Trying to become a professional touring musician or crew member can sometimes feel like trying to join a secret club—one with no official or well-distributed codes of conduct. It takes years of experience to discover the ‘rules,’ often learning through your own embarrassing wish-the-ground-would-swallow-you-whole kind of mistakes.
It’s always tough to be the new kid who has no idea what everyone’s talking about when the group rave about DC’s 9:30 Club cupcakes or how many drivers their JH Audio in-ears should have, or what a ‘junk bunk’ is. So, I’d like to offer a bit of a shortcut around the learning curve. I discussed what this list of advice should look like with many other people who tour and decided to separate it into two parts: “rules to live by” and “tour hacks.” Some of this stuff may seem obvious, but common sense can sometimes go MIA. If the advice here also seems a little strict, I find that’s it’s good to err on the side of caution on a new tour, and often things become more relaxed as you learn how everybody in the camp works.
I hope my two cents will help the touring newbies out there and that these suggestions will make the experience seem less like one long camping trip.
RULES TO LIVE BY
1. Be organised, punctual and don’t drive your tour manager up the wall.
Leave your house with a valid passport or ID. Remember to pack everything you may need—for longer tours this may include a cover-all-bases toolkit and medical kit. Read any ‘day sheets’ or schedules that management or a tour manager sends you properly. You’ll receive these by email or Master Tour which is an app a lot of tour managers use. Some people use Google Calendar too. Try not to bombard your tour manager with too many questions, especially if the information is readily available to you—check the day sheet first for answers. Look on the wall of the dressing room for a piece of paper displaying set times and the wifi password. Allow plenty of wiggle room to show up to the airport/lobby call/soundcheck on time. Request guest list at the appropriate time – don’t ask your tour manager 10 minutes before the show. Make sure your phone is charged and check you’ll have data if you’re going overseas. My friend Jonny put it best: “It’s better to be known as someone people can rely on than someone who often has to rely on others.”
2. Be polite, have a flexible attitude and remember people’s names.
What’s not a great look? You, when keep forgetting your local runner or sound engineer’s name. Learn it, and ask for what you need from them politely. After many days of shows, tiredness can be sure to help manners slip, and you need to remember that it isn’t the fault of the local crew at today’s venue that you had a shitty show last night/your bus broke down/you missed your partner’s birthday party/your drummer didn’t shower today and you’ve been in a van with them for five hours.
3. Respect everybody’s space.
This statement covers many areas, so I’ll dive in.
If you are an opening band:
Respect the headliner’s stage. Don’t go on stage until they are done with their soundcheck and have told you the stage is yours. Don’t touch or move their things without asking—when the stage is given to you, you’re usually expected to work with the space you are given. If time is short and you want to change-over for your soundcheck quickly, you could have your drums built and other equipment out of their cases ready on the venue floor or side of stage. Get your ‘dead’ (empty) cases out of the way after soundcheck. After your set, load your equipment off the stage quickly—don’t disappear to grab a beer and say hi to your friends. Don’t leave it sitting in corridors—pack your equipment away and do it outside if you’re short on room. You’ll need to be out of the way and the stage doors will be closed when the headliner goes on, so if you want to load out you’ll have to do it before they go on, or after they finish—not during their set. If you want to watch the headliners show at the side of the stage, clear it with their stage manager if it isn’t obvious it would be okay or if there is enough room to stand. If they have equipment coming on and off stage stay out of the way. If they are coming off or on stage for their encore keep their passages clear. On my first tour, I was shouted at by a particularly gruff Scottish tour manager because I was walking down the corridor at the same time as the headliners as they came back on for their encore—this was one I learnt the hard way. It is always better to give extra respect and space to a headliner and in time you’ll see if the vibe is more relaxed or not. If you are sharing a dressing room with the headliner or another band, check if the rider (food and drink) laid out is for sharing, or if there is a specific selection for your group. Unsurprisingly, bands usually don’t like it if you drink all their beer.
Within your own band:
Be mindful of the space you are given. Don’t leave various pairs of your shoes strewn across the dressing room floor, or your half-eaten tuna sandwich on the table in the bus all day. Read the room—if people mentally need some space, let them be. Bear in mind your ‘bathroom manners’ too; if you had three coffees and a plate of chilli and really need to use the toilet after soundcheck, perhaps use the venue toilets. Spending far too long in the only green room toilet, leaving your touring party with stinging nostrils is not ideal. A tour manager friend of mine made this suggestion: in general, it’s good to be self-aware and ask yourself, “am I making too much noise on the bus?” “Am I smelly?” “Am I rubbing anyone up the wrong way?”
4. If you’re on a tour bus, there are a few rules.
The number one big rule is no number two’s in the toilet. Also no toilet paper can go down there—put it in the bin. For this reason, the bathroom can start to smell bad, fast, but your bus driver should be in charge of taking out the trash. Try to help the cause by not pissing all over the floor. You sleep with your feet facing forward in your bunk. The bus becomes your very small home that’s often shared with many people, so keep your belongings neat and tidy and in your bunk if possible. There may be a spare ‘junk bunk’ that you could keep a rucksack on. Don’t slam the door to the bunk area when people might be sleeping. Keep the bus temperature on the colder side, and don’t keep adjusting the thermostat without checking with the group. Implement common sense and courtesy; clean up after yourself and it’s usually worth checking with your group before bringing anybody outside of your team onto the bus.
5. Don’t burn yourself out.
It seems like an obvious piece of advice but don’t party hard every single night. Just because the beer is often free, cold and tempting, it doesn’t mean you need to drink it all every night—you can usually take it with you and drink it all on a night when you don’t have a show the next day instead—the night coined “Roadie Friday”. You need to be able to do your part on tour well and if you are a hired member of the team you should read the room on whether it’s okay to drink and how much.
6. Do practise a good amount of self-care.
By this I mean showering, eating, hydrating and sleeping regularly, otherwise you’ll be a misery to be around. If you’re a vocalist, get yourself a steamer/inhaler. Do everything in moderation—don’t be the person who drinks the most or sleeps the most (or both).
7. Don’t screw the crew.
A pretty standard rule of professionalism if you like to keep things uncomplicated.
You can read the room on this one if you have a very relaxed boss but it’s normally a terrible idea to meet a love interest at gig number one, then convince them to come with you and the band on the bus to gig number two, especially when they’re hundreds of miles from each other. Flying that girl or guy back home is expensive.
8. Don’t take a photo of your laminate or pass and post it on social media for obvious security reasons. Don’t wear your laminate outside the venue.
You may think it looks cool, but where I come from, your crew will tell you that you’re a dickhead. Also don’t geotag your hotel or where you’re at with the artist on social media.
9. If you don’t have a tour manager and are responsible for advancing the show, make the information you send to the venue as clear as possible.
Advancing a show means telling the venue everything you need, way in ‘advance’ of the show. Hopefully, they’ve already given you information including what equipment they have, how many dressing rooms there are, if they’re feeding you and where parking is. You should make your input lists and other requests as clear as possible—communication is key.
1. Bring flip flops to wear in gross venue showers.
Depending on the size of the tour you’re on, and if you’re on a tour bus, you’ll potentially be using the venues showers most days to get clean. If you’re a bit of a germaphobe, a pair of flip flops make the whole experience a little less anxiety-inducing.
2. Make a vodka spray to keep costumes and other clothes fresh.
I learnt this one from the stylist Lisa Katnic. We had sequin-covered costumes that couldn’t be machine washed, and finding the time to hand wash and line dry them proved difficult. She taught us vodka spray could be used to freshen up the costumes and kill bacteria. My recipe is something like this: 1 part cheap vodka, 3 parts water, 2 drops of peppermint or lavender oil (optional). Spray and let sweaty things air dry.
3. Dry hand-washed clothing faster by using a towel.
If you do reach desperate times and end up hand washing something in the hotel sink, you can do so with shampoo. Rinse and squeeze out the excess water and grab a bath towel. Lay it flat on the floor, and put the item of clothing on top. Roll the towel really tight from one end to the other. This gets out so much more excess moisture. Hang dry.
4. Try and have a certain place to keep your room key and laminate.
The amount of times I’ve been searching in the depths of my bag for both is countless—now I do this. Check you’ve actually got your room key in your pocket before leaving it in the room.
5. For make-up wearers and hair fixers: bring your own mirror.
You never know how many mirrors (if any at all) a venue might provide. One of my most favourite venues I’ve played at was home to my least favourite dressing room—dark, dingy, and mirrorless. So, I took my mirror outside and sat in the amphitheatre seats and did my make-up in the natural light.
6. Have a dedicated ‘venue bag.’
This helps especially if your stuff is all over the place in the bus or hotels or different corners of a van. Arriving at the venue is so seamless when you have a dedicated suitcase or bag that is full of things you want to take to the dressing room: your stage clothes/laminate/in-ears/make-up/tea/whatever. If you can avoid delving through the depths of your suitcase in the parking lot for a clean pair of underwear, it will surely be better for everyone involved.
7. Set an alarm 15 minutes before lobby call.
Aim to be ready for that time so you’re not scrambling and packing your bags when you’re meant to be downstairs.
8. Always hang the do not disturb sign.
Housekeeping staff are eager people. They’ll often wake you up in the early morning if you don’t hang the sign.
9. If you’re flying into a new time zone, adjust your sleep schedule accordingly.
For example, if you’re flying from LA to London, and you’ll arrive in London at 3pm, you want to make sure you stay up until bedtime in London to re-adjust your body clock. If you opt to take melatonin, don’t use it for too many days consecutively. I’ve had so many reports from friends that it just made them feel weird and depressed if they took it too much.
10. Number and label your equipment.
Especially helpful on more DIY tours, number all your equipment so you can easily check it off a list every night when you load your van. Even some coloured tape on cables can help you know for sure which are yours. Make sure each item is labelled with the bands name and a phone number in case you leave it somewhere and to make sure someone else doesn’t take it accidentally.
11. Back your van up against the wall.
If you’re leaving equipment in your van, minimise the chances of getting it broken into. Get insurance and take anything you can inside. Most hotels will let you store guitars in the storage room if you don’t want to lug them to your rooms.
12. Bring a box/tote bag for your rider and take the bottled water with you.
Hydration! Snacks! They’re yours, so take it.
13. Keep the merch money in the same place every night.
It insures against the panic when you think you’ve lost it all. Deposit it as frequently as possible.
14. Dummy check the hotel room and dressing room a couple of times so you don’t leave anything behind.
15. Bonus tips:
A Frisbee makes gas stops on van-tours fun. Switch seats in the van to break habits/keep it fair. Say you need a pee 15 minutes before you’re totally busting. Don’t eat a curry right before the show. Eat a ‘real meal’ every day. Always, always, bring a swimsuit. Follow @foodontour on instagram to find good things to eat.
Day Sheet: schedule for the day.
Changeover: the time between two bands sets in which equipment is ‘changed over’.
Load In/Out: taking your equipment out of your van/trailer/truck and into the venue (vice versa).
Rider: food and drink you are given in your dressing room.
Junk Bunk: if you have a spare bunk in your bus, it’s used for keeping personal belongings and becomes the ‘junk bunk.’