This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Canadian Musician magazine
By Liam Duncan
Touring as an independent band is a pretty unique experience. When you’re starting out, you’ll spend a great deal of time blindly groping through the murky mass of venues and promoters, looking for someone to take a chance on your band. It’s hard work, and it takes a lot of time.
Booking, promoting, and playing your own tour can feel like a full time job. In fact, if you do it enough, it can quickly become your full time job. And in this particular job, you’re starting from the very bottom of the ladder.
With the booking behind you and your wheels on the road, you’ll realize that independent touring is a far cry from hotel rooms and hospitality riders – quite far, in fact.
You’re not (usually) making fans 50 at a time; you’re not even making 25 at a time. When you’re touring independently, you’re much more likely to be making between 5-15 fans every night, and that’s if you’re in top form, so you had better hope that they come back!
I don’t want you to think that all you’re going to hear from me is groaning about how hard independent touring is. I love touring. For the past two years, my band, The Middle Coast, has toured Canada over 150 days per year. I think touring is a rite of passage and that every band or artist should tour, at least to some extent.
When you set out, you’re hoping to play some music and make some fans, but touring does more for your act than simply build a fanbase. Sure, that’s a huge part of it, but there’s a lot more.
Musically, nothing tightens up a live show like a tour. No amount of rehearsal compares to the connection a band has after 10-20 consecutive shows.
Beyond tightening up the set, touring gives you the opportunity to test your show, see what works, and experiment with new ears every night. For many bands, touring is what takes them from good to great.
Booking your own tour teaches you business skills and gives you insight into the industry that will be useful for the rest of your career. Negotiation, ambition, organization, fiscal responsibility, problem solving – touring gives you a very useful skill set.
“On the business side of things, [working with] artists who have toured independently streamlines the conversations,” notes Jeremy Giacomin, an agent with Paquin Artists Agency. “We don’t have to explain door deals or ticket prices or backend to anyone who has done this for themselves.”
If you’re making your music career a priority, you’re probably considering hitting the road. Before you do, I want to make sure that you have learned at least a few of the lessons I (and many other independent bands) have learned through years of DIY touring.
Does Touring Make Sense for You??
Some bands were created to be “live bands” – road-loving groups of musicians that are best experienced from the centre of a sweaty dance floor. These guys and gals need to be on the road to advance their career and make new fans; however, other bands or artists, for various reasons, don’t need to take this approach.
In my experience, there are two approaches that artists take when it comes to touring strategy. Some bands (the “live bands”) hit the road early and don’t stop, building a grassroots fanbase, developing a great show, and allowing their career to blossom from there. This approach requires commitment, organization, and an excellent head for strategy. In order to be efficient, you have to be smart.
Other bands choose to wait. Instead of spending their time booking and playing tours, these bands will work their local scene until it’s exhausted, write a bunch of songs, and build up their team. It’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that, much like booking a tour, takes up a lot of time.
The benefit of this approach is the possibility of skipping some of the hard, cheap touring that many indie bands go through. This requires great management, a smart team, a tested, road-ready show, and undeniably good music.
Both approaches can work, and each has merit.
It also doesn’t have to be a black and white choice between touring and not touring.
For most artists, it makes the most sense to maintain a balance of both: a healthy, well planned tour schedule and a lot of behind-the-scenes writing and team building.
Should You Wait to Tour?
Attica Riots, an alt-rock band from Winnipeg, MB, never toured as an independent band. Weekend shots, local slots, festivals, and one-offs abound, they had never really hit the road for any length of time; instead, they spent their time crafting a great show and building a full team, starting with management, an agent, then label support, and the list goes on.
All of the sudden, the summer of 2016 found them on the road supporting Rooney and Bleeker – two bands with much bigger names.
“We’re a band that played a lot at home,” says Bobby Desjarlais, the lead singer of Attica Riots. “We were constantly in Winnipeg, playing at different venues and writing and recording. At that point, it was about refining the band and refining the show. We were lucky enough to get our record into the right people’s hands and that got us on tour with those bigger bands.”
That was their first tour. There was no messing around trying to get a hold of promoters; they had people on their team making it happen. And it worked!
On the other hand, The Bros. Landreth – another Winnipeg-based band, anchored in alt-country and folk rock – achieved great success through a heavy touring schedule. Now, they’ve built up one of the most feverish grassroots followings in Canada, bar none.
“Touring was a super deliberate choice for us,” explains David Landreth, the band’s bass player. “The choice was born out of a love to play, and the fact that we played over 500 shows over the course of a few years made us an infinitely better band.”
When it comes to figuring out what the right approach will be, there are a number of factors that come into play. One of the most important to consider is your current lot in life.
If you’re recently married, maybe with a kid, you’re probably not going to want to tour as much. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, but realistically, you’re probably not going to want to; instead, you’re better off spending your time writing and working on the business side of your music career.
The genre of music you’re playing also makes a difference. If your music has a large, complicated set-up, that can make independent touring very challenging – not impossible, but challenging. You may be better off building your hometown audience before hitting the road.
Other acts have great potential for radio, and may choose to explore that route before heading off on tour.
On the other hand, if you’re making folk music, Americana, etc., you basically have to tour. These are live genres that don’t have huge radio support. There are not many other feasible ways to build up a fanbase.
The most important thing to take from this is that touring is not always the right move, but when it is, you have to do it right.
Booking Career-Building Shows
One of the biggest lessons you’ll learn when you head out on the road is the ability to recognize the difference between opportunities and good opportunities.
When you start touring at the beginning of your career, you’ll end up getting plenty of opportunities to play. People say that the gigs and venues are drying up, and that’s true to some extent, but there are still lots of places to play.
That being said, there are some places and venues that you probably shouldn’t play.
When you’re an independent artist, you really can’t waste your time playing shows that aren’t doing anything for you – that aren’t growing your career in any way. You need to learn how to recognize and book career-building shows, and aim to play as many of these as possible.
What makes a career building show? A captive or built-in audience. Generally speaking, this means opening slots at quality venues.
Headlining a tour sounds like it would be pretty fun and may seem glamorous, but it doesn’t feel very glamorous when there are 20 people in the room and 12 of them are eating nachos and loudly discussing the latest episode of Stranger Things.
At some point, you need to realize that you simply are not big enough to headline a tour and have that tour effectively build your fanbase.
If you’re planning on touring on your own, forget trying to headline a night and booking a local opener. That should be your last resort; instead, start researching bills well in advance and find shows that are already happening.
Send a bunch of emails to the promoter, venue manager, to the band managers, and to bands themselves. Opening a show will guarantee you a far larger audience than you would otherwise have had.
“We’re constantly looking to get touring and support slots,” notes Giacomin about his less-established artists. “Those slots are essential, partly because you’re associating yourself with that higher calibre of band.”
Opening slots are the best kind of built-in audience. Often, if a bar has a built-in audience, the people that are there don’t care about the music. If you’re opening someone else’s show, at the very least, the people there came to see music.
Opening slots are hard to secure at the best of times. For many artists just starting out, shows with truly captive audiences are easier to book. Often, these are house concerts, special events, or festivals. Here you have the opportunity to make a few more fans than usual, even if the venue is a little bit unconventional.
This can work well for some bands, and work poorly for others who may not have a set-up or sound conducive to a more intimate setting. The benefit of captive audiences is what created a market for an organization like Home Routes, a company that sets up house concert tours across the country.
Whether you’re playing a sweet opening slot or an intimate house concert, you need to play a killer show and get as many of the people in attendance on your mailing list and social media as possible.
The whole point of doing these shows is to eventually headline a show and have 100-plus fans of your music there. This is just a faster way of making those fans exist.
Shows with Potential for Industry Attention
Playing showcases and industry events can be super valuable if you manage to get the right people to come out. Specifically, we’re talking about people in the industry that can make a difference in your career.
It’s way easier to make genuine connections and talk to industry people in a meaningful way when they’ve seen your set. Before they saw you play, you were just another name on a poster and an email in their inbox; now, they know what you’re all about.
The key here is putting in the work before the show or conference and inviting people out to your show. At conferences and showcases there are dozens, sometimes hundreds, of bands. Putting in a little bit of time trying to make a connection before the event will give you a huge leg up.
At the show itself, you need to make sure that you shake hands and thank your invitees in person for coming out. Then, follow up the next day and see what happens from there.
It can take a lot of showcases and a lot of invites before a relationship actually materializes, but that’s okay. It’s completely fair for someone to watch your band for a while – see what you’re like to work with, gauge what the interest of other industry people is, and see how hard you work before making any kind of commitment.
Having industry attend your show is important beyond just meeting them and making a connection. There’s this weird thing in the music industry where nobody wants to admit they like an artist first. Everybody wants to wait and see who else is on the bandwagon.
If you can put a few industry pros in the room at a show, you better believe they’re scoping out the crowd.
Shows in Markets that Matter
When you start gigging more, you’ll realize that there are a lot of markets to play. These smaller markets are great for routing a tour and some of them have really great scenes and/or venues. After you play these markets a few times, you’ll have nice little pockets of fans and friends across the country.
These markets do matter. You need those fans as social media followers and people who buy your merch and otherwise support your music.
But the truth is, not all fans are created equal.
My band is from Brandon, MB. Sure, we can get 350-plus people out to a headlining show in our hometown. Sadly, nobody really cares about that – nobody in the industry, anyways.
We care, because we love where we’re from and we’re going to make a good sum of money on that show, but nobody else does.
If you can put 350 people into a room in Toronto, people care. The big centres are where the tastemakers are. They’re where the agencies are, where the industry is based, where the big magazines and major media outlets with the widest reach are covering.
Most importantly, most of the people (potential fans) are in big centres. That means there’s no ceiling.
In a city like Brandon, you can only grow your fanbase so much. There are only so many people who a) like your type of music, b) will go to see a local band, and c) like live music at all. In a big centre, there are simply more people, and thus more potential fans.
The ideal career-building show is in a large market, to a captive crowd, with a healthy guest list of industry professionals that can make a difference for your career. Always keep that in mind when you’re booking an indie tour.
Why Career-Building Doesn’t Always Mean Money-Making
Here’s the thing: career-building shows usually net you very little, to negative dollars. Opening slots are often paid $150 or nothing at all, because it’s a good and enviable opportunity. Showcases are usually unpaid or pay-toplay, and you’ll end up spending a bunch of money getting there.
Thankfully, in Canada, we have grants to help artists make these shows happen. Still, the best you can really hope for is to break even.
This is the tough reality many artists face when they make the decision to focus on career-building shows: you’re making less money. And that can be hard, especially when there is money to be made elsewhere.
According to the philosophy of booking career-building shows, the choice between a $400 guarantee in a smaller market and a decent opening slot in a large market is clear. Kind of.
Trust me, you should definitely play the opening slot, because that guarantee will still be there next weekend. On the other hand, sometimes you need to play for the money. Just keep in mind that if you only ever play for the money, that may be all you ever do.
Making the Best of Every Opportunity
Recognizing the difference between opportunities and good opportunities is the first step towards booking highly effective, efficient tours. The second step is capitalizing on every opportunity you have.
Even at a show that is not obviously “career-building,” you can still make fans and move your career forward. Here are a few things you can do to make every show “career-building”:
Invite Local Industry
You would invite every industry person you can think of to an opening slot in Toronto, so why not do the same in every single market?
There are people in every scene that are the movers and shakers. Promoters, venue managers, artists – you need to get these people out to your show. Especially on your first few tours, you may find yourself playing venues that are… less than satisfactory. If you don’t want to get stuck playing that venue again, you need to get someone from the best venue in town out to your show. That way, they’ll know to book you next time.
Make Personal Connections with Hard-to-Reach People
Every city has a festival. Every city has a concert series. These are great gigs, but it can be hard to get in touch with the people that book them. Touring outside of those busy times is the perfect opportunity to do that.
For a while, my band was in the habit of going to the offices of the local festivals and playing an acoustic show. Even if you don’t get booked, at least they know you exist!
Network with Fans Like You Would with Industry
Don’t be afraid to make the first contact with potential fans. Most people (myself included) are shy about going up and starting a conversation with a stranger; however, the one time I’m not shy about this is right after I’ve played a great set. Go up, introduce yourself, give them a download card, and get them on your mailing list. Get them to follow you on social media. Become friends. Make fans.
When you get someone on your mailing list, follow up with a thank you right away. Literally, the next day. Try to make the thank you personal, and be friendly. This makes a great impression.
Use Your Social Media
If there’s one time to amp up your social media presence, it’s on tour. You’re doing so may interesting things throughout the day, there is no excuse not to post at least once each day. Make sure to interact with fans who post pictures of you – you want to make lasting, long-term fans.
If you take even half of what I’ve written here and put it into action, you’ll be leagues ahead of most bands that are hitting the road for the first time. There will still be learning curves, struggles, and plenty of mistakes, but you’ll learn. And it will get easier every time.
Liam Duncan is musician and writer based in Winnipeg, MB. He likes to make music with his band The Middle Coast. Check them out on Facebook.