This week I’ll explain the process I went through to put together tours without any guide, connections or experience. It might’ve taken equal parts stupidity and courage, so put those books down and jump off your roof and onto a trampoline (definitely kidding… although that was fun)! Thankfully it all worked out well enough that we broke even, even in the face of the unexpected. I learned so much from my experiences doing this, but one of the most liberating was learning that our biggest supporters might not be in our hometown.
There are many things to consider if you want to book a tour, and the options and outcomes usually aren’t easy to weigh. Sometimes it’s better to turn down $300 to play at another venue in the same city for $0 if playing for free gets you in front of the right audience and you make lasting connections. Reputation means a lot, so do your research before you make decisions and never be afraid to ask for help or advice from people involved in the music scene.
I’m putting routing before everything because your tour is still an idea. You can avoid a lot of costs if you plan things correctly, so let’s go over some things worth considering. The first is how long you’ll be traveling and how many of those nights you’ll be performing. I chose a round trip so that I could get a chance to play as many cities as possible rather than going in a straight line and backtracking. I also started outreach 3 months in advance to the dates I was requesting - give yourself plenty of time in case you or the venue has to cancel or find another show.
If you’re touring for 14 days, ideally you have 12 or 13 shows. You probably won’t get a show in every city you try, so plan a route that gives you backup plans and consider how long each drive in between cities will take. My first tour was scheduled tightly, and in one instance we had to make a 22-hour drive in 2 days. You probably don’t want to do something that ridiculous if you can help it.
Also, reach out to friends or family and ask if you can stay at their place when you’re near. Sometimes driving an extra hour after a show is worth it to save money on a hotel and be in a place you feel welcome (not to mention they might feed you), and it’s a good way to invite them to the show. Use Maps or another GPS app to help you determine how long each drive will take, and don’t be afraid to try cities you wouldn’t expect doing well in. I’ve had some of my favorite experiences come from cities of 12,000 people that I’d literally never heard of before performing in.
2) Find out where your favorite artists perform(ed)
One of the first things I did once I knew I wanted to put a tour together was look up to my favorite underground artists to see what venues line their tour flyers, or look back a few years and see if those dusty dive bars where they sang to 20 people are still in business. Even if the particular places are closed down, it’ll give you a good idea of what cities might be open to the music you make. I started by emailing venues directly. Whoever runs the booking might be able to put you on an existing show, or at least give you recommendations on locals to contact who might be willing to perform.
3) Search/google everything
Once you have a route in mind, a map open with all those cities to choose from, google everything. Start with your genre and city names you’re looking to book (experimental hip hop in San Mateo, CA), or checking the local papers’ music sections to find write-ups on local artists building something or playing interesting events. I reached out to those artists directly, and if they didn’t respond I’d email the college radio stations and ask them for recommendations on who to contact. I sent dozens of emails to each city, was ignored a bunch, redirected countless times, and also met some amazing friends because of it. You can also use Yelp to check what people say about venues, the sound, etc. Keep in mind you’ll have to do this in every city you book, so be careful about accepting the responsibility of putting all these lineups together yourself. That’s a lot of research for one person, and a lot of follow-up. There’s a reason people get paid to book tours.
Asking for help felt like the right way to approach it. I had no previous connections, no guidebook, so I wanted some sort of screening process to help me put trust and faith into the events I’d be playing. Seeing multiple people recommend the same artists helped me narrow down who to contact.
4) Use Social Media/Groups
Another thing the internet has made easier is connecting with people you’ve never met, and getting their opinion on just about everything. There are people who use this for good, ya know. There are many DIY communities on Facebook especially, like public tour groups where musicians help each other book shows and avoid the scum among us. It’s wise to check the background of who you’re performing with and who’s booking the show. Almost ever local scene also has some sort of Facebook group like “Chicago Hip-Hop.” Ask the locals you are working with to add you to those groups and introduce yourself if you don’t already have draw or connections there. Putting forth that type of effort lets the people who are doing you a favor know that you aren’t expecting them to do 100% of the work to ensure an audience. Don’t be afraid to turn down opportunities if the people involved seem shady in any way. If you have to find out the hard way it might be a good idea to voice your experience and see if any others have a similar one. We need to know who to avoid as much as we need to know who to build with. Choose carefully.
If you’re reading this you probably aren’t backed by a label. That means you have a lot to consider before taking a month off from your day job so you can essentially pay to perform in front of strangers. Maybe 2 weeks is a more reasonable (affordable) way to approach your first run, maybe you can only manage weekend runs with 1 or 2 shows. The important part is being willing to experiment and believing in your music enough to find its audience. If you aren’t confident that you’re making something valuable, or at least enjoyable then you might want to get back to the DAWing board (fuck me).
If you’re performing in a new city, you may have to take a door deal or % from the bar depending on the venue and situation. You may even be playing for free. The bottom line is you can’t rely on what you make from the door, tickets, or even on “guarantees” to pay for all your needs when you’re starting out. Be prepared to lose money up front and keep it in perspective: your first (many) tour(s) are called paying dues because you’re making an investment and building a separate reputation in each city. As you perform more, the less work you have to do to get the word out. Until then you gotta budget yourself. Just doing a rough estimate and guessing at an average, we’re looking mainly at:
a) Food: 14 days / $20/day = $280
b) Gas: 25 mpg / $3.00 gallon / Trip total: 3,000 miles = $360
c) Hotels: 7 nights / $70/night = $490
Baseline for 2 weeks, if rounding up, is about $1200. If you have to rent a vehicle that goes way up.
We also have bills and rent that don’t disappear while we’re away. You can see how pricey this gets even if you’re only sleeping in the van for half of the trip. On my first tour which was 3 and a half weeks, I had under $400 in my bank account and had to help with another artist’s food almost the entire time. I’m also fortunate enough that a few people offered to be my “oh shit” crew - I’d call if I needed to be bailed out and I’d pay them back whenever (thank you). Luckily we had a group of 4, and the other 2 chipped in on expenses, and between all of us we had friends to stay with or met people at shows that ended up offering. Many of the people who housed us also fed us. It was an incredible experience and we made (mostly?) good decisions, we didn’t overspend, we all chipped in on groceries and helped each other through. The money we got from door deals and guarantees went straight to gas and whatever we all needed. We mostly played for whoever would pay $200 or more but we always took shows if they looked like they had a strong community behind it - those are the ones worth playing for free because they’re most likely to bring people who want to listen.
5) Utilize Time
At least in my experience, it’s probably not a good idea to spend time at bars on your days off (or on). If you can book an in-store at a record shop or perform live on the local college station, or do something creative with people who can introduce others to your music: that’s what you want. If you have close friends or family in a particular city on your route, ask them if you can take a day off and stay with them for a little extra time. This can help recharge your batteries and save money on a day you probably would not be performing in front of a big crowd (week days are just typically slower than weekends). If there is an artist you want to work with in one of the cities you’re hitting, discuss a collaboration before you arrive and hit a studio together if possible. You can get people to your show by passing out flyers and talking to them on the street and randomly engaging them, but the majority of people who will attend your shows are already looking for music to listen to and shows to attend.
For at least a month before. Practice all types of songs with different energy levels. Be ready to change the set if what you planned isn’t working. Be ready to get invited to play a house party after a show and have songs you didn’t perform at the venue. You don’t practice to automate everything, you practice to be ready for anything.
7) Be Ready For Anything
Including shows falling through and having to scramble for a replacement. It’s good to start and end on strong tracks, but always have songs with different levels of energy on deck. Great artists know when to call audibles and it’s not that hard - if the crowd isn’t responding, try something else.
Beyond that, have funds ready in case your vehicle needs maintenance or you run into unexpected costs (speeding tickets, parking tickets, etc), and be careful about traveling alone. Also be careful about who you choose to travel with if you do bring other artists along for the ride. If you do not know someone that well, it is a big risk to commit to hopping in a car with them for 2 weeks and dealing with potentially stressful financial situations.
I’ll end by sharing an email I sent that got looked at and forwarded to the booker. You don’t have to include a ton of info about yourself - keep it to your most popular/recent tracks and maybe some press.