Is Anyone Making Money from Touring?

From the 1960s until the mid-1990s, touring was used a loss leader to sell more records. Labels would help fund expensive tours and reap all the benefits in the form of overpriced vinyl and CD sales. Touring was considered an essential marketing tool for a label to hold against the band's recordings until they had recouped all expenses. Sometimes the artists would even get paid too!

led zeppelin.jpg

In 1969, you could see Led Zeppelin for $5

That's equivalent to $33 today.

But then the Internet happened. Streaming singles has replaced buying albums, and touring has exploded. The model has flipped - music is now the loss leader for the "lucrative" tour. But who's actually making money on the road?


Something struck me after one of my bands completed a week-long tour out to the East Coast and back to Omaha. Eight hour daily drives, shelling out money on gas, Airbnbs, food, and a hired gun, and dealing with dicey promoters made for a long and somewhat unpleasant tour. One part of me says "this is just the grind" but the logical brain says "wtf are we doing out here."

We did a few things right with this tour - we booked a good mix of club shows, a house show, and a good-paying festival. We paired with local support in every city, and had free lodging one night. The band owns a van so we didn't have to rent a vehicle. We promoted heavily on social media and ticketing sites to get the word out. We brought multiple items of merch to sell. But we still lost money. We all thought, Is anyone actually making money on the road?

Then I did some research.

In 2012, the Future of Music Coalition published a case study which identified 72.3% of the average indie artist's income is tied to live performance. This figure included ticket sales and selling merchandise at live shows. While impressive, that number doesn't tell the whole story since gross tour income figures don’t factor in the expenses associated with touring.

The common costs of gas, lodging, crew, and other fees make touring difficult to scale; the longer you're on the road, the more expensive it gets. Not to mention these costs tend to increase more quickly and frequently than a band's average payout for a show.

Furthermore, touring is a revenue stream that requires constant output, and not all musicians are live performers to begin with.

In an recent MIDiA report, Mark Mulligan excellently details the touring artist's dilemma.

"Not all live music revenue is created equally: On average, around just 29% of live music revenue makes it back to the artist (after agents, costs etc. are factored in), while many artists don’t make any money on live until they’ve reached a certain level of scale. And that’s before considering that the top 1% of live artists (many of whom are aging heritage acts) account for 68% of all live revenue."

So what is that "certain level of scale" that turns your accounting books from red to black? Berklee College's Mike King and Benji Rogers discuss how to bridge the gap for indie artists.

Some key takeaways:

  1. Ask fans where they'd like to see you play. Apps like Rabbl and Fanswell allow fans to request you play their city, but you can always go with the tried-and-true email list or Facebook poll to gauge fans' interest.
  2. Embrace house shows. Utilize platforms such as Sofar Sounds or Concerts In Your Home which have guaranteed draws, or ask a friend or superfan to host you. You might gain lifelong fans, along with a free meal and place to crash.
  3. Run a ticket giveaway sweepstakes with your Facebook fans or email list. With Toneden.io, you can run a sweepstakes in exchange for social media follows or shares to get the word out.

This all seems like a lot of work. why tour at all?

You don't have to be a touring musician; not all songwriters or recording artists perform live. But if you want to be a performing artist, live shows are still the most effective platform for someone to experience your music and become a long-term customer.

According to Eventbrite’s 2015 Music Discovery Report, fans who buy concert tickets spend four times as much on CDs and downloads, 10 times as much on merchandise, and are nearly twice as likely to pay for a music subscription than non-ticket buyers. In short, live music fans are the best fans, and you want them on your side.

>>If you're a musician making a living on the road, I'd love to hear from you!<<