This “I’ve Always Wondered” question comes from Connor Cox, who works in digital marketing in San Diego: “I’ve always wondered how band managers decide what cities and which venues to book their touring acts.”
Cox says he’s a huge fan of live rock shows.
“On U2’s last tour, they played in Los Angeles, but they didn’t even stop in San Diego. Sometimes we’re just a second thought.”
To learn a bit about the economics of band tours, we checked in with a successful working-and-touring artist — Devon Allman, who is 42 years old, from Corpus Christi, Texas, son of the legendary southern rocker Gregg Allman. Devon Allman has a long discography of his own, recording and performing with his own bands and in collaboration with artists such as Cyril Neville and the Royal Southern Brotherhood.
This summer, Allman’s been on a national tour promoting his new album, “Ragged & Dirty,” and he played the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Oregon, on July 4 weekend. After his own band performed, he joined his father in a guitar jam to close the first night of the festival.
Backstage before his performance, Allman said he likes the touring life; he even liked it earlier in his career when he wasn’t all that successful on the road.
“As we get to about 10 minutes before show time, it gets exciting,” Allman said. “I don’t get nervous, I just get stoked, I really get pumped. Especially festival crowds — it’s such good energy.”
“Festivals are good money,” adds Jill Kettles, Allman’s Atlanta-based publicist.
A mid-tier artist can make tens of thousands of dollars for a single festival appearance. Plus, there’s often a nice hotel on site; there’s media buzz created by all the artists who are performing; and the festival does its own promotion and ticket sales, so the artist doesn’t have to work as hard to fill the seats.
Kettles says festivals are what you put up on the calendar first as anchor dates.
“Anchor dates can also be big cities like New York, Washington, Chicago, Dallas,” says Kettles. “And then you fill in with the Davenports, Toledos, Daytons — whatever.”
Kettles and other band-tour-planners say those in-between venues should be a manageable drive from each other, and most artists want a day off after they’ve performed several days in a row. Picking specific concert halls or clubs that have a history of drawing for the specific artist or for her/his genre of music is a plus. So is having some fans in the area that the artist can try to bring in through social media.
Still, says Kettles, dates between anchor performances can still be duds. Certain nights — like Tuesday and Wednesday — can be particularly hard to draw a big crowd.
“Playing for 50 people? Oh, yeah,” says Kettles, “you always end up playing for the sound man, the bartender and the waitress at one point. And it is sort of disheartening.”
The way tour dates are typically arranged, the venue offers the band a base payment, called the “guarantee.” It can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands or tens of thousands, depending on the size of the venue and the fame of the artist. The artist then often receives a percentage of ticket sales in addition to the guarantee, once the venue has taken a set cut for its expenses and profit.
The soul artist D'Angelo and his band The Vanguard is on a very successful world tour this summer, and played to a 1,500-person sold-out crowd in Portland, Oregon, in August before continuing on to Seattle and Japan. Tour manager Tina Farris says festivals are good, easy money, but it's the smaller cities and venues the artist plays in between that can make or break a tour.
“You do smaller shows to fill in those days off so you can keep your same staff on tour, otherwise you’re just spending money and not getting anything back," says Farris. “And keeping the smaller shows going is what keeps the mystique about the artist. The festivals are fun and everybody gets to party, but I prefer D’Angelo any day in a 1,500-seat room than a giant festival.” And she says with the decline in recorded music sales, touring is no longer optional for artists. “Everybody has to come out and tour to make money. That’s why you see the resurgence of the Eagles, they’re finally doing it, the 'last tour.' George Clinton’s going to do the 'last tour.'”
“It’s the crunch on the middle class,” Johnson says, “it’s hard for bands to make ends meet.” He says a sparsely-sold show may not pay the band enough to cover gas for the tour vans, food, hotel rooms and the crew. That’s why bands just starting out sometimes try to stay with friends or fans along the way.
Johnson says a band that’s invited to open for a big act on tour might be paid as little as $250 or $300 dollars per gig. Still, the tour could be worth it — to help the opening band build buzz, sell merchandise and get people who hear them live to pay to download their music later.
He knows of one up-and-coming bluegrass-Americana band, he says, that “got an opportunity to open up on a national tour for one of the heaviest hitters in bluegrass-Americana. That tour has opened up all of the East Coast markets to them, it was undoubtedly the best plan. But they lost at least $8,000 to $10,000 in a month.”
Our conclusion: Where a band stops on a tour is about the money — especially when the artist can line up several lucrative festivals that don’t require much additional marketing and expense on the artist’s part. But money isn’t the only consideration in tour planning. Bands may chose to fill in a tour calendar with venues that aren’t guaranteed to pay top dollar, but can provide exposure, new fans, media and social media buzz.