We’re going to drop some brain bombs right now. No band becomes an internationally touring sensation by never leaving Las Vegas. That isn’t to say it won’t be known. Weirder things have happened than a couple guys in Philadelphia becoming huge A Crowd of Small Adventures fans. And according to our piece last year about New Year’s Resolutions, touring is what every band ever needs to be doing all the time. But what does it actually take, this couch-surfing, penny-pinching, shower-skipping, gas-burning, roar-warrior lifestyle? To start with … all of that stuff.
“It takes a certain kind of person to be willing to put up with not sleeping in a comfortable bed, living off ramen, not showering every day and all the other stuff that comes with touring at this level,” says Patrick “Pulsar” Trout, local promoter and bassist for tour-seasoned band Ministry of Love. “There are tons of talented, amazing bands that can’t or won’t deal with it. And that’s OK. It’s not for everyone.”
But most bands don’t actually know what they’re dealing with when they start out, and won’t get it until they just spent $100 on gas to play an empty venue. The math adds up quickly. First, the numbers generated by an unknown, unseasoned and un-Pandora’d band aren’t going to be remarkable. In most cases, a $200 guarantee is a blessing. Bands usually just get a percentage of the bar profits or the door cover (not a big payout if you’re playing Roswell, New Mexico, on a Monday night). If the band doesn’t already own a van, a weekly rental through Enterprise can run from $420 for an uninsured minivan to $930 with insurance for a 15-passenger cargo van (oftentimes the amount of space you need for a band larger than five members). Even if you already own a van, driving hundreds of desert miles is asking for roadside assistance.
“The Dude City van is a 14-passenger with two benches pulled out,” says keyboardist Tsvetelina Stefanova. “It’s huge, has no A/C, it leaks in certain spots and the brakes are horrible. We’ve had to put in so much money to fixing it up. We just paid $750 for the brakes. And the back brakes still aren’t fixed. We bought it for $500 or $600, but after that we’ve put in at least $2,000 in repairs.”
And that’s just money. There are jobs to consider. Girlfriends and boyfriends and babies and dogs. Even the most gung-ho musicians we spoke to all left the caveat that there comes a time when you have to choose between being a musician and having a job or being a parent. “I thought it would be business as usual when I was having my first kid,” says Happy Campers singer Isaac Irvine. “But my son was born in an emergency C-section weighing less than 2 pounds with brain damage and several complications. He became priority No. 1. Having a handicapped son who was in and out of the hospital for first couple years definitely slowed me down. I imagine a healthy kid would, too. If you don’t have a lifestyle conducive to being out of town all the time and being broke all the time, then touring is not for you.”
The point is, being poor and uncomfortable is part of the deal, at least on the level of most local Vegas bands. The DIY punk kids might have it easier, since most cities have a Double Down equivalent or at least a popular squatter house with a shitty PA system. But for the local indie rock community, in its curious abundance, there aren’t many dirty dives that want clean music, and the bars that want clean music tend to take fewer chances.
But that doesn’t mean bands shouldn’t do it. There are smart ways to tackle a first tour. Instead of eating out, buy groceries (not at Whole Foods). Play weekend stints in cities less than four hours away (admittedly tough in the Southwest). Don’t insist on playing cool cities just because they’re cool — go because you have a good show (a place like L.A. already has plenty of good bands from which to choose). Target college towns later in the week. And understand that, at first, being in this to make money is stupid. You won’t make up the money you lost from taking time off work. But we, as in the global music-listening community, need you to suck it up. Because the only people who don’t give a shit about losing that money are trust-fund kids. And we’d rather donate our eardrums to stem-cell research than hear a bunch of O.A.R. sing-alikes.