Most musicians don’t start being the side man for a legendary icon in the music world or playing in a multi-platinum selling band right away, so you have to start somewhere. That place is usually in a van, driving all over, playing for no one, moving your own gear, making no money. However, you don’t have to start at ground zero. You can skip ahead a little bit if you have the right information. This post should help with gaining a bit of that knowledge. You don’t have to pay an agent right away. Do the booking yourself and save a little bit of money (and use it on gas or tolls).
The first question you should ask is why should you tour? You just made an album and you put it up on iTunes and everywhere else. You should just push it through your website, social media and the press right? Wrong! That will only get your music so far. Yes, you should get it reviewed and mentioned by the press and bloggers. Of course you should push it on your website and social media pages, but there’s nothing like playing your music in front of a crowd. From the other side of the stage, people aren’t really going to see a band solely because of the music. The music is a small part of it. What they are really going for is the event. The memories they will make, the distraction from whatever is going on in their life, a celebration of something (birthday/anniversary, etc.), maybe even a chance to meet their favorite musicians. There are a ton of reasons why people would head out to see a concert and hearing the music is only one of them. As the artist, you can build your fanbase (how many people do you know that go to a concert alone?), try out new things in front of an audience and get an immediate reaction (similar to how comedians test new material), hone your skills, or even give back to your loyal and supportive fans.
How do you do it? Accomplish one task at a time. Similar to how any great piece of architecture is built. One brick at a time. You need to work harder (and smarter) than anyone else would on your music. You won’t find anyone more passionate about your music than YOU!
Step one with any business venture is to define your objective and keep the perspective. Make sure you have a goal and a plan to reach it. One simple goal could be, “book a two week tour, for our fans that will make a little money”. The first part of reaching that simple goal is to find out where your fans are, then go there. Find out how far your fans will travel and book dates in and around the surrounding cities within their driving range. 50 miles in Rhode Island is a lot different than 50 miles in Texas. The surrounding cities don’t have to be the biggest ones. NYC doesn’t need anymore bands. So before you play to a half empty room in NYC, play to some half empty ones in CT, Westchester NY, NJ, and Long Island. Once you have a good following from going around in the surrounding towns, then go to NYC and have those new fans you acquired come out and support you.
When choosing the venues, do your homework. Play in venues that your fans will come out to. See if they have backline equipment. Find out if they book your music. There are several tools to help you book these venues like the Indie Bible, or Indie On The Move, or the one for your smart phone, the Band On Tour app. Once you choose your “targeted” venues, reach out to the person(s) who book the bands (booking the first date is the hardest). When you reach out, make sure you find out the name(s) of the talent buyer(s), formulate a grammatically correct email and include everything they would need to know (band name, dates you would be interested in, audio, video, contact info, etc). Give them a couple of days to respond and then try again if you haven’t heard back. It is possible they are inundated with email requests, or you may have been sent to a spam folder. Make sure whatever pitch you are sending out can be backed up by the information on your website, social media, press releases, or EPK (electronic press kit).
Once you start booking dates and you are using your dist-o-map (or the internet) for smart routing of cities, you should input data into an excel spreadsheet so you can see how far you are traveling each day, how long it will take, how much the gas costs, etc. (You should learn how to use an excel spreadsheet if you don’t already) so that you can plan ahead. Once you’re on the road, you can use this app, Road Trip, to keep track of and update your data.
PRO TIP: Bring a paper map or road atlas on your trip for when your GPS fails you due to lack of satellite connection failure (like in a tunnel).
Your goal should be to play as much as possible and minimize how many days off you have. Obviously you need a day off for your sanity, laundry, travel to far cities, etc. but know that on a day off, your operation is generally losing money. Booking your anchor dates should be your first priority. These are your high paying festivals, or corporate/private events and you can fill in the gaps with club dates, morning radio or TV spots, clinics and masterclasses at music stores or schools, or even libraries (yes, libraries are looking for entertainment). Another option for filling up your schedule is booking at Colleges and Universities through this organization called NACA or even house concerts through this company here.
Getting the word out about you and your band coming to town could be through a PR team, but that can get costly and there aren’t any guarantees. Another low cost option would be effectively using social media (i.e. targeting people through location), but also morning radio and TV spots for the local areas. Yet another route would be to assemble a “street team” to help put up flyers and get the word out. These people live in the areas you are going to and should have a knowledge of how to get the information about you coming to the right people. You can create some cool posters here (that you can also sign and sell at your merch booth after the show).
When negotiating your fee, different clubs offer different options. You should be knowledgeable of what these phrases mean and how much money you will be making. Guarantees vs. Door vs. % of the Door vs. Door split after a certain number is hit. Contracts can get tricky. Bigger festivals and private/corporate events will probably use them, small clubs probably not. You should read them and use them when necessary. Riders should be kept simple. The less you ask for or require, the more the venue will like you, especially if you aren’t the headliner. When you do make requests, try to make them once in one grammatically formatted email, not several text messages.
With regard to backline, if it is there use it. The less you have to bring means the less to worry about. People ask what my favorite brand of drums to play are. My answer is always “available”. You can always use the well known companies SIR and Centerstaging for renting gear. There is also a company called Sparkplug that lets you rent from (or rent out) gear from respected professional musicians to use as backline. Especially when it comes to international travel, if you want to avoid customs issues, then the less you can bring and the more you can locate the easier your trip will be. This can be especially useful with the different types of power in different countries.
When getting from place to place there are many options. Your own car, renting a van (and/or trailer), to trains, planes and buses. Before you go rent the latest Prevost tourbus with shower, bunks and flat screen TVs, check out these guys, or these fine folks, or even this option.
PRO TIP: When a trailer is needed for gear, opt for a double axle one so that when one tire goes flat, you still have three more. ALSO, back your vehicle/trailer up against a wall to deter people from trying to get into the back of it while you’re asleep in your hotel room.
If you need to stay overnight (and the venue doesn’t have a “band house”), you can try AirBnB before looking into a hotel. However, if you need to book a hotel, this site (with app) lets you find some last minute deals.
If possible, try to offer advance tickets to your shows so you have an idea of how many people are coming (and how much work you need to do to get more people to come out). If the venue doesn’t have advance tickets already on their site, you can look into Brown Paper Tickets as an option to create advance ticket sale possibilities. Once you are able to offer advance tickets, feel free to create incentives to buy them in advance with attaching them to merch giveaways, meet and greets, unreleased music, etc. You can also host a contest on local radio stations for winning some tickets to your show as another idea.
If you are looking into corporate sponsorships to help out with tour support, the first question you should ask is what is in it for them. How is sponsoring your band with money and/or promotion going to help their business? Again, contacting someone by name, politely, with a well written email is very helpful.
If you are thinking about bringing a sound man or lighting designer on tour with you, think of them as you would when hiring another band member and make sure they are “housebroken”. Do they “tour” well? Polite? Well mannered? Wash and groom regularly? They will represent you just as the members on stage do.
A few other books to check out when booking a tour would be this one (which I have been using for almost a decade), or this one, and even this book has some tips in it you can use for touring (like building your fan base).
And for those of you who don’t like to read (congrats on making it all the way to the end of my blog post!) there is this video series, broken up into 17 short segments, that can elaborate on some of the points I have made in this post.
I hope I have helped you and I look forward to seeing you down the road at some point!