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Crunching the Numbers: DIY Touring in 2018 – David Rovics


David Rovics is a Portland-based singer songwriter of “Songs of Social Significance”. Originally published as a blog on his website, in this article David explains the economics of touring as a politically committed artist who still needs to pay the bills. We would like to thank David for permission to use this article.

I suddenly feel compelled to do some public number-crunching, in case it interests anybody. It’s mainly for self-therapy. Also, things are constantly changing in the indie music biz, such as it is, and I haven’t done a public number-crunching in a while.

Yes, I did have an experience which led me to feel compelled to write this post, which was someone in England asking me if I could do a benefit concert for £100 ($140). For an emotionally stable person, receiving an email asking if you can do a benefit concert shouldn’t be so stressful. Which probably is an indication that I’m not emotionally stable, because I was thrown into a morning-long wave of panicked thoughts. Which then made me think, that’s weird, maybe there’s something wrong with me. In any case, I thought, I need to explore these thoughts and feelings a bit further by writing about them.

The triggery thing about this particular email, unbeknownst to the nice man in England, is that it is exactly this sort of email that started becoming the norm in the United States for me years ago, which is basically what led to me not touring in the US anymore. I replaced US tours with more Europe tours, and this has worked out fine for me so far. But if things go in Europe the way they did in the US with regards to my concert tours paying the bills for me and my family, then I’ll have to get a job doing something other than playing music. (Which is a cause for panic, evidently.)

My initial response to the email was to say something along the lines of “are you kidding?” Which then made me think, wow, that sounds a bit arrogant on my part. Maybe rather than “are you kidding,” some more well-thought-out response could be helpful, at least for someone out there. (I always figure if there’s one person vocalizing a thought like “can you do this benefit concert for £100,” there are probably a thousand other people thinking it without expressing it in an email to me.)

Attempting to understand the orientation of the person posing this question to me, I thought, one thing that can sometimes be hard for a regular hourly or salaried worker to understand is the overhead involved with touring, and with being a self-employed contractor kind of worker instead of the sort who receives a paycheck on some kind of predictable basis. If someone is thinking £10 an hour is a living wage in England today (at least theoretically, outside of the major cities) and so £100 seems like a generous amount of money for someone to sing for a couple of hours, then this might be understandable. (Even though it’s completely wrong.)

Another way to understand the person posing the £100 benefit question is that they assume I’m independently wealthy, or that I make so much money from other gigs that I can afford to play benefit gigs for £100 now and then. While I’m not independently wealthy, a fair number of people out there are, but I wouldn’t tend to assume they are, and probably this guy wasn’t doing that, either. The idea that I have enough wiggle room to do the occasional lower-paying gig is actually true, or at least I like to fantasize that it is, and I do gigs like that regularly in the US. For reasons that I usually hope are obvious, I don’t tend to do that much when I’m on the other side of the Atlantic.

But what really compelled me to write this now is that this is the Ballad of a Wobbly World Tour, and I would especially like to be completely upfront with all the IWW folks out there who are organizing shows for me on this tour. Contract work is different from the kind of work most of us do, and I want to be very clear about the fact that all I’m doing is making a living wage — nothing more. (If I made more, the first thing I’d do is move into a bigger place — not that I’m complaining.) So what this is is a breakdown of what it looks like to make a living wage as a touring musician — not more, not less. At least one or two aspiring accountants out there might find this interesting, along with aspiring musicians…

And Now the Numbers

Our hypothetical working musician tours a total of half of a typical year. During the other half of the year he’s with his family, hanging out with the kids, booking the next tour, writing songs, making recordings, etc.

During that six months out of the year that he is touring, each month he is playing gigs every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. On many weeks he’s also got one or two gigs on the other nights of a given week, but for realism purposes let’s say he does gigs around 4 out of every 7 nights, or between 16 to 20 gigs in a month of touring.

OK, so say he’s doing a one-month tour of Europe, half of which is in continental Europe, and the other half in the British Isles. Between the flight from Oregon to Amsterdam and the flights between continental Europe and the islands, he’ll spend $1,200 on flights. (He’s got heavy, expensive suitcases, too.) He gets a great deal on renting a car to travel with for a total of $600 a month. (The credit card comes with insurance, so he doesn’t spend extra money on that, of course.) During the course of a month of driving around Europe he’ll easily spend $400 on fuel, tolls, and parking. Eating frugally but eating out, the musician will spend an average of $30 a day on food and drink, totaling $900 in a month.

That’s $3,100 he needs to make, just in order to cover the expenses involved with leaving home. If the musician does gigs every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the month — 16 gigs — then each gig needs to pay at least $193 in order for him to break even. So presumably when someone says “what are your traveling costs,” we can in this case say $193 per gig are the “traveling costs” — the cost of leaving home.

But wait! The musician has rent to pay back home, and a month of touring needs to pay for another month of not touring, plus he’s got two kids. So, adding the cost of rent back at home — let’s say his rent is my rent, $1,100 for a two-bedroom apartment for a family of four — that’s another $2,200 he needs to make to break even, if breaking even includes not returning home without one.

And then the family needs to eat. Add another $600 a month (they’re very frugal and never eat out), or $1,200 for two months. Now, in order to cover food and rent back home plus traveling expenses for this hypothetical tour, we need to make $6,500. If the musician does 20 gigs rather than 16, each gig needs to pay an average of $325. Add in other monthly expenses like car insurance, cell phone, internet access back home, clothing that needs to be bought occasionally, and we’re easily up to $7,700 that the tour needs to cover. With 20 gigs, that’s $385 per gig.

There are some ways to lower those costs, such as doing two-month tours of Europe instead of one-month, thus lessening the costs involved with air travel. There are also frequent flier miles, so every couple of years I’m able to lower that expense significantly that way. And of course all of this math assumes the musician is never staying in hotels. If he were, that would add enormously to cost per gig to make it work. And maybe this hypothetical musician also has to cover costs like health insurance or student loans. As a college dropout I never had the student loan problem, and in Oregon my family gets free health care because we’re just poor enough to qualify for it. (So I can thank the taxpayers of Oregon that I only need to average $385 per gig.)

As you may have already guessed, even in Europe, many of my gigs pay significantly less than $385. This is why even though touring in the US is impossible under the traditional indie model I use in Europe (I’m trying a new, from-the-tickets-up model for what I hope will be a significant US tour in 2019), the model also just barely works in Europe, even with all well-organized left groups, unions, squatters and others putting on the gigs.

Enter 2018 — Digitization, Atomization

One of the various collection of seismic differences between touring a decade ago and touring now is merch sales. That is, there aren’t any anymore.

Pausing for a moment to look at the numbers above, and how in most cases making this happen means local organizers working their asses off night after night in town after town, on a volunteer basis, in order to get 40 or 50 people to pack into a venue that is usually just barely big enough to seat that many people, so that I can do a concert for them, it seems easy to imagine (at least to me, having lived it) that it doesn’t often work out as hoped. Crowds are fairly often not what had been hoped for, and other things can happen, too.

If you can imagine how things might not always work out so well when you’re relying almost entirely on volunteers to organize almost all your gigs, and very few people have ever heard of you in the first place, then you can imagine how selling merch was the difference between survival and not-survival. Which is the main reason why so many artists that were touring a decade ago are not touring now.

I used to sell an average of $200 worth of CDs (and other merch, but mostly CDs) at a typical concert. That still happens every once in a while, but it’s far more typical now that I’ll sell more like $40 in merch on a typical night — often less. I sell t-shirts, but from my experience, very few people want to buy them. People are on tight budgets most of the time, and if they can pay for a night out to hear a concert, that doesn’t mean they can easily pay for a CD — not when they can listen to everything for free on Spotify.

The new digital world is one thing to deal with — which for me and many people at my level in the game has meant making $100 a month from streaming services instead of $200 per gig from CD sales. You don’t even need to do the math to understand what a profound difference this is in the life of a self-employed person who is engaged in what was a marginal profession in the first place. I have personally managed to cope at least to a significant degree with the loss in merch sales through starting a Community-Supported Art program. Unfortunately many other musicians haven’t managed to make this transition, essentially from selling to begging, or they don’t want to try.

Enter atomization. The day before I got the “can you do this benefit gig for £100” email, I got a message from someone in another European country who said the local IWW chapter had not had a physical meeting since January.

This is a phenomenon that has become rife in the United States, and, it seems, it is spreading across the ocean and infecting who knows where else in the world. That is the phenomenon of organizations essentially existing in name only, or at least on Facebook only. They have “meetings” via social media group chat, and they get nothing done.

Real organizing needs to happen with real meetings, which happen in real rooms with real people in them, looking at each other and talking to each other and taking notes and making concrete plans. Or at least that’s my impression, since these Facebook-only organizations never organize gigs for me, and don’t seem to organize much else in the real world either. The ones who have real meetings do. Which, til now, has included pretty much all of the groups in Europe I work with. I hope that continues to be the case.

I can’t predict the future, but there’s a little snapshot of what it looks like to be a DIY touring musician in the present day, anyhow.

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