Last year, I had the opportunity to be the tour & promotions manager for the indie dance-rock band Tofu Stravinsky. The band played over 20 shows while we drove from their home town of Nelson, BC all the way to Montreal, where they relocated. There was definitely some trial and error but we made it and had a blast on the way. Here are my ten tips for other musicians thinking of heading out on tour.
1) Believe Your Music Is Worth It
This is your job and your passion. Do not be afraid to ask for money. Always remember the worst someone can say is “No.” Assess the show for that night – is it a weeknight or weekend, does the bar usually do door or a flat rate? Ask for a rate, maybe higher than you want and then you can barter. Don’t low ball yourselves. There will be slimy bar owners who will take advantage of you and if you lack confidence in your bands ability to turn a profit for the venue, you’ll likely get no gas money from that night. If you don’t believe in your music making money, neither will others.
2) Always Tip Your Bartender
Majority of the shows you play you’ll get a tab; it’s usually a part of the contract to play. Sometimes your pay will acutally be in beer. If they really like you, they may throw in an extra pitcher or 4. No matter what; tip the bartender. It’s respectful and you never know if they are also the owner or have swing in actual bookings at the bar. Plus they will be super grateful and want you back.
3) Do Not Get Drunk BEFORE The Show
This might sound obvious. Yes, the previously mentioned free beer is a sweet perk and after an 8 hour trek in a cramped car a pint is nice. But save the rest for after you play! You may think you’re good to go and have played that song 100 times. You’re not Mick Jagger; you’re sloppy and swaying out of rhythm. Trust me, I’ve watched you play 10 times before this one sober and you did not bob your head in that awkward chicken-like way before.
4) Play Every Show Like It’s Packed
…Even if it’s just you, the bartender and the janitor having a whiskey after work. People are still there to see you play. And it’s always a show – what you are on this whole tour thing for anyways: to play. You never know if that janitor’s brother owns a label. Don’t save your energy for the next show as it may be bigger. It’s just a waste. Some of the best shows we had were with a few people who all became huge fans, who “liked” us on Facebook and all bought a CD and t-shirt. If they had played half-assed, those few people would have just walked to the next bar.
5) Social Media and Promotions
The power of social media. Facebook and Instagram are a free form of promotion and documentation for your tour and you should definitely utilize these tools. Our online fan base tripled from the start to the end of tour. You can post the events, share behind-the-scenes photos and keep fans updated on where you are. We also made tour cards with the bands various sites and put them on every table in every bar we played. Especially if you’re doing a multi city tour, this helps build your fan base in tons of cities and the next time you come through you can count on a few familiar faces at a show.
6) Merch, Merch, Merch.
Yes, people out there will want to wear stuff with your bands name on it – dreams do come true. They will want CD’s and key chains and stickers. Merch is a good investment and can actually save you. Say you play one of those shows that pay mostly in beer and a place to sleep but you end up selling a couple t-shirts and 5 CD’s- cha-ching. Do something different to catch people eye: we handmade custom tye-dye t-shirts that were gone far sooner than expected.
7) Take Every Extra Opportunity
Play as many shows as possible even if they weren’t a part of the original plan. We had a chance to add a couple shows opening for The Creepshow –a band quite outside our genre but snapped up the chance without hesitation. If you can do interviews, photoshoots, music videos- load up. We even spoke at a high school to students about being in the music industry. Takes any chance to get yourself out there and diversify your bands experience.
8) Record Your Set
Even if it’s just an iPhone propped up or you can actually get good quality footage. One reason is to watch yourselves play and see what’s working and what you can improve on, even by the next time you play. Watching back over these on the drive to the next city can give you something to do. Also, if you get decent footage you’ll need it for your EPK when applying for festivals or trying to book other gigs.
9) Hang Out After You Play
Even if you’re absolutely bagged, chat with the people who watched you play. It’s nice to get compliments and feedback on the show. There’s no need for an awkward distance between performer and viewer. It’s also a chance to meet local bands- whether it’s someone who has a friend with a band or they have a group themselves. These are good friends to make as sometimes you can’t book a gig in a city without having a local opener to play with. The venue may worry new talent won’t fill the bar and aren’t worth the risk.
10) Shit Will Happen But Have Fun
Keys will break in the lock. Someone will get sick, then likely get everyone else sick. You’ll disagree on set lists. You will sleep on the floor of a hotel that looks like an episode of CSI. Bar owners will try to rip you off. The sound guy probably never nails it. LET IT SLIDE. You’re in tight spaces with your fellow band mates in your stinky van, away from friends and family, you’re tired or hung-over – but just breathe. There is always another show and there is always a solution.
Enjoy the journey and good luck on your tour!