Best Touring Advice Ever From Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson

From Pollstar:

Since the last time we talked, are you still managing your own tours?

I don’t have a tour manager because I don’t want to have another guy who will spend my money and do things differently to me. I know exactly where I want to stay. I know exactly which airline and what time I’m going to fly, and what aircraft I’m not prepared to fly and, in a few cases, which airline I’m not supposed to get into for fear of dying.

There comes a point where you really don’t want to let somebody else mess things up when they’re going perfectly fine the way they are. Happily, let’s say in the last 15 years, the Internet has provided me with the opportunity to do the research of a tour, anywhere in the world. I can find how I’m going to get there, where I’m going to stay, what I’m going to do – every aspect of the whole thing can be ascertained by internet access. And while you’re there, you might as well press the button that says “buy flight” or “pay for hotel now.” There’s little point in doing all of this if you then give it to somebody else. It will take you twice the time and cost you a whole lot of money. And there’s always a chance that somebody screws it up. I’m perfectly happy being a Sunday afternoon travel agent.

That’s one of my hobbies. On Sunday afternoons, if I’m not on the road, I sit and book flights and hotels and travel arrangements, and do tour itineraries. I find it a lot of fun. It’s a hobby.

You mentioned in our last interview that you were giving Mike Rutherford advice about making touring profitable. Can you elaborate some more as to how you know touring strategies rather than a tour manager – allegedly the person who knows all this good stuff?

Well, a tour manager isn’t going to do tour budgets and have the experience or the ability to deal with all the aspects of withholding tax and issues that are perhaps way beyond his remit. A tour manager is essentially a shepherd with an unruly flock. A tour manager is a guy who probably has some experience of travel more than anything else, but his role is fundamentally to be traveling with the band and escorting them through airports and train stations and on and off buses.

But I don’t work with sheep. I work with musicians. My experience has always been that if you give people the responsibility of behaving like professional musicians, they will rise to the occasion. If you treat them like sheep, they very quickly become sheep. Having a shepherd is not an ingredient that is part of my way of doing things. …

You have to imagine the majority of people in rock bands probably do sit down once in a while and say, “I’m going to take my family to, oh, the Carribbean,” and they’ve got to go online and check out some hotels, flight options, whatever, or maybe they’re so incredibly inept and boring that they call their travel agent and say, “I want to go somewhere nice! Send me some tickets!” I’m guessing but I think most people are capable of booking their own holiday for themselves and their family.

And that’s the way I look at it when I’m booking tours. It’s me. It’s my friends and family. It’s my musical family and I’m looking out for them, making sure they get safely from A to B, that they all have access to their flight booking reference numbers, and they can check in online, choose their seats and so on, all of which they’re very capable of doing. And I see them on the plane! I don’t have to escort them through an airport. They’re grown up lads; they know what to do.

So what can other tours do to help their budgets?  

The economy of scale is everything. If you end up with four guys in the band and 20 crew, you’re probably doing something wrong. I mean, there may be an artistic reason for doing that but it’s most likely that you’re way, way overemploying people. And, of course, people will make themselves indispensable … and therefore make [musicians] dependent on them. That’s what I mean when I say if you treat musicians like sheep they become sheep.

So yeah, I think you’re probably talking about a ratio of 1-to-1 depending on a few variables. But if you’re planning on a lot of production then you’ve probably got twice as many crew because you have lighting guys and sound guys and drivers and buses and trucks. But for an average rock band, think in terms of one truck and one bus. That’s probably all you really need, unless you’re Madonna or Lady Gaga.

So you’ll find a bus is the most economic thing in the USA. It’s for sure the best way to do it as long as you don’t give everybody the luxury of hotels as well, except on days off.

In my case, try to play five nights a week on average. Otherwise your days off will be very expensive. … You’ve got to make tours cost-effective, it’s economy of scale, do enough dates to make it worthwhile. It’s about sitting down and planning it in the first place. A simple spreadsheet gives you the answers.

Someone comes up to me with an offer for a show, or two or 10, the first thing I do is a quick trial budget. Say we’re going to Australia. It’s only going to take me five minutes to check out the flights.  It might take me a quick double check to see withholding taxes in that country, how I might offset it with expenses and so forth. Maybe 10 minutes to do a trial budget based on the information. Let’s say 20 minutes, half-hour tops I know whether that tour is worth pursuing. I can go back to my agent and say, “Frankly, it’s not quite worth it for me to do this.” Or, “Let’s go ahead with it. Maybe they can pay another 10 percent higher fee than what they’re offering. See what you can get.” Or I can say, “I think they’re paying us a little too much here and I think they’re taking too big a risk so why don’t we try and negotiate, give them a little headroom to try and make a profit and reduce the fee.” Which, on occasions, I might well do.

But it all depends on that first, crucial decision to spend half an hour on that analysis. It’s not a huge chore. I like that I can do it fairly quickly. I can go into my standard insurance costs and administrative costs amortized across the year. All that stuff is built into the spreadsheet. I just hit the return key and see if there’s a meaningful profit at the end for me to put into my bank account before I pay my 50 percent tax that I do in the U.K.