The DL on Booking Tours for Independent Musicians
If you are a serious musician, you will want to do more than just kick around in your hometown. You will want to get out there and start touring. But touring is not easy to do.
As someone who recently organized a tour for my son’s band, I feel like a bit of an expert on the subject. But don’t get me wrong, touring is not easy to do. And I’ll say it upfront…without the right backing, you’ll probably lose money.
But if you are looking for a fun time getting your band into some unchartered territories, you are likely to achieve your goals.
Read on to find out the down low on touring for independent musicians and what to expect.
What are the Pros and Cons of Touring?
In this section, I’ll review the pros and cons of touring. But keep in mind, this isn’t your average pros and cons list that addresses obvious factors. You must really consider the pros and cons to determine if touring is the right move for your band to make.
- It Gets Your Name Out There: Touring is a great way to get your name out there. If you play the right markets, you will build a following in other cities. This is especially the case if you play areas that are starved for entertainment.
- It’s a Great Experience: Like my good friend George Tabb once said (and this may not be an exact quote) most musicians won’t make it, so you might as well have fun doing it. And you will have a lot of fun on tour, despite some misery that we will get to in the cons section. You will go to places where you get the full rock star treatment with fans asking you for autographs, etc. Plus, you’ll get an authentic traveling experience.
- It Looks Impressive: Traveling looks impressive to the people in your hometown and anyone in the industry with an interest in your band. Industry people will be glad to know that you have already established a market in other states. It will also build credibility in your hometown state which can attract a following. While on the road, you will also gain social media followers which can do a lot for your reputation.
- You’ll Probably Lose Money: Even with merch sales and guarantees, touring can be very expensive. You’ll probably lose money.
- You May Get to Hate Your Band: Let’s get real. There are probably things about your band members that you aren’t crazy about. Well, try being in a van with them for 12 hours when you’re hangry and haven’t gotten a lot of sleep. Nuff said!
- There Will Be Some Sucky Shows: If you’re going to be touring for more than a weekend, you’re going to have to do some mid-week shows. It’s hard to get people out on non-weekend nights so you may have some thin crowds. And even if you are only doing weekend shows, you face the possibility that not every night is going to be great.
- It’s a Lot of Work: Touring takes extensive planning. You will need to find venues, and coordinate transportation and lodging arrangements. Some clubs may ask you to book the bills yourself which will require you to reach out to bands you probably don’t know. And if a band you booked cancels, it will be up to you to rebook the show. If the club cancels, it’s even worse.
How to Book a Tour
If you are still reading, it means you’ve gone through the cons and you still want to move forward. Congratulations! You must be pretty dedicated to your music.
In this section, we will get into what you need to do to book a tour.
Decide on a Date
The first thing you will need to do is check everyone’s availability and decide on a date. Here are some things to keep in mind when determining a date:
- The weather: If you are touring during the winter, stay away from areas where there will be a lot of ice and snow that will make it difficult to drive. This can also negatively affect turnout.
- Holidays: You may choose to tour during a holiday because everyone in your band is off work. But keep in mind that the holidays are a busy time for other people and that means they may not be going to many shows.
- Duration: When considering your date, you’ll also need to think about how long you want to stay out on the road. I recommend starting with a couple of weekends and eventually doing a full week running from the start of one weekend to the end of the next. It’s unlikely all your people will be able to do more than that if you are an independent band
Decide on a Destination State
The next thing you will have to choose is your destination city. This is the city that will be the furthest point on your tour. Here are some things to consider.
- The Music Scene: The city should have a pretty cool music scene. For example, we heard about a lot of cool clubs in Texas so we made Texas a destination city on our tour.
- Driveability: It’s best to choose a city that you can get to within 24 hours. Obviously, you won’t be driving 24 hours at once, you’ll have some stops in the middle (if you’re smart anyway). But trying for a longer distance than that may mean impossible drives. It will also make for a longer tour which may not be feasible for all your band members.
Decide on Cities Along the Way
Figure out your route to determine what cities you are going to hit along the way. In addition to being on your route, you should also decide on your touring cities based on the following:
- A good music scene for your genre of music
- A wealth of clubs
- Minimal restrictions- for example, as an L.A. band, my son’s band had problems getting a gig in Vegas because most clubs there have strict 21+ policies
All of this is very important. A lack of clubs and a lukewarm music scene could get you locked out of certain cities.
There are several ways to find clubs. Here are a few recommendations.
Social media is likely to be your strongest resource for finding clubs. I’ve had particular luck with Facebook because you can look for groups based on the city and your genre of music. For example, with my son’s band, we would look up ‘Houston Metal’ as that was one of our destination cities and the band’s genre of music.
Once we found those groups, we would look at posts from other bands including fliers that gave us an idea of venues in the area. We would also post in the groups to ask if anyone had a show we could hop on or any club or promoter recommendations.
Instagram is another good resource but it doesn’t have groups and it’s a little harder to find what you are looking for.
A general web search can also get some promising results. But the problem with a web search is, it’s not as accurate as social media. For example, you could come across a club that describes itself as a metal venue because it hosted one metal show ten years ago (or substitute genre here). You could even come to find out that a club that’s described as a music venue is just a bar.
Ask Other Bands
If you have homies that played in the states you are looking to play, ask them how they got the gig. Find out who they talked to as this is valuable information.
Get the Gig
Once you find these clubs, I recommend trying to call them before anything. In this day and age, not many people like to pick up the telephone, but I recommend it. The person you speak to will tell you who’s in charge of booking, how to reach them, when to reach them, etc.
Also, I’ve called clubs and gotten a show on the spot which is awesome.
If you are unable to get in touch with someone by phone, which is often the case, you will have to investigate the best way to reach them. A lot of clubs have multiple contacts including various social media accounts, an email, and who knows what else. I recommend trying all of them to see which works best.
Personally, I’m not too fussy about getting guarantees when I’m trying to get a show. I try to get at least $100 out of each venue if asked… and most venues will pay you this much regardless. If you are trying for more than that and you’re not a known band, you probably won’t have much luck. And if you’re touring because you want to make money, you may be in the wrong business!
Once you have all your dates lined up, you’ll need to make arrangements as far as lodging and transportation.
If you want to cut costs on lodging, you can try to hit up clubs, other bands, or friends in the area to see if they are willing to put you up for the night.
Keep in mind that if someone says yes, you’ll probably end up in a ‘party house’ that’s pretty gross. And if you’re the touring band, you are the party. So there will probably be a bunch of people around keeping you up all night.
Another option is to rent hotel rooms. That’s what I did on the last tour and I was able to find a lot of them for under $100. In fact, some were as cheap as $30 a night which isn’t bad, especially if you can share a room and split the cost with your band.
Of course, these hotel rooms were pretty gross but they offered more privacy than a party house. Also, some of them had breakfast which can save you a few bucks.
One mistake we made when booking a hotel room is, we booked a lot of hotels that were far from the venue as the venues were in major cities and we found cheap hotels on the outskirts. However, the additional van mileage and gas it took to get to those hotels made them not worth it.
If you do book hotels that are outside of the major cities you are playing, make sure they are on the way to the next.
But when it comes to expenses, your most major one will be the van.
There are a few ways to go when it comes to your van. Possible options include:
- Renting a Van: Renting a van is a good option if you don’t have a van. And if you do have a van, it will save it from wear and tear. However, a van rental is expensive. It can cost a few thousand for a 10-day tour and let’s not forget about mileage overages.
- Using Your Own Van: If you use your own van, you will have to deal with wear and tear. You may also need to get a trailer hitch if your van is not that big. A trailer hitch is not that expensive to rent, but it’s difficult to drive with and it will make parking a bitch.
- Get Your Own Van: The best recommendation may be to buy a van you can specifically use for touring. It should be big enough to fit your band and gear comfortably. Of course, these things don’t exactly come cheap, but it’s a wise investment if you plan to do a lot of road trips. And hopefully, the van will also come in handy for things like family vacations, work, etc.
Get Nice Merch
Bands won’t make a lot of money on the road when it comes to guarantees, but you can supplement with merch.
My son’s band is lucky because they hooked up with an artist that makes beautiful artwork that looks terrific on shirts. So we can always sell a few merch items at shows.
However, the shirts are expensive for us to make so we don’t see much of a markup. We do better with patches. We sell them for $3 and it’s almost all profit so it balances out.
The point is, get merch items with decent markups that people will actually want to buy and you may be able to recoup some of your expenses.
This brings me to another point, roadies. I’m not necessarily talking about roadies in the conventional sense as in someone who will schlep your gear. I’m talking about having someone there to split the driving, but most importantly to sell merch and do the door when needed.
If you don’t have a merch person with you, you’re not going to sell as much merch. You’ll be busy playing and trying to get gear on and off stage which will make it difficult for you to stop, pull out shirts, collect money, etc. And you won’t be able to set up a merch table which helps to advertise your items.
That’s why it’s a good idea to have an extra person with you that’s not in the band.
A roadie will also come in handy if you are doing a DIY show that requires you to work the door. This is a good thing because you will most likely be able to keep all the money, provided you booked the show. After all, you are a touring band.
But it will only work if you have someone to collect the money. And if everyone in your party is in the band, you’ll be unable to work the door for the entire show. So it’s not gonna work.
Other Tour Tips
Well, I think I’ve imparted all my wisdom when it comes to booking a tour. So here are a few other tips to keep in mind.
Keep the Car Stocked with Snacks: Keep small snacks in the car that won’t go bad like nuts, dried fruit, and chips (although chips aren’t the healthiest option), as well as bottled water. This will keep everyone from getting hangry. It will also minimize snack stops so you don’t waste time, and it will save you money.
Stay Clean: If you are living on the road with a bunch of musicians, hygiene may not be your main concern. But here’s why it should be:
- If you smell bad you could stink up the whole van which will get your bandmates mad and it can be embarrassing.
- If you don’t do things like wash your hands, you might get sick, and getting sick on the road will suck.
- Beyond personal hygiene, you should also stay focused on general cleanliness. Keep a bag beside you in the van that you can keep your trash in and take it out with you when you leave. Not doing so is disrespectful, especially if it’s not your van.
Pack Wisely: Consider that there will be limited room in the van so you want to pack smart. Try not to overdo it on items you don’t need like books (even though you may get bored) and a lot of clothing. On the other hand, it is wise to pack guitar strings, an extra guitar, and other equipment that will ensure your shows are successful.
The tips in this article will help you plan a tour that will get your name out there. It may not be very lucrative, but with the right strategies, you will have fun and increase your following. I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors.