Learn How Per Diems for Music Tours Work

Mid section of two guitarists in recording studio
Getty Images/Anne Winkler/EyeEm

A per diem, or P.D. for short, literally means "per day." Basically its daily expense money payments for a touring band. The idea itself is uncomplicated, but the details of these payments reveal significant differences in the amounts paid and what they cover and, sometimes in whether the band members ever get them.

Per Diem Payments in the Music Business

The music business employs large numbers of highly-qualified itinerant workers.

If you're soon to be one of them, you probably have some questions. Musicians who've spent most of their lives on the road can tell you stories about incredibly caring managements and band-leaders, and even more about touring experiences they wish they'd never had. A lot of the  bad stuff happens because musicians didn't ask essential questions before they went out on the gig. P.D.s are paid to each band member and almost always to members of the crew to cover basic personal expenses while on tour. So far, so good. But P.D.s can vary dramatically depending on how much money the tour has behind it, the attitude of the band's front man, and, equally, the character of the band's management.

If You Don't Know, Ask

Often that first touring gig is a big step up. You may have been putting together arrangements for low budget local radio commercials one week and the next week Mr. Big, who happened to see you playing for little money in a local club, has decided you'd be the perfect addition to his national tour.

There's a history of this in music and often the narrative includes a cryptic comment from Mr. Big as he's leaving the club: "Here, call this number."

The next thing you know Mr. Big's management has asked you to drop by the office where it'll become official: Mr. Big wants you to join the band. But what kind of management is it?

This is seldom perceived by most musicians at this point in their careers as the best time to ask penetrating questions about money, among them:

What does it pay? This is perhaps the one question you don't need to ask -- the band's manager will normally tell you that. The rest the questions on this list, however, may or may not be brought up and answered voluntarily by managers. If not, scary as it sounds, these are the questions you need to ask before you accept the gig, not after:

  • How often will we be paid?
  • Who's paying my cartage?
  • What's the per diem amount?
  • What does the per diem include and, just as important;
  • Is my hotel room paid in addition to the per diem or is it a part of the per diem payment?

No Blood From Turnips

Sometimes that first touring gig won't be with Mr. Big's band; it may be with a band led by a musician, like yourself, who hopes to be Mr. Big someday -- but presently is not. If that's the case, per diem payments may be small. Your hotel room costs might come out of the per diem payment. Back in the crazy 1970s, one musician I know found out after he'd joined the band on the road that there were no per diem payments at all. As it turned out, that band was actually losing money and the bandleader was making up the difference out of his substantial music publishing income, so the absence of the per diem, if not entirely wonderful, was at least understandable.

In such cases, you have to take a deep breath and assess the situation. If the band is playing small clubs, inadequate per diems are more likely than not. And really, what can anyone do about that? As the saying goes, you can't squeeze blood out of a turnip.

But where the tour is with an established act -- or for that matter, a rising star -- be sure to ask the questions about per diem before you accept that gig -- no matter how much you want it. If nothing about per diem has been mentioned before you're on the road, it's likely that when you finally get the news about it, it won't be good. 

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