[Editors Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]
At any given moment, there are thousands of new bands across the world routing tours in hopes of creating momentum for their music. While the world’s biggest music cities seem like can’t-miss destinations for new ambitious bands with a lot to prove, investing the time and money booking shows in cities like London and Los Angeles doesn’t always pay off in the ways that smaller scenes do for unestablished acts.
If you’re considering whether to focus your energy on booking shows in big music cities or in smaller scenes, here’s a few things to consider:
Bands and artists often approach touring the same way they do songwriting––indulgently. But while a band might be rich in extreme tempos, high volumes and edgy lyrical content, they probably aren’t when it comes to money.
The world’s greatest music meccas got to be so big for a reason, and that reason always has to do with the amount of people that live in these places. The more people a city has, the more expenses there are to consider. Parking, hotels, food, gas––it all adds up. Many new and smaller bands/artists should steer clear of big music cities because the cost of accessing them is so high.
A new band or artist excited to hit the road and play new songs should have a completely different set of goals than an established one trying to find a label.
Your long and short-term goals should determine what cities you should be playing on tour and what you’re willing to invest to make the tour happen. Small bands often book insanely long, expensive and grueling tours with stars in their eyes, only to experience major challenges with little reward when they actually embark on them. By narrowing down your goals into concise, actionable priorities, you’ll be able to determine whether your best bet is to focus on big music cities or to stick to smaller music scenes on tour.
The potential rewards
If touring went the exact way you wanted it to, what would that look like?
For some artists, the payoff is as simple as playing in front of crowded rooms of engaged listeners. Others aim to get much more out of touring than that. By being as realistic as possible about the potential rewards a tour can give, you’ll have the best chance at figuring out what cities to focus on.
Are you a completely unknown band trying to make a name for yourself? Throwing all your money and energy into playing big, saturated cities on tour probably won’t be worth it. But the opposite goes for established bands with big goals.
Sure, you can hit that small town in Texas on your way to Austin, but is it worth it? Shows in small cities can be a great time, but if they don’t serve your larger touring goals, they probably aren’t worth playing.
Whether you’re the world’s biggest pop star or someone who makes records in your bedroom closet, touring comes with risks. If something on tour can go wrong, chances are it eventually will––accidents, arguments, health problems, theft and breakdowns of both the mental and automotive variety aren’t rare on the road. Taking time to properly weigh the risks of playing in big music cities can help your band narrow its focus of how to route its tours.
Just like expenses, the bigger the city, the greater the risks and potential complications. Got a big show lined up in a cool San Francisco neighborhood? That’s great, but just know that between tolls, limited options for parking and millions of people floating around, playing there is more complicated than in a smaller city, even if the potential rewards are greater.
(By the way, I’m speaking from personal experience here. A musician I used to play with parked our van and trailer in the wrong spot in San Francisco and we were towed. One $500 ticket later, we drove away from the impound lot and headed to the venue for our show that night. Spoiler alert: we didn’t make anywhere near that much from the show.)
Where your fans are
I’ve saved the most obvious consideration for last. With streaming analytic technology, there’s no mystery where your most devoted fans are based. If your fans don’t live in big cities, then playing in them might not be your best bet. Save for bands with city-specific goals, routing tours around the cities where you know fans are listening will give you the best chance for success.
Some musicians might get to the end of this article and realize touring just isn’t the best move for them right now. That’s okay! For many musicians, the best and least sexiest thing to do when it comes to touring is to stay home and keep writing music. Touring is too risky and expensive to do without some sort of reward.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician.