Me and my band The Assumptions are currently on tour in support of our second LP, Exposure & Response. This is the first entry in a weekly(ish) journal I’ll be keeping for the duration of the tour. I’ll be documenting my own experience and meditating on big questions like: Is touring sustainable for obscure artists? Why do we continuously subject ourselves to something that yields little benefit? Does “DIY” in a pure, unadulterated form even exist?
November 10th-November 16th
It’s hard describing a DIY tour to someone who has never been on one. It has the potential to be a lot of fun, but it never quite feels like vacation. It’s a lot of hard work, but it rarely pays off. For most bands, it’s a prerequisite for being taken seriously—but it’s also incredibly difficult to justify.
I have been playing punk shows for nearly ten years of my life; I’ve been booking DIY tours since 2013. I have never used a booking agent, and I have never set foot inside a proper tour bus. So far, the majority of shows on this tour have been at houses. We don’t have guarantees, and sometimes we make as little as $40 a night, which, when split between the other band we’re on tour with, is barely enough money to make it to the next city. We pay for food and other necessities out of pocket. Sometimes, I will put a hotel room on my credit card.
Booking—and being on—a DIY tour is labor-intensive. After putting together his first U.S. tour, a friend of mine remarked that he had spent “three months writing emails instead of songs.” This is an expertly pithy encapsulation of what it means to be a self-sufficient band in the modern age. The act of making music often feels like an extraneous part of the musician equation.
Tours, PR, distribution—these used to be the record label’s responsibilities. But the internet has changed the way a record label functions. It’s a long-standing stereotype that record labels—especially major record labels—are duplicitous and unsympathetic to artistic sensibilities. While that might be true in many cases, record labels also used to invest in bands based on the merit of their art. These days, the process is almost reversed; labels seldom take chances on bands that aren’t already established. The initial promise of the internet as an egalitarian utopia for artists has morphed into a new type of industry meritocracy, where the musicians most likely to succeed are the unabashed shoulder-rubbers and self-promoters.
Establishing yourself as an artist requires a lot of free time and disposable income. Booking your own tours is a part of that process. DIY touring is a luxury pursuit, and punk—for all its worth—is the domain of the hyper-privileged.
I’ve always tried to be mindful of this, but it’s become especially clear on this tour. The ultimate goal of every DIY tour is to break even, and so far, we haven’t had to pay out of pocket for gas. But we’ve experienced a number of vehicular disasters that our paltry band fund won’t even begin to cover. On the first night of tour, we locked the keys—and all of our gear—in the car, and had to get a locksmith to come out to the venue. That same night, Seacats—the Seattle band we’re on tour with—broke down 30 miles outside of Bellingham, and had to have their van towed back to Seattle. (We reconvened the following night in Eugene.) A few days later outside of Reno, we got a $275 speeding ticket. Two days after that in Oakland, our car got broken into, and we had to have the rear window replaced on our off day. Any sane person would have turned back by now—but most committed musicians aren’t completely sane, and many of them can afford to take the hit.
I’m tempted to complain until I realize that this lifestyle is entirely optional. I have long dreamed of parlaying my little songs into a full-time career, and I imagine this is a common dream. But what are the chances of that happening in this era, when the gulf separating independent and commercial music has never been wider? Touring musicians at my level are professional hobbyists. I’m consistently amazed to discover that members of bands much more popular than mine have day jobs unrelated to music. In 2014, Noisey published an illuminating article on this phenomenon that focused specifically on U.K. artists. “I’d naively thought that once you were filling 3,000 cap venues and smashing in the U.K. rock chart, you probably just slept in late every day, played a few chords, and flittered the night way [sic] on doing coke off stripper’s [sic] navels and drinking premium whiskey on your record label’s tab,” the article’s author Hannah Ewens writes. “But, the thing is, that lifestyle is a myth. It’s dead.”
So here I am, sitting at a desk in a Marriott that I put on my credit card, trying to figure out why I’m doing this, and I’m a little bit grossed out with myself. Is it the satisfaction that comes from playing music in front of people for three weeks straight? If that’s the case, then I just feel like an emotional exhibitionist. Am I nurturing an adolescent fantasy? Is touring a form of resistance to the ineluctable emptiness of adulthood?
An interview I recently did for a Bellingham publication called What’s Up! painted me as a “casual” musician—someone with realistic expectations and tempered ambition. That might be how I sound, but it isn’t how I feel. Being on the road can be a fun distraction from real life, but it can also be as shitty as it sounds in Journey’s “Faithfully”. I am reminded of one of my favorite moments in the 1994 video game Earthbound, when the nameable protagonist calls his dad on the phone: “‘Work to exhaustion when you’re young,’” he tells you. “Have you ever heard of a weird saying like this?” This should be the mantra for all “working” musicians. I tour because the alternative feels like surrender—and I’m not that old yet.