It’s easy to fall victim to the stereotypes of the working musician – for both the musician and fan alike. A life of public adulation, excess, and grandiosity (is that a word?). The exquisitely tortured artistes extracting beauty from life’s poignant moments all gypsified and moving nomadically from town to town. But the reality of a career in the creative segment is more blunt, and there’s entire curriculums of required knowledge they didn’t teach me in music school. The kind you have to skin your knees and bloody your nose to learn. The dirty secret of the game is that it’s not good enough to be a talented musician or artist- you gotta be a warrior in both practice and spirit if you wanna live the life longer than a year or two.
From my early days playing keggers and frat parties, then clubs and lounges, through the auditoriums and stadiums around the country and abroad, I’ve had to log a lotta miles as a musician, physically and metaphorically. The big commercial artists who play the big venues often are surrounded by an entourage of helpers and enablers and literally shot to the top overnight, but unless you’re on that level of game it’s a career strategy of attrition, extreme efficiency, and political know-how. I’ll share with you here some of my most a-ha learnings, the real gems of wisdom you only get after slogging it out at all levels of the music game for over a decade. And in my case, over three. (Whoa.)
Packing up for the Road Life
You have to get good at living on a little, and learning how to stretch out what you’ve got into more. The simpler you are the better, as things get lost easily when on a performance or press tour.
First, try to live on just a few changes of clothes in your bag for longer than two weeks and not self-destruct. It’s hard at first, but just do it and adjust as you go. I usually pack 1 set of t-shirt/jeans (or super casual attire) and 1 ‘more presentable in public’ change per day, along with a fresh pair of socks/undies. I never take more than 5 full days worth of clothes, however. I recommend using laundry services as you go to keep your pack small.
As dirty clothes accumulate I’ll pack em on one side of the bag inside a small laundry mesh bag I carry at all times. When I’m down to two clean changes of clothes I immediately either drop the bag at a laundry service or pay for a fluff and fold at the hotel ASAP. Repeat process as needed. I prefer to pay for someone to do my laundry as I’m usually busy AF when not in a vehicle, and would rather spend my time doing other things, but I’ve also juggled in-hotel self-service laundry situations so carry a small roll of quarters in my bag just in case.
My bathroom kit assumes I’m out for 2 weeks and have no access to a convenience store, and always includes the charger for a combo razor/beard trimmer. I don’t trust complementary hotel bathroom products so always tote my own body wash/shampoo/lotion/etc in small airline-friendly containers.
Along with that (and depending on weather), I’ll also tote along a light wrap and more location-friendly jacket with a suit coat or blazer (great for going classy on short notice) in the garment bag section of my rolling (and international-safe) carry-on suitcase. I’ll also carry along workout shorts and tank tops so I’m not getting my good wardrobe stanky between washes. And that’s about it for the pack.
The Daily Grind for Road Warriors
Your life as a musical road warrior involves five key states of being each day. Traveling, Playing, Eating, Sleeping, Errands.
Playing is the fun part. It’s what you got here for. But the reality of it is that you’ll spend more time in soundchecks and setups and teardowns than the actual gig, so be cool. Egos and attitudes can get really stretched, but it’s worth it to be cool (but firm) to everyone you encounter. Once I snapped at a stage hand out of the blue for no reason, and later – when looking over at the monitor guy to see why I kept getting too much kick drum and guitar in my wedge – realized that he was also the best buddy of the fellow who was now shooting my mix in the foot. What comes around, goes around.
And on the note of soundchecks – be patient, and cool in all cases. Expect that your sound isn’t necessarily going to be perfect to be right, and for god’s sake – use a mute when tuning, and don’t noodle while they’re doing the check. Wait until you’re called on, then play a good passage of music that uses the range of your instrument so they can really hear what they’re going to be mixing later. Expect to be repetitive and potentially be talked down to (front-of-house engineers in particular can be a bit brutal with their needs to get things mixed for their space correctly). Be the better person, do your best to help ’em out as much as possible and stay out of the way when not, and you’ll usually get better placement in the mix. It’s really that simple.
The traveling part is the most grueling. You can often write songs/lyrics and do minor phone calls/email/etc while traveling these days, but in general it’s downtime that can have an effect on your career’s forward motion. Not to mention your waistline. I try to schedule calls (with a good cell connection and headset) in a period of time I know I’ll be in an area where I won’t annoy the F out of my tribe members, but won’t be overly hurried. This is often that brief period of time between check-in at a hotel and a soundcheck, or the half hour before breakfast call. I also have a bunch of exercises I can do in a plane seat, or car or bus, which help keep me from putting on too many sit-down-pounds during heavy travel weeks.
Basically, you really need to find a way to make your travel time productive – and not just shoot-the-shit-with-the-crew time (although don’t neglect that, either). I recommend (especially if you’re touring as or with an original act in a multi-city tour) always lining up your next day or two’s schedule during my travel downtime, with some fallback contact information in case the drive (or flight) runs long. I then make ‘to-do’ lists for the next city – local guitar shops (especially if they have my flavor of strings in stock), replacement toiletries and sundries, press and/or media interviews or on-airs, etc. Any other runs you need to make, write ’em down and Google Map pin ’em in advance. Having this shit all lined up early and in once place (in my case, my phone’s calendar) is golden when you’re on a busy tour and only have limited time for milk runs in upcoming cities, trust me.
Sleeping (and bodily functions) – if you’re on a bona-fide tour bus, first and foremost no #2s in the bathroom. Wait for (or ask the driver for) a rest stop or bio-break. I’m dead serious, this is an unspoken rule that you don’t want to break if at all possible. Bad, smelly things happen.
Other than that, have a good set of headphones and chargers for your stuff. The available ports usually get jacked quickly, and being able to throw on your own jams and tune out the bus is a Very Good Thing. Also, bring your tolerance. Tour buses can be wild places. When shit gets too weird for my current anxiety threshold, I just go back to my rack (bed cubby) and read my Kindle books with comfy tunes blarin in my cans. Easy peasy.
I also always carry a spare set of foam earplugs for sleep time. Again, tour buses can get loud and crazy. Be prepared.
Eating is gonna be all over the map. So, unless you’re a headliner with a kick-ass craft services rider, you’ll be taking what you get if you aren’t proactive. That can range from really bad, overcooked buffet food to dry sandwiches and a water jug. In most cases it’ll be on the calorie-heavy side, even when the food quality is good.
Try to limit your “shitty food intake”. I like to keep organic energy bars, protein bars, and a good plethora of vitamins on hand alongside a bunch of drinking water in a reusable bottle. That’s my basics for balancing things- for a little while (when I had more space on the bus) I also carried a pour-over coffeemaker with extra filters and grounds, a knife, loaf of bread and both a hard salami and peanut butter (neither requiring refrigeration), and a small bag of fresh fruit I’d fill up every other day. That usually helped keep me to a regular eating schedule despite tour craziness, or oddly-timed catering. I usually stick close to salads with non-creamy dressings when on the road- they’re less prone to gastric distress and counteract the generally fried, over-sauced foods you’ll get foisted upon your entourage.
Errands– Uber and Lyft make “milk runs” easy when you’re in town and have an hour or so to spare. Make sure everyone’s got your phone number, and you’ve got addresses to everything you’ll need to attend in your phone, too. Check traffic estimates early so you can always check in with the bus/tour manager if things get weird.
You’ll usually have to prove your timeliness and responsibility to the tour manager before they get comfortable letting you run off too far, so that’s the other good golden rule. Always check in with your tour manager if you’re breaking from the group. It’s a good thing to just always do in general, as nothing’s more frightening than a pissed-off tour manager trying to get everyone on stage for soundcheck at 5pm, but you’re AWOL at 4:50 and have your ringer turned off. Seriously- don’t be that person.
The Mind of the Road Warrior
The main mindset of a road musician is one of flexibility, and understanding. You’ll probably go through the transition between average civilian to road-jaded touring musician over the course of a few days. It’ll start with excitement and wonder in your new journey. That will quickly get beaten down into hopeful monotony as the inevitable boredom of long travel sinks in.
The proliferation of smartphones has solved the biggest monotony problem over the last decade though- being disconnected from your people truly sucked when you had to fight for the pay phone at gas/rest stops. Now it’s more power management and fighting for bandwidth. But that’s usually the last wave of acceptance before slipping into hardened road warrior mode – disconnection and related angst at not having your regular home comforts and efficiencies at hand.
Once you’ve moved past the angst of disconnection (hopefully as quickly as possible), you’re in the home stretch of acceptance. You’re now a bonafide, nomadic god spreading your musical message from town to town. Your disconnected schedule and ever-changing location has you viewing the flocks of civilians you encounter in a somewhat detached, scientific manner. Their quaint routines and angst seems amusing. You tend to have relatively few fucks left to give at this point.
This is tour nirvana. But you gotta be level-headed about it. Don’t be a dick.
There’s tons of attitudes out there in the travelin’ life so it’s always in your best interest to stay above the drama, get out of weird situations quickly, and always take the high road. It’s not just good life advice for your best karmic return, it can be practical, too.
On one tour, we hung out at the bar after the gig and talked a little too friendly with some of the local women. Apparently that wasn’t kosher with a group of local guys in this mid-sized country town, although we were certainly on best gentlemen behavior throughout. Said guys tried to meet us in the back parking lot with a pipe and some busted-up 2x4s and give us a working over, but the club janitor – who we had actually spent time talking to earlier in the day during soundcheck and just treated like a human being instead of a stall-scrubber – immediately called help from the three bouncers we’d invited into our catering line and called the cops. It got a little weird, a little violent, but was over quickly. Well in our favor, thanks to the assist. Afterwards, one of the bouncers pulled me aside.
“I wouldn’t cross the parking lot to piss on most of the rockstars who prance thru here, but there’s no way those dickheads were gonna screw with you boys on my watch. You’re some good people. Sorry about our little cow town, brother.”
The twist? I’ve been that other, not so nice kind of musician in a similar situation earlier in my career. And it came back to bite me, too- hard lesson learned.
So just treat everyone like a rockstar and listen to them more than you talk at them, and you’ll rarely have problems. And for those times when this approach fails, remember that your tour manager is your tribe’s ultimate bad cop. They’ve usually seen it all and dealt with even more- keep ’em close-by.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably heard a bunch of stuff you’ve already heard mixed up with a bunch you haven’t. Maybe some of it is common sense, but I’m a pretty sensible person and had to learn a lot of that by trial and error. I hope it helps you avoid that a bit more than i was able.
Go hit that road, warrior (or warrioress), and play some music!