How 150 People Might Get You Headlining Arenas

By George Howard
(Follow George on Twitter)

One of the most important things an artist can do in order to help accelerate his or her growth is to implement a well-executed and designed “touring” strategy.  I put the word “touring” in quotations because this word means different things to different people.  Too often, artists feel that unless they are crossing the country, they are not touring.  This is not only fallacious, but also potentially harmful thinking.  By using distance toured/number of dates played as your metrics, you run the risk of misjudging the success or failure of the endeavor.

Think about it this way: You’re a band on the east or west coast.  You decide that you want to do a “tour.”  You book some shows in your rough (east or west coast) vicinity, and then plot out the further reaches of your tour.  What you will soon find is that, aside from Chicago, there really isn’t a whole lot in between the two coasts when it comes to touring.  Before everyone in all of these states gets irate with me, I am not deriding these states, nor am I saying that there aren’t tons of amazing places to play in the Midwest, etc.  However, for most bands that are struggling to build a following, the concentration of opportunity tends to lie elsewhere.

In fact, it’s for these very people that the following strategy is designed.  That is, artists who have developed something of a following in their hometowns; to the point where they can headline a mid-sized (100-500 capacity) room.  As a note, if you have not reached this level of being able to headline a 100-500 capacity room in your hometown, playing outside of your hometown shouldn’t really be your focus.

Once you have hit this magic number of between one and five hundred fans in your hometown, good things can begin to happen (please review the various articles that both Jeff Price and I have written for some tactics on how to develop to this stage).

The anthropologist Robin Dunbar put forth a theory that states that 150 is a very significant number.  To (overly) paraphrase, it’s the number of actual/authentic connections any individual can maintain with other people.  Think about your personal Facebook account.  You may have over 150 people to whom you are connected, but how many are you actively keeping up with?  The writer Malcolm Gladwell ran with Dunbar’s work, and suggested that ideas/products/brands spread when these groups of 150 who have organized around a product/idea/brand spread to other groups of 150.  Once this begins to happen, exponential growth takes place.  We see this every day, when something goes “viral.”  What it requires, however, for something to make the leap from one group of 150 to another is what Gladwell refers to as a “weak tie.”  That is some person who—for whatever reason—has a connection to more than one group.  Think about how viruses spread.  Some clump of people have a cold.  One person in that clump goes out of town, and shakes the hand of a person belonging to another clump of people, and thereby infects that person with the virus.  This newly-infected person now spreads the virus to all those in her group, and so forth.

The same theory holds true for bands.  A band who has reached a stage where they are able to draw 150 or so people to a club in their hometown has now reached a mass where there is potential for their music to be spread—virus-like—to other clumps of people.

The job of the band is to not simply wait and hope that some organic weak-tie does the spreading for them, but rather to encourage this type of spreading amongst disparate groups.

One effective way of doing this is to rethink “touring.”  Stop considering it as a linear experience (i.e. going across the country), and instead think of it as an ongoing, endeavor with reciprocal benefit.

What I mean by this is the following:  Once you’ve developed a following in your hometown of 150 or so, view this as your hub.  Next, look to three to five markets within driving distance of your hub.  These are your spokes.  At the terminus of each of these spokes, find bands whose values/style align with yours (use Facebook, use weekly arts magazines from these “spoke” towns to educate yourself about the bands in these markets).  Make sure that in addition to having similar values/style to your band, that they too are at roughly the same stage of development as you; i.e., able to draw 150 or so people in their hometown.

Once identified, reach out to these artists.  Suggest that they come to your hometown, and open for you.  The benefit to them is that you’re acting as a “weak tie;” you’re exposing their work—virus-like—to a new clump of people, who, because you’ve determined that there is value alignment between your band and the band who is coming to your hometown, will be receptive to this band.

In return for having them come to your hometown and open for your crowd, you open for this band in their hometown.  In this way, the band is acting as a weak tie for you.

If you’re able to do this in three to five markets, you’ll be on the road once a week or so playing in new markets, while also playing once a month in your hometown with one of these bands opening for you.  Playing more than once a month in your hometown will, over time, lead to diminishing returns as it fatigues your fans.

As you return to these “spoke” markets a number of times, you should be seeing growth in terms of people coming to see you specifically, people signing up for your email newsletter, etc.  At this point, you can add more spokes, or extend them further out to more remote towns from your hub; all the while employing the same gig-swapping methodology.

Done successfully, it won’t be long before you have a plethora of viable markets for you to play.  “Suddenly,” you’re really touring.  But, rather than randomly bouncing from town to town, taking whatever gig you can get (and typically playing in front of indifferent audiences—if there’s anyone there at all) just so that you can say you’ve toured across the country, you’ve actually built a sustainable touring circuit.

From this comes everything.  The bands who are doing this are the ones that attract managers, booking agents, music supervisors, labels, publishers, and, most importantly, fans.  Bands who are not doing this, attract none of these.  Eventually, these bands who have not employed a strategy as outlined above, and who attract no one, break up. So, remember to think of touring in the way it should be thought of: a tool.  It’s the engine that drives pretty much everything else (online/social media, for instance, really accelerates when it’s combined with a robust offline (i.e. touring) effort).  Importantly, think of markets as nodes of potential connectivity, and actively seek weak ties that help spread your music and message into these markets.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc. He currently advises numerous entertainment and non-entertainment firms and individuals. Additionally, he is the Executive Editor of Artists House Music and is an Associate Professor of Music Business/Management at Berklee.  He is most easily found on Twitter at: twitter.com/gah650

Related to this article: Let Radiohead Be Your Guide

  • Anonymous

    Easier said than done.  I manage an artist that is Grammy-nominated, and draws 150 plus in many markets coast to coast, has appeared on MTV, Ellen, David Letterman, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel, ect… yet no big managers, agents, or labels give a shit, so we continue with the DIY method.  This artist easily makes a living playing his music and touring.  I have a great deal of respect for you Mr Howard, and have been reading and following your work for a while, however this article makes it all sound too simple.  Bottom line is you can’t tour until you have fans, but sometimes you have to go to them, as opposed to hoping they come to you, and sometimes you wont come back having made a profit, but if you promoted properly, hopefully you at least planted some seeds. Robert Louis Stevenson once said “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant” – this is very true from our experience with a “successful” music career.   Like you said, local fans get fatigued – so will regional fans – so we only play our hometown and regional market a couple times a year. In order to stay active, we have to make longer trips and take risks breaking new markets.  What so many artists and bands don’t realize is that you can reach a level of success where your making decent money and bringing a crowd out to every show, but that doesn’t guarantee that anyone in the industry is going to care, or want to work with you.  Take your music to where the fans are, give them an amazing show, and they will spread the word.  Lots of what happens in the industry is all politics, there are plenty of artists signed to High Road, WME, Agency Group, ect, that are absolutely terrible and are not half as successful as my client, and never will be, yet they knew someone that knows someone, hence they get signed… it is frustrating to say the least.  My advice to artists/bands that are trying to tour.. yes, build the hometown crowd to a couple hundred and find your local superfans,  then regional and interact with them, cater to them, they will spread the word, because they love your music and they love you, but don’t be afraid to break new markets, just dont be lazy about promoting and do your homework before you confirm a gig.  If you are playing to a couple hundred in your hometown, don’t be too arrogant to play to a room of 10 people in a new town, you never know who is in the room, and who they might share your music with.   I do agree with you on the networking side of things, find other like-minded artists/bands, preferably that are slightly ahead of you in their own careers, and swap shows.  The more bands you make friends with, the easier it is to tour, and do it successfully.  I am gonna leave it at that.  Again, I have the utmost respect for you Mr Howard, and have learned a lot from you,  but its just not as easy as building a regional fan base. 
    And by the way we are located in Chicago, and are only able to tour nationally now because we took risks and long trips early on.  We have no label support, or any other financial backer, yet we make due.  

    • http://twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

      @cdbad222f10aebeac682dddd5ac50f24:disqus I think we’re saying the same thing??
      Maybe, the difference is that you’re emphasizing risk? If so, I agree with you there too.

      thanks for the great comment.

      Best,George

      • Anonymous

        Thanks for your response George. First let me say that I am posting as Anonymous out of respect for my client, and  the fact that these are my personal opinions, and don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of the client I am discussing.   And yes, I guess we are saying the same thing, just in a different way, and I do encourage and emphasize taking risks.  I disagree to an extent with your last paragraph though, you can be a profitable, popular act,  but that doesn’t mean that anyone in the industry is going to want to help you, or work with you.  On the flip side you can be a hometown act that has good references, no fans or money and get signed before ever playing a single gig outside your hometown, next thing you know you are supporting national acts.     Funny the way the industry works….  just like any other business, its not what you know, but who you know… So back to where we agree, make friends with LOTS of bands, artists, and managers.  Something I forgot to mention in my last comment, all the tv appearances, the Grammy Noms, and other big things my client has done have ALL stemmed from networking and collaborating with other musicians.  That’s a fact. 
        George, someday if our paths cross you will have to let me buy you a beer, I would love to pick your brain about a number of topics. If you are curious as to who my client is and what we are doing, feel free to contact me via the email address I am using to post these comments.  Cheers.  

        • http://twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

          @cdbad222f10aebeac682dddd5ac50f24:disqus 

          thanks for the clarification, and – yes – you’re right about how it’s “funny” the way the industry works. serendipity definitely plays a role. I just (as clearly you do too) look to increase the odds.
          Best,George

  • Gene Tyce

    DUH…………I saw Johnny Cash in Omaha, Merle Haggard in Denver, CCR in Wichita and
    Alabama in Pensacola.

    • http://twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

      @3ac22fe0c50611a32c128b4eeac206dc:disqus I assume you’re defending the middle part of the country as viable places for live performance.  please note, I was VERY careful not to imply otherwise:

      Before everyone in all of these states gets irate with me, I am not deriding these states, nor am I saying that there aren’t tons of amazing places to play in the Midwest, etc.  However, for most bands that are struggling to build a following, the concentration of opportunity tends to lie elsewhere.

      George

  • Gene Tyce

    OOPS and Bobby Bare in Princeton KY

  • http://www.swampdonkeyamps.com/ Chris

    This is the most insightful, realistic, logical and easy to understand article on the subject I have read. Great job!

    • http://twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

      @218e85100050a1f0c083617b38753fe9:disqus thanks very much.

      George

  • Holmes

    I disagree. Since we are living in the future and can access fans anywhere there’s no reason not to cultivate a fan base that might support a concert at a small performing arts center? I figured out that I can play any city in the US as long as it’s Saturday night and still keep my day job. Fly in Friday, perform Saturday night, fly out Sunday. I have 250 fans in my home town but they won’t all show up to a concert if I’m doing one in my town every two weeks. Do you sit down and read the things you write? Seriously.

    • http://twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

      @d9ffe064aab16ee17de7caede00b39d5:disqus congratulations on reaching a level where you can play PCAs on a Sat night, and still keep your day job. Very few can do that. I’d be curious how you achieved this.

      I’m sure many TC readers would be interested. Would you mind sharing?

      Thanks,George

  • ChamberFunk

    “I manage an artist.” Translation: girl I want to sleep with. If she’s reading this – girl you do not need a manager, you just need to know how to use a flipcam and youTube.

    • http://twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

      @f904f532635ae750abaf3baf8591e178:disqus I hope you’re trying to be funny (by the way, not funny). Otherwise, this is insulting on a lot of levels. Please don’t post if you have nothing of value to add to the conversation.

      Thanks,George

      • Anonymous

        thanks George. 

    • Anonymous

      First, I am happily married, and she is not a client of mine.  Second, best of luck with your flipcam and youtube. 

  • Davidlareau

    George I’ve just started reading your articles and am very impressed. Would you happen to have a link to the article where you speak on how to build a regional fan base of 150+. I’m a former Columbia recording artist starting over on a DIY solo project and would love the insight. Thanks.

  • Joao Marcos

    Very inspiring, George. A beautiful way to build fanbase and network. Will try these as soon as possible. Thank you!