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You need to tour to get signed, but you don’t need to get signed to tour!
Going on tour with your band may seem like the ultimate fantasy, but with some good advice, it’s much more possible than you think! Touring is the most effective way to grow as a band, and expose yourself in more than your home market. Few labels will work with a band that hasn’t popped their tour cherry, so if you’re willing to do the work (and it is a lot of work) it’ll be the most worthwhile experience of your life. Oh, and be ready for the experience to make or break your band.
1. If everyone’s not on board, jump ship. Booking your own tour is a very tedious and grueling process that will really benefit your band. Because so much work has to be put into it and everyone in the band will reap the benefits, everyone in the band should be in this together. There are several reasons why this is the key to booking a tour. First of all, it’s much less work when it’s divided up. If you have 20 dates to book and 4 members, that’s only 5 dates each as opposed to an overwhelming 20 dates for one person. The second reason is that you can support one another through the process, celebrating each confirmation, and venting about your frustrations to people that understand. The third reason is that on the day everyone gets in the van to leave for tour, you know you all deserve it. There is no resentment, and you know that you worked together to get through this experience. At every show you play, each member will remember what it took to get to where you are, and it won’t be taken for granted by anyone. People always say that tours make or break a band, and it’s the truth. However, if the booking is successfully done together, you’ll have had such a strengthening experience booking it, that going your tour will be nothing but blue skies!
2. Make sure you have a form of transportation. This may not seem like such an important step in the beginning of planning a tour, but it is absolutely crucial and needs to be worked out way in advance. If you already have a van, make sure it doesn’t need any major work- you do not want to get stranded in the middle of nowhere with all of your equipment. If you don’t have a van, consider renting one. Take note that in many states, the driver has to be 21 or 25 years of age- renting vans can also be very expensive, and you don’t want to leave for tour in debt. If you don’t have access to a van, there are other options. It is a much cheaper alternative to rent a trailer, which can be towed by SUVs that have a towing package. The last option is to borrow equipment from other bands or use a backline at the shows that you book. This will enable the band members to fit in one car, and just fit only the necessities in the trunk (guitars, snares, keyboards, etc).
3. Plan a route that makes sense. The first step to booking the actual tour is to figure out the routing. Your band needs to collectively decide how long you can be on the road, and how far you want to go. For first timers, a 2-3 week regional tour is a good goal. Make sure that you’re planning this several months in advance to eliminate some of the stress and pressure. Look at a map and plan a route that makes sense. Think about what the weather is like in those locations at the time of year you’re going, and try to visit states that have tour markets closer together. Although you most likely won’t be able to stick to the plan 100% while you’re booking, at least start out with consecutive stops so you save the most gas money, and spend less time in the car. Remember, many states are very large, so aim for specific cities, not just venues anywhere in the state!
4. Buddy up with another band. Touring is a very bonding experience for your band because you’re usually the only people you know at every show. If you’re not going far, only bring the members of your band, and maybe one person to watch your merchandise. However, if you’re thinking about taking a longer trek, the best way to do it is to partner up with another band. With limited finances, it’s most efficient to share a van, trailer, equipment, and hotel or hostel room (hostels are a great inexpensive alternative to hotels!). This means your gas and toll expenses are cut in half, which makes all the difference in the world if you’re not guaranteed a lot of money at each show. In addition to that, you’ll have twice as many people to help book the tour!
Note: Booking a show with 2 out-of-state bands is more difficult because you’re taking up more slots that could be filled with local bands that draw more. Offer to split set times if it’s a make or break situation. Also, by sharing equipment, it cuts set up time by a lot and is more convenient for the venue.
5. Use more than one strategy to try to book a date. There are several strategies to booking a tour date, and you’ll probably need to do a combination of them. First, use any personal connections you have. If you know someone in a market you’re trying to play, ask them to help get a show- they’re more likely to know a venue owner or promoter than someone from out of state. At the very least, try to talk to people from the area to get recommendations of where to play and who the contacts are. Second, use some of the many online or print resources to obtain a list of venues and promoters in different states, such as www.BYOFL.org and Musician’s Atlas. Just keep in mind that cold calls are the hardest way to get access to a venue since they get so many of them. Note that your band has a much better chance of getting added to an existing show than getting a show set up around you. If you do this, research the other bands on the bill and make sure you won’t be playing to the wrong crowd. Be sure to be extremely polite when asking for an opportunity to play there. Additionally, tell the booker that you plan to promote the show to the absolute best of your ability, and hope to draw at least a few people. The third option is to do a show swap. Find bands from the area you wish to play, and offer to set them up with a show in your hometown if they return the favor. This will motivate them to get you on a good show for the same opportunity in your town!
6. Stay organized. You’re going to be talking to a ton of people from all over the place, and you have to be able to keep track of who’s who, and what’s getting booked. Find a system that works for you. One way to stay organized is to set up a spreadsheet with a list of every venue and promoter in the area. Next to the name and contact information, have a column that keeps track of your last interaction. If the promoter says “follow up with me in a week”, you need to remember to do so. Keep this up to date, so you don’t bug people that passed, or miss potential opportunities. Always stay in touch with the people that booked the show after they confirm it- especially with a phone call before you leave to say you’re looking forward to the date.
7. Promote, Promote, Promote! You may not know anything about the town you’re playing in, but you want them to know about you! The more people that come to your show, the more worthwhile your trip will be. Find a list of all local radio stations (especially college), newspapers, music rags, record stores, tattoo parlors, and bars (you can usually find these lists in the same resources you use to find the venues). Your band should ideally have posters made, with a blank strip on the bottom for you to write the venue name, date, time, price, and other bands for each show. Mail these posters, postcards, and music samplers to these spots in every town you’re playing, along with a letter explaining where you’re from, what day you’ll be playing in their town, and how much you’d appreciate them promoting you in their area. This letter should also be formatted so that it can be used as a press release for local newspapers. Make sure you also send the promotional material to the venue that you’re playing at! With hard work, you’re guaranteed to make a few fans before you get there, and you won’t depend on other bands to give you someone to play to. And don’t forget about your local fans! If you have internet access on the road, keep a tour diary so your local fans can stay involved even when you’re gone!
8. Find ways to break even on the road. When you’re getting a show as an out-of-state band, don’t expect to get paid much for playing. Since you probably aren’t making the venue any money, you’re lucky to have had the opportunity to play in front of a new crowd. When booking the date, try to agree on at least $50 for gas money, but don’t persist if they won’t set it in stone. This isn’t to say that you’ll never get paid, but you just can’t rely on it every night. With this considered, there are ways to hit the road without breaking your piggy bank. The number one thing that will keep you afloat is your merchandise. Overestimate how much you think you’ll need, so you don’t have to worry about running out. On tour, you have to do more than set up a merch table when you’re on the road. Those sales decide whether your band gets to the next show or not, so you have to hustle without being overly aggressive. Grab a stack of CDs, and approach as many people in the room as you can. Have a conversation about the town your in, talk about the tour, and let them know how much you’re really depending on CD sales to get you to the next show. People will respect that you’re working so hard, and throw you a bone even if they didn’t love your set! Another option is to learn a full set of cover songs, and play a second show in as many markets as you can as a cover band. Cover bands can get guaranteed a decent amount of money, but you’ll still be getting your original music out at a show that you might not get paid at! Lastly, instead of eating out every meal, get your food from grocery stores- you’ll be able to stretch it a lot further!
9. Make the most out of your experience. There are so many amazing aspects to being on tour. Not only are you traveling, you’re traveling with your best friends. And not only are you traveling with you friends, but you get to play your music every night. On top of that, you’re going to be meeting new people on a daily basis. There is a wonderful advantage to having a blast and making friends with people at each of your shows- you’ll have someone to play to the next time you come back! Take the time to introduce yourselves to the other bands, and mingle in the crowd as much as possible. Set up a mailing list at each show, so you can keep in contact with the fans you made. Even though you’re tired, hang out after the show, and even see if someone will let you crash at their house. Not only does this save you money, but it guarantees a longer lasting friendship with the person that hosts you. More often than not, the person that volunteers to put you up will also invite over everyone they know and have a party for you. The stronger the relationship you build that night, the easier it will be to come back in a few months for a follow up tour. Imagine if all of the people you meet bring their friends to see you next time- that’s how a fan base grows at a national level.
10. Follow up. If everything goes as planned, you’ll have gone on a great tour and plan to do it again. Don’t let your hard work go to waste! Keep your contacts organized, and stay in touch so they remember who you are. As soon as you get back from the tour, call or write to everyone who booked you to say thank you for letting you play the show. They’re not used to getting calls from people who aren’t asking for something, so it’ll be worth it to go out of your way. You can even mail a small gift (like a band t-shirt) to show your appreciation, and set you apart from other bands. The next time around will be much easier, and your popularity around the country will begin to snowball, thanks to all the hard work you put in!
Nina Chiminec is the head of New Media and a publicist at SPV Records. Her clients include Motorhead, Type O Negative, and Skinny Puppy. She also spent 8 years recording and touring with the NJ rock band Avery. In her free time she is a contributing editor for BandsOnABudget.com. She can be reached at nina [at] bandsonabudget.com.