A look at how this touring musician budgets for life on the road

By: Vin Heney on August 15, 2018

For 23-year-old Campbell Woods, music has always been a way of life.

Growing up in Smiths Falls, Ont., Campbell learned violin at an early age and was exposed by his parents to everything from Dylan and Cash, to Miles and McCartney. By 12, he’d taken up guitar and formed a band with some friends, playing covers at cafés and festivals around town.

“Music was always just there,” says Campbell. “It was always a part of my home life and social life growing up. I guess because it was always there, I knew about a lot of different bands and it always just appealed to me as something I wanted to do and identified with.”

Writing and performing music have always gone hand in hand, but in the current climate of declining album sales and free streaming sites, the performing part is more important than ever. This means booking gigs and getting to them, and that costs money. Here’s a look at how Campbell is making it work as an independent touring artist in 2018.

The influence of the song

Campbell is quick to point out his more recent songwriting influences — Townes Van Zant, Bob Dylan, Guy Clark, Lucinda Williams, John Prine, to name a few — but he’s careful not to overlook the musical chapter that consumes so many young music lovers.

“Lennon & McCartney — I think everyone’s got The Beatles thing in there somewhere. I don’t think about it as much now, but I probably lost two or three years just being obsessed with The Beatles, so it’s a good thing to remember.”

By the age of eighteen, playing other people’s songs had given way to writing his own. Armed with a handful of originals he’d been performing around Halifax while studying at Dalhousie University, Campbell participated in an industry conference that he credits for changing the way he looked at music. What had always been a passion suddenly seemed like a career path.

“I don’t think I always knew I wanted to do it or that it could be done. The moment that changed was at the Folk Music Ontario Conference. I was 18 and had really only just started writing my own songs and was very new to it all. It’s this conference where artists and people who hire artists get together and mingle and play music for each other and try to book gigs. Being so young and being welcomed into this really awesome, vibrant community of people that are making their lives on the road, putting out albums, that was a huge moment of feeling like “This is the beginning, if I just plug away starting now, I could maybe do it."

Crafting a career

Like with any career, there were doubts. But in Campbell’s case, those doubts didn’t happen until later. He was still in school and things were progressing gradually. Low investment meant low risk. Combine that with family support and a newly discovered circle of mentors, and he figured there was no real harm in giving it a shot.

“I think I have more doubts now, five or six years later, really starting to look ahead at how to make this sustainable for a regular, independent adult life,” says Campbell. “But getting into it was very gradual. It didn’t feel like a risk. I didn’t feel like I was giving anything up to do it. I was still dependent on my parents as a student, so it just felt like something that incorporated its way into my life more and more.”

Since graduating in 2016, Campbell has released a full-length album and played more than 170 shows. This means he’s been on the road … a lot. While not having a fixed address has its benefits (no rent!), touring the country isn’t always the most lucrative, or the most conducive to feeling rooted in one place. 

“It’s the personal and financial. Doubts about what a life that is fairly transient at the moment looks like in ten years. Both personally, in terms of having a family or something like that. And also financially. And those things sort of go hand-in-hand. It’s hard to imagine building something in that personal zone when it’s hard to see a way to make a lot of money doing this."

Life on the road

It’s easy to romanticize a big tour. Who wouldn’t love to make their way out west, playing small venues and meeting folks along the way? But the reality is also long drives, tight budgets, and crashing on a few too many couches.

Campbell is a one-man show. He does all of his own bookings, promo, and PR. He also tours as a solo act (or with another guitarist) to keep costs down. He also negotiates for venues to include food and accommodation on top of a performer’s fee, applies for government grants, sells merchandise, and leverages budget-friendly tools like sponsored social media posts, which — for as little as $2 per day — can target the area surrounding a venue.

“You have to think about your expenses in a totalizing way. There’s not that much money on the table, so you have to think about ways you’re going to save money. Accommodation is huge. If you’re getting $200 to play somewhere and they’re putting you up, that’s way better than getting $300, but you have to get a hotel. When I was first doing my own booking, I didn’t think about those things, I just wanted to know what the payout was. But then you get to Regina and you’re like ‘shit, I need to get an AirBnB, I don’t know anyone, I don’t have anywhere to stay, I haven’t eaten’ — and then all your money’s gone.”

Another challenge Campbell faces is the up-and-down nature of being an independent musician. At the moment, it’s either all booking or all gigging — without much overlap.

“I think there’s something about the approach I’m taking which is very polar,” Campbell explains. “Right now I’m just working at the computer and not playing music, not writing music, not doing any of that; or I’m out on the road, playing music, writing music when I can, and just doing the bare minimum administrative work, and not really thinking ahead. So then when you finish there, it’s like ‘oh shit, now I’ve gotta hustle and start the next thing.’”

Looking ahead

Despite the challenges that come with this kind of career, Campbell loves the path he’s chosen.

“With actual touring, it’s all good stuff,” Campbell explains. “I enjoy driving, I enjoy getting to go to different places everyday, I enjoy meeting people, I enjoy playing the shows, I enjoy starting to feel familiar with different venues and places and towns. It’s a great way to get to know the country. It’s really exciting. I recognize I’m coming at this from a place of privilege, but I do think that if you’d like to get on the road and play in different places, all you have to do is plan really far in advance and be fearless about getting in touch with people and you can do it. People are supportive, people want other people to succeed.”

Campbell has shows booked up until the fall, at which point he’ll break from touring to record his second full-length album. An album you can expect to see him promoting next spring when he rolls through your town.