What are the best ways to destroy an otherwise promising tour? We bumped into a bunch of road-tested, veteran touring artists at NAMM, the music- and gear-focused mega-conference happening now in Anaheim. These were their definite don’ts:
(1) Eating lots of fast food.
You think it’s cheap and easy. But it’s actually a lot more expensive than a healthy meal from the supermarket, which offers far better energy for demanding treks. “You can go to a supermarket and feed your entire band for $20,” explained Peter Sotos of Epic Proportions Tour during a recent, ‘Smart Touring’ panel at the NAMM Show in Anaheim, CA.
(2) Forgetting your merch at home.
You just lost a ton of money (and you need that). “Merch is one of the primary ways you’re going to make money on tour,” Soto continued, while urging bands to race off the stage the minute the set ends and man the merch table. “I know you have to break down your stuff, but you need to get back there.”
(3) Running out of merch.
This one is trickier, because you need to predict what people will want to buy. One solution is to bring a lot of stuff, which can work on smaller tours. But there are merch companies like jakprints that drop-ship to bands mid-tour to help fill inventory gaps or replenish overall supplies.
Over time, a continuous focus on merch will give you a better sense for upcoming demand. And if you’ve got vinyl, definitely bring that along. The reason is that fans often treat vinyl more as a souvenir then a listening experience, and many vinyl buyers don’t even have a turntable. Best of all, vinyl carries a high markup, and it can easily become the most lucrative recording format you sell.
(4) Acting surprised when your van breaks down.
Because it’s gonna happen, sooner or later. And if you don’t have any cash to deal with the calamity, the downward spiral can start quickly: missed shows, in-fighting, financial disaster, theft. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s when, and it’s gonna be at the worst time imaginable,” warned Gabe Kubanda, also from Epic Proportions.
(5) Bringing someone on tour that cracks under pressure.
Not everyone is cut out to spend day-and-night in a cramped, smelly van for weeks with the same people while performing until 3:30 am. In fact, Kubanda noted that ‘there’s always someone in the band’ that can’t cut it (but goes anyway), has competing obligations (like parenting or a full-time job), or simply doesn’t want to help out on the road.
Taking things a step further, Sotos urged band members to discuss their common goals, with band contracts a difficult but important step to avoid band-splitting arguments.
(6) Touring before you have a local following.
On this point, panelists were totally unanimous: a local following is critical before heading out on tour! Otherwise, there’s little-to-no foundation to build upon, and virtually zero word-of-mouth from one city to another.
One exception to this rule: touring in tight, small radius in nearby markets (Toledo on Friday, Cleveland on Saturday, for example). Otherwise, you’re spreading yourself too thin.
(7) Playing a sloppy, unrehearsed set.
Your set must be tight, high-energy, and extremely well-rehearsed and confident. If not, there are literally tens of thousands of bands that are doing it better. “Some say not to over-saturate your local area, but I say play, play, play,” Kubanda said, while Sotos pointed to success stories materializing after non-stop gigging (even to empty rooms).
And one of the biggest examples of a band that played endlessly to tighten their chops before broadening their touring and hitting it big? The Beatles.
(8) Stinking (literally).
Going days without a shower is bad for morale, especially since it makes the van reek. But it also repels everyone you need to work smoothly with: venue personnel, other bands, and fans (especially good-looking one).
The problem? Options like truck stop showers are expensive, though one pro-tip to emerge from the panel was Planet Fitness, which offers a ‘black card’ membership for $20 a month and allows one free guest. Multiply that times two, and that’s 4 people getting regular showers, plus more if it’s staggered.
(9) Blowing money on hotels.
Hotels can get expensive, but why sleep in a hotel when you can crash in the van? Another idea that emerged during the symposium was cheap, easy to assemble bunk beds for the tour van, which stacks the space and allows you to save the money for a hotel. Or, if you need more space, everyone should crash in the same room (and make sure to use the shower).
(10) Blowing money on booze and drugs.
Slow down, save some cash for tomorrow. And please don’t spend all of your guarantee money at the bar that night.
(11) Not collecting emails.
Well, maybe it won’t kill this tour, but it could kill your next tour.
And don’t just ask them to sign your contact list, shove it in their faces! The reason is this: emails are like gold to a band, especially when they’re segmented by region and properly used to contact fans. For example: you play a show in Sandusky, OH, and collect 100 emails at a show. One month later you return, and email everyone from the last gig about your arrival.
Emails can also open the possibility of pre-sales, merch discounts, and other special offers, all of which will drive more traffic to shows.
A few other email tips:
- Try giving something away to entice more sign-ups (a free sticker, a merch discount, a kiss, whatever).
- Send short-n-sweet updates to fans (they’re overloaded, you need them to act, not read!)
- Don’t over-email your list, or spam people in Sandusky with an update about your show in Montreal).
- DO track your open rates, respond back, and analyze your email audience with tools like Mailchimp.
(12) Saying it’s impossible to describe your band.
Please don’t describe your sound as ‘impossible to describe,’ because you won’t get a gig based on that. A club owner needs to make very practical decisions about where to slot your group, and in order to do that, he needs to know what you sound like. If you’re a cross between Pantera, Hatebreed and Goatwhore, say that, even if it’s only an approximation of what you sounds like. Otherwise you will definitely get deleted from consideration.
(13) Not promoting your upcoming shows.
Even in smaller towns, people have lots of options that night (including Netflix, drinking at a bar, having sex, whatever). At least make your band an option for that evening, weekend, etc.
There are a million ways to do this:
- Busk on a corner in town, while promoting your gig.
- Better yet: do a smaller jam on the street while other members of the band meet people and talking up the gig.
- Visit a local retailer or establishment that is likely to have the kinds of people that like your band.
- Better yet: play an acoustic set at one of these retailers (one band actually did that in a Hot Topic hours before their gig that night). That’s awesome for the retailer, awesome for the band, and great for the venue and band, as it drives more attention and traffic all around.
(14) Handing out CDs and show flyers at high speeds.
People are overloaded, and handing them a CD or flyer without a personal touch is not a good idea. You might as well put 90% of them in a nearby trashcan. But talking people, talking up your show, and making friends dramatically increases the chances of people showing up. It’s a quality vs. quantity thing, and if you’re in the early stages, you’re not trying to fill a stadium, anyway.
(15) Playing lots of generic songs.
If your songwriting needs work, if you sound like 17 other bands, then don’t go on tour! Generic-sounding chord progressions and song structures will bore audiences, and almost guarantee they won’t remember you. “Get the songwriting up to par, and stop writing generic songs,” Kubanda advised, while urging bands to constantly grow and progress with new music to keep fans energized.
(16) Playing lots of generic venues.
One thing the panel agreed on: there are lots of non-traditional venues that can greatly expand an audience. High schools, colleges, military bases, and retailers (see above) were just some of the examples, though panelists warned that non-traditional options were definitely time-consuming to arrange. Part of the reason is that they’re not used to booking bands, though that can be overcome (and help you get a better deal).
The problem with not branching out is that traditional bars and clubs are (a) boring and (b) crowded with lots of other bands that aren’t expanding their venue possibilities. It’s easy to get lost in the tired, well-traveled path of over-played venues.
On this point, another possibility that emerged is playing covers at non-traditional gigs like weddings, parties, and bar mitzvahs, a move that can dramatically improve revenue, expand local gigging, and even expand audiences for your main gigs. A great place to explore that possibility is GigSalad, an online marketplace that brings non-traditional gigs to bands.
(17) Forgetting to collect your ASCAP, BMI, SoundExchange, publishing, streaming, and other revenue streams.
These are all trickles of money, but they all add up, especially as your popularity grows. But failing on the basics like logging your setlists for PRO payment, registering (and collecting) from SoundExchange, or collecting your mechanicals can deprive you of critical cash that you need to reinvest. “I can’t stress enough how important the entire monetary umbrella is, you should grab as much of that as you can,” Sotos urged at the discussion.
(18) Mapping a zig-zag route over a large area.
Touring routes should be as efficient as possible to reduce travel costs, especially gas. But straying too far from home too early can have disastrous consequences, unless there’s a strong audience in place. Instead, smarter touring gradually expands from a local stronghold, and early on, involves nearby cities instead of far-flung venues.
(19) Acting like an insufferable rock star.
This is an awesome way to routinely piss people off and make people hate your band, while killing your tour. Promoters hate diva artists that don’t show up on time, act with an air of superiority, and expect some venue-supplied roadie to take care of routine tasks. Fans, or potential fans, hate being talked down to by some ‘rock star’ they’ve barely heard of (or, worse yet, have heard of and were excited to meet (until they actually meet you).
If Bono’s image can suffer from being an aloof asshole rock star, so can yours. So humble it down, and focus on growing your band and its audience. “Just be a genuine person,” Kubanda advised. “Take the attitude, ‘I want you to be involved in this journey with me’.”
Written with love while listening to Chet Faker, Jamie xx, Flume, and White Iverson.