Almost Profitable: The finances of a DIY band on tour

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Almost Profitable: The finances of a DIY band on tour

When The Rizzos started their first tour last month, they were already in the red.

$350 of their band fund – cobbled together from merch sales, their cut of the door, and sales of their new tape – had already gone towards the van they rented. The van looked like it would rather be ferrying kids to soccer practice. There was a sunroof and a DVD player (showing Karate Kid 2). The back was stuffed with instruments and sandwich ingredients purchased at a Target just outside the city.

Bettina Warshaw, drummer for The Rizzos, was more than happy to admit that they didn’t make any money off of this tour. "We went on the road being like, ‘We’re just going to play shows and have fun and hopefully nobody kills each other.’ And in my head I was like, ‘I’m going to kill all of you.’"

Despite playing in DIY venues across New York City for the last three years, The Rizzos had never taken their blend of punk and surf rock on the road for a full tour. Their first tour was nine days long, starting in Philadelphia, hitting up Delaware and Virginia and Ohio before swinging back to upstate New York and Massachusetts. They mostly slept on people’s floors – they got one hotel room for $60, which came out of their dwindling band fund. Sandwich ingredients lasted about five days. Nobody killed anybody.

Besides having fun, there are some practical benefits to going on tour, whether you’re an independent DIY band from Brooklyn or the next pop sensation. For The Rizzos, it was all about finding new fans in new cities, hopefully gathering new Facebook Likes and selling a few tapes and t-shirts along the way.

"We don’t really look at the band as a business," Bettina told me. "But we got some good footholds in specific markets." The idea is that the next time The Rizzos roll through these cities, they have a few fans who bring their friends. Each time they play a show, the audiences will get larger and larger until eventually, they fill a stadium. "I kept getting yelled at by my band for looking at it as a business. ‘They’re not markets – we’re going to a city and we’re going to play a show.’"

They also got a great opportunity to see how other DIY scenes across the northeast operate. The Rizzos are a product of North Brooklyn DIY, where the bands share members and swap tapes and play out of unlicensed venues like the recently shuttered Shea Stadium. The Rizzos, in particular, share their bloodline with the larger King Pizza Records family, a collective of DIY bands based in Brooklyn.

By traveling to other cities, The Rizzos got to open for the local bands that usually open for the bigger bands when they travel through town. This is kind of like the DIY band version of going to a networking event, though I’m sure Bettina’s bandmates would yell at me for saying that. Regardless, it was a chance for The Rizzos to connect with bigger bands in different parts of the country, building relationships for when those bands decide to travel to Brooklyn.

Like other DIY bands, The Rizzos have no financial backing. Their band fund consists of their cut of the door fees, merch sales, and "maybe a whopping four bucks" a month from Bandcamp. And while there’s not a lot of overhead involved in being in a DIY band, there are expenses. They have to pay for practice spaces. One time, a car they rented for an out-of-town show got scratched, and they had to pay a huge fee to repair it.

For their first tour, The Rizzos were pretty lucky. Besides the rental van (borrowed from a friend for a lower rate), the sandwich materials (cheese, tomatoes, vegan mayonnaise, spinach, and rolls), and the $60 hotel room, their expenses were minimal. They had to pay tolls and buy gas. If one of them wanted fast food, beer at the show, or another band’s merch, that came out of their personal budget. At the end of the tour, they had made back most of their sunk costs, finishing just $45 in the hole.

There are a lot of ways they could’ve been profitable. They could’ve slept on another floor instead of that hotel. If one of them had owned a car – a rarity in Brooklyn – they never would’ve been in the hole in the first place. But in more important ways, this tour was more than worth losing $45. "I’ve heard a lot of horror stories from tours. Bands that got two shows in and then broke up, or shows where absolutely no one turned out. We lucked out. We got a lot of people, some good crowds. People liked us and we had fun."

"I’m still kind of in shock that it was fun," Bettina laughed. "I wasn’t expecting to like it at all."

For now, Bettina and the rest of The Rizzos don’t plan on pursuing the band as a full-time gig. To get to a place where you could reasonably live off your band, you have to put in a lot of work and have a lot of luck. "I’d have to quit my job and break up with my boyfriend. The band becomes your boyfriend, it becomes your everyday. You have to commit to it. ‘This is the only thing I want—the only thing I’m working towards.’"

"Just being dedicated doesn’t mean you’re going to make it," Bettina told me. "You have to be good. And we’re not that good. Just kidding. That’s a joke. My band’s going to read this and kill me."

And even if something magical did happen and The Rizzos became the next big thing, Bettina’s skeptical of the rock star life. Or, at least the touring aspect of it: "I’m a total homebody. I would miss my cats."

If you want to check out The Rizzos when they’re in your hometown, follow them on Facebook. You can also listen to all of their music on Bandcamp.