Music

Stolen Vans, Ancient Gear & the ‘Livable Basics’: How Artists Tour On a Budget

Quasi has exactly two members, and the indie-rock band can afford exactly one hotel room while headlining clubs and theaters through the end of July. “Any increase in that — if we decide we want an additional musician or a sound engineer or someone to help us sell our merch — that pushes us into two rooms,” says Janet Weiss, the duo’s drummer. “And we’re not going to come home with money.

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“Costs have increased so much,” continues Weiss, the former Sleater-Kinney drummer. “There isn’t that revenue source — records — to fall back on to get the show funded the way you would like it to be. It’s a combination of the economy and the streaming economy.”

To cope with the astronomical costs of just about everything on the road, club and theater performers cram into as few hotel rooms as possible; swap houses with friends to avoid Airbnbs; spend hours manning merch tables rather than hiring crew for the job; and postpone that long-awaited van-to-bus upgrade. “We went on a full U.S. tour two years ago and found that costs skyrocketed while we were on the road,” says Peter Silberman, singer for indie-rock band The Antlers. “That really ate into our profits in a way that we did not anticipate, even in our worst-case-scenario budgeting. I came back from that tour really wanting to economize.” 

Billboard spoke to nine 2024 touring artists, from singer-songwriter Caroline Rose to rockers English Teacher to doom-metal band REZN, about how they stay afloat amid price spikes for hotels, buses, crew and (depending on what part of the country they’re driving in) fuel.

Janet Weiss, Quasi:

We’re feeling the squeeze, for sure. Hotels are really outrageous — a Holiday Inn Express for $320 plus tax? That’s unheard-of. It’s harder and harder to make a profit if you have any sort of crew at all. 

As much as we love touring, it’s not something we can do if you don’t come home with enough money to cover the weeks you’ve been gone. You’re going to have your car, home, health insurance — which costs a fortune — your pet-sitting, you know? So our solution is to scale it way, way back, as far as how many people we tour with.

We’re not spring chickens, but we’re healthy enough to be able to do it. It’s really hard to do everything ourselves — sell the merch, set up the gear, drive, deal with a different sound person every night, explaining our setup and how we want it to sound, and the lights. I would love to bring a few cool lights and have an extra person who would help with gear, but the rooms are so expensive, it’s nearly impossible. After Covid, costs are so high. They never came back down.

Matt Korvette, vocalist, Pissed Jeans:

We definitely feel it. The thing that stands out is the band meal the morning after the show. Usually, that’s the most relaxed and largest meal you’ll have for the day together. You’ll wake up, go to a place to eat and hit the road and finagle some dinner later. That’s an easy $100, where it used to be like $50 for four people.

One thing that’s different than previous years is no one has a van you can borrow. There aren’t the same networks of bands with vans. Everyone outsources it now. There are expensive van-rental companies for Sprinters. That’s been a drag. 

We owned one [van], then sold it during Covid. We were just paying insurance for this thing that just sat there. So that was a hindrance. We sold it to a local metal band who we weren’t familiar with. I would see it around town, and apparently it got stolen from them. They added a Motörhead flag to cover up the window and it would be pleasant to see every now and then, like a little reminder. And now it’s gone.

We’re going to play in Baltimore in a couple months, two hours from Philly, and we’ll probably take three separate cars rather than figure out some sort of van. That’s one of the ways we’ve made things work, in a slightly more awkward way. It doesn’t have the same feel of rolling up to a show.

We all have main jobs outside of the band. It makes the band more thrilling and fun and free, a hobby rather than something that we’re staring at show metrics and wondering if we’re going to have to partner with a soft drink on Instagram to be able to pay rent. We miss out on really breaking through to a larger audience, let’s say, but we’ve made peace with that.

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Lily Fontaine, singer, English Teacher:

The things we’re having to cut back on are guitar techs and lighting engineers and drum techs. It’d create a smoother show for the audience, and it’d be quite normal at this point in our career to have that. But that’s extra hotels, extra flights, extra food. It’s been an agreement with all of us that as soon as we can have a regular guitar technician, at the very least, that’s something that we want to have. It’s been explicitly talked about.

We have band members share rooms. Last year, all of us were in one room. We’re lucky enough to be able to have twin rooms. Not a lot of bands get to have that. We’ve been on tour for months now, so having space is really good.

Caroline Rose, singer-songwriter:

Prices of buses have just gone up astronomically. It feels like the carrot that’s been dangling in front of my face for years now. It makes it more economical touring in a van, so we all shove in there like sardines.

We extended the tour to two months to make it profitable. The longer we were on the road, the more we could profit. It was a little past break-even point.

We had a VIP access for most of the shows, in the venues that we had the infrastructure to do so. That allowed people to see our short film that we made. That helped offset a lot of costs. It’s really important to have an enticing production. We have found clever ways to make it look good without costing a fortune. I call it “DIY pro.” All the equipment that we use is pretty ancient and held together with coat hangers and rope and things we end up returning when the tour is done. 

All of us wear multiple hats. My guitarist, who also plays keys, does all of our playback, and she’s a genius with tech. My tour manager is basically a production manager. My manager is helping advance all the shows from afar. My sound engineer does almost all of the driving. We change our own tires. I’m very skilled with engines! We have a rotating hotel room. If somebody was having a rough day or needed some time alone, they would get that hotel room to themselves.

Most people still think it’s the ’70s, where we’re partying every night and hanging out with bands and going out and getting wasted. The reality of being an independent musician today is so drastically removed from that. We’re not Taylor Swift. We’re not these huge bands that are selling out arenas. We’re still the working-class musicians that are supporting this industry at the grassroots level.

David Bazan, Pedro the Lion:

We’ve got it whittled down to the livable basics. It’s a three-piece band. You can’t really go fewer than that on stage. Then two crew — one sound person and one manager-person.

At first, in coming back [in 2017, after a lengthy break-up], we came [out] with a lighting designer and a whole lighting rig. When we started touring again after the lockdown, we didn’t have a lighting rig or an LD anymore. I don’t know if we’ll get to the place, income-wise, where we can afford that. But as soon as we can, I would like to reinstate it. It’s such a lovely element to have.

If it got so bad that we weren’t actually breaking even on the tour, I would just tour less and save up and pay for it. It’s something I want to do. The nut we’re rolling with right now is what it costs to do it with care and responsibility.

Rob McWilliams, singer, doom-metal band REZN:

We have five people in our touring party. Four people in the band [and] our merch person. We all just manage our tour stuff ourselves. We all share one hotel room — just a bunch of dudes in one hotel room sharing beds and a pullout couch. That helps save costs, for sure. Luckily, I don’t mind spending time around these guys. It just feels like you’re on vacation with your family. You’ve just got to share a bed with your brother. But you’ve got to stagger those showers.

If we get another hotel room, that’s maybe another $150-$200. Is that worth our comfort, in that we will technically get paid less at the end, because it will eat into the profits at the final day of the tour? It was a brief conversation. We’ve been doing it this way for over a year, and it’s been going well: “We’ll just keep it going.” We’re thinking about bringing a sound person. That’s our next goal. The expenses of another hotel room — that’s a pretty big step. 

Peter Silberman, The Antlers:

In planning this tour, we had our sights set on cutting down costs. I don’t think there’s one magic solution for artists. It requires being granular with your budgeting and your accounting.

With this tour, we’ve teamed up with Okkervil River. The idea was to do everything we could to share the burden, and that involves traveling in one vehicle, sharing all the expenses, minimizing the amount of equipment we’re bringing out and the amount of crew — basically, zero crew. We have somebody who is tour-managing remotely, advancing shows and being in touch with promoters. We’re not traveling with a sound engineer, we’re using all the house sound engineers and merch sellers. 

All of us are accustomed to a DIY approach to touring and have done that on and off throughout our careers. So the skill set is already there.

Jess Williamson, singer-songwriter:

I’m doing a regional tour around Texas. I live part time in Los Angeles and part time in Marfa, Texas. I made Austin the base for my band for our rehearsals. I could do a house swap for my house in LA for a friend’s house in Austin. That’s one way I kept costs down. We’re here five out of seven nights. We’re sleeping in Austin. We have this kind-of-free, really nice place to stay. It would have been a lot if we had to rent an Airbnb.

Last year, money was a little tighter. This year, things are going really well. I definitely do a lot, though, to make it work.

I hope people realize how important it is, for the artist, to buy something at the merch [booth]. The fees from the shows only go so far, but merch is directly contributing to the artist’s pocket. Going out to the merch every night, it really helps with my sales, and I love to do it. It’s not the easiest thing to do after you’ve played. Sometimes I’m at the merch for an hour and a half, standing and talking to people. It wears on me. I do it because it helps with sales, and I need to move the merch to keep the tour afloat.

Eric Earley, guitarist, Blitzen Trapper:

I’ve got a daughter who’s seven. When they’re that age, I don’t want to miss too much. So two weeks is my limit, at this point, of shows in a row. I’ll do two or three of those a year and we’ll do fly-outs or one-offs, festivals here and there, if it makes sense.

With Covid, a bunch of the guys were tired, and I took over the business side. I started making some decisions, because I have a family: Is it worth it to go on the road? Part of that was, “I think I just want to do a four-piece now.” But I would love to add another member at some point.

Because we live in Oregon, if you want to get to the East Coast without flying, and still make money, you have to route a tour that’s at least three weeks. If we’re going to do the East Coast, we’ve got to fly and rent all the gear and the vehicle out there.

I really enjoy shows and touring, so there’s a level of fulfillment that’s not attached to a monetary value. It’d be easier to do a day job. Music business is a rough business, but if you love playing music and make some money off it, it’s worth it.

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