Matthew Ryan Talks the Economics of Touring, His First Gig and the Value of Having a Gang

February 3, 2015

Tell us about your tour vehicle.

We’re currently looking at our options. With Boxers (my new record) I’ve committed to no longer performing solo. I believe it’s true that a song should be able to be completely stripped down to show its salt, its essence. I insist every song of mine have that structural gravity. But Rock n Roll is a communal experience. It’s nuclear when a gang surrounds a song, both listeners and performers. We find that explosive brotherhood in those experiences together. So I’ve committed to bring the band out with me and it’s expensive. So far we’re traveling in two SUVs. We’re looking at vans. I would like to get something newer with much better fuel efficiency and maybe a little more room to relax while traveling between shows. Nothing extravagant. Just more humane.

I don’t know if a lot of people understand the toll of all the travel and work exacted by touring. I love it, don’t get me wrong. As someone said long ago, I don’t get paid to play music, I get paid to get there to play music. At any rate, our choices are an older used vehicle that’s less safe and dependable, and far less fuel efficient or the debt of about $40,000 for a newer vehicle. Renting vans is a loss leader, running at about $100 per day for the rental and hidden fees per mile as well as fuel efficiency at a little over 10 miles per gallon.

Now let me be clear, we manage these hurdles because we love what we do with our lives, and there’s a very valuable beauty to the things we get to experience because of these choices. But for more working-class musicians like myself that hope to build our careers over time, some of these risks come with some almost overwhelming risks both financially and physically. When renting vehicles you don’t generally have an intimate knowledge of the vehicle’s ticks or when the tires were rotated, or how it handles in rain or snow. There’s a lot of hidden stresses and costs.

I always struggle a little with these types of discussions. I’ve always believed that if you do your work, and you do it well with integrity and generosity, that the rest will follow. It can’t be loaded, it just has to be your mode. But the truth for many of us these days, our “work” is spreading further and further, reaching more people and inhabiting more spaces. It’s beautiful. But simultaneously some of the more utilitarian “rewards” are shrinking, meaning income obviously. Making investments like safe and efficient touring vehicles feel more like risky extravagance rather than necessary tools to visit and perform for our listeners.

How do you eat cheaply and/or healthy while on tour?

I take healthy eating very seriously and probably spend too much on it while traveling. I’ll go hungry before eating a cheeseburger from a fast-food restaurant. But it is expensive and per-diems don’t often cover what it takes to keep your engine humming properly over the course of three meals a day. A better diet makes for a better show. I think this is true of all the guys I play with. We just accept that good food costs more. We’re not at that level where delicious and fresh meals are prepared for us at every venue. So we make it a priority to treat ourselves pretty good even if it means the bottom line is gonna suffer. Better that than your health or energy.

What kind of investments do you make in equipment, gear and touring?

My main acoustic guitar costs a couple thousand dollars. And that was a deal. If something were to happen to it, it would be devastating. I have insurance on it, but these companies sometimes have weird stipulations. I insist on taking my best guitar on the road with me because I want listeners to have the best experience. I don’t separate my home gear from my road gear. Some do, and it’s probably smarter. Strings and various tools (batteries, string-winders, wire-cutters, straps, miscellaneous…) and set-ups for my guitars probably run me somewhere around $100 per month.

But you also have to understand that creativity is depended on curiosity. So new gear is a must.  Now I’m not one of those that are constantly seeking out and purchasing new gear, I’m often waiting and passing on a lot of new things I’d like to get because the budget simply isn’t there. But when it’s irresistible, or there’s a definitive need, I can spend anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 a month just for some new tool to help further explore my creativity or exact some need. Often without a definitive sense that the outcome will justify the spend. But you know, that’s part of the idealism of the artist. I love that sense of discovery. So when I do make those purchases there’s rarely any regret. But people might be surprised just how expensive almost every aspect of what we do is. And beyond the inanimate objects, there’s the reality of musicians. And it’s probably even more important than almost any of these things.

I’m a firm believer that musicians should be offered every dignity and comfort when getting into the trenches with me. A big part of my desire to grow my audience (beyond my own sense of work and security) is that I want the people that play with me to be rewarded for their commitment of heart and talent in the trenches with me. I’ve never been able to pay them what I’ve felt their talents and humanity deserved, it’s been a source of frustration for me. We’re hoping to change that in the coming efforts, tours and campaigns. But it often surprises people to hear that a humble tour with a humble gang costs around 4 to 8 thousand dollars a week. And that’s bare bones, no extravagance, no fluff. Decent clean and safe hotel rooms, pay, gas, vehicles, tolls, parking, and all those little surprises and things that add up. We do it because we love it. Brave or stupid, I don’t know. But it’s one of my committed ambitions to make it just a little more humane for all of us over time.

Where do you rehearse?

We rehearse in Brian Bequette’s house in Nashville. Brian’s my greatest friend and compatriot. We’ve been playing together in one form or another for about 15 years.

What was the title and a sample lyric from the first song that you wrote?

I honestly don’t remember. Once I started writing it was a flood of horrible songs. I found in music the ability to find and define myself. Once it started it never stopped. 

Describe your first gig.

Played a venue in Newark, Delaware. I believe it was at The Deer Park. We did a cover of “Wave of Mutilation” by The Pixies. As well as a Concrete Blonde inspired version of Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.” As you can imagine the party crowd at that historic University of Delaware bar/restaurant wasn’t exactly welcoming the dark, clumsy and noisy vibes. We did a couple originals as well I think. But I really don’t remember them.

When I started, I started looking for something. Every song was just a mile-marker towards something that might even come close to my heroes. I’m still grateful for the music that ignited me. I’m always just leaning for that feeling. It was fun though, in a horrifying way, those first gigs. That real friction between being wildly self-conscious and not giving a shit. I still feel that way sometimes… Well actually, often. 

What was your last day job?

I only work on behalf of my music. And that currently includes writing songs, recording songs, brooding and overseeing all aspects of the creativity: data entry, social-media hack, booking shows, mailing Cds and vinyl, paying down debts, paying the rent, scoring films here and there, decision maker, team leader at rehearsal, ground infantry sergeant at shows, driver, film-scorer, reluctant engineer and mixer, cartage dude, photographer, writer, publisher, copywriter, web-designer, hawker of Boxersrelated stories, collection agency… It’s all of those things and many more in addition to my personal life.

I can’t complain, though sometimes I do. It is not the life I imagined in music but I do all of it in the hope that I’ve offered a pure music to those that look for that sort of thing. I’m fortunate and grateful to have a small gang around me now that’s assisting and helping and believing that more is possible. And that’s lightening my load a little. I have so many people that are in my life and come into my life that continue to make it possible for me to do this, I’m more hopeful and grateful than worried at the end of the day. Feels good to feel like that after navigating so many of the changes in this business and my personal life.

How has your music-related income changed over the past 5-10 years? What do you expect it to look like 5-10 years from now?

I have no idea what incomes will look like in 5 to 10 years for artists like me. Streaming isn’t going anywhere, and it isn’t gonna be a sustainable source of income as far as I can see. For me it comes down to the real intimacies, in a room and pushing air. For touring for artists in my position it’s tough, my listeners are scattered across the ocean floor. I appreciate their loyalty and heart for what I do. I’m trying to find them.

With our culture what it is, I have little patience for self-obsessed salesmanship.  I’m committed to finding out what is possible via our shared humanity. To me that means work, dignity, honesty, smarts, agility, commitment and brotherhood. And like I said earlier, that includes friends, those that work with me, play with me and listen to my songs, men and women. All are welcome. We’re gonna try and send out our signals to the best of our abilities. And we believe that over time that’s gonna mean something. 

What one thing do you know now that you had wished you knew when you started your career in music?

Music is about freedom. Freedom is a sensation. It’s rarely about thinking. It’s about muscle memory, intuition, heart and trust. And the “I” is almost always “We.”

Over a career that spans nearly two decades, the prolific Matthew Ryan has refined the raucous poetry of his songwriting, creating his own working class aesthetic where beauty and darkness often trade punches from line to line—Intelligent, minimalist, and unapologetic; it’s music for humans. Along the way he has built a group of ardent fans and supporters including the American treasure that is Lucinda Williams and authors Joe Hill, Michael Koryta and Jim Shepard. His 1997 A&M Records debut, May Day, has become revered as a seminal alt-country record, with subsequent releases including East Autumn Grin, Matthew Ryan Vs The Silver State, In The Dusk of Everything and the notable “folk-tronica” (Michael Berick, innovations on From a Late Night High Rise and Dear Lover cementing his place as a respected songwriter and performer.

To record Boxers, his latest release, Ryan set up shop at Applehead Studios in Woodstock, New York with a small team: producer and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Salem, The Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon on guitar, longtime Ryan collaborator Brian Bequette on bass, Joe Magistro (The Black Crowes, Rich Robinson) on drums, and Ryan himself on vocals and guitars. They hunkered down to do the work of making a loud, rattling rock album.

The sound of Boxers is directly related to its content; a lyrically driven story exploring the collisions of hope and frustration. A story that speaks directly to the listener, armed with a resolute anger that somehow comforts, eliciting chills and fists in the air.

You can find him online and on the road.


  • H@rvester_0f_S0rrow

    keep the faith, Matt! there’s always money in my pocket for a new Matthew Ryan release…and hope to make your next tour!