255 shows. $762 million. These are the final figures of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Divide’ tour, which has helped the artist to double his personal wealth to £170 million inside a year. But it wasn’t always this way. If ever an artist had humble beginnings in regards to touring, it’s Sheeran. Ed started his career playing anywhere and everywhere he could. Doubtless, if ten years ago you were to tell this notoriously modest former busker that he would one day have the top grossing tour in the world, he wouldn’t believe you.
But everyone starts this way. It may be difficult to imagine bands like Muse and Queen playing tiny rooms, but they really did. It takes perseverance and dedication – as does any career in the music industry – but touring is where bands truly master playing together. There’s also the fact that if you can survive three weeks in a van with a group of people, you’re probably going to be friends for life…
Aside from the size of the audiences that student bands play to, and the change in money this produces, the main difference between tours like Sheeran’s and student tours are that the latter are decidedly more DIY. While artists always have the final say on any contracts they enter into, they generally trust their representation – managers, agents, promoters – to make sure that everything runs smoothly.
Here are a few key things you should know if you’re going to set your own tour up.
You can’t book a tour unless you know where you’re going. It’s just common sense. But you shouldn’t just pin up a map, tie on a blindfold and start hurling darts at it. You need to be smart about it.
One of the main benefits that modern bands have is the analytics provided by social media and Spotify. These should be your main tools. Have a look at where people are listening to your music the most, then route your tour accordingly.
Once you’ve got a handle on exactly where people want to see you most, it’s time to start reaching out to promoters. If you can prove to a promoter that you can bring in a sizeable crowd, then you may be able to book your own headline gig. However, if you’re just getting going, look out for similar bands to yours that are playing at the same time and see if you can get on the bill as support.
Throughout this process, you should be making sure that you bear your route in mind. Aside from how much travel might cost, logistically it doesn’t make sense to be playing a show in Brighton on a Monday, Aberdeen on a Tuesday and Bristol on a Wednesday.
Another key piece of information for bands is that you should never pay to play. You’ll be expected to do most of the promotion yourself, and while it’s always worth putting your all into getting people down to your shows, ultimately it should be the promoter’s job. Often pay-to-play shows are hidden under the guise of ticket buys. But again, selling the tickets is the promoters’ job.
Finally, while the majority of the UK music industry truly want to help promote new bands and music, there are still some dodgy people out there. Even if you’re not being asked to pay to play, they may end up not giving you anything at all. To this end, you should find a basic touring contract template, fill it in with the specifics of your shows and get the promoters to sign before you play. At least if anything does go wrong, you will then have some legal recourse for payment after you’ve played.
Financing Your Tour
Touring isn’t free. Often smaller artists’ aim to just break even. Everyone going on the tour should have enough money to pay for basic things like food, and, as part of your routing you should be looking for the cheapest accommodation you can find wherever you play. Even better, if you have a strong fanbase, put out feelers to see if any of them would be willing to let you spend a night on their sofas.
In the world of professional touring, agents will ensure that a large chunk, usually 50%, of the artist’s guarantee is paid to the promoter upfront. This is held by the agency and then released to the artist, minus the agent’s fee and any other related expenses, once the rest of the money is paid after the show.
Occasionally, depending on the expenses needed to make the tour work, artists will request an ‘indemnity’, which means that the promoter will allow the money they’ve paid before the show to be released to the artist. The upside of this is that bands don’t have to finance tours out of their own pocket, but the downside is that if anything goes wrong and the show can’t go ahead, the artist is liable for repayment. It’s rarer for promoters to allow this for smaller artists, but if you’re really having trouble finding the money to get the tour started, it may be worth seeing if your promoter is willing to grant you an indemnity.
Your show fees shouldn’t be the only way that you make money on tour. Whenever you’re booking a show, check in with the promoter to see whether there will be space for you to sell your merchandise. This may come with a fee, generally 10-15% of the money you make from it, but this supplementary income could be key in helping you to break even, or even generate a bit of profit.
Try and get a bit inventive with what you’re selling, as well. Everyone sells t-shirts, but if you can create some cool designs on weirder items and find decent prices for having them made, you could end up selling a lot of merch.
But remember: you’re working to a tight budget, so make sure that you don’t get too enthusiastic and make more than you’re likely to sell.
Overall, you should try and enjoy your tour. Don’t make it too strenuous; book so you won’t be playing to empty rooms, and make sure that you take enough spare strings and skins, just incase you get a bit too enthusiastic on stage.