I believe that good information should be spread and even though I do booking for bands, I’m not afraid to share, step-by-step, how I go about this process. That’s what this music blog is all about, partnering up with artists to take the next step. I hope this helps your music career.
This is a more concise version of an earlier post which you can read here. I recommend you read that one too. Once you’ve decided that you want to and are able to tour (and you’ve figured out the why’s), it’s time to plan the how, when, and where’s. This is what I do.
Decide on a Date Range
I strongly recommend that you plan, at minimum, 4-6 months in advance. Booking a tour requires months of contacting, follow-up work, and filling in gaps. Some venues book at least 6 months out in advance, some only one month at a time. You’ll also need plenty of time to market, promote, and contact local press.
Choose Your Tour Route
Decide the general direction of where you’d like to go. Chances are that you will probably have to make adjustments along the way. Some cities are easier to book than others. Decide how much you want to drive per day (I recommend spacing venues out 50-400 miles apart, depending on the region). and if you want any days off. Big cities have more venues to choose from but often times require a “pay to play” option or will hardly pay you at all. Smaller towns outside of the city tend to pay more and are sometimes easier to book. I also recommend sticking to major highways (such as booking along I-5).
Begin Contacting Venues
Start by looking for venues along your tour route. Websites like Indie on the Move, byofl.org, and onlinegigs.com are free, searchable databases. You can also buy more details (and sometimes reliable) information from Billboard Music (they offer a touring guide for about $20), The Indie Venue Bible (about $100), and more.
Most promoters prefer email. Some still use Myspace, some use the phone, some have their own contact form. Whatever it is, find out their preference and stick to it. Don’t use one generic message or method (nobody like spam) and answering the question on their mind: How will you make the venue money? How will you bring people in the door?
No venue cares about how “good” your show is if you’ll be playing for an empty room. Nearly every venue would rather hire the crappy local band that can sell the place out over a touring, professional band that can’t even get their guest list to show up.
Follow Up With the Venues
Most promoters are inundated with messages and are constantly juggling dates, bands, rentals, and other events. Get a confirmation, make sure you are on their website. Check in to see if they want posters mailed to them, see if there are local media contacts you should be following up with. If a promoter gave you a “hold,” find out what you need to make it a confirmed show. Follow-up again one more time before you leave for tour.
If You Have Gaps…
and chances are, you will – have a back-up plan. If a show doesn’t pan out and if want to fill the date, start thinking creatively. You can contact nearby towns, check Craigslist to see if someone wants live music for their party or corporate event. If you’re out of venues, try doing a search on Yelp or Google Maps for live music. Contact local radio stations, record shops, bookstores, skate shops, church groups, roller skate arenas, restaurants, malls, any place where you might make a good fit.
Hot Topic used to allow touring bands to do an acoustic set (some stores still do). Ask your friends/fans in the area if they want to do a house party. Or, begin contacting all of the venues you already reached out to and see if something opened up. Get in touch with bands in the area to see if they can help do a gig-swap.
The most important thing to remember is that this takes patience, consistency, follow-up, and a little bit of salesmanship. Keep at it everyday. Set up an appointment with yourself to contact venues, promoters, etc. for at least 1-2 hours per day (and more as you get closer). Never miss that appointment.
If you are consistent and tour often, you’ll begin building relationships with promoters and it becomes easier and easier. Then who knows? Maybe you’ll begin booking for other bands. That’s how I got started.
Create a Budget
Touring can be very expensive, especially if you are not at a point where you can get some major guarantees yet and even if you are doing everything on the cheap. Tires can blowout, transmissions can fall apart. You need to eat. Plan your budget but also include a emergency savings in case things go awry. There’s nothing worse than being stranded thousands of miles of home with your gear and out of money with no way to get back.
Choose a Route
After you decide if and when you can tour, decide where you’d like to go. I always believe in gradually expanding your reach: create a buzz in your city first, then the state, then your region. Slowly expand the radius of where you’re doing shows by a few hundred miles each time you go out and build some new fans. Decide where you can to go but keep a few things in mind:
Big Cities or Small Towns
It’s easy to just think in terms of large metropolitan areas but there are downsides to this as well. There’s more competition with other bands/shows going on at the same time in the city, they tend to pay less (or no guarantees if you don’t have a solid draw), venues tend to be more reluctant to book unfamiliar acts. However, larger cities have more opportunities for press: weeklies, dailies, radio stations, and TV shows. If you have a publicist or PR firm working these avenues, it can make your band look very good.
Where Are Your Fans
Thanks to insight tools in every social media site, you can easily get a picture where your fans are at. Fan management programs like Fanbridge also let you see where your fans are interacting with.
Towards the “Big Event”
I get more requests for a “SXSW tour” than anything else. Touring there can be great: venues are more receptive towards touring acts at that time, many cities have their own music festivals before or after, there’s plenty going on outside of Austin. The downside is that no matter where you play, it will probably be on a bill full of touring acts rather than strong locals…so there’s less of a
chance for you to get the exposure you need.
How Large of a Venue?
Here’s a rule of thumb: If you have never played a city before and have little to no serious press on you, don’t contact the largest venues in town. It’s a waste of their time. Instead, realistically determine your level and decide if you are more fit to play small rooms (100-200 capacity), medium sized venues (200-600), or larger.
Start Booking Venues!
After you get the plan set, begin contacting venues that you think you would make a good fit. You can find live music venues using free tools like Indie On the Move, byofl,org, or even just typing in “live music venue” into Google and the city name.
You can also buy a database of contacts or talk to a booking agency about doing the work. Another great tip is to look at where bands similar to your level and genre are playing in other cities. If those other bands are in cities that you want to play, contact them about “gig-swapping.” It’s always easier to get your foot in the door if there’s an established act on the bill.
When you contact the venue, remember it’s a business proposition. Use some professionalism and explain how you can help them make money – how many people can you really draw? Are you having a press campaign to support your show? What are there benefits from booking your act?
The Other Bits
Talk to your traveling group ahead of time to decide how far you can drive in one day, how many “rest” or sightseeing days you need, etc. You also might want to talk about how often each person can drive. If you are doing large amounts of night shifts, please be safe and have someone stay up with the driver and pull over the moment you feel drowsy.
Other things to consider: finding a sponsor for your tour (see the articles on “how to get a sponsor” on the left menu), visiting sponsors that you might have on board already, asking fans to help promote the show, etc.
Most talent buyers at venues work over email, but some still work exclusively over the phone. Remember this and don’t be afraid of the phone.
Your initial email pitch should be short and to the point. Well, all your emails should be short, but especially the initial one. You don’t need to include your finely crafted band bio written by your drummer’s girlfriend.
The subject line should be the date with all bands you have on the bill. E.g. “Oct 23 – Pink Shoes and Tom Johnson.” Make sure you check the venue’s calendar FIRST and make sure that date is open. Also, don’t ask for a night that is clearly marked on the calendar as a weekly ’80s night or something. You won’t get it, and you’ll piss off the talent buyer because you haven’t done your research. It shows you don’t care about the club.
Keep the email under eight sentences. I personally write my pitch e-mails in lower case letters (believe it or not this is how most people in the music industry communicate).
Only bring people on the road who are absolutely necessary for your operation to work while still making a profit. Meaning, if you’re just starting out, you’re probably not going to have the luxury of bringing a tour manager, sound guy, merch manager, photographer, road documentarian or lighting
tech for a few years. These duties are extremely important and you can’t just ignore them because you don’t have the people to do these jobs. If you’re a solo artist, then most likely you’re going to have to cover all of these jobs yourself – or find people in each city to help out. If you’re in a band, you MUST allocate these duties.
There are important duties that you should do the day of the show as well.
When you’re on tour, merch is your #1 income generator. So if you want your tour to be financially successful, make sure you have lots of merch and a credit card swiper (Square is free and hooks up to an iPhone/Droid). Also, make sure you have someone running your merch every night. If you don’t have a merch person on the road with you, then find someone in each city, every night, to cover this.
If you’re a singer-songwriter then playing living rooms, backyards, basements and house concerts should be a part of every tour. All it takes is one fan in a city to be extremely excited about you. Organize the show at their place (typically has to be a weekend) and require a minimum guaranteed payment (I usually set it at $350). Ask them to charge their guests around $15 and explain that if they get enough people in there to cover your minimum payment then they get a free concert. Possibly give them a percentage of the income after the minimum to cover snacks, and as a reward for hosting it.
I’ve had some of my favorite (and most profitable) shows in people’s homes. You don’t need to promote these (as it’s the host’s responsibility) and you’ll sell a lot of merch. People love the personal connection. Schedule these on nights where you haven’t been able to book a club or in cities where you really don’t think you’ll have a dra.
Include a link to a live video and a link to your website and/or Facebook. Talk about your history in the area (if any) and explain briefly how you’re going to promote it. MOST IMPORTANTLY: say how many people you expect to get out for this show. This is what 98% of talent buyers care about.
+50 is the Magic Number
Most venues will want you to put the bill together, but sometimes they will happily place a proven local act similar to your style on the bill. It’s best, though, if you can take a complete bill to the venue.
When Myspace was around, it was very easy to find bands similar to your style in any city and quickly listen to them and see what kind of buzz they had. Now that Myspace is virtually extinct, the closest service that can be used for this purpose is ReverbNation. However, not all bands are on this site, so you may have to do a little bit more digging, but it’s a good place to start. Consider doing “show trades” in a few cities you’ve never been to before.
Most original music clubs will not offer guarantees. They will give you a cut of the door (most likely after expenses, ranging from $50 – $350 for smaller clubs). A typical deal for clubs these days is a 70%-100% cut for 21+ venues, 70-85% for 18+ venues, and around 50-70% cut for all-age venues with higher off-the-top expenses. You don’t have much negotiating power if it’s your first time through and you aren’t proven, so you’re going to basically take what you can get. But these are good guidelines to stick to so you know when you should be moving on to another venue in that town.
Expect to set (or pitch) your ticket price around what most shows on their calendar are. Meaning, if you contact a club and every show’s cover is $15-25, don’t expect to charge $6 for your show. Most clubs will allow you to set your cover (within reason). I always recommend that up-and-coming touring acts set their covers around $10-12. Fans understand that you’re on the road and they will pay a little more for touring acts.
If you have a large cover repertoire, it’s a completely different ballgame. I don’t play cover bars so I don’t know this circuit, but I know it exists and that you can get guarantees. Most likely they will book their local cover bands first, but you could get lucky.
You can see why I start this process five months out. Once you are about two months out you should start promotion. At a bare minimum, you should send posters to each venue (ask them how many they’d like). Make sure you budget for this. Have a blank space at the bottom of the promo poster to fill in the show’s details.
Promoting shows is another post in and of itself, but make sure you get creative with your promo and make sure you budget for it.
If you don’t promote the show, no one will come. Simple as that. Don’t expect the venue to do anything more than including your name in their weekly newspaper ad, listing you on their website and putting up the posters you send them in their club.
+Shows Sell, Events Sellout
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