Getting your band off the ground is full of “chicken or the egg?” situations. One of the things I commonly hear bands say that if they just had a booking agent, they could really get things moving. But booking agents only want to work with bands that already have things moving.
Just because you have to book your own shows doesn’t mean you can’t go on tour. Even if you don’t have much experience booking gigs, a little organization, creativity, persistance and flexibility will make booking your first tour a simple enough task. After you get the first tour under your belt, going on the road in the future will not be as daunting.
Don’t Over Think It
The easiest thing to do is come up with all the reasons you can’t go on tour. This is often referred to as paralysis by analysis. If you or your band can put on a solid performance, the only thing keeping you from going on tour are your excuses! Going on the road is a lot of fun, and nothing will make your band sound better then a string of 5 or 10 shows in front of unsuspecting audiences.
Write it down.
Just getting something on paper will help you get started. Write down cities and venues where you’d like to play. Write down bands you’d like to share a bill with. Find email address, phone numbers, or contact forms online. Start building a list.
I’m a big fan of Google Docs, especially when it comes to planning something with somebody else, like your bandmates. By creating a spreadsheet of venues, contacts, and dates, you’ll not only be able to see the tour start to take shape, you’ll have a great list started for future tours. More on how I’ve used Google Docs for tour planning later in the article.
Choosing Your Tour Stops
Many people will tell you to book your tour in the markets where you have the most fans, sold the most CDs, had the most spins on local radio, etc. This is great advice, but not always practical for your first tour.
Rely on friends and family.
Other than booking the actual gigs, nothing stands in the way of planning your tour like finding some place to sleep. For a first tour, you’ll want to avoid the cost of hotels whenever possible. And sleeping in a van sounds like a romantic story of touring bands following their dreams, until you have to do it.
Thanks to Facebook, it’s easier than ever to stay in touch with your friends all over the country. And where you don’t have friends, you might have family. These people probably want to help you and would love to offer their sofa or spare bedroom if you ask.
Friends and family will also (probably) come to your show, bring their friends, and buy your CD. Sometimes a couple gigs with a lot of friends and family in attendance can bring in enough money to get you through the club gigs in towns where you know nobody and play for an empty house. The bad gigs are inevitable, so try to buffer them with a few shows in front of a loving audience.
Rely on your fans.
Nobody wants to see you play more than your fans, and given the opportunity, they’ll help you set up a show in their town. All you have to do is ask for their help.
Make an announcement on your website, blog, Twitter, email list, and anywhere else you can think of, that you’ll be in or around certain cities during a window of dates and you’re trying to book a show. Your fans might have connections with local bands or venues, or they could host a house concert.
In my experience, having a few house concerts on a tour is refreshing. They pay better than most clubs, there’s usually food, and sometimes even a place to stay for the night. Not to mention, your fans will be thrilled to say you came and played in their house.
Tip: Create a page on your website that explains how house concerts work. Make it easy for them to prepare for the show, and save yourself the stress of answering the same questions over and over again.
Contact other bands in target markets.
I see this suggestion everywhere, and frankly, it’s a great idea. Local bands will already have relationships with venues in their area, and can probably get you a gig if you’ll return the favor when they come to your town. They’ll also be your ally when promoting the show and can tell their fans about you.
Planning Your Routing
You should try to book your tour stops somewhat close to each other to avoid using too much gas or running the risk of being late for your next show. In my experience 5 hours of driving the day of a show is about the most you should try to do. Construction, weather, accidents, and just plain traffic can easily add an hour or two to your trip. Not to mention, driving can be tiring, so go easy on yourself. You don’t want to be in one of those traffic-causing accidents.
When Lauren Zettler and I booked our first tour, we started with a single show in the Midwest. Every other show needed to be within a few hours of that show, along our route to the Midwest, or in a town with friends or family. Even though we both live in New York City now, we both grew up in the Midwest, so we had plenty of friends and family to rely on.
To help book the other shows, I made a spreadsheet in Google Docs (I realize I’m excessively organized for most musicians). We made a list of every possible venue in each of our target cities. Then we made a separate list of all the dates we’d be on the road and filled in which city we’d like to be in on which date. That gave us an outline of our most ideal routing.
Next we contacted every venue on our list, specifying which date we’d like to play, but also giving them a 5 day window, just to see where things would land. We ended up with more zig-zagging than we’d hoped, but the 5 day window allowed us to book more gigs than being rigid with our dates. Despite our best efforts, we were still left with holes in our routing. That’s when we turned to the fans and started booking house shows.
By relying on friends and family for places to stay (and all the unexpected food) our tour had a very low budget and actually made a decent amount of money. We documented the whole thing on a blog, which you can still see here: http://midwestorbusttour.tumblr.com/
Contacting Bookers and Talent Buyers
When you start contacting the people that will actually book your shows, you must make a good first impression. There are several schools of thought about what you should say, but to be honest, everybody prefers to see something different and there’s no template to making everybody happy.
Start building your contact list by visiting the venue websites. Many venues will explain how they like to be contacted, or what they look for in a band. Some even have online forms to fill out. Always start by following their rules, and then send more information when you follow up.
What to include in your email.
Actually, let’s start with what not to include. NEVER include MP3s unless asked. That’s plain and simple email etiquette.
Keep your email to the point and give them the useful information. More facts, less opinion:
- What kind of music do you play? Name a couple artists other people compare you to.
- Where you are from? Let them know you are on tour.
- What’s the line up of your band? They don’t need everyone’s bio, but clue them in on whether you are a solo act or 12 piece band with a breakdance crew. They might have the perfect slot for you on a night with similar bands.
- Have you ever played in their town before? If so do you have a draw? If not, maybe you have a significant number of people on your email list in that town and you think they will come out to your show. Don’t lie.
- Links! Send them the best links where they can hear your music, see a video of your live performance, or read more about you. Don’t send too many, just keep it simple.
- Your contact information. Email and phone number. Don’t expect them to look for anything. They won’t.
My approach is to anticipate the questions they’re going to ask, and answer them before they have a chance to ask. You get the hang of it after a few exchanges.
If you haven’t heard back two weeks after your initial email, follow up by forwarding your first email with a polite note asking if they’ve had time to listen to your music. Chances are this person does more than just book bands, and they probably have a lot of bands emailing them. Persistence is polite. In fact, some clubs don’t book bands that only email once. They might get so many inquiries that their first filter is to see who gives up easily!
It’s entirely possible that they’ll write back and say they’re booked up and can’t help you, but that’s fine. It’s simply one more place to cross off your list so you can focus on the others. Make sure you write back and thank them for their response and you will be in touch on your next tour. If you’re polite, I bet they’ll remember you.
A few more tips
Once you’ve confirmed the gig, ask about the club’s backline. If every club you’re playing is going to have a drumset, that might save you a lot of space in the car.
Tune up your tour vehicle. Oil changes and properly inflated tires save gas money, and help prevent breakdowns that could make you miss a gig (and cost you a lot of dough).
Never leave anything in your car. Yes, I am a paranoid New Yorker, but I’ve never had any gear stolen from my car. No matter how tired I am, I unload the car every night. It’s definitely worth the cost of my equipment.
Finally, bring plenty of merch to sell! You’ll make most of your money from selling CDs, shirts, or whatever else you can think of. Make sure you have plenty before you hit the road!