And now, time for some actually useful advice from seasoned road dog and tour manager to the stars (the Hold Steady, Drive-By-Truckers, and othersbut who’s asking?) Dave Burton. Today’s inquiry: Are per diems a roadie’s retirement fund?

Finances of the freelancer are an ongoing thing. How do we protect ourselves? How do we save and plan for the future? How do we, the freelancers of the open road—musicians, tour managers, roadies—not get buried in a pauper’s grave after kicking the bucket in some roadside shithouse with free wifi, ravenous bed bugs, and oversized vehicle parking? The answers are abundant. The solutions? Less so.

I am speaking to those out there with no real safety net, no secret slush fund from their money laundering forebears. I am speaking of the hired guns and session musicians and touring folks who grease the wheels of the road we love so much, those that may have lost it all after days or decades of mismanagement, misfortune, misadventure, or missed opportunities (with Coco the bug adding to the fun). How do you turn those pesky per diems, paid out from Filson brand bags, into 401ks? How do you go from IPAs to IRAs?

How do you turn those pesky per diems, paid out from Filson brand bags, into 401ks? How do you go from IPAs to IRAs?

Now, back in the freewheeling days of major label excess and 110 percent mortgages, it was not unheard of that those on arena tours, chowing down three square meals a day (and rider swill) on the loading dock six nights a week, were coming home after a tour cycle and swooping in on a fixer upper (in non-gentrified neighborhoods or some rural enclave) with their per diems alone. Fair dinkum. Of course, many of us were living on seven layer burritos, camel lights, and the kindness of strangers. The straight edge folks were sucking down free curry at the Hare Krishna’s, chasing it down with Coca-Cola in the van on the next 500 mile drive. But people proved it could be done.

That was then and this is now. A pack of chocolate frosted Hostess mini donuts (which once paired well with five hour energy drinks and Marlboro Reds for the overnight shift from Jacksonville to New Orleans) are $5 at the Kum and Go convenience mart in Omaha. Fedora-festooned, facially furry, time-traveling trustafarian, floor-tom-flailing band leaders are about as loyal as a tomcat on a tear. So how do I parlay the remaining $20 of my per diems into a 529 College Savings Program for the kid or a minimal money market account?

The mind says “get frugal,” and the body says “eat the rainbow.” Reality says, “get creative.”

The mind says “get frugal,” and the body says “eat the rainbow.” Reality says, “get creative.” On the bus, we take everything that we paid for. Live off bus stock on these tours as much as possible, stay off the K Road (New Zealand's red light district) when in Auckland, disable Discogs, put the peeler bars on the back burner. Upcycle. Repurpose. Take the rum and leave the cannoli. Take notice of the nightly rider spider caravan—those sticky fingered jackals will keester anything. Hell, I’ve walked in on the guest list at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, Cali., trying to divy up the used shower towels and toilet paper because they were fluffier than the ones at home. When I went to breach it with the boss, they said it was cheaper than giving 'em t-shirts. That’s why the boss lived in a brownstone and you danced with him.

Nowadays, many tours pay per diems directly into your bank account, much to the business manager’s dismay at actually having to do something (and to the tour manager’s delight). I can take it either way.

Upcycle. Repurpose. Take the rum and leave the cannoli.

Here’s a story for you: when I was on tour with a popular New York noise band’s first final tour back in the ’90s, I was left behind in a Dresden hotel with all of the tour dough and no real desire to do another pre-European Union border crossing replete with dogs and sub machine guns. Cooler heads prevailed. Though, hindsight being 20/20, I’m not sure I made the right decision—that’s a clear path to financial independence for the unencumbered who are out on the legitimate 18 month cycle.

For those that can stretch their shekels, it is a dream come true. Save the sculeros and live off the fat of the land; smoke op’s, lick the cistern and pray that the remnants of the lighting department’s racket is fentanyl-free. Exist off the dressing room spread, or your tourmate's leftover Pad Thai that usually sits in the fridge for days. Pour your own pint when the bartender tries to throw out the merch guy (he’s vomiting on the support band’s tour manager’s brand new Stranger Things Vans.) Go home, spend your money wisely or sock it away… an end game is a good game.

I highly recommend that anyone in it to win it consult a financial adviser early on. A consultation is free and could come in handy. In a world of Lenny Dykstras, be Marshawn Lynch. And for those of us that are bit too enamored with our farm-to-toilet fare and transcontinental trysts, there’s always the hope that some relative we’ve never heard of kicks the bucket and leaves us a tax-free refrigerator box with good WIFI, one that is close to a minor airport, so we can live to tour another day.

Want more tales from road royalty? Read this macabre and hilarious interview with the Stones' longtime road manager, Ian Stewart, in the CREEM Archives.

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