In 2021, the Nashville-based rock band Walden completed an epic tour of all 50 states on a starting budget of $50. We spoke with the band's manager Matt Ladis, who also traveled with the band and played a large part in booking shows, about how the whole thing came to fruition.
You should absolutely read that story. But Ladis also had a lot of great advice about handling tour finances and how they leaned on fans to make it work. So instead of trying to cram all that juicy knowledge in the other article, we've created a separate one here.
Check out some of key tips on how to approach tour finances and fund a tour with help from your fans.
Have A (Simple) Tour Goal In Mind
"We had a very clear objective," Ladis tells RootNote of Walden's mission. "It was to play a show in all 50 states with a starting budget of 50 dollars." Being able to have a definitive checklist around a goal — in this case a list of all the states and whether you have a show booked there or not — helps keep the big picture in mind.
This is still important even with small tours. And it can change from band to band. Maybe the goal is to play 50% new markets on tour. Maybe it's to play all venues you've played before but sell at least 25% more tickets. Or maybe it's something even simpler, like playing 5 shows in 8 days.
Whatever the goal, creating a simple "north star" objective keeps the tour in focus.
And when you create your goal, keep your expectations in check. Most early independent tours for developing acts should hope to break even financially but expect to lose a little bit of money — especially when you're on a "fan finding" mission. It's best to keep your goal separate from something as stark as making a certain amount of money.
Start With What You Have, Not What You Need
Budgeting is critical for a tour. Not just so you can manage your expectations and avoid unfortunate surprises, but so you can know what you need to ask for from your fans.
But before you think about what you need, start your budget with what you have. "Step one, what are your assets?" Ladis says. "What gear do you have?"
In Walden's case, they already had a van, gear, sound system, and in-ear monitors. Which put the band in a great position, because they were essentially prepared to play anywhere they needed to.
And not having to rely on a venue to have a sound system meant they could play some shows in states that otherwise may not have happened. It's not necessary by any means, but it puts you at a huge advantage and lets you consider options like putting on house shows between club dates etc.
This step isn't completely necessary, but taking stock of what you already have — even if it's just your instruments — can help you understand costs you're saving as well as potential limitations.
Don't Forget To Budget The Little Things
"I think certain expenses are Tier 1 expenses," Ladis says. These include things like vehicle rental, gear insurance, lodging, and gas. But then there are the Tier 2 expenses.
"Budget emergency money for it you have a flat tire and need maintenance on your van," Ladis says. "Guitar strings. Budget all the things that you don’t know exactly what your’e going to need but you could need. And budget some entertainment in there, too."
Ladis also says it's important to make sure people think about saving where they can. It's a fine line between being prepared to cover certain things and making sure people know that just because it's in the budget doesn't mean it needs to be spent. Take food, for example.
"Our per diems were like, on any given day any of the six of us was entitled to a $20 per diem," Ladis says. "But it’s not like every day, 'Here’s $20 Matt, go wild.' If we got hooked up by the venue for lunch and dinner and we had two meals covered, we're not taking that money."
And once you've separated out the tiers of expenses, consider your method for paying for them. "I’d make a budget, make a list of every possible expense," Ladis says. "Which ones are really priority and you can’t miss them? Those ones, pay out of your checking account. You don’t want to run the risk of your credit card being out of credit available and payment not going through."
Oh, and be sure you're separating tour expenses from average monthly expenses for running the band. "What expenses are going to come in that month that are tour-related and what are not tour-related?" Ladis says. "Square Space for your website and your Linktree account and all these other monthly recurring costs that are just band expenses — keep those separate from the tour, because those are just general business expenses and hopefully you have enough money to cover those. I’m a big believer in using credit cards as much as you can, as long as you can afford the credit card bill. I never want to use a credit card if I couldn’t use the debit card."
Now That You Know What You Need For Your Tour — Figure Out Where To Find It
With these kinds of tours, you'll likely have expenses you need to pay before you ever get your first cut of ticket sales from the venue. Having a decent amount of startup capital to cover the budget can make life a lot easier and do wonders for your mental well-being.
The best way to make this happen — and what Walden did to perfection — is include your fans, friends, and family in the journey from day one.
"To announce [the tour], we came up with some creative assets that didn’t cost us anything," Ladis says. "Our guys are all talented outside of music as well. So we designed a website on WordPress." The site featured graphics, merch, and other opportunities to support the band months before the first date.
"We did some crowdfunding," Ladis says. "Initially we got some donations from some family members, some friends, to start things off. And then we had a couple merch designs and started using a print on demand service called Printful. So when it came to merch, there was no up-front cost. Once we did that and once we announced it, money started flowing in."
Things like crowdfunding, websites, print-on-demand merch, and other creative perks are all low-to-zero-cost ways to get some early tour capital. Plus, if you're targeting people in the towns you're playing, you can kind of think of it like "pre-selling" the show.
But whatever you do, just make it easy for people to help you fund your tour. Include donation links and merch links in all of your socials. Try to funnel people to a central support location as much as you can, like a website. And be very direct and on-point with your messaging.
Be Creative With Revenue Sources
If you do this kind of tour right, ticket sales will be a small portion of your income. "Get creative on how you can make money," Ladis says. "We got a sponsorship with a brewery and made a custom beer can. The deal was agreed upon the day before the tour started but the conversation had started weeks before."
When it comes to merch, it's best to have at least two different T-shirt designs to offer at the table. "Using whatever funds we got from the pre-seed kind of donations and stuff, we were able to buy a couple t-shirt designs in bulk and we brought those with us," Ladis says. "We had a new design on the first day of the show and we sold all 50 t-shirts in the first 3 nights." They ended up ordering more and picking them up while on the road.
But having at least one unique item can also really help at the merch table. Walden took their tour art and had some puzzles made for $30 a piece. They sold them for $50 and sold out completely. Walden also made it easy for fans to donate a tank of gas via their website. They'd then shout out the person who donated on their social media. It's these kinds of unique offerings that people really buy into — especially when they know how much their contribution matters.
Ladis says the band also made a point to talk about their tour on stage in a really organic way when plugging the merch table. Strangers from the crowd would approach the band after and offer to cover their meals. You can't really budget in the kindness of strangers, but when you make it easy for people to support you, those little moments go a long way, both financially and emotionally.