worry. And dream about starting this process all over again tomorrow.
And I honestly thought that I would have time to read books or write lyrics or blog from the road. Since it was October I even brought some horror films on DVD to play on a laptop at night. Silly Darren. Didn’t happen.