Road Life Realities: Touring advice from a female musician
So, what's it actually like to go on tour?
Since I was six years old playing “hot cross buns” at my first piano recital, I dreamed of becoming a professional musician. I envisioned myself traveling around on private jets and tour buses, playing for sold-out crowds every night. For many musicians, landing a tour would be the fulfillment of their greatest childhood dream. But what is it really like? Is it all it appears to be in the movies?
After attending college in Nashville and obtaining a bachelor’s degree in music, I landed my first tour at 22. I was on cloud nine dreaming of what it would be like. And though it was an incredible experience, it was very different than I had imagined it would be.
There are a lot of factors in tour life that I had never stopped to consider. For example: You will be sleeping on a moving bus, and that is a weird thing to get used to! If you’re one of those lucky people who is able to sleep in cars and planes already, you will probably do great with this. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people, so this was a big adjustment for me. If you tend to get motion sick, you might want to bring some dramamine, especially on the nights when you’re driving through winding or bumpy roads. Not to mention the fact that the bunks are very tiny and kind of feel like coffins, so if you’re the claustrophobic type, you might want to consider another career path. You will undoubtedly get a squeaky bunk at some point or have a snorer sleeping above you, so don’t forget to pack your ear plugs! And be prepared to catch a whiff of gasoline or exhaust from time to time as the driver will have to make stops to refuel. But rest assured, most seasoned touring folks eventually get used to it, and for many the rumble of the road becomes sweet and familiar, and it can actually be easier to sleep on the bus than in your own bed after a while!
Another fun fact about tour buses: You’re not allowed to poop in the toilets. I thought the guys were messing with me when they first told me this, but it’s true. Unless you’re on a brand new, very high-tech bus, they do not have the mechanisms to handle anything solid in the toilets, so you would end up with a stopped-up toilet and a very stinky bus before long, and nobody wants that. So you’d better make friends with the bus driver, because if you have to go during the night, you’ll need to convince him to pull over at the next truck stop!
What’s your favorite city you’ve been to on tour? This is probably the most common question I get asked when I tell people what I do. And though I’ve been to more places than I can keep track of, I feel like I’ve actually seen very little of the country. The reality is that, in most of the places we visit, I don’t end up seeing much besides the inside of the venue and maybe a hotel. Depending on what your role is on the tour, you may or may not have time to go exploring. If you are working for the crew, chances are you will be way too busy to get out and see much. If you’re in the band, your schedule will probably be more flexible, but the challenge is getting around. Most tours arrange to have a few “runners” - aka volunteers who have agreed to drive the tour personnel where they need to go. But the catch is that there aren’t enough of them for everyone to have their own personal chauffeur. The headlining artist always has priority when it comes to designating runners. And if you forgot your toothbrush and need to run to Walgreens to grab a new one, you will certainly be accomodated. But if you just want to run around and see the sights, more than likely the tour manager will politely decline your request as there are usually more pressing needs. If the venue is already in a cool part of town, you may be able to walk and explore, or catch an Uber or taxi, but that can add up quickly. I also ran into another somewhat genre-specific struggle when it came to getting around on tour: I travel primarily with contemporary Christian artists, so the majority of our venues are large churches. Oftentimes these churches are out in the suburbs, so sometimes there really just isn’t anything to do or see in a lot of these towns! That being said, I have had a handful of off-days in really cool cities that have definitely made up for the boring days spent in suburbia.
Perhaps the biggest thing that surprised me about road life is how few women there are in the touring side of the industry. On all of the tours I’ve been a part of, I’ve been one of - if not the only - female in the camp. I’m honestly not entirely sure why this is. I understand it a little more on the crew side since many of those positions are very labor-intensive and require a good bit of heavy lifting that could be challenging for some women. But it is so rare that I ever share the stage with another female musician unless she is the artist herself. I honestly don’t know if this is due to a shortage of qualified female players or if this lifestyle just doesn’t appeal to most women, but whatever the reason, it was a very shocking reality for me.
I asked a handful of my touring friends to give me one piece of advice that they would give to someone about to start their first tour, and I got some great answers! Here are a few of the suggestions we came up with:
Purchase two of all your basic toiletries so you can leave your overnight bag packed at all times.
Keep some healthy snacks on hand. You never know when you’ll miss a meal (or catering will be not-so-appetizing) and you’ll need that granola bar.
Always bring shower shoes and a bathing suit. Occasionally your only showering option will be open locker room showers at the venue.
Invest in a plethora of black clothing. Whether your role is on or off-stage, you can never go wrong with black.
When you’re shopping, you will find yourself thinking less about how cute the outfit is and more about whether or not it will wrinkle being shoved in your suitcase every day.
Set up a rewards account with all of the airlines to collect points. For your primary airline, consider getting their credit card so you can accumulate more miles and get free flights!
TSA Pre-check is well worth it.
These are just a few of the things that I wish someone had told me before my first tour so that I could have walked into it better prepared and with more realistic expectations. That being said, I still wouldn’t trade my crazy life for anything. All of the nights feeling motion sick on the bus, stuck in suburbia with a bunch of stinky dudes are all worth it when that one fan comes up to you after a show and tells you that your song changed their life, or that they want to be like you when they grow up. I’ve heard it said that you should only pursue a career in music if there’s absolutely nothing else you could see yourself doing, and that is how I feel. Tour life may not be all it’s cracked up to be in the movies, but it is so, so worthwhile.
Community Coordinator at Music Biz Besties
Becca is a singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. She has been calling Nashville home for the past nine years and has had the honor of touring with artists including Michael W. Smith, Francesca Battistelli, Lauren Daigle, Andrew Ripp, Jason Gray, Aaron Shust and more.