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Common Misconceptions about a Modern Music Career Part 3: You Have to Tour to Make a Decent Living

Common Misconceptions about a Modern Music Career Part 3: You Have to Tour to Make a Decent Living

Hey everyone, I hope you’re having a great start to September!  We’re going to wrap things up with our Misconceptions series this week and cover one final topic for now.  We might revisit this series in the future but for now I think we’ve laid in enough of a base to hopefully help you feel more empowered about taking a music career into your own hands if that’s something you’re interested in pursuing!  In case you missed any of the previous posts in this series, you can find Misconception 1 by clicking HERE and Misconception 2 by clicking HERE.

So let’s get right into our next big misconception and talk about touring, and more specifically the notion that as a musician, you have to tour (or regularly perform live) in order to make a decent living.  This hasn’t only been untrue in my own career, but also in the careers of most of the other successful independent musicians I know.

For a little bit of my background on the topic, I’ve performed over 75 of my own live shows within the last 5 years.  Most of those shows were performed as part of my own tours (I toured for about 1 month in the US in 2015, 3 weeks in Europe in early 2016 and a full month in Europe again in the fall of 2016), some were “mini tours” of 4 shows or less at a time, and others were just one-off performances. In terms of the financials, I’ve made a profit on the “mini tours” and one-off shows in the past, but I never made a profit from the larger tours, meaning I spent a TON of time and money preparing for and putting on all of those shows and still walked away losing money.

And those numbers didn’t come from poor planning or really exceeding a reasonable budget, it’s just sadly the reality for most musicians in the early stages of live performance.  Touring is just expensive even when you’re trying to be as financially responsible as possible. As an independent artist, you have to fund your own tours, and travel costs alone can easily outweigh what you earn from your shows early on, let alone if you plan on hiring any other performers or crew.  I only started trying out my own ticketed live shows in 2014 after I had established an audience and was earning a good income from album sales, streams, and other sources of income, and by the time I tried touring in 2015, my business was thankfully doing well enough to the point where I felt like I could experiment with touring and not be terribly stressed out about the finances.

And this is certainly a topic I can cover in more detail in another post for you guys if you’d like, but almost everyone loses money when they first start touring because the costs far outweigh what you’re able to earn performing to smaller crowds at cheap ticket prices.  You really can’t earn a lot with touring until you’ve reached a certain level in terms of venue size and ticket pricing, and you only get to that level once you’ve proven you can sell well in the smaller venues, so it usually takes a while before you make a profit touring, let alone a lot of money from touring.

But this isn’t to say that you can’t be successful with live performance or make it a large part of your business as an independent musician.  There are tons of artists out there who do make the majority of their living from touring and live performance, but just like the rest of these misconceptions we’ve been covering in this series, my point is to just get you to realize that you have a lot more options than you might be aware of when it comes to these topics, and for our discussion here, I want you to realize that you can still enjoy plenty of financial success without ever touring.

I think the reason why a lot of people think that you have to tour in order to earn a living as a musician nowadays is because this is actually one of the main topics about the music industry that I see getting quite a lot of coverage in the media.  The industry has consistently been reporting a decrease in album sales for years now, and a lot of the articles I see out there discuss how financially meaningful touring has become to an artist’s bottom line.

I’ve seen articles that break down different major artist’s earnings and it’s pretty crazy how much more money some artists are making from touring than from album sales, streaming, or anything else.  Go ahead and take a look at this article from Billboard

It’s so interesting looking at those numbers and how they break down for each artist, and at a glance I can see where a lot of people would assume that touring has to be the most meaningful source of income for musicians these days.  But one big thing to keep in mind here is that these types of articles you see in the media are usually always referencing the most financially successful musicians in the industry, not your average independent musician.

There are a lot of reasons why mainstream artists like that do actually rely on touring for the majority of their income, but a huge part of that reason is the way their label contracts are structured and how their earnings are split, something that’s not going to apply to an independent musician.  Also, to even come close to earning the kind of money from touring you’re seeing reported in that article, you’d have to be filling some incredibly large venues at high ticket prices, and as we’ve already discussed, it takes years to get to that level if you’re even fortunate enough to get there.

And a lot of how you view this really boils down to what financial success means to you.  I don’t make millions of dollars per year, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel financially successful.  I love my career, make what I consider to be a great living, and none of that financial success has come from touring.  And I know of SO many successful independent musicians who are making incredible livings who have never toured.

If you do like to perform live but either don’t have the means to put together a tour or just don’t want to spend the time and money setting one up, you can still perform live online through a number of live streaming platforms, and this is something we cover in a lot of detail in the Musician of All Trades program. There are so many sites now where you can live stream your own performances right from your own home, and many of them have the option for people to donate or pay you a subscription fee. Some can even be ticketed events online where you set a minimum price for people to enter the live stream and watch you perform.

Live streaming on Twitch in 2017 with my friend Lara de Wit 

The really cool thing about streaming online vs. performing on tour is that you have the ability to connect with people from all over the world, not just whoever lives in the specific geographical location where you’re physically performing, so that’s a pretty incredible advantage.

And again guys, I’m not at all trying to say that you can’t be successful with touring as an independent artist, or that you can’t make a good living from touring, because there are tons of independent musicians out there who are really successful with live performance and who’ve made it an integral part of their business.  You can certainly be financially successful touring as an independent musician, but you can also be just as financially successful even if you never tour!

My whole point here with all these misconceptions is to get you to see that there are far more paths to success than most people think or are even aware of, and hopefully what you’ve been reading here helps make you feel more empowered and that pursuing this type of a career is a lot more realistic than you may have believed.  We’ll be back again soon with another post but until then, I hope you have a great rest of your week!