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The Single Most Important Lesson I Learned On Tour

Touring is a complex, daunting, and exciting thing. As an independent band, you might think the hardest thing about touring is booking all the gigs. But you’d be wrong. The internet makes it easy to book gigs. Facebook, email, and Google are basically all you need. Another thing you need to know: most venues will treat you like a booking agent/promoter, meaning you’ll have to find bands to play with you. Again, Facebook and email are essential for booking, and some bands will be happy to help you find more support to fill out the bill.
The toughest touring hurdle is the finances. Even (and especially) if you’re signed to a label, the financial aspect can be a nightmare. Labels want you to sell lots of tickets so you can pay for all the support they’re providing. Since most people just listen to music for free online, you’ll notice that most touring bands charge a lot more for shows now. That’s because they need to make money to pay for the recording and everything else.
If you’re not signed to a label and you’re putting together a DIY tour, your band’s finances are the number one issue to consider. Ready to hear about just how nightmarish it can get? Kick back for a minute and listen to my story.

Beauty and the Credit Beast: A Tour Tale

If you’ve read any of my articles here on Music Think Tank, you may have stumbled across the fact that I was once in a band called the The Kitchen. One day, the guitarist and primary singer for The Kitchen decided to quit her job and book a tour. No joke. That’s the first clue as to what was wrong. You need a job that will allow you to take time off and come back, unless of course you decide that from here on out you’re going to do nothing but tour constantly and live on the road. Nothing wrong with that idea, but for many it’s unrealistic. 
When my bandmate decided she wanted to book a three week tour, me and the drummer loved the idea. Problem was, I had a job that would allow me to do it, but the drummer didn’t. He was a college student living on student loans. The fact that both of my bandmates didn’t have secure financial positions should have triggered emergency beacons in my brain. Instead, I came up with an idea: We could use my good credit to open a band credit card, with which we could fund the trip.
First, I figured out that we could set the band up as a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC). That way, we could write our touring expenses off on our taxes. This was actually a good idea — if only I had followed through with it. The plan was to have our tour manager keep receipts and handle the secretarial duties. You’ll find out soon enough why that didn’t work out. 
So, I went through the necessary legwork, and we set off in my ‘87 Dodge Prospector, hunting for tour gold.

A Bad Dive

Fast forward to Oakland, CA. We played a fairly successful gig at the Totally Intense Fractal Mindgaze Hut, a warehouse/apartment building/studio that ended up catching fire years later. We made around $200 dollars there, not bad for a supporting act, which we shared equally with our tour manager, Abby. 
The next day we went to a burger joint in downtown Oakland. Abby had a burger, a fateful burger. The meat was contaminated with Listeria, which is one of the major food related public health issues documented by public health officials. Listeria can survive refrigeration and moderate heat. They must not have cooked Abby’s burger nearly enough to kill the the bacterium.
Abby was out of a commission for the rest of the tour. We actually had to take her to the hospital, after which she ended up staying in a hotel in San Francisco on her parents’ tab. Too bad she couldn’t enjoy it, because she rarely left the bathroom.
We were two weeks in. The whole time, we’d been handing receipts from credit card purchases to Abby. She’d lost them. And our credit card purchases kept getting more exorbitant. What’s more, we weren’t making money at all of our shows. We made our way down to Huntington, CA, and played a disastrous show. The drummer and guitarist were both blackout drunk and we could barely hear anything. Then we went back up the West Coast, making stops in Eureka, Portland, and Tacoma. This whole time, we were using the credit card to get by.

A Big Bill

We didn’t make nearly enough money playing shows to cover our credit card tab, which was around $3K. When it came time to file taxes, I thought I needed paper receipts. What I did need was the original receipts from the merchants in electronic form. But everything was helter skelter for me — I’m not the bookkeeping type. I decided not to file taxes for The Kitchen LLC.
At any rate, I was now stuck with a credit card bill because I was the original guarantor on the card — it was my credit on the line, and I had to play collector with the other two band members. One of them took off and didn’t start making payments until this past year. Our tour was five years ago. The other bandmate went through a period of serious instability. I had to help her back on her feet and the credit card bill was the last thing on my mind. 
After more than a year of missed payments I started making payments but by then my credit was screwed. I eventually found a credit repair guide. Payment history is 35 percent of your credit score, and total debt is another 30 percent. I was in a hole on both payment history and total debt. 
Things are improving as we’re making payments and whittling away at the debt, but it’s an excruciating battle because the interest rate is high. Interest goes like this: each time you shovel dirt into the hole, a catapult at the bottom throws some back out at you. 
The most important lesson I learned is not to go on tour until you’re financially ready. There’s nothing wrong with turning your band into an LLC, but don’t put expenses on a credit card unless you’re ready to keep track of all of them and write them off. Figure out how you’re going to swing things financially and then go on tour, not the other way around. Oh, and don’t go on tour with people who are a financial wreck.   


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