Ah, the glorious life of a touring band! You get to drive from city to city, gallivanting and exploring with your bandmates until nighttime, where you bask the spotlight of an unfamiliar venue and rock out to the deafening cheers of a new zip code full of adoring fans. That’s how the dream goes, at least, and with the ongoing shakeup of the music business, a tour can also be one of the best ways to make money (or at least recoup your investments). But it’s the dream, the mythos, the promise of travel and adventure and shenanigans that make touring seem so irresistible.
Unfortunately, real-life touring is also a LOT of work. A tour, even a short one, requires significant amounts of money, time, effort, planning, cooperation, and organization to pull off. So how do you know when it’s time to tour? How do you get started?
Should You Tour?
Before you start thinking about putting a tour together, think about where you stand now. One big practical concern is the job (and general life) situations of your band members. How many days can you all get out of your normal everyday obligations? For bands comprised of 9-5 full-timers, it’s easiest to tour on weekends or use days off to extend long weekends.
More importantly, do you have a strong following in your hometown? If you don’t have a strong base at home, you’re probably not quite ready to hit the road. But when you’re consistently playing to big crowds at home, it’s time to branch out.
“Though we can get well attended shows back home, there's a limit to how often you can play shows in one town that you can realistically expect people to show up to,” explained Abe Anderson, who answered these questions while on tour with Chet Vincent & the Big Bend. “You have to avoid over-saturating your market. The hope is after some time and building connections you can start to have shows in other cities that look something like your hometown shows in terms of attendance, enthusiasm, and profitability.”
How Do You Set It Up?
Unfortunately, there’s no magically easy way to organize a tour. Sit with a map and try to find a loop of nearby cities that you can make it to within the time you have carved out of your lives. Websites like Indie On The Move can help you find venues and contacts, but like most things on the net, it’s not always current or complete so you have to take the initiative and contact them directly. If email doesn’t work, don’t be afraid of the telephone.
What you'd like touring to be like.
“Plenty of bands and venues don't ever respond to your email, and you may be surprised which cities seem to have a more or less vibrant music scene,” says Anderson. “Early on, if you don't have contacts, to some degree you have to take what's available and you may not be able to travel along the perfectly planned route you imagined. The main thing I'd say is it’s sort of like applying for jobs online. As many emails as you do send out, you probably need to send ten times more. I don't have a record of all the places I (and mostly Chet) e-mailed in the numerous months before we went out on this trip, but I'd think counting all the replies in threads to bands and venues it wouldn't surprise me at all if we sent out 1,000 or more emails. A lot of places don't respond, a lot are dead ends, and a lot of them expect you to find good local bands to play with you, but won't help in any capacity besides saying the band you just got to agree to play is no good. The other main thing is show trades, in which you provide an out of town band a well-attended show in your hometown and hopefully they return the favor or vice versa. All and all there's a lot of luck and chance involved, so you have to keep your expectations reasonable, roll with the punches, and try to learn what you can and have a good time.
How Do You Get People To Come?
Again, there’s no magic bullet on this one. Attendance at shows, especially out of town ones, comes from hard work: publicity, good partnerships, and most of all, playing shows. And more shows. And even more shows. More than anything, it’s about getting heard by the most people possible.
“We try to set up shows with (hopefully) good local openers, send out posters, and contact local small radio and press in the hopes of the few local people out,” continues Anderson. “But there's really no reason to expect anyone in a random city whose never heard of you to come out. Word of mouth is what matters, and you have to pound the pavement to put time in and make friends/fans to do that.”
What it's actually like.
What Comes Next? What Are the Benefits Post-Tour?
“I think the hope is each time you do it, you know more people, know which venues are good fits, which bands bring people out, and hopefully have made an impression on folks...but I think realistically its a fairly long process to build a fan-base outside of your home town,” says Anderson. “There's always the hope you could meet some sort of big-league/important-music-person/success-granting-genie. But that's only slightly more likely than winning the Powerball.”
Learning how to set up a tour isn’t easy, and if you’re extra-lucky you’ll already have band members with some innate business and marketing sense. But however you go into the experience, the best way to learn is by doing. Every tour you do, you’ll figure out how to set up the next tour more easily, and less frustratingly. You’ll meet people and weed out internet BS and maybe establish some inviting couches in nearby cities. And when you reach that point, you’ll be one step closer to that glorious rockstar tour you’ve dreamed of.
Top photo from Chet Vincent & the Big Bend