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:

  1. What kind of music do you play? Name a couple artists other people compare you to.
  2. Where you are from? Let them know you are on tour.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Follow up.

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!

21 Responses to Booking Your First Tour

  1. Tess Taylor says:

    Hi Cameron -
    Good, thorough, practical and well-written article. Thanks for the good info. With your permission, could we post the first paragraph or two on our artist web site (www.lamn.com) and then link back to this page? Only with your permission! Be well,
    Tess Taylor
    National Association of Record Industry Professionals

  2. Hi Tess (and anyone else interested in reprinting this or any other articles on our site),

    We are happy to allow other people post excerpts of any of our articles with proper attribution and links back to MusicianWages.com and the original author.

    We prefer not to have the entire article reprinted without first obtaining our permission.

    Thanks for asking, and reading!

  3. Thanks for this. I’ve read a number of your articles, and they are all just so sensible. It’s going in the “touring” folder of my bookmarks so that when I can afford a tour I can read it again…and again….and again.

    Cheers,
    Micol

  4. Scott says:

    GREAT article. I am in the middle of booking our first U.S. tour and I’m happy to see we are doing 99% of what you suggest.

    We decided to only stop in locations where we had family or friends that we could stay with. We would use these locations are “home bases” and plan shows within an hour of those locations then move onto the next. We decided to just drive straight through to the next “home base” (since we have 5 people driving) instead of stopping after 8 hours of driving to save money on motels. However, the other option is bringing camping gear and camping instead of using a hotel.

    We put out the word on our Facebook for friends and family who would offer up their floor space for us to stay. We decided to get airbeds as well. This gave us a lot of free lodging.

    We also had to be flexible on where we wanted to go. REMEMBER: Everyone wants to play the big cities. That’s why clubs in the big cities dont have to pay that much. BUT, if you book in the suburbs and smaller cities, they are SO excited to have a band that wants to play there, they usually pay more. AND you usually will sell more CD’s. We can play in Seattle and not make much and not sell much, but we drive 2 or 3 hours to some of the smaller cities and make $500 in merch sales.

    The house shows is a GREAT idea. I’m going to try that to fill in some of our empty dates. Also, I’m very happy you put in there about what the appropriate time frame to check back with a venue is.

    Something we are currently doing to raise money for our tour is having fans and business’ “sponsor” our tour. Think about how PBS does their fund raising. For specific monetary ranges you get a CD, for another you get a CD and a T-shirt. We did the same. For $100 you get a CD to listen to, an autographed CD, a tshirt and we are going to put your name on our trailer (using those decals) as a tour sponsor. For business’, they can purchase space on our trailer to advertise their business across the country. Remember, there has to be something in it for them. Focus on companies that would benefit by drumming up nation wide business’. A local donut shop probably wouldn’t. A local dot com business might. Also, contact beer distributors. Think about it… your band tour van and trailer as going to be parked infront of bars and driving down the road. You have captive audiences.

    And yes… have a security system on your van and trailer, have someone sleep in the van, and expect your stuff will get stolen. Be paranoid. You should. You have thousands of dollars worth of gear that people would LOVE to steal. Think about parking. You WILL get towed. Dont take chances. Park close to lighted areas and crowded places.

    A tour is a job. You are working. While a tour should be fun, it shouldn’t be about getting drunk every night, staying up all night partying, etc. This is your business. Your band is a business. And your fans and band mates have to understand this.

    Cameron, thanks for the awesome info

  5. Great article!

    One tip that I’d like to share is about how to find the RIGHT venue in a certain town. If you’re a country band, you don’t want to waste time approaching venues that mostly host metal bands. Sometimes the website will have a list of genres, but sometimes not.

    The best way to find out good venues for your style of music is to talk to someone in that city. Two really, really great sources are local college/university radio stations, and entertainment weeklies. Nobody who works at either of those places do it for the money (since there’s not much to be made), so chances are they’re there because they love the music. Therefore, they’ll know the local scene like the back of their hand. Added bonus: it’s always good to make contacts with radio and weeklies anyways, so here’s a good way to kill two (or three) birds with one stone.

    Scott
    http://ybbf.wordpress.com
    @scottyhons

  6. Seth Allred says:

    Hello, my name is Seth. I’m 10 years old, and I’m an independent artist, but I have a question for you. We’ll us independent artists EVER get to perform in an arena, or will we ever get an international gig? I just want some advice early on.

    Thanks

  7. Seth, there are a few independent artists that play arena shows today, and many that tour internationally. These things are never just handed to anybody though, it takes a lot of hard work, and it all starts with making great music so you can sell enough tickets to fill an arena or create a fan base in other countries.

  8. This is a great article! I decided that I want to go on a cross Canada road trip next year and tour Canada. Most people I’ve told my plans to think I’m nuts, but I know that I can make it work. This article will make it a lot easier to plan it out and write up a proposal to investors/venues. This cross Canada tour will be documented on my website/YouTube, so I will also be looking for sponsors and businesses who are interested in product placement and/or endorsements.

  9. Bravo! This is thorough advice and some smart tips here, including the comments above. The first Scott that commented above brings up a great point as well about booking the smaller cities. My band is out of Atlanta, GA, but our first big following was in Chattanooga, TN, a smaller city just under 2hrs away.

    Another tip I’d add is that when you are touring, make sure that you report your sales to Soundscan for all physical recorded music (e.g. CD, DVD, LP, etc.) sold at your shows. I’m mentioning this on this blog because its important for artists who are selling well and NOT just because I’m part of the company. I’ll give you my personal story to help understand the importance: as an indie artist, we sold thousands of copies of our first album, but when we started showcasing for labels and they asked how many we sold, we couldn’t prove a single sale. Later, we found a way to report sales of a new release and landed on the Billboard top 10, but it cost us 100% of our sales. That’s when I decided there had to be a better way to help indies do what we did without giving up all the money. I came up with the initial model and approached two other entrepreneur/artists to help and we launched http://www.IndieHitMaker.com . We’ve helped a lot of artists report and the best selling ones have landed on Billboard charts! Hope that helps.

  10. Mazerati says:

    Your info is very usefull Im planning on going on tour right after my album release thanks for the heads up

  11. One important thing you left out, how to reach those of us looking to book talent for our program. Pass this on. If you plan to be in the Portland Oregon and would like to be considered for an opportunity to appear on our television program “Your Story Portland” send an email to YourStory@InternationalNewsGroup.com and tell us a little about you. It helps if you send us a sample and a photo. Be sure to tell us when you plan to be in the Portland area and include a way to reach you.

  12. Hey Cam,
    “If I just keep climbing, one by one, I’m moving forward. And that’s basically the only goal I have at the end of every day.” <– That's the mentality to have! AWESOME!

    Great article and thanks for all the insights. I've done some touring myself with my former rock band and being the booker of that band, i still have some contacts and non the less, experience in approaching agents and venues. Now that I'm solo,after my album release i plan to reach out again to get a small acoustic tour booked. It will hopefully be a little less hectic, but still tough since im starting from the ground up again. Coming from NYC, any tips on the best cities to hit for acoustic solo acts or even some venues? Its a bit different then a full on RnR band, so any info would be appreciated. You can drop me an email if you'd like.

    thanks again,
    Chris

  13. John Detjen says:

    I book all my Indie Tours using an iPhone App called Independent Musicians Touring Guide. It is a niche app that has pre-set maps, lists of thousands of mid-sized club level venues throughout the US, and email templates for all types of booking requests. It is very helpful if you are just starting to book tours with your band independently.

    App Store – Independent Musicians Touring Guide

  14. Katie says:

    Hi Cameron,

    Thanks for this great article. I’m in the process of planning my band’s first tour and would like to make a/ some spreadsheets in order to feel more organized. I wonder if you have a recommended layout, because I feel a bit overwhelmed with the information I have to enter.

    Thanks again for a great article!

    • Hi Katie,

      The nice thing about spreadsheets is that it’s really easy to add columns and rows so as you realize you need to add more information, you just add a space to do it.

      I think we used two sheets. One was for the dates and routing. We basically figured out which dates we wanted to be in what city. The other sheet was for venue info. Venues were organized by city (in groups of rows), and for each venue we’d list, in columns, the name, address, booking contact, contact information, and columns for first contact, follow up, and the result.

      The MOST useful thing was being able to keep track of the communication all in one place. Saved a lot of time digging through emails.

  15. Avensband says:

    hello, my name is Gileno vaz I’m lead singer of a rock band called Avens, we are going on our first Europe tour in July,and we are moving to the Miami in August 2013, any help where we began a tour in united states? Thanks

  16. judo888 says:

    Hi Cam,

    Super helpful and practical tips on how to make it through a tour intact! Do you have any tips on how to price gigs based on the venue size, etc? Do bands make $$ upfront (if so, how much do we ask for) or a percentage of door sales? Any other tips re: getting paid and pricing?

    • Until you know you can pack the places you’re playing, you’re pretty much going to have to go along with each venue’s compensation structure. Sometimes it’s a cut of the door, or pass the hat, or a percentage of bar sales, or a gas and food money for touring bands. Once you settle on a date, if the booking contact hasn’t told you how they’ll pay you, politely ask. If it doesn’t seem fair, cancel the gig.

  17. Jake says:

    Hello Cameron, thank you for the very useful article and tips. I’m actually organizing my first tour planned to begin in May. I began on the half of January to send proposal emails on the planned route and actually i reached my second follow-up round yet with no answers at all from most of venues and promoters (the few that did, said that they have everything busy for May yet!)..is it worth going for a third-follow-up solicit or should i give up and maybe start to tell them that my tour will be pushed forward, like the end of September? Is it normal to ask so in advance and to have such amount of no answers, or could it be something wrong with my material?

    Best
    Jake

    • It’s entirely possible that all the places you’re reaching out to are in fact booked through May. It’s also possible your emails aren’t getting through the noise and you might consider picking up the phone. And it’s also possible your music isn’t what they’re looking for.

      You might consider reaching out to local bands that play at the places you want to play and see if they could help you, or you may need to consider pushing the tour back. I don’t think it’s too early to to start asking about dates in September. If it’s too early for them to book that far in advance, ask them when they do their booking for September and follow up at that time.

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