Guide to Independent Touring
An artist doesn’t find touring success overnight. It often takes years to reach a point of profitability on the road and, more than likely, you’ll encounter your fair share of setbacks in the pursuit of accomplishing your dreams.
That being said, here’s the good news: you CAN push through it. If a life on the road is truly your dream, you will find the power to get to the next tour stop and you’ll be rewarded with bigger crowds, better payouts and maybe even a booking agent seeing enough potential in you to eventually join your team.
Before these glory days commence, you will have to put a lot of work in. The more time you commit to planning out your runs, the quicker you’ll be able to find your rhythm and be on the road to success.
As we dive into the basics for getting your touring career started, the most important thing to realize is that there will be several goals and benchmarks to reach along the way. A goal-oriented approach is key and will go a long way towards ensuring your course of action is well-thought out and leaves you in the best position to succeed.
Booking Your Tour & Growing Your Range
When getting started as a touring musician, it is imperative to place particular emphasis on your hometown fanbase before you expand. By establishing your local gigs as profitable, the initial financial hit you take when going into new markets becomes a bit more palatable.
A strong local following also makes you a desirable partner for show trades. If you can draw 50-100 people in New York, you can reach out to a band of a similar size in Philadelphia or New Jersey about working together on a ‘home-and-home’ booking. This provides the opportunity to perform in front of their audience and start converting those new listeners to members of your own following. As you continue to go back to that market, these fans will serve as an effective word-of-mouth marketing channel to get new people to your shows.
Once you’re confident in your local following, it’s time to settle on a few cities close by to explore. At this point in your career, you’re likely still working a day job, so a ‘weekend warrior’ mentality will be your best bet. Try to set up shows in cities where you can drive home that night, or where you have friends you can stay with overnight. Spending money on lodging at the beginning is going to create a cost-prohibitive scenario and limit how often you can get on the road.
Once you have a few of these ‘weekend warrior’ markets in place, you can begin to loop them into extended touring routes and start to establish yourself as a full-on regional artist. At this point you’re on your way to your first national tour!
The old business adage “you’re only as strong as your network” is just as effective when it comes to growing your career as a musician. Do some research to find promoters and bands that are working as hard as you are and reach out to them. These connections will be imperative to finding success on the road (and at home), as they will be your strongest partners in terms of growing your fanbase. Nurture those relationships and conduct yourself in a way that makes them as excited to work with you as you are to work with them. As you both grow in your career, collaborations will lead to more profitable tours and larger attendance at your shows.
The best place to start when planning your tour is right at the beginning. How will you travel?
Is it possible to pack your whole band and equipment into a member’s car or two? If so, great. If not, figure out if you can make due with a trailer or if you’re going to have to rent a van. The lighter you can pack and the more creative you get in terms of playing Tetris with equipment, the less of a financial burden the road will be.
If it’s only a couple of dates, maybe see if you can borrow equipment to avoid a trailer. Touring with another band from your neighborhood? See if both acts can combine equipment or if they want to rent a van together for the weekend. The hardships at the beginning will make it that more special when you find success.
Now that you’ve got the travel arrangements confirmed, where are you going to stay? Do you have friends in the city you’re playing in or would one of the bands you’re playing with let you crash? If not, is it a short enough drive that you can leave after you play the show? If you do have to pay for a hotel room, see if you can squeeze the whole band in one room. Multiple hotel rooms on the first run is a guaranteed loss of money for the trip.
Finally, consider who you need to bring with you (if anybody). Tour managers and merch people are lifesavers on bigger tours, but if you don’t need one, do it yourself. Pick your most responsible bandmate to tour manage and take turns working the merch booth before and after your set. There isn’t anything you can’t do internally on your first shows, so don’t get ahead of yourself.
Another system that could work is to assign roles to everyone in the band. Someone can handle the tour manager’s responsibilities at the venue, another member can handle merch and the remaining members can take turns driving. If everyone pulls their weight, you don’t have to worry about having one more mouth to feed (and maybe pay). Even if a friend volunteers to do it for free, make sure that one extra person doesn’t negatively affect your travel arrangements or lodging before giving them the go ahead.
Keys to Marketing Your Tour
As an independent artist, you won’t have the luxury of a label to pay for a dedicated marketing plan around your tour. This means that the grunt work of getting the word out about your shows will fall on your band. Luckily, you can promote your tour for free or with a very modest budget.
Here are several ways to raise awareness around each date.
Social Media (Direct Outreach)
There are several ways to reach potential concert-goers online leading up to your show. Let’s break it down by platform:
Twitter is the most conversation-driven platform and thus the most like the old-school Myspace method of reaching fans in new tour markets. Look through your followers and tweet at those who live in the cities you’ll be visiting. You can also look at who follows the venue and tweet at several of those people who seem as though they’d be into your music. If they like the venue enough to follow it, chances are they may be open to checking out a new band playing there. Also, always make sure to tag the venue and other bands performing when you tweet about the show and see if they will retweet it. This way you can preemptively start working on turning their fans into your fans.
Create an event for your show and encourage all your friends in that city to RSVP ‘yes’ and invite their friends. This is pretty much the digital equivalent to when bands used to hand out flyers for their gigs at other shows and you’ll get a similar return. If I had to venture a guess, depending on how wide you can spread the invites, this might mean 10% of those ‘yes’ RSVPs will be actual concert-goers. That doesn’t sound like an impressive number, but every little bit helps. If you get 100 RSVPs, that could mean playing in front of 10-20 people instead of just the bartender. A few other tips here: 1.) Make someone from the venue an admin on the event so that they can send their own invites; 2.) Make sure to tag the venue, and; 3.) Geo-tag the post when you share the flyer for the event.
Aside from sharing the flyer and doing story updates to promote your shows, most of your Instagram work will take place on other people’s profiles. Go to the venue’s Instagram and find people that are commenting on their posts. Follow them and if you get the follow back, make sure to comment on any live music photos they post inviting them to your show. You can also search the geo-tag for the venue and posts about bigger, similar bands playing at other locations in the city to find people to invite to the show. In the same vein of what was mentioned with Facebook, always make sure to tag the venue and other artists on the bill in your posts about the show and geo-tag the venue. The more you can integrate into their ‘built-in’ fanbases the more chances you’ll have of people checking out your set.
Do some research and find local writers and press outlets to reach out to. You may not get coverage the first time around if they’ve never heard of you, but invite them out to the show and put them on your guest list. Make sure to get some hang-time at the venue so that, even if you didn’t get any coverage of this first date, you might get some love the next time you’re in town.
Setting up a digital advertising campaign could seem like a daunting task, but even a small investment could go a long way. I wrote a comprehensive article for TuneCore that could serve as your initial tutorial on the topic if you’re interested in giving it a try.
Hit the Pavement
Just because you aren’t in a town doesn’t mean you can’t put boots on the ground. Send the venue some tour flyers to post up in advance of the show. Have your socials clearly shown on the flyer so people know where they can check out some music. Also, if you have friends or fans in the area, see if they’d be willing to serve as a makeshift street team. They can put flyers in local coffee shops and record stores, ask friends to come out and help spread the word via their social media. Just make sure to reward them for their help with a guest list spot, free merch or by buying them dinner or some drinks while you’re in town!
What To Do With All Those New Fans After Your Tour?
If you’ve reached the point where this section of the article is applicable, congratulations! All that hard work is paying off, and you can begin working on the next step in your journey towards building a sustainable fanbase away from your hometown.
The question is how does one go about doing so if they may not be back through those cities again for a few months (or longer)? Once again, the internet is your friend here. If you’ve noticed that these new fans have started following you on social media, reach out to them and say thank you for coming out. If you let them know their support really means something to you they’re more likely to keep following your career. You can also mine social media to see if there were people at the show who may not have followed you yet but could be into doing so. Search the geo-tag for the venue and see if anyone took any photos or posted messages about your performance or any of the other bands on the bill and give them a reason to follow you by clicking the follow button on their account or commenting on their posts thanking them for coming out.
These days, the concept of a mailing list may seem antiquated and, to an extent, it is. Everyone with an inbox gets bombarded with offers and unsolicited invites each and every day – most of which are promptly deleted without even a glance. Still, despite the high chance that most of your mailing list messages are going to be deleted, it is worthwhile to get everyone’s emails at your show for a couple of reasons.
First, some people, particularly those that really loved the show, will open each mailing list message you send – excited to hear your new music or get an update on how your career is progressing. Second, you can geotarget your mailing list for show updates. This is a great way to digitally flyer before your next visit to a city and get the fans you won over with your exceptional live show back out to see you again. Similarly, reach out to these new fans and make sure they’re subscribing on their favorite listening platforms so that they are updated when you release your highly anticipated next song or album!
Finally, get back out there! The best way to keep people interested and grow your following is to get back out on the road and play in their city again.
It can’t be stressed enough that touring will not be easy. The glamorous adventures you’ve seen on TV will not be waiting for you the first few times you hit the road. That being said, it is 100% worth it. The road is where you’ll build genuine fans. More importantly, these tough times will serve as the source of some of your best memories with your bandmates, and making it through the struggle will add a whole other level of appreciation for the more enjoyable tours you’ll embark on later in your career.
So good luck, get out there and start building your fanbase beyond your homebase!
By Rich Nardo, VP at Ngagency