Written by Dan Ellis and Sean Robinson
Making a living as a touring musician almost seems like an oxymoron nowadays. Unless you are fortunate enough to have family or friends who will pay your share of the rent, you are going to be constantly hustling to scrap together enough cash to keep your extra clothes, cases, gear and mattress off of the sidewalk in front of your place of residence. If you want to spend most of your time on the road, you need to accept the fact that your life at home will be stressful and always on a tight budget. The tradeoff is worth it if your heart is in it. I have spent the past six years balancing travel and work and although I have hit some low points, I have always managed to keep my head above water, sometimes just barely.
The hardest part about maintaining a job and going on tour is having that job there for you when you return home. Typically any office job or 'career' job will only afford you a week or two off per year, which is obviously not going to work for you. That being said, you can pretty much toss out the idea of a job that makes you over $25,000 a year. Jobs that are flexible in schedule tend to be in retail (Urban Outfitters, Gap, Record Stores....wait...) and service industry gigs, (waiting tables, bar tending etc.) Not every place is going to be particularly sympathetic to your aspirations and you may be leaving your job as you leave for tour. The good thing is, as long as you work your butt off and have an ambitious attitude, it won't be hard to pick up another one of these gigs.
Positive attitude and an outgoing personality are the most important qualities you can possess if you want to find and keep jobs while you're on the road. If your boss sees that you work hard, show up on time and show yourself to be an asset to the business, they will often allow you to come and go within reason.
In bigger cities like New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Miami there are thousands of musicians, artists and actors trying to do the same thing that you are: make money while doing what you love. These are the areas where the best opportunities exist to make a good amount of money for simply being the performer that you are. Event marketing, catering, street promotions, guerrilla marketing and hotels offer high hourly rates, flexible schedules and are usually chock full of performers and artists. Not only can you skip town for as long as you want but you are networking with co-workers every day on the job and expanding your rolodex (look it up, kids.) Freelancing and temping are a great way to have a home and still be an active musician. Check out craigslist under "events" and start applying!
One must keep in mind that not only will you not be working for the time you are away but you will not be making up for that time when you return to work. In other words, the money you earn when you go back to work doesn't apply retroactively to the days you missed, you simply start making money moving forward from the day you return. This is why it is important that you look for jobs that pay well. Making $9.00 per hour for 30 hours a week isn't going to cover your rent, food, recreational activities and Netflix and Spotify subscriptions. Now quit complaining and go get that money! Ask a rapper, it's all about gettin' that money, son.
Here’s our list of jobs that are conducive to hopping in a van for weeks at a time, but feel free to add more in the comments!
1. Server/Bartender: Maybe it’s stereotypical, but there’s a reason this line of work is popular for aspiring entertainers. While often grueling, the flexible hours and high turnover rates in these establishments make it easier to come and go. Avoid being a bouncer. The last thing you need is to punch a guy and not be able to play a bar-chord for 2 weeks.
Notable example: The eccentric Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips enjoyed being a cook at Long John Silvers before being able to front the psychedelic rock band full time.
2. Instructor: There are a variety of ways to go about teaching lessons, and income will depend on if you go through a music retailer that offers lessons or go about getting students independently. If you can successfully line up students yourself, you will have more flexibility and won't have to split the cost with the retailer. Remember you're not only going to be dealing with kids, but their parents. The more heads up you give about being out of town the less wrath you are likely to face.
Notable example: Nearly every musician ever.
3. Graphic Designer: While it takes a level of skill and training, the benefits of graphic design work far outweigh the negatives. Whether you freelance or work for a company, it’s a good paying job that can be done from almost anywhere and you can finally put those long hours in the van to good use.
Notable example: Scott Devendorf from The National still runs his own graphic design business while touring the world with the Indie rock group.
4. Painter: After the purchase of basic supplies, being a painter allows you to organize jobs around your touring schedule. Small, non-commercial, jobs can often be acquired by contacting real estate companies or putting an ad in the classifieds.
Notable example: Before Chris Martin painted everything a bright color as the front man for Coldplay, he painted signs.
5. Mover: Although it’s tough work, the moving business is flexible and it doesn’t hurt to burn a few calories before your next tour.
Notable example: Real Rock N Roll Movers is a Los Angeles-based company that was put together specifically to offer musicians a flexible part time job for when they aren’t on the road.
6. Event promotion / Marketing: There are a variety of opportunities available to those who can use craigslist. Companies are constantly looking for help in promoting and running events. This can include catering, street promotion, and being a brand ambassador. Work hard enough and it can often lead to future gigs.
7. Session musician: With a surge in the amount of artists and small studios, session work is a great way to make money and develop your network. However, it is highly competitive and opportunities are mostly contained to large cities and metropolitan areas. Better practice your sight-reading.
8. Function band: Put together a cover band to play weddings and corporate events. There are worse ways to pay the bills than having to play “Shout” for uncoordinated, champagne induced, dancers.
Notable example: Jeff Tweedy had a covers band he performed with while in the pre-Wilco band Uncle Tupelo.
9. Temp: Freelancing and temping are a great way to have a home and still be an active musician. Check out craigslist and contact local Temp agencies about your situation. The kinds of jobs vary, but can get you temporary employment anywhere around the world.
10. Figure Modeling: Often overlooked, but as long as you’re comfortable with stripping down for a class of art students, figure modeling is easy and pays well. Contact the art departments of all the colleges and art groups in your area. You don’t have to be good looking.
A few more options: Barista, roadie/tech/merch guy/fill-in, tour bus driver, screenprinter, copywriter.
Jobs to avoid: Construction, body shops, and illegal activities. There’s only one Rick Allen (one-armed Def Leppard drummer), and it’s hard to tour from jail (just ask Lil’ Wayne).
Dan Ellis is the Musical Director for Shontelle (Universal/Republic), touring musician for Cody B Ware, Exes of Evil and Taylor Greenwood and is a freelance street marketing field manager and brand ambassador.