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
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