Should you quit your day job and go on tour with a rock band?

That’s the question answered by cellist Zoe Keating at Ignite, the 5-minute hyperpresentation series put on by O’Reilly. (At an NYC event, I gave a talk explaining why understanding basic programming concepts was as important as calculating your tip on a bill.)

Zoe Keating on Should you join a rock band? [Ignite’s Brady Forrest]

Zoe debunks the myth of the glamorous tour with some sobering realities with which I’m sure at least some readers here are already far too familiar. The presentation is snappy, sharp, and more than occasionally hilarious, a perfect Igniter.

If that’s got you down, though, the same post points to this brilliant “Quantum Cello” piece in which Zoe explains how she works with loops, blending electronic techniques with a 17th-century instrument. That’s the kind of old meets new sensibility we love. And by the way, when Zoe tours with a rock band, she does have good taste — she hit the road with the Dresden Dolls’ fabulous Amanda Palmer.

Quantum Cello, WNYC Radio Lab [Audio podcast / interview]

Layover cello: Zoe Keating plays SFO airport. Photo (CC seany). Sean also points us to his video of Zoe playing at this gig a cover of Muse’s “Time is Running Out”. The title of the song is appropriate for an airport, though the lyrics are only if you’re, um, a member of the Mile High Club.
  • Steve Lawson, aka @solobasssteve, has a great quote he uses (but did not originate – I don't know who said it originally) to describe rock stardom and getting signed:

    "Congratulations, you've won the contest. First prize is ten years on a bus."

    It looks like Zoe is in complete agreement.

  • Paul N

    Yeah- gonna go ahead and say tours, for me, always means having an upset stomach in major cities all over the country. Never done the bus, only done shuttle vans… I'm in my thirties now and have to eat well to maintain a healthy disposition. I gave up drinking in the past 2 years- not for having a problem- just for health- but without that to knock me out in the backseat, there's no hope.

    I actually quit touring to have a tech job! So I gotta say I'd like to hear the follow up topic from the end joke. 😀

    It's a different world than a few years ago- I noticed the money tightening up and pulled the plug before I sank into the red ink. I love my happy little studio- and should I ever blow up itunes, I will certainly look to travel and deal with public performance again- but going broke to preserve the live machine because in the nineties that's where the money was at doesn't sound too smart in this day and age. Nowadays the band is just me and the missus, our laptops and guitars- I suppose, were we to tour, it would be more of a renting a car and staying in hotels scenario- but you'd have to pay some absurd secure my future amount to get me back out on the road doing sideman guitars and synths again- and I would still hate every f*&king minute of it. Travel is good- but not on a stomach full of fast food in a van that smells like your drummer.

  • RCUS

    I would love to hear a famous DJ's take on this topic!

  • chuck

    Ugh- what a snob-she certainly should not. "You're going to drive through parts of America that we live in West County to avoid"….. ? It's like she's giving a presentation to a kindergarten class. I would give my right arm to tour with The Dresden Dolls.

  • I'm from one of those drive-through/fly-over states (Kentucky), so I sympathize. I love the whole country. Of course, once you get to, like, the Days Inn Parking Lot, I will concede it isn't always exactly glamorous — not when you've been on the road 3 months, I'll bet.

  • Having toured for few years, and on and off for many more then that I would say she is spot on. She does come off pretty cynical however, It's not for everyone, but once you do it is is hard to sit in front of a computer everyday.

    I always hated it when people would complain about touring, it comes off as arrogant self serving. It's kind of like someone complaining about working at the post office, just get a new job. It's no surprising though, megalomaniacs are often drawn towards the industry. it's hard work yeah, but I wouldn't trade it for a tech job any day of the week.

  • Sean

    Wow, someone used my photo of Zoe. There is video of her performance at the airport, including a cover of "Time Is Running Out" by Muse. I hope you like it!

  • RCUS

    I sit in a cubicle Mon-Friday from like 8:30 to 5pm. about a third of my time during the week I am able to "slack off" at work. I dedicate my 'downtime' at work to music composition and producer/dj duties, making tracks, and working on my ableton monster set that I hope to perform my own songs live with in the near future. i get to hang with friends on the weekend. i have a girlfriend. I eat good food most of the time. i am essentially getting paid for my time.

    from her perspective, it sounds like I'm living the dream. too bad it's not even close!

  • A more serious look at the issue:

  • In a way, funny and true however, speaking for myself, our last two month tour was the Best time in my life as of yet. Nothing like meeting new fans and friends, exploring new cities, creating new relationships with clubs and living your dream, doing what you love.

    There's a ton of planning involved in touring but when done right can be very very enlightening and empowering. Look for a job that allows you to tour a few months every year. Look for a job that doesn;t require you to be there, something you can do online. NEVER EVER GIVE UP YOUR DREAM AND VISION!



    PinkStar aka Otto's Daughter

  • Adam, thanks for the links.

    Jacqueline — I agree, absolutely. I guess the point of this is to really give people a reality check. If you read through all the agony of the tour, and then you STILL feel like there's nothing else you'd rather do in the world, you know you're cut out to be a touring musician.

    Being an artist, of course, isn't ever easy. I think not everyone is cut out for the tour, and of course, not all artists want to do that (or get to do that, even if they want to).

    But yeah, if you WANT the agony for the love of what you do, that's fantastic. (I sure as heck wouldn't mind it, but I'm still blessed to get to do what I'm doing now!)

  • Paul N

    LOL- didn't consider her flyover states attitude. I can definitely see how anyone living in them would be offended- however…

    One touring tradition (unfortunately) was re-naming certain border cities of states like Ohio, Indiana, Texas etc. as "Everybodyhatesyou, Ohio." (or whatever state- of course- they can't all be Ohio)


    Because there is NOTHING in the world like getting out to stretch your legs and grab a bottled water while every yokel in town looks at you (and trust me- I am a remarkably normal dressing musician- not a goth or punk rock type, or even a hipster) as though you have rolled into town with the express purpose of destroying the church and raping the women. It is as though there is a town by-law stating that foreign vans filled with musicians are to be shunned and vilified.

    Either way, for me, touring in the style most of us ever get to is freaking hard work. I cherish my half asleep desk working ass, if for no other reason, than that I am able to cruise over here 12 times a day and see what Peter has going on…

  • Well, it'd be deeply ignorant to claim that, uh, every part of every middle state is brilliant.

    Nothing against those locations. Not all spots are created equal. New York City has the terrifying Times Square Olive Garden, for instance.

  • Here is one of those dreadfully embarrassing l "let me explain!" comments from the subject of the blog…

    I think it is funny that everyone is taking this so seriously.

    This presentation is humor, and horribly generalist by nature. However, it is mostly true. People always talk to me about how they fantasize about quitting their jobs to go on tour. So, the goal of Ignite being "tell us something we don't know", I thought it would be a fun presentation to point aspects of tour life that people outside the biz don't necessarily know. i.e. it ain't all fun and games.

    Given that the Ignite format only gives you 5 minutes, there is a tendency to say blanket statements for effect because you don't have any time for detailed explanation.

    One of those blanket statements was

    "the parts of America we live in West County to avoid"

    You're right, that does sound horribly snobby! But let me explain. By that I mean strip development along this nation's interstate highways. If you've ever been on a breakneck tour of America you know what I mean: truck stops, fast food restaurants and motel clusters around interchanges. THAT is the part of America I am talking about. I love small towns. I love most of Ohio. I love the South. I do not love identical chain-filled strip developments at interstate exits. I do live on the coast north of San Francisco so I don't have to see that stuff when I'm not on tour. It really bums me out. If that makes me a snob, so be it. I'm guilty.

    Gosh, there are so many even more juicy, humorous aspects of this subject that I didn't even get to. I need 10 minutes next time!

    I also never got a chance to say: even with all that crap, I would not keep doing this unless I totally love it! I love it!

    I also love your blog. Thank you!


  • Just reading the comments and not even watching the video yet, it sounds like Their Grass Is Greener syndrome is pretty widespread.

    I myself want a nice desk job working/playing with sound. I hated it every time I read "the way to make money in music is to play live, all the time." My idea of a good time playing live is grabbing a hand drum and maybe a beer, and jamming with some friends.

  • vinayk

    I haven't seen the video – nor would I ever quit my job to go on tour given my atrocious musical skills – but thanks for posting up some great new music (that I wouldve never heard otherwise!!!)!!!

    Given that i'm sitting in Istanbul currently (the benefits of being a non muso is that holidays are just holidays hehe), and have been watching Turkish Oud players with amazement – it would be cool to see what one of these guys could do with some synths/sampling/looping!

    Unfortunately the oud is hard to play, so despite my best efforts I was unable to make myself purchase one!


  • Thanks, Zoe! Well, hey, it's prompting some interesting discussion.

    But yes, I can tell you, doing the 5-minute format in front of a HUGE crowd (a half-drunken crowd in my case) means that saying provocative things is often your best bet. (Incidentally, I think Zoe did better than I did. Ahem.)

    No need to apologize about the rest of the country. Now, I've gotten pretty adept at slumming the Interstate exit, but boy, yes, novelty wears off for everyone eventually. It also kills me to go back to Louisville and see how much of the city has been made over in this odd, generic suburban thing that's identical everywhere (NYC isn't immune from that, either, though generally we get the same chains with more rats). That's a different topic, of course, but I think relevant enough to the reality of what touring is like…

    Of course, touring is just one of a number of non-glamorous things you can do that involves sacrifice for the love of your music. And we wouldn't have it any other way, which is why I agree — no need to get caught up in a 'grass is greener' situation.

  • I have posted this comment on youtube

    I must assume, that when? you like music, and believe on what you do, being able to project yourself to an audience (and earning some money with that) might be just great.. when you are studying music academically, and spend the whole day learning and eventually making some music, you are not happy because you cannot project what you are.. there are not better life conditions.. each one has its own difficulties, and you just have to learn how to deal with that

    thanks for making this show, instead of making just shows like america's got talent and? pop idol

  • i've toured.

    it's what i always dreamed doing since my days as a roadie for the Groovie Ghoulies.

    my most recent experiences have been with my electronica band Fosforo.

    our first tour was through new mexico and east texas. we played at a variety of bars and it was an established route by a promoter that always gets the bands paid decently. for an indie band it was a break even type thing. selling merch was the only way to profit as most of the places we played were bars with no cover so really what we got was a percentage of the bar. i think it's all in the connections you make and who you know when you're an indie artist. there are several ways to plan a tour that DIY articles have thoroughly gone into, always plan a route and use your connects to skip on paying for hotels.

    the short weekend jaunts to nyc and boston worked out well for us. we'd hop on a plane, stay at friends places, eat well, and ride the chinatown bus back and forth between cities. it helped that our lead singer speaks mandarin in order to negotiate the fees for the extra gear on the bus.

    we also toured 17 days in Europe with our tour manager Freddy "Jesus." the bulk of the tour was in Germany where we were always paid, had a place to stay, fed healthy vegetarian meals by the establishment owner and were met with enthusiastic fans that liked to dance and drink all night. in some places the bar owner would get mad if we didn't drink. Europeans appreciate music in such a different way than Americans. I'm faced with pay to play here in LA all the time and in Europe they paid up front or right after the show with no problem even if the night had only ten people or 400! i wouldn't 'quit my day job…instead i'd use one week of vacation time and maybe do short weekend tours with the rest of my vacation. for more details check out which was the perspective of our Europe tour from my lead singer.


  • stk

    Every time I get back from a tour I vow to never again spend several weeks in a minibus with a neverending 'flu, cold feet, terrible diet, breathing secondhand weed smoke with more booze as the only respite, and rushing to claim the most isolated patch of floor before anyone else.

    Invariably, twelve months later it seems like such an exciting idea to do it all again.

    I hated touring in the US. So many crappy bars with shit soundsystems full of indifferent people.

    The UK on the other hand was a much better experience.

  • lematt

    i had a lot of fun watching that presentation.

    i have toured + deejayed, so a "should you quit your day job to go on a deejaying tour" would be quite funny, as the alcohol factor gets multiplied by 100 🙂

    thanks Zoe

  • I have a running theory that there is a certain percentage of mankind that actually has absolutely no sense of humor. They laugh at things they are told are jokes and at terrible sitcoms because they are hiding it. Point being that there will always those that take whatever you do completely seriously if it doesn't have a laugh track, and Will Farrell making a weird face.

    Anecdote regarding touring from my previous band:

    The drummer, one of the guitar players, his girlfriend and myself in the middle of a terrible van trip for a bit of gear 3 states away. All of us were miserable, starved, and short on sleep.

    Me: So, you know that this is what touring is going to be like right? It's going to be this miserable, but our van will be full of equipment.

    Drummer: Yeah, but that will be different, because it will be like a vacation!

    Long story short, I got the hell out of that band.

  • Another downside which Zoe didn't have time to mention: You don't get time to create anything when you're on tour.

    For those who don't read CreateDigitalMotion: I toured as visualist in a band with a high-profile musician, a couple of months after he'd made the top 6 of Australian Idol. From the day we set off on tour, to the encore of the last gig I played was precisely a year.

    When we left I was expecting an awesome creative journey, and took along my video cameras, graphics tablet, production gear, and hundreds of hours of media to fill with content.

    The sad reality was that you spend so much time doing all of the things Zoe mentioned – as well as a myriad other tasks – that you don't really get any time to create anything while you're touring around.

    That was the worst part for me. Bad food and weird beds and no sleep take their toll after a while, but not being able to make anything new is the quickest way for me to get disillusioned with just about anything.

  • RCUS

    @ Edwin:……I think you need to get in the habit of submitting me some Ableton based projects in the "Online Work Request" system instead of the drab Powerpoint garbage i seem to work on lately… least then i can look like i'm working on "work" when I slack.

    @ everyone else: sorry, inside joke. couldn't resist. We both work for the same mega-corporation. Fosforo kicks ass, i could be a roadie for them but I think i'd be booted off the tour for my East Coast rave scene roots and my overuse of quantize features hahahaa.

    @ Zoe and Peter: thanks for the post! i thought it was great to hear this perspective. I am still definitely up for touring and hopefully will make it a reality in the next two years.

  • Zoe Keating, I'm speaking as a frustrated musician, and I must say that you should go on tour. Make a living out of something that you love to do. Strike while the iron is hot, for you shall never pass that way again (or maybe you will, who knows?) If there's not much at stake if you leave your day job, then by all means, take a radical sabbatical. Enrich your soul. Just my 2-cents…

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