[Editors Note: This article was written by Rich Nardo.]
If you were to survey one hundred independent musicians who have spent at least a full year touring, I’m willing to bet that at least 75 of them are going to say the experience did not live up to their expectations. Touring is arduous, it’s difficult and there is, by no means, a guaranteed light at the end of the tunnel.
That being said, it’s 100% worth it. If you’re willing to take the risk and smart enough to approach it with a degree of preparation and hard work, it will be the source of a lot of the best memories you’ll ever create in your life. Also, if you’re serious about making a career as a musician, it is necessary to start generating enough of an income to dedicate your life to what you are passionate about.
It won’t be easy, but if you’re ready to take the risk and hit the road, here are six things that you and your bandmates can do in order to make it the most successful experience possible.
1. Promote Your Shows Ahead Of Time
It seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many bands go into a city for the first time without preparing and are shocked when they end up playing to just the bartender. The internet makes it easier than ever for EVERY artist to promote their shows. Make sure you’re promoting on your own socials and sourcing the venue’s pages for people to spread the word to. Also, do some research to find local press.
Depending on the venue, ask them for a “media list” – which is a list of writers that the venue regularly reaches out to about events. They’ll usually be happy to pass it along to an artist who is willing to do some outreach around their show.
2. Find the Locals
Playing with a local band is by far the best way to put yourself in a position to get in front of a crowd when you’re away from your home market early in your career. That being said, it’s important to do your research. Find a band that has a sound where their friends and fans would also enjoy your music.
Also, look at their social media sites to see if there are decent crowds in the pictures or scan their previous gig archive to see if they are playing reputable clubs or the same room consistently enough to indicate that local promoters trust them to bring a crowd. It’s also important to remember that finding and booking with these bands in other cities is just step one. Make sure to stay in touch afterwards and take the time to talk to as many people as possible at your show. If you convert them to friends and/or fans, you’ve taken an important step towards building a base of people that will come back and see you next time you’re in town.
3. Don’t Quit Your Dayjob…Yet
One of, if not the, most stressful elements of touring is the fact that it requires a significant time requirement where traditionally you couldn’t make money elsewhere. That is no longer true. If you’re looking to transition into spending more time on the road promoting your music, start taking on freelance gigs or talking to your employer about letting you do your job remotely.
There’s plenty of downtime in the van or opportunities to work from a coffee shop when you’re touring. Why not make use of that time to earn a little extra cash and take the pressure off of having to rely completely on touring to make a living?
4. Consider Alternative Venues
Traditional music venues are the least effective way to tour when you don’t have a guaranteed audience. The amount of money that a venue is willing to give a band in relation to their draw and efforts is stingy at best. One alternative is to try to book shows at colleges where you’ll have a built in audience and better pay (colleges have a healthy entertainment budget to work with). You can also usually find a party at an off campus apartment or dive bar to make the most of the evening in terms of money and making new fans.
Another great alternative to traditional venues are organizations like SoFar Sounds that hold private concerts in a bunch of different cities. These don’t always have great pay outs, but SoFar events are guaranteed to have a packed room full of people that are so excited about finding new music that they are willing to sign up to go to a show without knowing the exact venue or lineup in advance!
5. Invest in Merch
The chance to make real money directly from your performance is probably a couple of years away if you’re just starting out, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make money alternatively when you play shows. Young bands hitting the road for the first time will often make around $100 from the venue, but then add another $150-$200 selling music and t-shirts. It’s a huge opportunity to turn a show that might have barely paid for gas into one that will buy your bands post-show burritos and a hotel room to split.
If you can sell enough merch consistently, you can turn a tour that would have ended up costing you a significant amount of money to one where you might walk away a couple of dollars richer. Believe me, that distinction will make all the difference at the end of a stressful run.
6. Have a Band Member “Tour Manage”
One mistake young bands make on the road is to bring a “tour manager” to take care of the odds and ends of touring. At this point in your touring career that is not only “one more hand in the cookie jar” but it’s also one more mouth to feed.
If you have a friend who just wants the experience and is willing to pay his or her own way, maybe that works. If not, you’re better off appointing one band member to handle all of the traditional tour manager duties (coordinate load in times, venue addresses, collect money, etc.). In exchange, that member can get certain perks, such as not having to drive or first choice in sleeping spots.
Rich Nardo is a freelance writer and editor, and is the VP of Public Relations and Creative at NGAGE.