Bent Out of Shape: Touring Tips for Independent Artists
I recently completed a brief West Coast tour and thought it would be a good idea to share some tips I've picked up during my time on the road.
I have a long European tour coming up in September and wanted to prepare these tips — even if only for myself — to help minimize my stress levels while out on the road.
For many young musicians, going out on tour is an early goal we set for ourselves. We read stories of legendary bands on tour, and we dream of the fun times that come from being out on the road. The reality is far different. Most likely, your first experiences on tour will be with your band as you begin to outgrow your local scene. Especially if you come from a small city like me (Portsmouth, England).
You'll most likely play all your local music venues multiple times before thinking about expanding your live markets. You'll probably book a short tour (about a week) of small music clubs and bars. You might not even have to go out of state.
The level of your band will determine the size and scope of your tours as well as the level of comfort you are likely to experience. For this blog post, I'm really focusing on independent bands or newly signed bands. All the points I'm about to give you could really fall under the same category: planning. The more you plan, the less likely things will go wrong.
It's important to plan every stage of the tour and maximize the benefits of touring. The main reasons for touring are to build your fan base and, ideally, make some money. For small bands that are new to touring, you can forget the money. If you break even, you should be happy.
Here are my tips to help make your tours successful.
Figure out the costs of being on the road. Before going on tour, you should figure out exactly what the costs are going to be and whether you can really afford to be on tour. Costs will include gas, food, accommodation, transportation and even "buy on" fees if you're opening for more established bands. You should figure out what is going to be your touring vehicle, and if you don't already own one, research the costs of renting. Make sure you understand everything involved in renting a vehicle and the additional costs.
Make sure you find out about mileage limits, insurance and restrictions on going to out of state. When your vehicle is sorted, you should budget your gas by routing each show and estimating total fuel costs. All hotels should be included in the routing. You should consider booking hotels just outside of major cities as you will usually get a much cheaper rate. For all hotels, flights and rentals, the earlier you book, the cheaper they will be. When you have your total costs, you will be able to make a better decision about whether you can support yourself out on tour. If you are not getting paid for shows, you need to figure out where the money will come from. Don't rely on merch sales!
Make an itinerary. In addition to financial planning, time management is a must. You need to make sure you have enough time to drive from one show to the next — and make sure you leave the previous city at the correct time. There is no worse feeling than knowing you are running late to the next show. This may seem obvious, but you should also give consideration to things like traffic and "city driving" when planning. Give yourself at least two extra hours for each trip in case you encounter problems while traveling. If you own your touring vehicle, make sure you get it checked by a mechanic before you leave. I've seen many tours cancelled because of vans breaking down.
Invest in a good looking merchandise booth. Merch sales can be the difference between life and death for a tour. Many bands rely on these sales to cover their costs, especially if they aren't getting any guarantees for shows. If you are going on tour, you must have merch for sale. The bare minimum would be a T-shirt and CD. If you are signed, your label may help with you, but if you are independent you need to make sure you are getting the best possible "price per unit" for each item you produce.
If you are printing T-shirts don't print equal amounts of each size otherwise you will end up with a box full of 'small' at the end of the tour. Make sure you also have a good way to display the merch at your shows. I've seen local bands outsell touring acts because they had a good-looking merch booth. Don't just lay shirts on an unused table. Invest in a metal frame and hangers to display shirts. Buy a cheap lamp and extension chord to make sure your display is always well lit. This small investment will draw people to your booth like moths to a flame.
Obviously, you (or someone) could write a book about this subject, but hopefully these tips will help you in some way.
Will Wallner is a guitarist from England who now lives in Los Angeles. He recently signed a solo deal with Polish record label Metal Mind Productions for the release of his debut album, which features influential musicians from hard rock and heavy metal. He also is the lead guitarist for White Wizzard (Earache Records) and toured Japan, the US and Canada in 2012. Follow Will on Facebook and Twitter.
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