5 Things We Learned From 365 Days On The Road
In this piece, artist Ellisa Sun recounts her experience embarking on a year long tour across the US with her partner Ken in a 30-foot RV. After playing roughly 180 shows and pouring themselves into the musical experience, they here share some valuable takeaways from the journey.
By Ellisa Sun of TuneCore
Me and my partner Ken left one year ago to tour the USA in a 30-foot RV. We’ve played around 180 shows and shared stages with over 120 bands. We dove headfirst into both the ‘full-time RVer lifestyle’ and ‘music-entrepreneur (we booked and promoted all the shows ourselves) lifestyle’.
We went from living in nice apartments with running water, working WiFi and electricity in the beautiful Bay Area, California—to a used 2002 30-foot Winnebago that broke down seven times over the course of the year on the road.
I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to take this year to learn and devote 200% of myself to my music. Yes, we lost money. Yes, we made money. Yes, we lost our dignity at some shows. Yes, we gained ride-or-die fans at some shows. Yes, we made mental notes to NEVER return to certain venues. Yes, we made mental notes to DEFINITELY return to certain venues. Yes, we wanted to quit multiple times. And yes, we kept going.
Here are five things I’ve learned and tips for musicians considering hitting the road for extended periods of time.
1. COMMUNITY IS EVERYTHING
When I left the Bay Area to embark on this tour, I was stoked. I was ready to leave behind the exorbitant rent prices, the hustle, and the constant conversations about how tired everybody was with the exorbitant rent prices and the hustle.
But over time, I inevitably started to get homesick. I missed my community of songwriters, producers, artists and friends. I had spent seven years in the Bay Area and built a career. Expensive rent aside, it’s a magical place and I felt so at home.
My point is: don’t take your home base for granted. It might suck for XYZ reasons—maybe it’s too expensive, maybe it’s not expensive enough, maybe it’s slow or boring or too competitive or too crazy—but try to embrace what makes your community YOURS. Embrace what makes your community unique.
And if your community doesn’t exist, create one! Start a meetup group once a week. Research other artists in your area and have coffee with them. When in doubt, use Facebook to find like-minded creators to start a project (see number six on my blog 100 Days on the Road: 10 Things I’ve Learned for a few suggestions on Facebook Groups to join).
So, there’s this AMAZING thing called the Internet and it makes it SO EASY to collaborate with others while on the road!
For this tour, I had a small recording setup and Logic. I’m no professional mixing engineer, but I was able to send tracks to my bandmates in San Francisco. We started a series called Motorhome Music Monday, and for some of the songs my bandmates joined me remotely (for example: saxophone on “Girl from Ipanema”).
I also worked on two new singles remotely with producer Alex Arias, who’s based in LA. The rhythm guitar on both my tracks—including my new single “K.O”—was recorded right in our motorhome! Alex and I sent notes back and forth to each other simply by email and I recorded the final vocal track when I went back to LA to visit family.
When we toured through the Bay Area in May, I spent two days recording the music video. The edits and changes to the video happened over the course of three months, and I sent my director notes from the road.
Collaborating with others on the road has its challenges—sometimes service sucks, and I believe it’s always better to meet with people face-to-face—but it’s definitely possible and will help you feel less lonely and more productive while on tour.
3. PUT SERIOUS THOUGHT INTO WHETHER YOU WANT TO BUY AN RV
Here’s the thing Instagram influencers using #RVlife and #Vanlife DON’T tell you: breakdowns happen. A lot.
Granted, we did a full year on the road and we moved at a super fast pace, which is different from folks who vacation with a motorhome a few weeks at a time. If you’re a musician looking to hit the road, I would honestly recommend a smaller vehicle—like a 20-ft Van—over a Class A Motorhome.
Breakdowns still happen with any vehicle, but a motorhome is just so much to handle. But there are a lot of pros to having a big motorhome—the comfort and ease of having your own bathroom/shower/bed, for example. If you want to spend an extended period of time on the road (i.e. six months or more), I’d recommend something larger so you feel more comfortable in your space. Just know that if you purchase an RV, breakdowns are bound to happen—and probably more breakdowns than you’d expect.
4. TAKE TIME TO DO NON-MUSICAL THINGS
After the first two months of nonstop shows, I realized why so many artists only tour a few months out of the year and spend the rest of their time recording and writing. Playing the same songs over and over and over again is insanely exhausting. It can also be really difficult to write new material when you’re traveling so much and playing so many shows in a row.
Try to enjoy each performance, and don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be writing songs all the time. I noticed when I was on the road all the time, I didn’t have the urge to write songs (plus it’s hard to have a space to do that when you live in a 30-ft RV).
Take some space AWAY from your music, and give yourself permission to do that. This is particularly hard for me and it’s an ongoing process, but try to take some pressure off yourself and do something unrelated to your music. It could be as simple as reading a novel, taking a long walk in silence, finding a local pool/river/lake and going for a swim, calling a friend for a long conversation, painting, or taking pictures.
It also helps to delete social media apps once in a while, maybe for a few days at a time. I’ve noticed that when I delete social media, I tend to feel lighter and more aware of my surroundings.
5. CREATE STRUCTURE (AS BEST YOU CAN)
This is an ongoing process, since traveling for 365 days straight doesn’t exactly lend itself to routine. But there are small things you can do to create structure for yourself. Taking 10 minutes in the morning to stretch, journal, or simply sit in silence can help you feel like you’re not going insane.
Exercise is also a great way to create structure. We have a Planet Fitness membership (it’s only $20/month and there are locations everywhere in the USA), which helps with our tired bodies and lack of a good shower. Using gym time to create structure around your day can help. (Example: wake up, brush teeth, have breakfast, journal, work on booking for X amount of hours, go to gym, play a show. This is a bare bones schedule that became a somewhat “normal” day during this tour.)
Another way to create structure is to reserve a day of the week—Sunday, for example—for nothing. This can be difficult because we all have phones, and if you’re waiting on a venue to email you back and they get back to you on a Sunday, you obviously will want to respond. But if you can let yourself do nothing for a day, do it. Turn off your phone (or put it on Do Not Disturb mode) and the spend the day outside. Or read a book. Or watch something stupid on Netflix. Just give yourself space to be useless. It will help you feel less stressed, more refreshed, and lighter overall. Again, this is an ongoing process, but do your best.
The past 365 days have been an adventure to say the least. I took this year to play as many shows as possible, gain fans in real life, and improve as an artist. I can say with 100% certainty I’ve accomplished those things. But I’m truly looking forward to having a home base again (Nashville, here we come!) .