Leaving the Nest: How to Tackle Your First Tour
If you find that you or your band is building a local fan base, good for you. Seriously, congratulations. That means the music you’re making has an audience and opportunity lays ahead for you to broaden your horizons. After you’ve dished out that first album and perfected your setlist, you may find yourself feeling a bit eager to hit the road. Heading out on your first tour prematurely though may only result in an expensive headache. Before you pour money into a van, gas, hotels, and all other necessities of travel it’s essential to shake the foundations of your home turf first. There’s no use in trying to scoop up fans around the country if you haven’t tapped into the local well first. Play shows locally, tickle some ears, iron out your live performance, and all the while begin saving up little by little well in advance for your tour. Once you have the support of your own scene, take that momentum to the road. If you haven’t already, check out our write up on building a local fanbase here. Much of this article applies to touring as well! If you are ready to hit the road though, I hope this guide is of some help to you.
Financing Your Tour
There are a few understandings you must have before hoisting up the anchor. The first and probably most important thing you must realize is that you will likely not make any money from your first tour. It’s a cold hard truth, but knowing and accepting this right from the get-go will save you some frustration and make the experience overall more enjoyable. When heading out on tour it’s likely that most people won’t know who you are, thus you won’t be raking cash from ticket and merch sales (not that you shouldn’t try, we’ll come back to this soon). In all reality, you and your mates should be fully prepared to cover the entire cost of the tour out of pocket. Any cash you make along the way should be considered a bonus. It certainly should not be relied upon to get you from one city to the next or else you may find yourself sending Venmo requests to your parents.
Let’s be real. If you’re serious about your music and you’re in the early stages of your pursuit, then you’re probably working a day job to get the bills paid. It’s 2018 and nothing is cheap anymore. I know that I personally, after paying my bills and purchasing the bare essentials, have less walking around money then I’d like. It can take a while to save up the funds so your endeavor to get some coins for your tour should begin as early as possible. Everyone in the band should agree upon an amount of cash you’re all able to chip in from each crispy paycheck. If you’re a five-piece and everyone chips in ten bucks a week for a year, you’ve got yourself a $2,600 budget to start with. During that year play as many shows as you can and put all your earnings from ticket sales and merchandise into your tour fund. Add that on top of your 26 hundo and you’ll probably be sitting alright.
In the meantime, it would be wise to begin creating a general plan for your tour so you can come up with a rough estimation of the tours cost. Be realistic in deciding how big of a tour you’re capable of handling your first go at it. Take a small bite and start with a regional tour that way you can get to know the ins and outs of touring before you find yourself in over your head. Do some research on which cities would be a good fit for you and map out an ideal route to hit them all. When it comes time to pick venues and actually book the shows it may not work out perfectly, but try to minimize backtracking and unnecessarily long legs between shows. Once you figured out which cities you want to hit, calculate how much it will cost you to gas up the van for the journey. Look into hotel options and get rough cost estimates. Figure out a realistic daily budget you’ll need for food and other necessities. Plan on having some emergency cash for mishaps such as flat tires, an amp falling out of the van, or any other unexpected nuisance. The more detail you put into the budget the better you’ll be able to prepare yourself. Having an estimated cost for your tour gives you a benchmark you know you must reach in order to pull it off.
One last concept I’d like to run by you is the idea that finding ways to save money on your tour is likely going to be more effective than finding ways to make money. Once again, the income you make from your first tour probably won’t be significant. If it is, awesome. You’re a leg up on the game. If not, then figuring out where you can afford to trim your spendings will be the next best thing. Like I said before, one easy way of doing this is minimizing the amount of driving between gigs by planning out an orderly route as best as you can. Do some research ahead of time to figure out cheap or free places to park where you won’t get towed. Five to ten dollar parking spots add up quickly when you’re doing it every other day. Finding ideal places to crash on the low each night is a promising way to save some cash as well. You might have to come up with a rotation of who gets to sleep on the sketchy bed and who gets to rough it on the floor each night, but if you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of comfort, you may find the savings to be worth it. Or you can ditch hotels altogether and use alternatives like Airbnb, Couch Surfers, or camping. Along the way, just be mindful of your spending.
For smooth sailing, it would behoove yourself to get all of your ducks in a row. This section will hopefully make you aware of all the details you should iron before you hit the road.
Tour Route and Venue Selection - First decide on how big of a tour you’d like to tackle and decide which cities you think will be a good fit for you. When selecting your cities you want to consider what type of population lives there and if the city beholds an audience that your music would appeal to. You should plan on hitting both large and small towns. Big cities with active music scenes are ideal because there will be a variety of venues from which you will be able to choose the one that is most suiting to your sound. You may be able to get a decent sized crowd with little advertising in some areas simply because people these venues regularly draw in crowds. Many venues have dedicated customers who trust the venues booking decisions. I myself will regularly stop into The Rumba Cafe or The Shrunken Head to catch a show whether I know the artist or not because I like the venues, and I trust that the music will be some sort of flavor that I like. In cities like Nashville or New Orleans where the nightlife is bustling, it’s more likely that you’ll have people wandering into your show seeking out live music in general. It’s important that you do your research on venues though so you can find one that fits your musical style most appropriately. Venues a lot of the times draw crowds because they know they like the style of music the venue hosts. If you fit the musical style, you won’t disappoint those who stopped in with no knowledge of who you are.
The larger populations and active nightlife of bigger cities can be ideal, but you also need to throw some smaller towns into the mix. College towns can make for a successful stop. Many bars and venues in college towns host music on both weekends and weeknights which make them flexible options when planning your route. They’re also ideal stops because college students aren’t afraid to go out for some drinks and a show on a weeknight. Colleges also hold a diverse crowd making it more likely that there will an audience of people within their population that like your style of music. Some smaller college towns may only have a few bars or venues which can be useful for funneling in an audience. College students like to go out on the weekends regardless of what's going on. If you’re in a small college town with only three bars and you’re playing at one of them, you’ll probably have yourself a decent crowd to play to.
Also, playing in smaller towns with only a few venues may make it easier to draw in a crowd who hasn’t heard of you. In these smaller towns where much isn’t happening, the news of your show will stand out more easily; unlike larger cities where there may be twenty other shows happening the same night of yours. In these smaller towns, where live music events aren’t as frequent as in large cities, you may be more easily remembered by the folks who reside there.
When choosing your cities do the necessary research. Determine the demographics of the area and make sure that you have a target audience that exists there. Most cities will have an audience of some size that you’ll appeal to. Just don’t book a show somewhere like Naples, Florida where the majority of the population are retirees who’s musical taste only goes as far as the Oldies station on AM radio and you’ll be alright. Selecting the right venue is where you’ll give yourself the best shot at finding the right audience.
When researching venues, there are many details to take note of. Look at pictures they post to get a feel for the size, vibes, and type of people they draw. Browse their calendar of events and check out all the artists who have shows booked there to see if the musical taste of the venue is ideal for you. Read through their Yelp reviews too. Often times these reviews will reveal useful info about the vibes, feel of the venue, and the type of people who turn out there. You may also find some red flags in the reviews that can help you avoid playing at subpar venues. Contact some of the artists you feel are most similar in style to yourself and see if they’d be willing to give you some advice on where to play. It also doesn’t hurt to contact artists in this way because it’s just another way of building your network and making some friends within the industry. You may also want to recruit some of the local artists to play a show with you, whether you open for them or they open for you. These local artists may already have a decent following in their town which would be helpful in drawing in crowds who have never heard of you. Not to mention, befriending some local musicians may also land you a place to crash for the night.
Aside from the crowd, there are other details about the venue which you should take note of. Make sure you know what the venue will provide for you and what they will expect from you. Do they have a sound guy or do you need to find someone yourself? If they do have a sound guy does he get paid out of your pocket or theirs? Figure out what their sound system is like, what gear they have, and what gear you will need to provide. Also look into whether or not they will promote the show for you or if you are solely responsible for marketing your show. The venue will probably expect a certain size draw from you. For example, they may expect you to draw in at least 50 people and they will want some evidence that you’re capable of doing this. You may have to show them that you have a successful track record of drawing crowds to your shows in the past. Lastly, make sure there is a clear agreement upon compensation.
Once you’ve figured out your cities and venues you need to actually book the gigs. When doing so, you need to book your gigs in a manner that is conducive to both you’re planned route and maximizing your draw. Start by checking the venue's calendar and ensuring there are no shows already booked for the night you want to play. If there already is a show, look into the artists playing to see if they fit your style. If so, try getting on the bill. It would also be wise to see what other events might be going on around town the night you plan on booking a gig there. If a popular local artist or some other big event is taking place that same night it could mask the news of your show. Try your best to not create competition for yourself. It’s inevitable that you’ll have to play some weeknight shows. Try booking these shows at venues where the turnout won’t be as affected by the fact that it’s a weeknight. College towns and larger cities can be ideal places for weeknight gigs. With that being said, make your weekend shows count. Naturally, weekend shows are at an advantage being that more people hit the town on these nights. Don’t waste a Saturday night by booking a gig at a not so popular venue.
Be professional when contacting venues to book a gig. Have your electronic press kit nice and polished. Most venues have a website with all the info on how to book a show. Many will want you to send them an email along with your EPK, some will still want to talk to you over the phone. Start with an email and wait a few days for them to get back to you before following up. If you haven’t heard back from the venue follow up with a phone to inquire about whether or not they received your email. Put in the effort to make sure your message is heard, but don’t pester them. If things don’t work out have a list of alternative venues ready to go.
It’s ideal to have all of your gigs booked well in advance from the start of the tour. For one, booking further out in advance makes it more likely that the dates you’re trying to play aren’t already taken up. It also gives you ample time to market your show, plan out your trip, and recalculate a more accurate budget based on the solidified plan. A week or two out from the show you should follow up with the venue just to make sure things are still ago and to ensure you have all the details right.
The Itinerary - Going on tour gives you a lot to juggle. Staying organized and on top of things is the best way to ensure the trip goes as smoothly as possible. Building an itinerary with all relevant information is an excellent way of doing this. You can make a physical one with a binder or you can make one just as effectively on your smartphone. You’ll want to organize it in a day by day fashion so that each day you have easy access to all of the information you’ll need. Below is a list of all the details which should be included in the itinerary.
Venue - You’ll want to include the address, phone number, day of contact (name and number), load in times, door times, set times and length, sound requirements, list of artists playing with you, where you can park, any particular expectations the venue may have of you and anything else that’s relevant.
Directions - I know it’s 2018 and everyone has a smartphone, but printing off the directions just to have may be a good idea.
Hotel/Lodging - Know where the hotel is, what time you can check in, when you have to check out, where it is in relation to the venue, and where you can park.
Artist Contacts - Doesn’t hurt to have contact info for any artists you may be playing with. they may be able to help you if you can’t find the venue, a place to park or if you need to iron out any details with them.
Expenses - Keeping track of expenses will help you know exactly how much money you’ll need for that day, and when all said and done, you’ll be able to use it as a log to keep track of where your money was spent.
Checklists - Create a list of all your gear and supplies so you can easily keep track of your things when loading in and out each night. Make copies so you can physically check things off as you load back into the van.
Music Stores - Know where music shops are at around town. Never know when you might need to make a last minute run to get strings or instrument cable.
Marketing - Often times the venue will leave it up to you to market your own show which can present a problem considering you’re not physically there to do so. You have several options though. Once you’ve confirmed a gig you’ll want to start promoting the show about two months out. Start by sending the venue some poster fliers for them to hang up around the venue. If you’re playing with other artists, get in contact with them to devise a plan. It’s their show too so naturally they’ll already have an interest in promoting the event. For each gig create poster fliers with artwork, all the artists on the bill, the venue, date and time. See if your fellow artists would be willing to hang them up around town if you were to mail them out. If there aren’t other artists on the bill you may be able to recruit the help of others and form a street team. Put an ad on Craigslist or search the local Facebook marketplace for people who might be willing to do this for you. Obviously, you should offer some sort of compensation for their willingness to help. A bit of cash and a pair of tickets to the show would be a fair offering. If you do find someone to handle this task for you, talk with them about where might be the best place to put them. Record stores, heavily trafficked street corners, coffee shops, or anywhere your target audience might dwell are ideal. Have this person send you pics of the hung up posters to ensure that they actually did what they said they would do.
Get into contact with their local radio stations. Many radio stations accept submissions from upcoming artists for a chance to be aired. You might be able to get some airtime followed by the announcement of your show.
Possibly your greatest marketing tool though is social media. Facebook ads are a powerful tool that allows you to be precise in targeting your audience, and it’s relatively cheap. It allows you to adjust the demographics of people for which this ad will pop up on their news feed. You can choose the age range, cities, and interests of the people in your target audience, allowing you to target only those who probably would have a genuine interest in your music. First create an ad that markets your band itself, not just the show. Do this two months out and as time gets closer create another that specifically advertises the event. Using Facebook’s analytical tools you’ll be able to keep track of how many people saw your ad, how many clicked it and get a general idea of which ads are having the most success. Take note of which ads are working best and make future ads similar to these ones. You want the ads to intrigue people so include visually grabbing artwork and try different methods.
Twitter and Instagram are also helpful in a slightly different way. Periodically post a pic or tweet a tweet hashtagging the city, venue, artists you’re playing with and other keywords so that the ads are likely to pop up in the feeds of those who might have an interest in you. Also, you can easily advertise through Instagram too when using Facebook ads.
Getting Them Duck in a Row - Lastly, you’ll want to ensure you’re properly prepared to be on the road for a bit. Make sure the vehicle you’ll be taking has been serviced if needed. Get an oil change, replace any tires that look like they’re struggling, and make sure you have a spare tire and the tools to change it out if needed. Make sure your gear is in working order too. You want to leave a good impression so take care of any issues you might be having with your gear. Stock up on extra strings, drumsticks, all the cables you need plus some, picks, etc. Figure out what merch you want to bring and how much. If you sell more than expected have more merch ready to go so someone can mail it to you while on the road if needed. The weather may vary between stops on your tour so pack accordingly. Once you have everything you need, do a practice run at loading up the van to make sure it all fits and leaves you a comfortable amount of space. You’ll be spending many hours in that vehicle so make it cozy. Save room by leaving anything that isn’t essential.
On The Road
While on the road, have fun but remember that you’re on a mission. Stay focused and on top of your game. Each day you should know the game plan and how things will go down. Give yourself ample time to travel to your destination, get situated in your hotel, grab a bite, and find the venue/parking. Get into touch with the day of contact you’ve been given and let them know when you expect to arrive and make sure you’re clear on when you are to load in and how it will go down. Don’t be the reason the show runs late or the cause of stress to those who are making this show happen. If you do run into any unexpected problems make sure you make the venue aware of the situation as soon as possible. You want to be professional, reliable, and courteous in all aspects of your business with venues, artists, and relevant figures. While on the road everyone needs to do their part in helping things go smoothly. Make it clear on who will be responsible for what. Have someone be responsible for communicating with venues, someone responsible for keeping track of inventory, and someone else take charge of dealing with setting up/selling merch. By having consistent job duties you’ll more easily get into a rhythm of doing things and avoid any miscommunications.
The primary goal of this first tour is to gain fans and make some connections with industry figures in the cities on your route. You need to give each performance your all even if you find yourself disappointed in the turnout or overall gig. If only ten people show you need to make sure those ten people are blown away by your performance. Before and after your set be sure to mingle with the crowd and other artists at the event. Give them a reason to like you as a person too, not just a musician. Whether you’re the first band up or the last, you need to make sure you’re present for all performances that night. You don’t want to be remembered as the guys who bailed after your set. In the music community, artists should be avid supporters of each other. Show your respect and make it known that you’re thankful for the opportunity to be playing at the venue with these artists.
During your set be sure to announce who you guys are and where you’re from at least several times. Once in the beginning and once at the end with maybe another blurt of your info somewhere in the middle. Better yet, if you’re allowed, bring along a backdrop with your artwork and name to hang behind the stage. This way anyone who may come or go as the show goes on is able to at least see your name.
At your merch table have some business cards with your info on it. The card should be able to direct people to your site, social media accounts, and to sources where they can listen to or purchase your music. It should also have contact info for anyone who might take an interest in booking a show with you in the future. At your table, you should have a variety of items varying in price. Have some cheaper march options for those who want to support you but may not feel like dropping twenty bucks on a T-shirt. Maybe even have free stickers or guitar picks with the band name on them. Be creative in coming up with unique merch ideas. Keep a signup sheet at your table too where people can subscribe to your email list.
Tip the bartenders, be sociable and be sure to give honest thanks to the venue staff and anyone else who helped make the show happen. Putting on a kick-ass show and being respectful will hopefully create some buzz amongst the fans and ensure you’d be welcomed back by the venue in the future. If all goes well, this first tour will plant the seeds for future tours, during which, making a profit will be more of a focus.
When all is said and done be sure to stay in contact with the artists, fans, and venue staff you’ve befriended. If you want to go above and beyond you can mail physical handwritten thank you letters to the venues to show your appreciation. Encourage artists to make a stop in Columbus (or where you call home) for a show someday. Offer them a place to stay and help with promoting the show too. They just might reciprocate the offer to you in the future. Send out a free download to everyone who signed up for email list from the tour to show that you appreciate them making it out. It’s also a good way of making sure they think of you again and encouraging them to give you a further listen. Lastly, utilize Facebook, Spotify, and Google analytics to gain a better understanding of where you had the most success. If your music is on Spotify you’re able to access data that tells you where your listeners and followers are. Analyze which cities took a liking to you and use this info for planning future tours. Facebook and Google similar tools and a variety of statistics that can be useful for further analysis. All in all, remember to embrace the journey. Whether it leads you to further success or not, you should be proud of pulling it off. Please feel free to comment your thoughts, ideas, suggestions, or any tips you may have below! Thanks for reading.