An Addendum to Maura Johnston’s ‘Six Reasons’ Why Touring Doesn’t Always Pay

On the whole, Maura Johnston makes an excellent case in her web-screed “Six reasons why ‘if you want to get paid for music you should play it live’ is an idiotic argument.” But she overlooks a key point, too.

First, there’s no question that touring is a money-losing proposition for many, if not most, bands, particularly the ones whose members must take time away from other jobs to hit the road. Touring is not, as she notes, the answer to everything. And while Johnston is also correct in noting that bands making multiple visits to the same city tend to saturate the market, that’s not really the whole story. She writes, “Sometimes getting to those markets that aren’t saturated with your live show and are thus likely to pay for tickets once the demand has been met in markets you’ve already visited, is way too costly.” Sometimes, yes, particularly in the context of her example, Halifax. But the rockist implications of touring aside, there’s a major-marketist angle to consider, too: Namely, there are plenty of easy-to-reach smaller markets, too.

Way too many small bands focus too heavily on the major-market hipster circuit: on the East Coast, they play Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and maybe Portland, Maine, or someplace in North Carolina or Atlanta. On the West Coast, it’s Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and maybe San Diego. In between, they hit Chicago, Denver, Austin, maybe Detroit, maybe Cleveland. Fair enough: those are the big cities, where small bands are the most likely to find a supportive crowd. But how many bands have built a lasting career out of only playing the same 10 cities? Never venturing beyond those bubbles makes it that much harder to build an audience that may someday grow large enough so that touring is profitable.

Just in New England, for example, bands can stop in Burlington, New Haven, Northampton or Providence, and there are plenty of towns in western New York, each of which is a short drive from the others and from the various major markets. It’s true that hitting the smaller markets after saturating the bigger markets doesn’t make the economics of touring any easier, at least in the short-run, but it is ultimately in a band’s best interest to branch out instead of playing yet another show in Brooklyn.

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