It is festival season again which means bands and their crews are clambering aboard sleeper buses in order to travel around Europe and sit in muddy fields for hours on end.
Of course, touring by sleeper bus goes on throughout the year on both sides of the pond; it is by far the most convenient and cost-effective way to move large numbers of people around whichever continent you are touring. However, as any touring artist or crew person will tell you, life on a sleeper bus can be hard. Louise Weiner, the former singer of UK band Sleeper (ho!), wrote about her experiences of sleeper bus tours. “There is nowhere to wash on the bus. Nowhere to hide. No escape,” she says.
Even after 20 odd years of touring, I still love sleeper bus tours. Everything is so easy for a concert tour manager on a sleeper bus tour. All your people, your home, your belongings, your office and your beer are all in one great big box on wheels, which is (hopefully) parked right outside the gig. Touring personnel are less likely to go missing or be late for departures if ‘living’ on the bus – that box on wheels is also their home with all their belongings in it; if they are not on it when they should be then there is a good chance it is going to rumble off into the night without them.
It is true though that touring on a sleeper bus does present its own unique set of logistical and emotional challenges. You need to be aware of these issues, whether you are a touring veteran or are picking your bunk for the first time.
Therefore, here is my guide to the rules and conventions of sleeper bus touring.
Do not play more than 5 shows in a row.
The main advantage of touring on a sleeper bus is being able to leave a show immediately after you’ve performed, travel over night and wake up the following day outside the next gig. This ability to travel or further and longer means it is theoretically possible to play in Paris one night and have a show in Barcelona the next (or New York followed by Columbus, OH for instance).
I say theoretically because revised regulations in the US and Europe mean that drivers have maximum permitted driving times and/or distances. While an 8- or 9-hour drive is usually fine, the cumulative effect of consecutive long drives may cause the driver to be in excess of their permitted driving time (‘out of hours’ in concert touring.)
More detailed explanations can be found here and here but the upshot is you may miss your next show if the driver is out of hours and has to take his statutory break. And that break could be anywhere – I once spent 9 hours in a truck stop 20km outside Berlin while the driver took his break!
As a simple rule of thumb, you should not have more than 5 shows in a row and there should ideally be short drives either side of that run of 5 shows. Check with you booking agent that they are aware of this and suggest re-routing the tour if necessary. This is a complicated subject and you should always check with the coach company regarding your routing.
You sleep in a bunk. Those bunks not used for sleeping are known as ‘junk bunks’, these spaces become a general dumping ground for bags, cases, small guitars and laptops. (Suitcases and large bags should go in the luggage bays or in the trailer). I mention laptops because I have seen more than one screen cracked from being crushed under other people’s possessions.
Keep your laptop in your own bunk if possible or buy a hard case such as one from the excellent Peli case range.
Check space for the back line.
You are going to need to transport the gear as well as the band and crew. Unless you have a separate truck for the gear, you only have two options; either stuff the gear in the luggage bays underneath the bus or hire a trailer to be pulled behind the bus.
The companies that hire sleeper tour buses encouraged the use of trailers for many years as a) they could charge more money and b) it stopped wear and tear on the interior of the bus. It is convenient to use a trailer but the extra costs can really add up.
Drivers also hate pulling trailers. Hitching and unhitching and the difficulties in manoeuvring are compounded by the speed restrictions pulling a trailer involves. Besides it makes their lovely buses look ugly.
I have noticed however that more bus companies are commissioning buses with very large, dedicated equipment bays and are actively encouraging bands to hire these bigger buses. It is not only more environmentally friendly but easier for the driver. The actual bus hire fee per day may be more but it can work out cheaper and is less hassle than hiring a trailer.
Get your measuring tape out, get accurate sizes for your gear and then ask the bus company if they have equipment space big enough!
The drivers’ name is…
I am a concert tour manager. The most common questions I hear on sleeper bus tour?
“Andy, can you ask the driver to turn the a/c on?” “Andy, can you ask the driver to turn on the lights in the bunks?” “Andy, can you ask the driver to empty the toilet?” “Andy, can you ask the driver when we are going to stop next?” “Andy, why does the driver hate us?”
Tell you what, find out the drivers name, and ask them yourself. Your driver is a member of the touring crew. Treat them as part of the team.
Put the kettle on, but not at the gig.
Sleeper buses are usually equipped with small kitchens containing microwave ovens, kettles and toasters. Do not use the kitchen when parked up at a gig.
Power for these appliances comes from the bus’s engine (if moving) or from power supplied by the venue (shore power). It has been known for kettles and toasters to trip either the circuit breakers on the bus, in the venue or both.
You did press save didn’t you?
Modern recording hardware and software has made the reality of a recording studio on the tour bus available to everyone. However, the internal power on buses can be intermittent and there is always an interruption in supply when the driver switches from shore power to engine or vice versa. Make sure you constantly save any back-lounge recording sessions and you should probably invest in some kind of surge protection or uninterruptable power supply.
A modern tour bus is a 24-hour environment, with people sleeping at different times. Crew, for instance, have to get up early and work until late. I for one am very fond of creeping into my bunk for a mid-afternoon nap and do not appreciate being woken up unexpectedly by someone slamming the doors or cranking the PS4.
The drivers of European sleeper buses usually sleep on the bus, in their own bunk area. They sleep while you are awake. Music, loud conversation and banging doors will wake them up. This means they will not be rested when they have to drive again. This is not very safe.
Remember – If you are awake and the bus is parked, someone else is probably asleep.
There are a staggering number of gigs in continental Europe that have no parking for sleeper buses or trucks. (America, being the home of the automobile, does not seem to have this problem). Some European venues are actually completely inaccessible. There are either low bridges surrounding the venue, narrow streets, weight restrictions or zoning laws. Playing one of these gigs is not only a logistical challenge but can actually end up costing you money.
The standard approach for gigs with no parking is ‘drop and run’ – the bus pulls up to the venue at load-in time, the crew haul the gear off, the band gather everything they need for the show and troop into the venue and the bus pulls away again, probably to spend the evening in a truck stop on the outside of town. After the show and load-out the bus returns, everyone gets back on and drive to the next show.
As I mentioned before it is great having your own hotel cum office on wheels parked outside of the gig all day and it is a PITA when it is not. As well as being psychologically difficult, you can always rely on someone to leave something important on the bus that is now parked 12km away.
‘Drop and run’ gigs can be made a lot less traumatic if the person in charge (hopefully a competent concert tour manager) informs everyone the day before the show that the bus will be going away and that they need to prepare everything they need for the show before they leave the bus at load-in time. Just saying the words ‘the bus is going away after load –in’ is usually enough to make people listen – play on the psychological attachment people have to their hotel on wheels.
The same competent person should then also check with the driver to confirm where the bus is actually going to be. Once parked up the driver will probably try to get some sleep and will not appreciate a phone call saying ‘where are you, the bass player left her tuner on the bus’ for instance.
Venues that have no actual access to sleeper buses are rare but do exist. Again check with the booking agent and venue itself before confirming such a gig – it is likely to cost you money. The problem is that you cannot do a ‘drop and run’ because you cannot even get the bus near the gig. You will therefore have to hire another, smaller, vehicle and cross-load the gear and touring party into that.
For instance, The Tivoli Oudegracht in Utrecht is inaccessible to buses and trucks because of weight restrictions on the street. Bands are advised to park their sleeper buses in a conference centre nearby and cross-load the gear from there. However, Tivoli also want top-class artists to play at their venue and realise the cross-loading is their problem, not yours. The venue therefore supply a mini-bus and small truck to help get band, crew and equipment in and out of the gig as part of the show deal.(Tivoli Oudegracht is no longer being used as a venue. It is now Tivoli Vredenburg which has a massive parking garage for buses and trucks – thanks to Lloyd Janssen at Purple Group for the update).
Other venues have become inaccessible to tour buses because of local zoning laws. This is especially true of London, which introduced a Low Emission Zone covering all of London within the M25 motorway, in 2008. The zone is designed to improve air quality in the capital by preventing high-polluting diesel engine vehicles from entering the city centre. Vehicles with high emissions have to pay £200 a day to enter the zone. Unfortunately, for touring bands, all of London’s music venues now lie within the zone.
You will be charged the £200 if you have an old tour bus (pre 2006) and you enter the zone to play a gig. And, because you will undoubtedly be in the zone after midnight, you will be charged for the next day as well. Your London show has just cost you £400.
Do not slam the doors.
Other people may be sleeping.
Keep it safe.
The bus is your home for the duration of the tour. Security has to be uppermost in everyone’s mind. Always make sure the doors are locked both when you leave the bus AND when you are on it. Most buses can be locked from the outside prior to entering the bus – you should check with your driver for details. A common procedure when entering the bus is to open the door, then lock it from the outside and get on the bus, closing the door gently behind you. The door is now locked from the outside.
Do not bring non-touring personnel on to the bus unless you are sure you can vouch for them. NEVER leave anyone you do not know on the bus.
(Do not slam the doors.)
It’s been a great show and you are lying in your bunk, gently swaying as the bus whispers through the night. You are on your way to another show and everything is good. Presently the bus stops moving and, looking through your bunk window, you see that you are at a truck stop. The driver is refuelling and emptying garbage out of the front lounge. You are not that sleepy and really fancy a grilled cheese and fries. You quickly slip on some clothes, grab your wallet and head over to the Gutbuster 24-hour outlet.
You don’t see the driver on your way over to the restaurants but figure you won’t be long and besides, he ain’t going to go without you is he…?
I’m sure you can guess where this is going. Yes, he is probably is going to go without you as to check that everyone is in their bunks will wake everyone up. That rather defeats the purpose of having a ‘sleeper’ bus and so most drivers will just get going, leaving you stranded.
You should always let the driver know you are off the bus, especially if you get off on your own. If the driver is not around then leave something on his seat. A written note is good but failing that put a neatly folded T-shirt on his seat. A neatly folded T-shirt is a very rare thing on a sleeper bus tour – unusual enough for the driver to notice!
The band ‘Kongos‘ have filmed their experiences on the road, and Episode 2 of ‘Bus Call‘ gives a good insight into the layour of a tour sleeper bus. Watch Episode 2 from 11:16 for a guided tour of a US tour bus.
(Do not slam the doors.)
Fancy a ruby?
Almost everyone knows the ‘no solids’ rule for sleeper bus touring. It’s therefore a very bad idea to go out for a post-show meal that is either very spicy or contains something you have not eaten before. (Ruby Murray = curry)
Stuff you need for a sleeper bus tour.
- Water bottle in your bunk at all times
- Maglite or small flashlight in your bunk at all times
- Warm socks (A/C on a bus can really affect your feet)
- Two lanyards – one for your back stage pass, one for your bus key.
- An open mind
Stuff you don’t need.
- Thinking sleeper buses are glamorous.
Oh, and do not slam the doors…
 Pain In The Arse