The Cost of Touring in America

UK band Girl Ray on the expensive endeavor of playing in the States.

As I’m writing this, our drummer, Iris, just messaged the group chat saying: “Just did a little vom in my mouth realising that tour is the week after next.” Let’s be real. We’re overwhelmed. 

When we were first starting Girl Ray as teenagers, we had a relentlessly optimistic (and borderline cocky) attitude that feels so characteristic of being young and having a dream. We didn’t doubt that good things would come to us if we worked hard. We were going to get signed, release a record on vinyl, and tour America. It was straightforward. That was the plan. We lived with our parents and they were financially stable. Back then, it was easy to say yes to every show and it was easy to spend months touring and not getting paid for it, because we didn’t have to pay for housing. We knew we were cared for. Everything could be about music. 

We did our first US tour in 2018 when we were 20, and it was the best experience of our lives. We were chosen to receive a PRS grant, and away we went. Doing that tour was so valuable. We were so inspired by Porches (who we were supporting) and their energy at their live shows. It propelled us to write music a lot more pop-leaning, more upbeat; music that makes you feel good. We wouldn’t be the same band without that tour. 

Being older, being in a post-COVID, increasingly expensive climate and paying rent in one of the most expensive cities in the world, the financial anxiety sets in. If someone asks me about our upcoming US tour, I say I’m excited — and it’s true, I am. But like Iris, I’m sporting a little vom in my mouth at the same time.

This time, we’re 25 and doing our second US tour. It’s predominantly headline shows; our record has been selling better than ever before. We’ve been getting support from US radio stations that we’ve loved and admired since being teenagers (KEXP, KCRW, WNYC) — that part feels really exciting. But the upfront costs are overwhelming. It’s costing thousands, and with the show fees alone, we aren’t breaking even. After the 30% of the fee withheld for the IRS, and the standard 12.5% agent fee, we only take 57.5% of our live fees. Everything feels tight, as a “business” and as individuals — because really, those two things are indistinguishable when you’re in a band with your best friends.

We manage ourselves, and organizing the logistics of a tour in America is never going to be easy, but on top of this, all the basic elements of making a tour happen — van hire, fuel, accommodation, flying with instruments, visa costs — are getting more expensive post-pandemic. We’ve talked to friends of ours who work at labels, and band managers who’ve told us that if you break even, you’re doing amazingly well.

More and more UK artists have canceled their US tours in the past two years because it just wasn’t worth the financial cost (Little Simz is the most famous example). It’s giving up stability, it’s choosing not to borrow insane amounts of money, and for some, it means spending months working pretty exhausting hours and jumping between temporary and predominantly minimum wage jobs you don’t enjoy, because it’s rare to find a stable job that will let you take that much time off. 

There’s the standard nervousness that’s common to any performer on tour — the one that feels like you’re 13 and you’re all dressed up in your hottest jeggings with the deep fear that no one is coming to your party. That’s normal. It’s kind of fun. But when you’re playing a show on tour that is so reliant on making money, there are so many other anxieties that come with that: If no one comes, will we get booked in that city again? Will we sell enough merch to pay upfront for fuel or accommodation or for everyone’s meals? We’ve already paid so much to get here, did we break even tonight? It takes relentless optimism and an almost delusional fuck-it-to-the-wind mentality to stay positive. 

This time around, like a lot of other UK bands without major label backing, we’ve started a fundraiser. Asking for financial donations in these times felt pretty weird, so we sold things: I sold my first bass; we had t-shirts made; sold handwritten lyric sheets for our first album and old notes from band meetings; Iris did custom paintings of people’s pets; we did bass and guitar lessons. It’s been very humbling how many people have helped us make it happen. People are so supportive. With nine days to go, we’ve reached 80% of our target. It’s amazing. People are so sweet. We’re putting on a tongue-in-cheek show of “All-American” covers of artists like Prince, Madonna, Blink-182, and, controversially, Shania Twain (we know she’s Canadian, alright). We’re holding a hot dog-eating competition and doing karaoke after. It’s going to be a cracker, don’t get me wrong — but can we really do this every time we need to renew our visas? 

The issue we’re having with expenses is symptomatic of a larger issue of how to make music a viable way to live. The demands of being a musician are growing more and more. I don’t mean to sound like a jaded old rocker, but it’s not just about the music anymore. It’s hard to express how weird it is to compartmentalize the logistics of touring and being creative. Having the headspace to be creative, engage in critical thinking, and follow an interest or a curiosity is just hard when there is a mountain of things on the to-do list at all times.

The to-do list rules our world. Though most of that list, sadly, is not buying hot dogs. It’s filling out tax forms, contacting every van rental possible to find transport that’s affordable, researching fees for bulky baggage on at least three different airlines at a time, trying to organize places to stay, fulfilling merch orders, making video content and doing interviews to promote the tour. It really goes on. This would all be fine if we weren’t so stretched, could pay ourselves in some way, or didn’t have to juggle it with work and studying. 

As streaming changes the music industry, it feels like the costs of touring don’t make sense anymore, for any artist that is not huge already. On Spotify, 1% of musicians pocket 90% of the revenues; to earn the equivalent of a year on the UK’s minimum wage, an artist needs to clock up six million streams. That’s just if you’re a solo artist. Touring is an amazing thing for us as musicians — it’s so fulfilling and a crucial time to develop an idea about where to go next musically — but from a financial perspective, it feels like a practice that was born in a time when there was real income from record sales to support it. It doesn’t feel like a sustainable way to be a musician anymore. When we signed for our third record, our label gave us a US touring budget that at the time, pre-COVID, seemed huge. But when it comes down to it, it really only covered the cost of our visas and legal fees.

We know that ours isn’t the biggest struggle out there when it comes to applying to work in the US. We are very lucky being UK citizens, especially white UK citizens, and that the odds of gaining a visa aren’t stacked against us in a way that isn’t racially prejudiced (you can’t even visit the US on an ESTA tourist visa if you’ve visited Iraq and many other countries in the Middle East since 2011). But, the visa process is very nerve-wracking, because a denial means you can’t enter the US for five years afterwards. You pour all your money and energy into a tour that can easily just be canceled, on the basis of a decision made by someone at a kiosk in an embassy. It does feel like a gamble to an extent. It makes you evaluate how precarious your whole situation is. The embassy will ask you, what makes you think you’ll have enough money to sustain yourself for the tour? They’ll question why you would even come back to the UK if you aren’t employed in a well-paying or regular job. It’s disarming, because you don’t really have an answer. You’re just living your silly little life playing your silly little songs. That’s how it makes you feel.

We all want to be able to follow our curiosity, to be creative, to write the music that got us here in the first place. It’s the thing we love, and the thing we know is valued by people that come to our shows. But what musicians need to make touring sustainable is a regular decent income, to have support with the mountain of costs before the tour has even begun, or to see those costs reduced by companies and agencies that could and should be doing more to support the arts. We’ve been doing this for eight years, and we know we’re the lucky ones, but is there a time when this will be easier?

Girl Ray is an indie rock band based in North London. Their latest record, Prestige, is out now on Moshi Moshi.