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Why it’s Harder Than Ever to Be a Young Band on the Road

“I got a spreadsheet for you!” drummer/co-vocalist Nadirah “Nadi” McGill of Minneapolis’ rock group Gully Boys tells Rolling Stone. The indie band is in Los Angeles, in the middle of a 24-date tour that includes stops at Austin’s South by Southwest festival and Boise’s Treefort Music Fest. While McGill pulls up the group’s touring budget, bassist Natalie Klemond chimes in on some of the challenges they’ve faced on the road: “We were at first trying to do $20 per person a day for food. But then you’re in Austin, where there’s food trucks and it costs you $16 for a gyro.” 

For stops where they can’t crash with friends, McGill earmarked around $100 a night for hotel rooms to accommodate five — the quartet plus their merch person. And then there’s their already-blown gas budget. They had originally planned for $4.50 a gallon, but by the time they hit the road? “Gas was like six bucks, seven dollars out here,” McGill says. “We were kind of in a panic. Like, are we still going to be able to do this? Does this still make sense? But that’s rock & roll, I guess.”

This is the reality for scores of bands crisscrossing the U.S. in 2022. The streaming economy isn’t exactly friendly to smaller artists — as Rolling Stone noted in 2020, 90 percent of streams go to the top one percent of artists — and touring is an essential lifeline for artists of all stripes. Jumping into a van to go on tour is a rite of passage for tons of young artists, and early tours can be crucial to building a fan base and a career. Life on the road has always meant significant challenges both foreseen and not, but these days it might be harder than ever for young bands, and not only because of astronomical gas prices and rising food costs. The pandemic has been devastating for the live-music industry, for artists and behind-the-scenes workers alike. Many bands were forced off the road for much of the past two years; now that they’re back, they could test positive and be forced to cancel a string of tour dates. 

Covid restrictions have been lifted in most states, even as the virus continues to take its toll, making for a series of financial and health risks that have hit artists of all levels. Veteran band Superchunk were recently forced to reschedule their East Coast tour with Torres. “As someone who loves playing shows, I still have to say — touring sucks right now. When the band are the only masked people in the venue, it’s clear that this stage of the pandemic is going to be around for awhile,” the group tweeted. It added: “Our fans are great and supportive and patient and understanding, and the 6 shows we have played supporting Wild Loneliness have all been fun and gratifying. But the general public, including many at our shows, seem to think COVID is over, meaning, it won’t be over any time soon.” Superchunk also asked fans to please wear masks at their shows.

Meanwhile, their would-be touring partner Torres posted a since-deleted tweet: “Another tour cancelled because of Covid, literally the day before it was supposed to start. I have a lot of people relying on me for $ that isn’t coming through now—this is my bank acct—business acct and personal—I kid not—” along with a graphic stating that there was $1.43 in her business checking account and $98.06 in her personal one.

Stadium-headlining artists like Elton John and John Mayer (who said he’s gotten Covid twice) have also postponed dates due to Covid diagnoses, with crew members getting ill and other Covid-related delays popping up constantly. Problems like those affect anyone’s bottom line, but for younger artists without a major touring infrastructure or financial cushion, a derailed tour could mean not paying next month’s rent.

A broken window or two on tour can be enough to shatter a band’s budget, as was the case for two of the five young bands Rolling Stone spoke with about surviving on tour. Last month, Gully Boys, Brooklyn’s Been Stellar, and L.A.’s Egg Drop Soup each performed multiple gigs at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, the annual industry-drawing music festival. (Full disclosure: In 2021, Rolling Stone’s parent company, P-MRC, acquired a 50 percent stake in SXSW). While none of them broke even from their festival appearances, they all say it was worth it for the opportunity to make connections for further exposure. But there was also risk to navigate.

The self-described all-womxn, alt-punk trio Egg Drop Soup spent about $1,500 for their Austin Airbnb. “That’s like almost a month’s rent,” singer-bassist Samantha “Sammy” Westervelt says. The group, which formed in 2017, released its second EP, Eat Snacks and Bleed, in 2020. This was their second go-round at SXSW. “The festival does offer hotel rooms with discounts, but even still, it all kind of winds up being around the same amount of money,” Westervelt says. The lodging costs were tough enough; then all three of the members, who are fully vaccinated, tested positive for Covid-19.

Egg Drop Soup

Courtesy of Egg Drop Soup

Most mask mandates have been lifted across the country, so even though a band might advocate that their fans wear masks at their shows, that doesn’t mean they will. “I’m pretty vigilant,” says Westervelt, who says she wore a mask while she was in Austin. She estimates only about 10 percent of the audiences at the various SXSW venues she visited did the same

“At South by, you’re kind of in a concentrated place. It’s almost like you’re in a petri dish for four days, and there’s just a lot of really close quarters,” she explains. “It was amazing to me how few people were wearing masks, considering that we’re not really fully out of the woods yet. It’s like we can dream as much as we want about it. But really, if everyone just took it seriously, like just wear your mask for like a couple more months, you know, quit fucking around and just do it and have some compassion and care for yourself and those around you, we could probably really get through it. … It just kind of seems like everyone is itching to get out there and feel normal again. But we’re going to continue to have setbacks like this if we’re not careful. And it’s just kind of the new reality of the world.” (According to SXSW’s Covid guidelines, credentialed participants, including artists, registrants, and wristband holders, were required to provide proof of Covid-19 vaccination or a recent negative Covid-19 test in order to collect and maintain their credentials. At the festival, masks were required in conference rooms and exhibitions, and encouraged where social distancing was not possible. Other mitigating measures were in place as well, but at many SXSW shows the vast majority of fans were maskless.) 

After testing positive, the group canceled eight tour dates scheduled for the days following SXSW. “I would say we probably lost, like, somewhere close to $8,000, maybe,” Westervelt surmises. “We do pretty well on the road. Even with, you know, like little, low, or even perhaps no guarantees or door deals in certain places. Just depending on the venue and how they like to run things, you know, we usually sell a lot of merch.”

Many bands had already lost shows to the pandemic. Egg Drop Soup had to nix a tour planned for the spring of 2020. Been Stellar’s 19-date tour with Catcher in 2021, which they’d booked themselves, had cancellations in Baltimore and Philadelphia due to the Delta variant, Been Stellar guitarist Fernando “Nando” Dale says. Gully Boys were forced to cancel multiple shows, and pop-punk group Mom Rock and psychedelic-soul band Ghost Funk Orchestra say they were unable to tour throughout 2020 and most of 2021.

“It was tough, like, emotionally because we were just starting to pick up steam and we were getting better and better offers, and we were just seeing them kind of evaporate,” says Ghost Funk’s Seth Applebaum. The band has released a couple of LPs via Colemine Records, including 2019’s A Song for Paul. “And in that moment, [we were] kind of praying that it wasn’t our ship sailing away, that hopefully when things calmed down, we would still be getting similar offers and have the same kind of enthusiasm.” 

“I can’t think of a less logical thing,” Egg Drop Soup singer-bassist Samantha “Sammy” Westervelt says. “But it’s not really about that — it’s about love and it’s about passion.”

As creative as bands are musically, they’re equally resourceful at making ends meet, on and off tour. For many band members, day jobs are essential. “I really look forward to the day where I don’t have that anymore. But that’s what it is at the moment,” Westervelt says.  “I did not [save up ahead of time], and I still have credit card bills that I’m paying off from previous tours. It’s not cheap to have a business, and especially one that really is very much reliant on people loving your art. I can’t think of a less logical thing, but it’s not really about that, you know — it’s about love and it’s about passion.”

Outside gigs run the gamut. Egg Drop Soup’s drummer Bailey Chapman is a seamstress and also owns her own clothing company, Aquarian Apparel. Guitarist Olivia Saperstein is in marketing, and Westervelt acts and does graphic and web design. Gully Boys’ McGill works as a talent and promotions manager at a nonprofit venue, and Klemond cleans houses. Been Stellar’s Dale runs sound at a couple of music venues in New York; guitarist Skyler Knapp, singer Sam Slocum, and drummer Laila Wayans work in food and beverage. Bassist Nico Brunstein is a soccer coach.

They work to keep things as affordable as possible while on the road. Before Mom Rock embarked on their inaugural U.S. tour last fall after the release of their A Song With a Happy End EP, they made plans to crash with friends, relatives, and even fans most nights. “The only reason we’re able to make any money touring so far this year is, like, people have given us a place to stay,” says guitarist Curtis Heimburger. “Most of the time, they’ll cook us breakfast before we head out in the morning. I’m sure it’s like thousands of dollars that we’re saving just because people are being nice and putting [us up] and feeding us.”

Budgeting is essential when it comes to touring, even if it can seem futile. “Before South by we had saved up, I think, maybe a little bit over $1,500, and that essentially all straight went to gas and any sort of lodging that we had,” Been Stellar’s Knapp says. 

The post-punk quintet are fairly new to touring, having only plotted their first jaunt after the pandemic hit. Three of the five members live together in a house where they also practice and record. Their 2020 single “Fear of Heights” helped fund their SXSW budget after it performed well on Spotify. “We never really make money for ourselves in this band. We always try to add any earnings we make to the band fund,” Dale says. “So that’s kind of the vibe that we have so far. We just all reinvest the money that we earn, basically.”

been stellar

Been Stellar

Adam Powell*

Gully Boys’ McGill says they made $500 for six shows at SXSW (an organization called Side Door paid them to play their show and also helped them book shows where they were paid on the way to the festival) — and paid $1,200 for their Airbnb, among other expenses. “That is not accounting for having to pay our agent, having to pay our manager, all the money that we spent to make merch to sell just a little bit of merch and any of the food. So we lost a lot of money,” McGill says. The group, which formed in 2016 and released an EP, Favorite Sons, last fall, previously booked its own tours. The band is currently between agents and labels. 

“We were hoping at the end of this tour we would be able to pay ourselves out individually,” Gully Boys’ vocalist-guitarist Kathy Callahan says. “But that’s not looking like it’s going to happen. I’m going to have like $30 in my bank account when I get home.”

“We were kind of hoping at the end of this tour we would be able to pay ourselves out individually,” Gully Boys’ vocalist-guitarist Kathy Callahan adds. “But that’s not looking like it’s going to happen, which is hard on us individually, of course. Like rent is due, what, today, tomorrow? I’m going to have like $30 in my bank account when I get home.”

At SXSW, bands invited to play an official showcase have a choice between making a little bit of cash or getting a wristband, as Stereogum noted in a story delving into a viral tweet from the band Wednesday, which said their “profit” from a recent tour was -$98.39. Been Stellar, Egg Drop Soup, and Gully Boys chose the wristband route. “The networking opportunities and the opportunities to see bands that we wouldn’t ordinarily get to see is invaluable,” Westervelt says. “So merch was really our lifeline at South by.”

In most cases, bands keep 100 percent of their merch sales, and might pull in several hundred to the low-thousands of dollars per show. But even that can be inconsistent. Gully Boys say that while on tour recently, one venue wanted to take a 20 percent cut of their merch sales, so they decided not to offer their merch at that show.

“Generally, the better the venue we play, the more they’re going to ask for [a piece of] the merchandise sales,” says Mom Rock guitarist Josh Polack. “I kind of hate it because we’re the ones standing there selling the merch. They didn’t provide anything other than maybe a table. And we make 10 times on merchandise [what] we usually get through the door.”

Beyond merch, what a band makes off a gig can vary significantly. At DIY houses or “off-the-books” performance spaces, Knapp says there’s no standard amount to expect, since it’s essentially people leaving donations for the bands. In more traditional venues, Westervelt says Egg Drop Soup can make between $100 and $400 for playing the show itself, with more coming from merch sales. But then that amount is divided between bandmates and put toward gas ($60 to $90 per tank, the bands estimated), lodging (around $100), and food (which varies depending on the location and band members’ needs). It’s no wonder young touring bands are skating on paper-thin margins. 

Then there are the unanticipated roadblocks. After SXSW, Gully Boys headed to a tour date in Colorado and ran into a blizzard on the way. As they white-knuckled their way down a two-way highway, McGill says, “I don’t know if it was a shard of ice or just the pure force off the back of the semi, but it completely shattered our window.” They ended up driving half an hour to find a hotel, with only a one-ply garbage bag keeping the elements at bay. They drove another hour out to find a place to repair it. 

Bad luck, one might think, except a similar situation befell Been Stellar. After someone broke into their van in Oakland, they taped a wood plank where a window once was and made their way down to Los Angeles. Then, the tape gave way. “So then we all had to literally hold it with our hands from the inside, like, whoever wasn’t driving,” Knapp says. The window cost around $1,000 to repair. They turned to GoFundMe and were able to pay it off. “We kind of thought it was the end of the world because we had just started getting on a good groove of sort of building our money back,” he adds. “If this was 15 years ago and GoFundMe didn’t exist, it would have kind of wrecked us, to be quite honest with you.”

That kind of helping hand makes life on the road easier when things go awry, but it would be better, McGill says, if U.S. bands had access to creative grants, like the ones offered in other countries, or if there was a basic guarantee that a band playing a venue made $25 at minimum per member. McGill also cautions young bands to avoid “pay to play” venues. “Basically, it’s a tool used to take advantage of young and learning artists, where they have to buy the physical tickets for the show and try to resell them.” McGill says when they booked their own tours early on, some talent buyers tried to pull them into it, but they declined. “I do know some of my peers, that is the only way they’ve been able to book shows. It just makes it really inaccessible because at that point, you’re losing money and you’re providing the entertainment and the business for the company. It’s wack.”

Still, there are reasons why bands soldier through the hassles: doing what they love and making music that connects with others. For Mom Rock, despite all the sweaty nights crammed into their van alongside their gear and the merchandise rack, the toll that rising gas prices has inflicted on their tiny profit margins, and the show in Vermont where nobody but the family of bassist Tara Maggiulli showed up, there were magical evenings that make it all worth it, like a recent set at New York’s Mercury Lounge. Fans in Mom Rock shirts sang along to nearly every song, and filled the 250-seat club to the point where Polack could effortlessly crowd-surf.  

“My grandmother came that night, and so many people that have been with us since the very beginning,” says Maggiulli. “I got choked up towards the end because it was just kind of surreal.”

Though the road can be tenuous, Been Stellar’s dedication is paying off. They just signed to So Young Records in the U.K., where they will be playing The Great Escape Festival, as well as touring in support of the Goa Express. The band’s U.S. tour opening for Ultra Q kicks off in June. Gully Boys are readying a new single to drop by summer, with plans for an LP to arrive later this year. Catch them this spring supporting Mannequin Pussy; they also open for Bad Bad Hats for a summer tour that begins in July. Egg Drop Soup’s single “Jimmy Eat Shit” will be released in July as part of Suicide Squeeze’s digital single series Pinks & Purples. They’re planning a tour in November and an EP for later this year. Ghost Funk Orchestra is performing at Telluride Jazz Festival in August. Mom Rock are opening for Bowling for Soup, Less Than Jake, and the Aquabats on a U.S. tour in June. 

Check out these bands’ new music, catch them on the road, and while you’re at it, grab some merch.

Additional reporting by Andy Greene

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