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Should Independent Musicians Go On Tour? The Bitter Truth

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[Editors Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]

Should Independent Musicians Go On Tour?

A dream for many unseasoned musicians is to spend night after night on the road winning over fans and honing in their musical craft. 

Until recently, the unwritten promise of touring has been that musicians will gain experience and opportunities for their careers that they couldn’t have found otherwise, but that’s beginning to change in a fundamental way.

The Case Against Touring For Independent Musicians

As someone who’s spent the past decade playing music in tiny venues scattered around the country, I think most small artists are better off focusing their efforts writing as much great music as humanly possible from home instead of promoting music on the road. Here’s why: 

You’ll lose money––and time, more importantly

If you’re a big artist generating loads of monthly plays over streaming platforms, then touring happens to be one of the last reliable ways for you to earn money. 

Global News profiled some of the world’s largest artists and found that the vast majority of their earnings were made from touring. But things couldn’t be more different for small, unestablished artists. 

If you choose to tour before you’ve built significant followings in the cities you play in, you’re bound to lose money. 

It makes sense to think of touring as an investment if you’re a small band, but the important thing to consider is whether the money you’ll put into touring will ever pay off with tangible results like more fans or opportunities for your music. 

Money is a big deal for small, struggling bands, but I’d argue that time is an even more important commodity. DIY touring eats up a massive amount of time, and I’m not just talking about weeks, months, or years spent on the road. 

It takes months and months to pitch and follow up with venues, plan routes, line up accommodations, and contact press outlets. Touring can and often does produce great experiences for smaller musicians, but pursuing tours isn’t often a great way to spend your time if you haven’t built an audience yet. 

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Today’s playlist-driven listening culture favours artists that consistently release music over those who don’t. Spotify founder Daniel Ek recently estimated the number of new songs being added to the platform at around 40,000 each day. 

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With more new music being released than ever before, listeners are getting impatient when it comes to waiting for their favorite artists to come out with new music. 

Audiences are more patient with larger acts, but they don’t usually feel the same way about smaller ones. If you wait too long to release new music, the fans you’ve managed to win over might not stick around.

Instead of releasing a small amount of music and spending months of your time trying to promote it through planning and executing tours, you’re most likely going to be better off by putting everything you have into making the best music you can at home. 

More time making music at home means more chances to develop your voice as a music-maker

High musical output has never been more important for musicians because of changing listening habits, but forgoing tour to stay home brings a timeless benefit for developing musicians: more chances to make music that resonates with listeners in a meaningful way. 

Planning a month-long DIY tour to promote a debut EP will demand tons of time and energy and money to pull off without any guarantee your efforts will result in real progress for your career. And how great is that EP of yours, anyway? Is it worth losing money and valuable songwriting time over?

It takes many unestablished artists years of making music to find their voices and develop their talents. Singles, an EP, or even a debut album that you’ve released probably isn’t you at your very best if you’re new and unestablished. 

This means that taking a break from the crucial process of writing and experimenting to tour probably isn’t worth it as an unknown artist. This advice only applies, however, if you’re willing to actually spend the time you would’ve been touring by making music seriously. 

Using the months it would’ve taken you to book shows and tour to write will absolutely be fruitful, but you have to spend that time working hard to create music consistently. 

It isn’t exciting to think of your work as a musician like a conventional job, but if you only write when you feel like it, it won’t matter if you spend your creative efforts out on the road or at home because you probably won’t be successful in the long run.

Should Independent Musicians Go On Tour - Answer: Tour when You Have To

Stacked up against the exciting promise of touring around the country to play music, party, and meet people, this advice probably sounds unsexy but that doesn’t make it any less true or important. 

Don’t get me wrong. Touring does bring benefits to small bands. I wouldn’t be the songwriter I am today because of the years I spent performing in small venues around the country as an unknown, struggling artist. 

I’m still so close with musicians I met a decade ago on tour that I was a groomsman in one friend’s wedding and the officiant of another’s. 

But between today’s rapidly evolving music climate and my personal experience of playing to empty rooms night after night through most of my music career, I think unknown musicians are best off touring seriously only when their music has become so well-known that there’s an actual demand for them to. 

The urgent creative energy that often comes along with making music as a new or unknown artist is an incredible resource, but it doesn’t last forever. 

Using that energy to create new music instead of promoting old music through touring will help small artists develop their careers and improve their chances for meaningfully connecting with audiences. 

Put in simpler terms, all an artist has to do is ask if spending months or years of their early careers touring will take more from them than it will give back. 

If you have any doubts, put your efforts towards making great music at home and playing local shows. Good things can and will happen in your music career, but not without great music. 

Patrick McGuire

Patrick McGuire

Patrick McGuire is a musician and writer living in New Mexico. His work has been featured in Slate and Variety.

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