In The Mix Series. Touring: The Tools Of The Trade

Share

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. 

  • Write great songs. Duh! Right? Seems like something that doesn’t need to be said, but you can’t have anything else without great songs. This is actually the simplest part of the process, but at the same time, incredibly difficult.  
  • Start out by taking any gig, anywhere, for any money. You may take on a ton of bad gigs, but nothing improves a band more than playing in front of people. You won’t know you have great songs until an audience reacts to them. It might even take a long time to find the audience that responds to your music. Also, by playing live as often as you can, your band will start to form its own unique sound – one that sets it apart from everyone else.  
  • Make a show. Too few bands know how to make their live performance a “show.” Most bands have members who stare at their instruments, take long pauses between songs, and act like they are in a school recital. One of the first managers that booked the Beatles regularly would come to the front of the stage and scream at the young boys to “Make show!” Every night he would hound them to do something worth watching, not just listening to. It was this constant prodding that helped the Beatles learn to be showmen. Dolf told the story of the Avett’s who got their first booking agent when the agent came to a show and saw Scott Avett playing a black banjo. Something about that black banjo, along with the band’s energetic show, got that agent to know he had a band worth promoting in the Avetts. It’s the only agent the band has had for their entire career.  
  • Connect with the audience. Your songs, your appearance, your and communication between songs have to connect with the audience and you have to be aware each and every time what works and what doesn’t. Then after the show, you have to be ready to interact with them. Dolph told the story of how Richard Petty carried NASCAR on his back by simply staying around after races to sign his autograph to anything that anyone wanted for as long as it take. In this internet age, that also means connecting with your fans on social media. Understand, some of your fans might not be your favorite kind of people. Some might be downright scary. Treating each one with respect – yes, even when they don’t deserve it – is a life skill you need to learn. 
  • Promote. You can not, at any level, rely on the club to promote you. And you can’t rely on their regulars to fill the room. You have to learn to promote yourself. I hear a lot of people ask, “Why does that guy’s band get played on the Bridge. We are so much better than him.” Most of the time, I have to agree that their band is better than the band on the radio, or the one getting the good gigs. However, the ones getting the good gigs are the ones who are not shy about promoting themselves.  
  • Constantly graduate. You know you are ready to step up when people you don’t know fill up the spaces between your friends, and the clubs you are playing seem too crowded. That’s when you look to bigger clubs, and better pay. The guys with Shinedown and the Avetts are still looking for new markets to conquer. They might play a stadium in one market and then a 250 person venue in another. A reason they continue to be successful is that they don’t stop seeking out new fans.  
  • Get out. You can only do so much in your hometown. Learn to create a show at home, and then see how it plays on the road. You’ll have to repeat everything you’ve done in your hometown, but without the support of friends. Get a map and take a look at everything within a two hour drive. In Charleston, look to Savannah, Columbia, Myrtle Beach. Heck, Summerville may be far enough away from your crowd base to consider that a new market. Start out by going back to my second point above: play anywhere in these markets for any price. The reason to stick with markets in a two hour drive is that you can get back to them regularly. Make it a point of not letting six weeks go by without returning to these markets. Six weeks is a good time between shows in a new market, so the people who liked your last show can remember to bring friends to the next show. Notice, though, that if you are playing Savannah, Columbia, Myrtle Beach, Summerville, etc every six weeks, you won’t have time to play your hometown as much. That’s the idea. If you play Charleston once every six weeks or so after building a big crowd, you can have great big shows at home to make you feel good after playing to nobody in Myrtle Beach. 
  • Stay out. Once you’ve conquered a new market, stretch yourself. Charlotte, Raleigh, Wilmington, and Macon, are all on the map if you zoom out once more. If you’ve got fans in Columbia, that’s a great time to book a show in Columbia on Friday, and make it to Charlotte on Saturday. Find out what it’s like to live with your band mates for a weekend.  
  • Give it up. This is all a lot of work. At some point you have to give up some or most of these duties. All of the panelists at the In The Mix seminar agreed that the person or people that take on these duties for you, needs to be your champion. It is important that this person believes in you, is in line with your goals, and will improve you in every aspect. This person could be with a major player like William Morris Agency or be someone who happens to come to all your shows and helps load gear from time to time. 

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.