The Realities of Being a Touring Musician

  • Written By 
  • Jordan Holt

Before becoming a full-time musician, I worked a wide variety of jobs ranging from manual labor in a warehouse, to running my own car detailing business, to managing large corporate projects in the marketing industry, to packing donuts at a bakery, just to name a few. It has been a rather wild path God has taken me down, but I am incredibly thankful for it.

Most of those other jobs had some pretty brutal elements that really affected my emotional well-being, relationships and even my health. I went through a lot but those experiences have strengthened my identity and relationship with God to prepare me for the platform I have now.

I have lived in Nashville for over 10 years and known many people who have had varying degrees of success and failure trying to make a living in music. The first thing anyone needs to know about the industry is that everyone’s story is different. (If you are curious about my own story, check out the podcast I did as well as this blog.) 

However, with everyone’s unique story, there are some general realities that most of us face. Below are some of these realities of a touring musician.

Relationships Are Everything

As driven as I am to be creative, I have come to find that the best thing you can have in any job is great people around you. You could make six figures a year in your ultimate dream job, but if you are around difficult people or those you simply do not relate to, nothing else really matters.

I think the best thing about what we do is that we get to work with our friends. Other creatives like ourselves.

We generally get each other, which makes making friends easy. Touring is kind of like having a tight family all over the world that you run into from time to time. This makes things pretty fun. A lot of other jobs I have experienced, people look forward to getting away from their coworkers. We all hang out with each other and look forward to seeing each other again.

At the same time, working with friends can also be a hard thing.

Any time business decisions get intertwined with the intimacy of family, it can make things messy and really hurt people. Add ministry to the equation you get all sorts of higher expectations from people on how you should treat them and vice versa.

When I worked in the corporate world, if you had a misunderstanding with a client, you simply did not work with them again and moved on with your business. There was not much emotion involved in things.

It takes a lot of maturity, faith, and loyalty to persist in our environment. If you work for your church you know all about this as well.

Our identities are not in what we do and love must always be our priority.

Traveling For a Living Isn’t For Everyone

Waking up in a new city each day, experiencing the best of different cultures, having a new destination to look forward to…I absolutely love it. Working a desk job made me feel like I was not progressing in life and I would find myself a bit stir crazy most of the time. I love order, but I needed some change every now and then to break up the monotony.

However, not everyone is like me and many need consistency in their life. If that’s you, do not pursue touring.

We are essentially full-time missionaries who are not always entirely sure what next month looks like. You need a supportive family around you and absolutely need to be sure God is calling you to it. If you create the path you have to sustain it, but if God puts you there then He sustains it.

The biggest struggle I hear from anyone about touring is separation from family. It’s why most touring professionals eventually come off the road and find a way to song-write/produce in their 30’s.

The second is that it is just really physically and emotionally exhausting at times. We do not get much sleep on fly gigs. By the 4th show in a touring run everyone is pretty wiped. We also play a type of music that has the emotional weight of ministry. Having that purpose behind what we do is what makes it fulfilling, but it is also a lot of pouring out.

We have to be really intentional about our relationship with God because many touring musicians miss Sunday’s due to traveling. Getting enough rest and letting God pour into you is vital.

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We Get To Be Creative For a Living

What percentage of the world gets to do that? Very small. Blessing is an understatement.

But just like any other creative industry, like the design/marketing world I was in before, you do not always get to work on projects you find creatively fulfilling.

Christian music can have a relatively limited range of creative expression compared to other genres. It’s a common discussion of people in our industry wanting to find other outlets to express themselves. It is important to realize that we work in a service industry – serving the visions of labels, producers, pastors, radio stations, etc.

When I worked at an animation studio, our CEO, designers and developers were constantly frustrated by taking the jobs that paid the bills from clients who had no desire to do something creatively bold.

Other projects were some of the most cutting-edge creative projects I have come across. Music is the same way. Most of your work is using your skills to serve other purposes.

Most seasoned creatives also know that being creative is an incredibly vulnerable thing. You are putting an intimate expression of yourself on the table and saying to thousands of people around you, “judge this.” With social media it’s now, “Give your opinion of this.” You have to be strong and come to grips with the fact that what you create will not always be good, and that when you create something you are moved but not everyone around you will feel the same.

Even the best and most successful people I know in music deal with the emotional roller coaster of, “I can do this! This song is amazing!” to, “I suck, I’m going to quit music tomorrow.” Some of this all in a matter of minutes.

Venues Matter

Arenas are pretty much cold concrete jungles with very little vibe and personal space. It is an incredibly exciting experience when you are on stage for those few minutes each day, but the other 8 or so hours can be pretty claustrophobic.

Most musicians would rather play clubs than anything. There’s something really exciting about the intimacy and atmosphere that a smaller venue can bring.

The people who come are usually very expectant for God to move because it takes a good amount of intentionality to go and stand all evening. Some of the most passionate worship I have experienced has been in clubs.

Churches usually have fantastic hospitality and they are excited to have the artist there. There are usually good rooms to hang out in, get personal space and work on other things (our whole band with Kari Jobe are producers). The difficult thing we ran into from time to time is the expectancy for worship. Usually the event is primarily promoted to the church body so there is not always the same level of intentionality as other venues carry.

Festivals, like arenas are exciting when you are on stage, but they can be hectic and production quality can vary greatly. If we have production problems, they are usually at festivals. The relationships you make and people you run into off stage are what makes it special.

You Are Around People 24/7

If you are generally introverted, traveling may be a challenge.

We travel in tight tour buses (if you’re lucky and not in 16-passenger vans) and share hotel and dressing rooms with many other people. There’s a reason why musicians love coffee shops. We need to get out and get some personal time. I love being around people, so touring is fun to me in this aspect. It is just a matter of finding balance.

Touring is a unique lifestyle and right now I love it dearly. Being able to use a creative gift for God is truly a blessing. I will never forget the days I have spent on the road and relationships I have made.

If music is something you are passionate about doing for a living, I would encourage you to seek first the Kingdom and consider the many factors that make it a challenging and fulfilling life.

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