Author’s Note: I have spent about three of the last five years on constant tour with my own project and Seattle band Grand Hallway. I book tours. I’ve booked eleven of my own tours in the continental US, and worked with promoters and booking agencies on trips to Europe, New Zealand, and Japan. These tours have included house shows, venue shows, and everything in between.
6 MONTHS PRIOR TO TOUR
• Start early.
Most venues start to fill up about 4 months in advance, so you should have your tentative dates mapped out about 6 months before you plan to leave.
After you have your potential dates in each city, begin scouting out venues in each city and gather their contact info. I always try to schedule drives of 7 hours or less (although in the Midwest, it’s not always possible); on one very long tour in particular, I managed to play almost twenty shows in California alone (leaving plenty of time for swimming, thrift store visits, and three nice sit-down meals a day).
Now is a good time to set your priorities: Do you want to cover as much ground as possible, play as many shows as possible, focus on a certain metropolitan area, or get back home by a certain date?
• Write your booking e-mail.
Do include links to your music or electronic press kit (many venues have specific information they want to receive, so check the booking page of their website and tailor each e-mail directly to that venue). Include a basic description of your band, any notable acts you’ve played with, and give them a couple of dates to choose from.
4-5 MONTHS PRIOR TO TOUR
• Send out your booking e-mails.
Try to contact at least three places in each city. Now is also a good time to reach out to any musician friends you have in the cities you’re traveling to and ask them either if they’d be willing to play a show with you while you’re in town or if they have any recommendations on venues or bands.
• Keep track of your booking e-mails.
I typically do this in a spreadsheet, including the date I contacted them and the dates requested. Give folks a week or so, then send a short follow-up (including any availability changes as you begin to confirm shows.)
• Draft a press release.
Whether it’s your first time or your tenth time visiting a city, you will get many more curious faces in the crowd if you get an article in the alt-weekly, or at least a shout-out from a music-minded blog. It should include information from your bio (how your band got together, your most recent release, anything you deem extra-special about you), and a hi-res photo. Here is a great template for writing a tour-specific press release.
2-3 MONTHS PRIOR TO TOUR
At this point, you should have at least half of your shows booked. If not, it’s time to get a little creative.
• Fill in the gaps.
Check local calendars for other events coming up in the town that you could potentially hitch onto. A farmer’s market with a stage set up? An open mic night that might host you in a featured slot? A fancy house show network? Sure, shows like this aren’t as exciting or high-profile as playing at the town’s largest, coolest venue, but shows like these are a good way to rustle up a bit of gas money to get you from city to city, and also a good way to find at least a few kindred spirits who like your music and may help you book a “real” show on your next trip (or at least show up and bring a few friends).
Despite new music-discovery websites popping up all of the time (Last.fm, Reverbnation, Grooveshark, Rdio, and Pandora to name a few of the larger ones), word-of-mouth remains most people’s favorite way to discover new music. “Gap-filling” shows I’ve played include public libraries, private elementary schools and art openings; while touring in New Zealand, on our scheduled days off, the four of us would roll into a small town, split up and go pitch our “international touring band” to bars and restaurants downtown to see if they wanted some live entertainment during their dinner hour.
We once rolled a piano that was part of an art installation across a cobblestone street to play an impromptu set in front of a restaurant, where they ended up feeding us and paying us a few hundred dollars. Surprise shows like this also help break up the monotony of going from venue to venue, sound check to sound check.
• Make some new merchandise.
Sure, you have a CD that you sell at shows, but do you have T-shirts? Silk-screened posters? Coffee mugs? Acoustic EPs? Any other weird stuff? On the road, you’re likely to gain a few instant fans who want to support you however they can, and some benevolent people do that through buying your cool-looking stuff. Consider making a tour-only item or something with a very limited quantity — not only is it a great way to drum up some extra funds, but your audience will appreciate having something special that they can only buy directly from you.
In the past, I’ve made short runs (usually 50 or less) of 7-inch records, EPs filled with 90s cover songs, tote bags, baby clothing, coffee mugs. . . you can make whatever you want. If you sell them, great, if you don’t, you eventually will.
• Send out your press release.
Remember when you sent out your booking e-mail to a few venues in every city? There’s no reason not to send that press release to every single music journalist and blogger in the town you’re visiting. Send a little note along with the press release, and offer to do a phone interview. That means include your phone number.
• Try to set up in-studios.
Check with local radio stations to see if you can drop in the afternoon of your show and play a few songs. This is a great way to drum up a last-minute audience (and also a great way to get your music to a radio station). If you set one up early in advance, mail them a CD as well; if not, leave a few while you’re packing up from your in-studio.
1 MONTH PRIOR TO TOUR
• Advance your shows.
Find out how you will get paid for each show to avoid confusion the night of the show. Ask if they are able to provide dinner or sleeping arrangements. Know how they deal with guest lists and drink tickets. Know what time they expect you to be there to sound check. All of this seems pretty elementary, but asking in advance makes everything flow much more smoothly when you get to the venue, ESPECIALLY since the person who booked the show is often not at the show. Don’t take it personally, but don’t hesitate to show the advance email you received from the person who booked the show to the bartender/sound person/whoever is paying you at the end of the night if there are any discrepancies.
• Make your Tour Book.
A lot of people skip this since most people have smartphones, but it’s a good thing to have around, and an easy way for everyone in the band to have a clear understanding of what’s going on (especially if they didn’t help you with the planning!)
Your tour book should contain: Every show, the door deal for each show or any financial guarantees, how long the drive is from your last show, any time zone changes, and any sleeping arrangements you have already lined up. You should have a little book separate for keeping track of merchandise . . . take a beginning tally of inventory and keep track of everything you sell and give away every night. Have a plan for keeping the merchandise money separate from the door money, even if your ‘plan’ is two separate pouches.
• Find as many places to sleep in advance as possible.
Ask each venue if they have sleeping accommodations, or if they have any special deals with hotels. Ask your friends who live nearby, and ask your band mates to do the same. Ask the other bands you’re playing with that night. You will probably have to spring for at least a couple of hotel rooms, but try to ration them out and use them as little as possible.
• Get renter’s insurance.
Renter’s insurance covers all of your possessions, including instruments, and it covers them wherever they are and whatever happens to them . . . so if someone kicks a hole through your amp cover or spills a beer on your keyboard, you’ll be covered. It’s a really wise thing to have, even if your instruments aren’t particularly valuable. If your instruments are extremely valuable, consider getting them insured separately through a company like AFM or Fractured Atlas.
• Get a Square (or other credit card-accepting gizmo).
People can only pay cash for your merchandise? What, are you allergic to money? Don’t send your fans to an ATM at midnight so that they can buy a T-shirt, and don’t trade your records for drinks at the bar. Accept credit cards, sell about 30% more stuff, and cut bartering out of your merch-selling equation.
1 WEEK PRIOR TO TOUR
• Get your tour vehicle checked out.
I cannot stress this enough. Having your vehicle break down can drain your band bank account instantly, not to mention having to deal with cancelling shows, buying last-minute plane tickets for band members to get home, and someone staying with the van until it gets fixed, then driving home alone with all of your instruments and merchandise.
Go get a full work-up at your mechanic, and try to schedule your oil changes around your mileage estimates in your Tour Book. Make sure your insurance is up-to-date, and try to make sure that someone in the van has AAA just in case you hit a vehicle snag down the road. If you’re borrowing someone else’s vehicle, you should sign something (it doesn’t have to be long or official-sounding) laying out who will be liable for which vehicle problems, and also paying them a little something . . . at least for their pro-rated insurance and maybe a couple of cents per mile to account for wear and tear.
• Do a ‘test pack.’
Fill the car with your instruments and merchandise, and try to keep personal bags and items to a minimum (1 bag per person is a pretty good rule). Make sure there’s room for everything in the car, and if there isn’t, consider shipping a box of CDs/records/merch to a friend or venue a week or two down the road. This is also a good time to check in on how much personal stuff your tour mates are planning on bringing with them. I’ve had to unpack for-fun banjos, mancala boards, inflatable mattresses, extra bathing suits.
My old cellist was a master packer, and for a few weeks on a very long tour after her suitcase’s zipper breathed its last breaths, her possessions were all in a plastic bag tucked under her seat. Meanwhile, I had established a suitcase rule of my own (as an avid thrifter and collector): For every new item I picked up on the road, I immediately had to get rid of two other things in my suitcase. I still recommend leaving some space in your suitcase and your car for thrifty scores.
• Fill everyone in.
Sit down with everyone who’s going on your tour and talk through the itinerary. Set your departure time, answer any questions, and make sure everyone’s clear on the financials (are you giving everyone per diems, or are they paying for their own food? How are you using any money that you make from the venues after expenses? How are you using any money from merchandise after expenses?)
• Have an emergency backup plan.
What if your car needs a $700 repair? What if gas prices skyrocket? What if you have a few terrible shows in a row? Have as large of an emergency fund as you an muster, or at least someone really dependable on hand (“hi mom, I miss you”) who you can call if you meet with disaster.
• Don’t bring drugs!
Especially if you’re going through California, Arizona, or another state with pop-up border patrols and drug dogs, but really anywhere, ever. Just don’t have drugs in the car. If you’re just crazy about drugs and can’t live without them, find some like-minded people on the road and ask nicely to share their drugs. Some states have extremely strict laws about marijuana and having even a little bitty bit could send you to jail, and your vehicle with out-of-state plates and filled to the brim with disheveled young people is kind of a cop-magnet.
I will never forget trying to cross the Hoover Dam and having the police officers wave us over and ask us all six of us to pull all of our possessions out of the van and stand behind them as drug dogs sniffed each pile and police officers rifled through them. We happened to not have any drugs on us. We were lucky. Don’t expect luck on tour in general, and especially not when it comes to drugs.
YOU’RE ON TOUR
Be nice, say thank you a lot, don’t be afraid to ask for money with a smile, give CDs to the people you stay with, keep an e-mail list, keep good track of your finances, don’t eat gas station food every day, drink lots of water, shower semi-regularly, listen to audiobooks, take lots of pictures, try to do something fun every once in a while, make new friends everywhere you go, brush your teeth, maintain some sense of decorum, and be a gracious guest.
YOU’RE HOME FROM TOUR
Make sure everyone helps clean out the tour vehicle, dump the rigorous financial details you’ve been keeping into a spreadsheet, and save all of the details of your trip (including great venues, not-so-great venues, your favorite bands, and nice people you met) for your next tour. It will be easier next time, I promise.
Photos courtesy of Shenandoah Davis.