In the third installment of In The Mix, a series of seminars on the Music Industry led by Mark Bryan as part of the course he teaches at the College of Charleston, the panel talked about Touring.
The panel consisted of Eric Bass of Shinedown, and band managers Dolph Ramseur (whose clients include the Avett Brothers and Carolina Chocolate Drops), and Jerrod Wilkins (Duncan Sheik, Ray Davies, NY Dolls and several others). I would have liked to have had a tour manager, booking agent, and concert promoter as well on the panel to provide some other perspectives, but it seemed that this group gave Mark’s students what they needed to know about the industry.
Something Eric Bass said stuck with me more than anything. When asked about stories on the road, he avoided anything about groupies, drugs, or the typical myths of hard living rock legends. He told the story of being at the Verizon Center when he was about 11 or 12 and seeing a band like Van Halen. At that concert, he recalls coming close to tears with the desire to someday be on that stage. It was a need within that little boy’s gut. Eric apparently forgot about that moment for most of his life. Until the day he was on the stage at the Verizon Center, playing bass, and looking up at the spot where the young Eric once stood with moist eyes, staring down at that stage. Remembering that moment caused the adult Eric to almost lose his place in the song.
So how did Eric go from grade school to the big stage? It took a lot more than puberty and great tattoos.
In this day, bands have to tour if they are going to make money. There is no way they can rely upon record sales. You also can’t make it by staying in your hometown and playing to your friends.
The panel had some great advice. Eric had another solid quote, “The toes you step on today will be the foot that kicks you in the ass tomorrow.” In other words, don’t be a jerk. Treat other bands and crew with respect.
There was a disagreement on whether opening for other bands was worth the effort. For Shinedown, Eric claimed that joining with other bands opened up new markets, and one of Jerrod’s smaller artists used an opening tour with Queens of the Stone Age to sell over 200 CDs a show. On the other hand, Dolf found out that when the Avetts opened for Dave Mathews Band, the DMB fans stayed away from the venue until DMB came on stage; and the Avetts would have done better for themselves if they would have done their own tour in smaller venues. Whether opening for other bands or touring on their own, each band needs to find out the avenues that will help grow their audience.
In the audience were members of Charleston bands, who may be hoping to be a touring band someday. The kind who can look at the touring plan for Dave Mason that Jerrod presented to the group (the spreadsheet showed a gross take of $75,000 for the opening night of the tour – what band wouldn’t want that?)
So how does a band go from making $400 on a Thursday at the Midtown Bar and Grill to grossing $75,000 at a California amphitheater that requires a crew, drivers, and flight schedule?
Here is a road map that I’ve seen a lot of bands follow.
Now, here is what I find the most important part, if you are in a band, or judging the career possibilities of bands: playing live is the ultimate test. It is the baptism by van. For anyone who has ever picked up an instrument, and written songs with other people, being in a band is either who you are, what you do, or what you like. You fit in one of those three categories.
Anyone can say that playing in a band is what they want to do the rest of their lives, but is it what you want to do this weekend? In Raleigh? To five half drunk people? Book 80-100 shows in a year and you’ll find out what kind of band you are in. You will find out what kind of musician you are.
Book those 100 shows a year, and the first person who says, “Aw man, I don’t know that I can do that,” is the person for whom being in a band is what they like. Sure, if the show is playing a big arena, or selling out a big local venue, they will do it. But driving two hours to play to ten people, they are not so sure. They may tell you they have to check with their significant other, or let you know they can’t play on nights their favorite team is playing, or just don’t want to be away from home that much for so little pay.
The person who seems to measure their desire on how much they will get paid, is the one for whom being a musician is what they do. If the tour was playing covers on a cruise ship for ten times the money, they’d be up for that. Or, they are so concerned about their day job, that they won’t try to figure out a way to handle both. They are the ones for whom this is a job. It’s more what they do, and less who they are.
The band member, or full band, who says “heck yeah, just tell me where and when to be and I’ll play,” is the one for whom being in a band is what they are called to do. It is who they are. There is no Plan B, and everything in their life, their job, who they date, what they do with their free time, is all about playing music.
Labels, managers, and even fans, want the band members who are not faking it. The players who do it because that is who they are, through and through.
The truth is, in your musical journey, you may fit in all three of these categories from time to time. Same with your band mates. People change. And who they say they are may be very different than who they actually are. Go out for 80-100 shows, and you’ll know who you’ve got.
How good you are at playing does not correlate with which category you fit. The worst player in the band may be the one who is the most committed. The one who does this as a job may become the greatest studio musician on the planet, but does not like the road. The hobbyist, the one who kinda likes it, but won’t make sacrifices for it, may be the one blessed with perfect pitch and a metronome heart, but finds playing as easy, yet as boring, as breathing.
If you’re big here, find out if you can handle the road. I know Stop Light Observations can sell out the Music Farm and do a music conference or festival show, but how will the guys get along, grow, and improve if they do 80 shows in the next 10 months? Prove to the labels that you don’t need them as much as they need you. A Fragile Tomorrow can go to Europe with K’s Choice for a tour, but can they build a following in the southeast with 100 shows in a year not opening for any major acts? The Tarlatans have a great sound and have ventured out for a weekend here and there. How about leaving town, and booking 30 shows in six weeks to promote your next CD?
Try it. If it is successful, do it again, but bigger. Get those fans. Grow your markets.
Go from the Verizon Center audience to the stage one show at a time. You won’t get there by hoping it will happen.
Granted, this blog veered away from the topic of the In The Mix Series. Something great about these seminars is that they are idea and conversation starters. We should all go to these and get drinks afterwards. It would be fun. I suggest you make the next one: Music Gone Viral, April 21st. It’s like Girls Gone Wild. Except that it is nothing like that. But for the whole internet and appeal thing. And Mark Bryan will not be topless.