As a non-musician, you might be curious about how musicians actually travel on tour. Whilst it’s tempting to conjure up images of private jets and limousines, you’d be right in thinking that this is an unrealistic depiction of touring life.
So, how do musicians travel on tour?
For a cross-country tour, musicians will travel in either a van or a tour bus, depending on their budget, schedule and the size of their crew. When heading overseas, musicians will travel on either an airplane or a cruse ship, depending on their popularity and tour schedule.
Keep reading for a full account of each mode of transport used by touring musicians:
Vans are most-often used by musicians who are at the beginning of their careers. Unlike a tour bus, a van serves as a more affordable, low-risk and suitable option for artists with no stable income or regular touring schedule.
- Affordable: Sizeable vans can be hired for as little as $25 per day. Musicians with a more regular touring schedule also have the option of purchasing a used van for just a few thousand dollars. Similarly, vans are cheap to run and usually don’t require ongoing mechanical work. As most vans can be driven with a regular driving license, musicians won’t have to hire a dedicated driver or invest in additional driving qualifications.
- Convenient: If a musician has a sporadic touring schedule, they can simply rent a van when needed and not have to worry about the vehicle in-between shows. As vans can easily be parked on the street or in a regular car park, musicians should be able to park as close to the venue as possible, allowing for an easy load-in/load-out.
- No sleeping quarters: Whilst some musicians choose to sleep in their van, it’s certainly not a practical or desirable option. Therefore, they will likely have to stay at a hotel or hostel when touring for consecutive days, which can counteract the affordability of the van itself.
- Limited facilities: Unlike a tour bus, a van doesn’t come with a bathroom, kitchen or lounge. This means frequent stops will have to be made and money will have to be spent on bathroom trips and ready-made food. When on the road or waiting at a venue, musicians can quickly become bored due to the lack of entertainment facilities.
- Who drives the van? The van is usually driven by either one of the musicians or a crew member. On small-scale tours, musicians may employ one or two crew members who take on multiple roles (for example, a crew member may act as a tour manager, driver and sound engineer).
- Do musicians usually rent or buy a van? If a musician’s touring schedule is infrequent, they’ll usually rent a van to avoid having to worry about it in-between shows. When dealing with a more intense touring schedule, buying a van often serves as a financially-superior option.
- Where does the equipment go? The equipment will either go in the back of the van or in a small trailer that the van tows.
In today’s industry, full-time musicians generally rely on touring to form the bulk of their income.
Once an artist is touring regularly and playing to thousands of people each night, they will almost-always make use of a tour bus for nationwide tours. With a larger crew, increased workload and sizeable budget, a tour bus serves as an efficient and preferable option for musicians who are touring on a larger scale.
- Efficient: A tour bus can sleep up to 16 people, which is much more efficient and affordable than purchasing a handful of hotel rooms each night. It also allows the bus to travel from venue to venue overnight, making the entire operation much more productive.
- Affordable: Musicians who make use of a tour bus will often be signed to a decent-sized record label with good touring agency connections (or, sometimes, an in-house touring agency). This means that they’ll be able to get a good deal on the vehicle, enabling them to stay as profitable as possible. As most tour busses have both a bathroom and a kitchen on-board, the musicians can save money on groceries and bathroom trips.
- Luxury: As you might’ve guessed, a tour bus is much more comfortable than a van. The musicians will have access to various forms of entertainment (notably TV’s/video game consoles) and be able to sleep on the bus.
- Inconvenient to park: Many venues, whist of adequate size, don’t have dedicated parking. As a result, tour busses occasionally have to park some distance from the venue, causing inconvenience to the musicians and crew.
- Clashing sleeping schedules: Different crew members will often have very different sleeping patterns from one another. For example, the driver will have to sleep in the daytime in order to drive the bus at night. Therefore, the musicians may not be able to make full use of the on-board facilities during the day out of respect for other crew members.
Tour Bus FAQ
- Who drives the tour bus? Tour busses will almost-always have a dedicated driver. The driver may be employed by an agency or by the musicians themselves.
- Do musicians usually rent or buy a tour bus? Unless they’re making serious money, musicians will usually rent a tour bus. This is especially-relevant for artists who tour all over the world (it’s not financially viable to own a fleet of tour busses collecting dust around the globe).
- Where does the equipment go? If the tour features large-scale stage production, a separate truck will be hired for the equipment. If the production is more modest, the equipment will go in a trailer that the tour bus tows.
Air travel is the go-to method for musicians travelling overseas. Being both accessible and convenient, it serves as a suitable option for bands and artists of all sizes.
When touring a particular country, most bands and artists will map out a route that enables them to travel by van or bus. This saves them having to dart all over a country via airplane.
- Efficient: Musicians can fly virtually anywhere within a matter of hours. This enables them to complete various tour legs back-to-back and make the most of their time in each country.
- Exhaustion: Whilst air travel is extremely efficient, it’s all-too-easy for musicians to over-book themselves and have no time off. On top of this, it’s likely they’ll be dealing with jet lag whilst executing a jam-packed touring schedule. This can seriously affect their ability to perform and eventually result in exhaustion.
- Lost luggage: With a regular touring schedule, it’s almost-guaranteed that a musician will have their luggage lost at some point. As they’ll start travelling around the country as soon as they arrive, souring and collecting their lost luggage can be hugely inconvenient.
- Expensive: Whilst single airline tickets may be inexpensive, they add up over time. When conducting a large-scale international tour, airfare can put a significant dent in a musician’s budget.
- What class do musicians fly? Whilst it might surprise you, the vast majority of professional musicians (yes, even the well-known ones!) fly coach on a commercial airline to keep their costs as low as possible.
- Where does the equipment go? When flying overseas, it’s common for musicians to only take their instruments with them, checking them in as handheld luggage. Additional equipment (amplifiers, PA system etc.) are then rented whilst overseas.
Cruise ships are becoming an increasingly-popular option for small-time musicians travelling overseas due to the fact that they can work as on-board performers. This is a huge opportunity as the musicians are essentially getting paid to travel overseas in a luxury environment.
- Potential to earn: Musicians can apply for a short-term contract as a cover band. When working on a cruise ship, they’ll usually receive free (or heavily discounted) food & accommodation, meaning they’ll likely come away with a profit. This extra income can help small-time musicians fund an overseas tour.
- Extra experience: There’s no doubt that working on a cruise ship will bring heaps of practical experience to a small-time musician. A cruse ship may also stop at several other countries en-route, allowing the musicians to experience various different cultures.
- Time off: The average cruise gig for a guest musician will last between one and two weeks. It’s likely the musicians will only have to work for three or four hours a day, allowing them plenty of time to relax and prepare for the upcoming tour.
- Luxury: Guest musicians are often able to make full use of the luxury passenger facilities instead of the crew facilities.
- Inefficient: Cruise ship gigs can be few and far between, meaning a musician may have to plan an entire tour around the cruise ship gig itself (unlike air travel, where there are several opportunities to fly each day). Additionally, it takes at least several days to travel from place to place, which can be inefficient for musicians with a particularly busy touring schedule.
- Extra work required: In order to perform on a cruise ship, musicians will have to devise a 2 hour cover song set. This can take a substantial amount of effort and may leave the musicians performing music they don’t particularly care for.
Cruise Ship FAQ
- How do musicians obtain a short-term cruise ship gig? Musicians will have to audition through an agency, who then places them on their roster. Work will be offered to the musicians as and when it becomes available.
- Are musicians treated as guests or crew? For guest contracts (i.e. for a single voyage), musicians will often be treated as guests. This allows them to make full use of the passenger facilities.