This article originally appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of Canadian Musician.
By Liam Duncan
Putting together a great tour doesn’t end when the booking is done. Despite the fact that independently booking a tour takes an extraordinary amount of time and planning, it’s really just the very first step. That is, if you want to be successful.
Don’t get me wrong – a strong touring strategy is important. You need to know why you’re touring, you need to know where you want your career to end up, and you need to learn and apply some of the touring strategies outlined in the first part of this series.
This means booking career-building shows – opening slots, shows with the potential for industry attention, and shows in markets that matter. Applying these strategies will allow you to build an indie touring career, consistently playing great venues and growing your fanbase.
But once the booking is done, there is still plenty of work to do. A good touring strategy does not a good tour make. In fact, it’s only about a third of the battle! To have a complete touring strategy, you need to be independently promoting your tour and delivering a killer live set.
Solid booking strategy + strong independent promo + killer live set = a great tour. If you’re missing something from that equation, you’re only making it harder for yourself.
For years, my band toured without a tight, well-rehearsed live set. We basically used touring to tighten up. And it worked. Over time, we developed a tight show, but I can’t help but imagine how much more effective we would have been had we developed our show beforehand.
But we learned quickly how to promote our tour stops effectively. It took some hard lessons, but over time we’ve significantly grown our fanbase and developed some markets well enough to move up a venue.
If you’re feeling confident about your show and have a tour booked, it’s time to start thinking about promotion.
Promoting a Tour Stop Independently
Most bands start touring with a small publicity budget. They don’t have a publicist, they don’t have much money, and they’ve never done this before.
When you’re promoting a tour stop independently, you’re relying entirely on your network and draw in a given market – which may be nothing. Basically, if people are there, it’s your friends and family, people who happened to come to the venue, and people who came for the opening band(s).
Those are your resources. How can you make the most of them?
Don’t Rely on the Venue
Apparently, there was a time when venues did most of the advertising and promotion for shows they were hosting. You can pine for the days when this was a reality all you want, but it won’t make it happen in 2017.
Sure, in an ideal world, every venue would have a $500 advertising budget for every show they bring in. But the fact is that most venues simply do not – and can not – promote their shows. Here’s why…
If you’re a relatively new indie band, you do not have much, if any, hard ticket value. Hard ticket value is the ability to sell tickets to a show simply by saying that you are playing. When a band has hard ticket value, it makes sense for a venue to spend money promoting a show, because they know they will make their money back (and more). People will see the ads and come out to the show because they know the artist.
An artist without hard ticket value could have a huge advertising budget but still have poor attendance, simply because nobody knows who they are.
If by some miracle a venue has a genuine built-in crowd, then that venue has soft-ticket value. This means people will come to a show simply because they know that the venue consistently books high quality artists.
All this to say: whether you like it or not, you should not be relying on the venue to promote your show. You need to do it yourself, and perhaps the venue will support your efforts.
Make It Easy for the Venue to Promote
I’m not saying that venues never promote their shows. In fact, some of the new and successful indie venues across the country are doing a good job of it; however, you need to make promoting your show as easy as possible.
“When I book touring acts, I expect the same things that I would from a local band,” says David Schellenberg, co-owner/talent buyer for The Good Will in Winnipeg, MB – “posts on their social media platforms, whatever publicity they can get… Just give it your all and make sure your bases are covered promotion-wise.”
Consider what you would do if you were promoting a hometown show:
– Send a poster – my usual policy is to send a blank poster for them to fill in. I think that it is a waste of time to fill out, print, and send off posters to every venue. Many of them will go unused. Of course, if a venue requests posters, send them!
– Send any publicity materials they require – pictures, live video, music videos, etc.
– Make a Facebook event – some venues like to do this themselves, but if they don’t, do it yourself and invite all your friends in that city. Send the event to friends and family. Share the event with the promoter as well.
– Make one or more sponsored Facebook posts. It doesn’t need to be a lot of money, just a quality post, targeted at a special market, with a little bit of money behind it.
– Try to get some publicity – if you have a publicist, great. If not, get on it yourself. Every little bit helps, and a venue will never turn down free advertising.
– Send personal invites to friends, family, and fans.
Doing these things will go a long way with any promoter. Consider these six things your checklist for promoting a tour stop – if you do them, your bases are covered.
Don’t Rely on the Local Support
We all know that booking local support is essential. Still, don’t rely on the opening band. For anything. If they said they would bring a bass amp to the gig, you had better have a backup plan, because they probably forgot it at home.
As much as getting local support is important, you simply can’t rely on them to sell seats. The fact is nobody will ever put as much effort into promoting somebody else’s show as they will their own.
Many of the local bands that would actually draw a crowd are serious enough to realize that they can’t overplay their home market. They are selective about the shows they choose to play, and will often say no to an opening slot for a band without a draw.
On the other hand, many of the bands that are willing to play an opening slot for an unknown touring act are a) brand new or b) just doing it for fun, and won’t promote the show.
This is why you want to be the one playing support slots in touring markets – the headlining band will promote heavily and so will you!
Instead of relying on a local band to pull a crowd, find a local artist that you actually like. If the music is great, that adds value to the overall show. Everyone in attendance will be happy to hear good music from start to finish.
“If you know realistically that you have no draw, but you put together a good bill on a Thursday, that’s a good place to start,” advises Schellenberg.
Lean on Friends & Family for Support
It’s not glamorous, but you can and should lean on friends and family to come out and support your tour stops.
Contact your friends and family personally and well in advance. Let them know when and where you’re playing. Send them some live video or some interesting promo and ask them to send it around to their friends.
To be honest, getting people to come see “my nephew’s rock band” is kind of a tough sell, so just be happy if they bring themselves. That said, I’ve seen friends and family turn into friends and family plus a bunch of actual fans in markets that I’ve played repeatedly.
It takes a lot of hammering to build an indie fanbase, but it can happen.
Use Your Mailing List
If you’ve been building your mailing list, you need to use it. Having access to a fan’s personal inbox is incredibly powerful.
Of course, you don’t want to overuse your mailing list. Considering the amount of email we all get on a daily basis, I think anyone can understand why one should be careful about the email you’re sending.
All you really need to send is one email before your tour with a list of all your dates, and then another email sent to subscribers in a specific market the day before you play it. Sometimes bands will send out a thank you email at the end of their tour, and that’s probably fine too. Two or three emails in a month won’t lose loyal subscribers.
A mailing list is even more important on tour than it is in your hometown. Hometown shows can easily be publicized in other ways. On tour, you need to reach your fans quickly and cheaply. Your mailing list is your best friend.
After a gig, offer a free download in exchange for an email address. Most people won’t even bother to download it, but it’s a great way to get people to sign up. When somebody does sign up, send them a personalized thank you. Seriously, do it. My band started doing this a year ago and people love it. You almost certainly have time to email people whilst sitting in the van. People appreciate the fact that you appreciate them.
Always make sure to get people’s name and location along with their email. This allows you to better organize your list and send personalized emails targeted at special markets.
Social Media & Other Online Promotion
Social media is deserving of its own section. “I’ve seen more success through Facebook ads than through anything else,” says Calgarian troubadour Michael Bernard Fitzgerald bluntly.
These days, advertising and promoting on social media should be the focus of your tour publicity campaign. The fact is that it’s the cheapest way to advertise, has the highest potential reach, and you can get very creative with it.
Targeted Facebook Ads
“When it comes down to concerts, I always thought that a poster campaign or advertising in magazines would do good things for attendance,” says Fitzgerald, “but more recently, I’ve found that targeted Facebook ads are getting people out.”
We all know by now that posts on your page do not reach all of your fans. Despite the fact that you worked hard for those “likes,” you still have to pay to reach your fans. Ugh.
It’s not all bad though. Facebook’s Ad Manager is very easy to use and actually gets results. By targeting a Facebook ad to fans in a specific city, you ensure that your fans see it in their newsfeed – and probably more than once. At the very least, your fans will know you’re playing. We’re constantly bombarded with invites and ads, so it’s hard for people to find out about a show.
“I don’t even look at posters anymore,” Fitzgerald adds. “There’s too many! I just walk right by.”
Here a few things you can do to make your ads more effective:
– Use the Ad Manager to make actual “ads” for each city. Don’t just boost a Facebook post. This way, you can have multiple ads running at the same time without sewering the rest of your content by posting too much.
– Experiment with boosting a Facebook event. Depending on the interest in your event and the amount of people who like your page, this can be a great way to get more people to click “Going.”
– Experiment with running ads with different text and pictures. Eventually, you’ll find out what resonates with people and what doesn’t.
Instagram ads are becoming more and more important as young people leave Facebook behind. The good thing about Instagram is that you can still reach your fans by simply posting high quality content and not paying for it; however, it’s worth putting a few dollars behind some Instagram advertising, just to see how it goes.
“I think Instagram has the most engagement,” says Schellenberg, comparing the platform to others.
You can purchase Instagram ads through Facebook’s ad manager. You’ll want to stick to pictures without text, and keep the text below the picture simple. Include a link to tickets below the picture.
Generating Content Through Your Pages
As an indie band, it’s important to do your own social media and write your own ads. “I never do an artist’s socials because I like it to be honest and true,” says Susan Busse, the namesake behind publicity firm Susan Busse PR. “You can always tell when someone’s manager, team, or agent does their posts. I really love it when artists are connecting directly with fans.”
You know your fans better than anyone else. It may take a while to find your “voice” on social media, but with experimentation, you can figure out what’s working.
“I think you need to try a few different things until people resonate with it,” offers Fitzgerald. “There’s no way to know until you try it. Start by looking into how similar artists market themselves and go from there.”
Hiring a Publicist
Once you reach a certain point in your touring career, hiring a publicist will be a no brainer.
“People have to see an event three times in three different formats before it sticks in their brains,” advises Schellenberg. “Someone sees it with a Facebook ad, and then it’s in [a magazine], and then they see a poster, and all of the sudden they know about it. You have to hit your audience from every angle.”
Publicity is great for a number of reasons, but know that publicity alone will not put butts in seats. “Ideally, we want people to read a piece of press [we’ve generated] and come to the show,” explains Busse, “but there are layers to publicity. The second layer is posting that piece on your socials and using it for promotion. Then, you can use it for pulling press quotes and increasing your credibility. Publicity adds to your rep in the industry and can be used as evidence for success; you can use press when applying for awards and grants.” And as with many, in this industry, success breeds success.
In fact, at The Good Will, Schellenberg and his team have started putting pull quotes on all of their posters.
“It’s a way to convince people who have never heard of a band to come to a show,” he says. “Adding to the poster that PUP is a Polaris Prize nominee, it hits people with another type of media. The goal is to leave people no option but to go.”
Publicity is one piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the whole thing. You need to be hammering people with every form of media you can get your hands on.
Should You Do Your Own Publicity?
In short, yes. “And then when you eventually hire a publicist, you understand and value what they’re doing,” Busse shares. She also notes that, especially when you’re starting out, no publication should be overlooked. Sometimes, all you’re going to be able to get are placements in small blogs with 200 followers, but in the age of internet media, that really doesn’t matter. Everything you post builds momentum, and fans love having something to share regardless of where it comes from.
There are, of course, a few things you can do to make doing your own publicity easier.
“Bloom where you’re planted. If that’s where you are, that’s who you pitch,” suggests Busse. If you’re just starting out, don’t waste your time pitching Rolling Stone. Start small; you’ll get there.
– Be assertive and follow up once a week. If somebody says “No,” take no for an answer, but don’t be afraid to ask why.
– Always have a story in mind when you’re pitching. It has to be more than just “We’re playing in your city.” Come up with something interesting!
– Plan out your pitches. TV is scheduled way in advance. Start pitching TV two months ahead. Monthly magazines need to be pitched three months in advance. Dailies like CBC Radio need to be pitched the week before and the day before. Keep track of your pitches in a spreadsheet.
Doing your own publicity is time consuming and frustrating when you don’t have much success; however, even just a few solid pieces of press on a tour can increase its profile immeasurably.
Work Hard, Play Better
Ultimately, indie touring is about building buzz and it’s often a slow build. It’s about laying the groundwork for the future.
It’s the artists that work hard, put on high-quality shows, and most importantly, make great music that eventually move past indie touring. If the music and effort is there, it will happen. Just keep plugging away.
The fans you make in your indie days will be die-hard fans for the rest of your career. They are the fans that buy merch, support crowdfunding campaigns, and interact with you on social media. And that’s what makes indie touring rewarding and worth doing.