Every year, my various social channels are inundated with various unsigned DIY musicians who just want to live the dream one more time, pack their jobs in, strap their guitars on their backs and throw caution to the wind; “Hey, I’m looking to go on tour soon…”
Unfortunately, a lot of people want to go on tour, see the country, meet new people and put their brand of whatever alternative music they play into the faces of otherwise unknown audiences – but they just don’t know how to. Unless you’re fairly well-known, on a booking agency or signed to a label that will pay for everything ever, a tour will not just materialise – booking and carrying out a string of gigs in different places is long, tedious, tiring and painful. But it’s oh so worth it. So I decided, based on the experiences in my tour diaries from both the “Let’s Go Somewhere” tour two years ago, and the “One Way, Non-Stop to Anywhere” tour the year before that, to write up a few things that might help other musicians get out of their bedrooms and on the road. Because honestly, it’s next year or it’s never. Or it’s the next year. Or the next year. Or the next year. Or it’s never.
When do you want to go?
First things first – when is the best time to go on tour? Will you go for a continuous few days or weeks, or split it up into weekends? Consider when you usually go to the most gigs – other audiences may have similar patterns – and if you’re going to be out on the road continuously, take account of what you’ll expect the weather to be like. Check with your band mates (if you have any) when they’re free to travel and play – what you don’t need is to have sorted the entire tour just to find out your rhythm section can’t make it after all.
Once you’ve nailed down the exact two-week period and season you’ll be travelling, made sure everyone is available and made a brief pattern of dates, the next step is…
Plan your route
I cannot stress this one enough, as it’s often overlooked and can cause serious issues for people later on. It’s even more important if you’re taking public transport – which can be done, it just requires even more meticulous planning. If you skim over or skip this step completely, you’ll probably find yourself travelling for six plus hours on more than one occasion, to get to the gig and play completely dead on your feet. You won’t enjoy it, and neither will the audience.
Using a tool like Google Maps is all you need to do at this stage, really. Check out how far each major town you’d like to visit is from another, and consider how long that will make your travel time – and how much each trip will cost (in either petrol or transport fares). Make a note of all of these costs and match up each place to the dates you set out previously, as you’ll need this information for the next part…
Do your research and contact promoters
You’ve got your dates and you’ve got your places. Now you need to reach out to the people who will make your gigs happen – the independent promoters. I tend to find that this is the most tedious part of sorting out a tour, mainly because many promoters do not respond, others will try to rip you off, and others still will just mess you around. To minimise these issues, speak to your fellow musicians – which promoters have they worked with in recent months? Who helped them out the most? From this initial research, you can make the contacting process much easier. Try to find a few promoters for each place you want to play, then put all of your potential contacts into a file for easy access later.
Now you’ve got your list, you’ll need to contact each promoter. As a promoter myself, I tend to find that making it as easy as possible for them will usually lead to a more positive response. Include in your message or email your band name (obviously); what style of music you play; the fact that you are booking a tour and the dates you are available; any notable bands you’ve played with in the past (so that they’ll have an idea of what line ups you’d go well on); and a link to your Facebook, some recorded music (if you have it), and – the most important part in my experience – a link to a YouTube video of your live show. If a promoter doesn’t have enough time to go through all of your other information, a video will more than likely give them a quick, easy way to gain an idea of what your live music is like, and making it easier for them will make getting a gig easier for you!
One of the most important parts of agreeing a gig with promoters for small, naive bands is avoiding the Monto culture. If a promoter tells you to play for free, say no. If they tell you to buy 50 tickets from them and sell them on, say no. If they say “you must bring X amount of people or we won’t pay you,” say no. If they say “you’ll benefit from all the exposure,” say no – exposure won’t fill up a petrol tank. All bands are expected to promote their own gigs – you want a good crowd to turn up, don’t you? – but it’s hardly an obligation. You are providing entertainment for a night that, without you, might not have an acceptable gig – you should be paid for your time and skill, and you should not have to pay for anything aside from travel and food – which are usually the expenses that good promoters will offer to cover in return for you playing the gig anyway.
Agreeing to play the gig for the amount it costs you to get there and eat is usually a good starting point. As an independent act, you don’t have representation to pay, and if you’re looking to get rich off playing your first tour, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. That being said, don’t go too far the other way. Some bands have been told somewhere down the line that offering to play for a ridiculous guarantee (£90 for a band nobody’s ever heard of is an example) will get them taken more seriously. It will, more than likely, just get you a flat out no. I personally would never give a ridiculous guarantee to an out-of-town band who are opening a night – it’s just not economical. In fact, Ian at United Cambridge recommends expecting to lose money on the first tour – building a following across the country is more than likely going to be worth it in the long run. Your second tour – where you actually draw people in – is where you can start asking for bigger guarantees.
Don’t forget to follow up correspondence with promoters, and try to keep them in mind even if they don’t give you a gig on this occasion – this won’t be your last tour, will it? Keeping a good relationship with promoters is a golden rule for independent musicians – we’ll come back to that later.
Logistics, logistics, LOGISTICS!
So, you’ve booked all of your tour dates, your band is ready to go, and you’ve made a snazzy poster. Don’t just expect to go out there and play the gigs, though – you’ve come this far, you need to cover all of the angles. Those angles now mainly consist of:
How are you getting around? Most artists will have a van or a big car in which to ferry everything from place to place. Does your car have insurance and tax to cover the tour? How many drivers are there? If there’s only one, they’d better be everyone’s best friend throughout. Do you have breakdown cover? A sat-nav? Considering every possible eventuality will save you a world of inconvenience later – speaking of which, aren’t you glad you planned your route in advance?
If you’re not lucky enough to have a car, be able to drive or know someone else who can drive you, all hope is not lost – you just need to get creative. Feralus – before they were Feralus – coined the term “Megabus Tour” and made a really nice paint picture of them going from gig to gig on the Megabus. The key for public transport tours is to book everything well in advance – you want it to be as cheap as possible. Check out various travel options: would a train be cheaper than a coach? Is National Express cheaper than Megabus for one particular journey? Is the coach station nearer to the venue than the train station? Touring by public transport is difficult, but very doable if you consider all of your options – we toured for two weeks on buses and trains in the summer of 2011, and made every single gig.
In the words of Amy MacDonald, “where you gonna’ go? Where you gonna’ sleep tonight?” It’s a very, very important question. The last thing you need when you get to a gig is wondering, once the venue has closed up and the audience has gone home, where exactly you’re getting your head down before the journey the next day. We faced this exact problem in Canterbury once, and luckily, an old friend of mine happened to be at the gig and gave us a place to crash. Another time, in Cardiff, we weren’t so lucky – we sat in a Burger King all night where Sweep and I watched a seagull patrol the high street for many, many hours. Not a great evening.
Consider your options. Do you have enough money for a hostel or B&B? Has the promoter included a floor to crash on in your gig payment? Do you have any friends nearby who can help you out? Last-ditch attempts of finding a person at the gig with a spare floor are perfectly acceptable in this situation. Or, the best case scenario – are you playing in a place near to your hometown where an hour or two’s drive will allow you to sleep in your own bed? It’s still a tour, just with creature comforts and home cooking. It’s also important to remember your driver(s) in these scenarios – if there’s one bed, one sofa or one pile of cushions going, chances are, they should probably have it.
And by that, I don’t mean savings bonds and a cash ISA. You’ve agreed your gig payments with promoters, you’ve planned your route to be as convenient and cost-effective as possible, and you’ve considered your modes of transport. How much is it all going to cost?
Like I said earlier, anyone looking to get rich off a first tour is going about getting rich the wrong way. Even bands that are paid £500+ per gig have day jobs, and that’s because of one simple fact – tours cost money. The first thing to consider is, are you breaking even? Will this tour leave you more penniless than if you hadn’t gone, and if so, by how much? Secondly, if you have a band, have all the costs been split equally? Introducing money into an equation with your friends is not easy, but it is necessary. You’ll need to consider insurance, tax, parking and petrol for your tourmobile, public transport fares, food, guitar strings, hostels, alcohol… the list goes on, and you’re best off keeping a record of all of these in some kind of ledger.
I was left considerably more broke than the others on tour in 2011 purely because I paid for far more than they did on the promise I would be paid back. Don’t do this. You’ll feel like a dick if you have to keep reminding people, so you might as well avoid the situation altogether by splitting the costs fairly in the first place.
This is luggage in two senses: firstly, you’ll need to pack light, and pack essentials. Keys, wallet, ID, phone and charger are the things I find most essential. I’ve also seen so many gigs where Tomás Kalnoky or Barney Boom or Giles Bidder constantly wear the same t-shirts on stage. Sure, it stinks, and you won’t want to hug anyone, but when it’s out of carrying (for public transport tours) or storing your massive suitcase in place of your music equipment, it’s a no-brainer – you don’t need an entire summer wardrobe to play a gig. You do need your guitar in its unnecessarily massive and heavy hardcase adorned with punk rock stickers. Plus, the heavier the tourmobile is, the more petrol you’re going to get through – just leave anything superfluous at home.
Secondly, you’ll need to consider your entourage. Everyone wants to go on tour with their best friends, it’ll be a laugh, and you’ll just love having them along. They can do your merch, or big you up to people in the audience. At the same time, though, more people also means more liability. There were several occasions on tour where not having an entourage would have been ideal; like not having to find every last person before boarding a coach, or not having to pass up a floor to sleep on because there wasn’t enough space for everyone. If you do want to bring people with you, remember – just like the rest of the band, they also have to pay their way.
You’ve planned every last detail, and you’ve made it to the gig. Go you! Now, you’ve played a gig before – why is this any different? Well, for starters, you’re playing to an unfamiliar crowd in a place you’ve never been, so there are some things to consider. Firstly, respect your set time. You’re playing for a promoter who doesn’t know you, and going over your set time throws the entire night into disarray for them. They won’t invite you back to play again. Secondly, set up and pack down efficiently – you don’t need the hometown hero band you’re supporting getting annoyed either, as their fans tend to care what they think, and their fans won’t become your fans as a result.
Thirdly, make sure you promote, promote, promote! These people are seeing you for the first time ever, and you’ve spent loads of time and effort planning for this moment. Mention your band name a few times throughout the set. Do you have merchandise? Mention that, too. What about a website, Facebook or Twitter? You want these people to come and find you, and come to your next gig in their town. You could be the best band ever, but if nobody knows who you are, they’re not going to find you again (here’s looking at you, Mr. I’m-Not-Telling-Anyone-My-Name-Is-Lost-On-Campus Rob Lynch).
Most of all, have fun. You’ve worked to get here, enjoy it! There’s no better feeling than having several days of meticulous organisation pay off with half an hour on an unfamiliar stage playing your heart out to people who don’t know you, but are following your every chord.
A few tips and tricks from the road
This is more an afterthought – the bits of this tutorial that don’t really fit anywhere else in a relatively straightforward, quick-fire format.
Chain coffee shops, whilst annoyingly abundant and disgustingly tax-evading, make for great downtime spots when you arrive into town early. Sweep bought one cup of coffee in a Caffé Nero once in Nottingham, which meant that all of us could charge our mobile phones, use the toilet, and even get a few minutes nap time on the sofas. And for those wondering, no – it was not, in the words of Richard Heaven, “like that episode of the Simpsons where Bart and Homer smuggled beer into town.”
Travelling to somewhere out of London from Zone 2, as in, “not via London,” even if you live in London, makes things quite a bit cheaper for everyone.
Keeping a second mobile phone battery charged, especially if you have a really power-hungry smartphone, is always a good call. You’ll always need it at 2am when you’re nowhere near a plug socket but need to use a map to find your way back to a station before the last train.
Combine going into supermarkets just before closing time with the many, many offer glitches you can take advantage of at self-service checkouts. When you can buy dinner for five people for less than £8, you know you’re on to a winner.
Keep a record of things. Not just a ledger of finances, but take some photos of where you’re going, when you see something interesting, or play in a particularly excellent looking venue. Keep a tour diary to tell people of your exploits, or remind yourself of the good times – or how to build on the next tour. It’s all promotional content for future endeavours!
Hitch-hiking is cheaper than paying for transport, but it’s also unreliable and often leaves you at the mercy of the elements. Consider referencing resources like HitchWiki or even BlaBlaCar when looking at hitch-hiking part or all of your tour. Remember, time is money, and you might only end up saving a few pounds in return for hours of holding your thumb out on the A30.
Busking in a town where there are no or very few laws against it is a good way to make a bit of extra money, weather-permitting. Even if you spend the entire haul on Scrumpy Jacks from Tesco Metro in Norwich.
If you can’t do everything yourself, ask for help. Some people are better at different aspects of tour management than others, and if your bassist is better at sorting out gigs in certain towns whilst you focus on transport, you’ll get everything sorted out a lot quicker than if you take on the whole burden.
Most of all, have fun! You won’t always be able to just up and gallivant across the country, so enjoy playing gigs every night and mitigating hangovers during the day – it’s a worthwhile experience, and that’s why we all do it.
I hope this little guide will help you out in your touring endeavours in the future, and if you think I’ve missed something, or if you’re up for sharing your own tour experiences, feel free to comment or shoot me a message on Facebook or Twitter. As I mentioned previously, this is all from personal experience – I myself am a promoter and know quite a few, as well as knowing some pretty cost-efficient ways to get around on public transport. I’m no ultimate authority, but I like to think we can share what we know – I want to see more independent musicians coming to my town, and I hope you do, too. See you on the road!