Hit the Road: The Beginner’s Guide to DIY Music Touring

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Touring is a nearly indispensable part of a musician’s life and one of the keys to a successful career. Here’s how to get started on it.

Music touring is a nearly indispensable part of a musician’s life and one of the keys to a successful career. Here’s how to get started on it.

Touring has long been an integral aspect of “making it” as a musician. It is an important part of growing your fanbase and building your brand and is perhaps as old as the profession of music itself. What else is a medieval “traveling bard” but a touring musician making his/her way from town to town finding new audiences and patrons for her/his music? The late-20th century may have romanticized the notion of touring hijinx, but touring in the 21st century requires the same degree of level-headedness, planning, and professionalism as any other aspect of building a successful brand as a musician. Here are some tips to help get you started on the road.

1. Know Whether You’re Ready to Begin Touring

Perhaps the most important part of doing a tour, whether it’s a 3-day weekend tour, or a week-long regional tour, or a several-month national tour is knowing whether you’re ready to do it. This involves asking yourself several important questions and answering them honestly.

Will a tour actually help your b(r)and?

Touring and playing in different cities has multiple benefits. Repeatedly playing the same venues to the same audiences in your hometown leads to fatigue and diminishing returns when it comes to your audience attending your shows. Plus, how many of your band’s t-shirts are your friends and local fans going to buy? This is one of the best reasons to get out of town once in a while; it gives you the chance to play to new audiences while also giving your local audience a chance to miss you. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, after all. 

However, you also have to keep in mind the question of whether you have actually exhausted all avenues for growth within your local scene and/or whether you have any chance of drawing an audience in the other towns you’re planning on playing. Do you have friends and/or fans there who will come to the shows and support you? The answer to this shouldn’t necessarily be a deterrent to deciding to tour, but realistic expectations are important to setting yourself achievable goals and planning your tour.

Can you afford to go on tour?

Here’s a harsh truth: It’s virtually guaranteed that you will end up spending more money on your first tour than you will make off it. Between the costs of fuel, tolls, food, inevitable vehicular repairs, and missed paychecks from your day job that you took time off to go on tour, touring can be an expensive business. If you’re lucky, some of the costs will be offset by merch sales, which will be the primary source of income on the tour. 

Therefore, you need to be honest with yourself about whether you can actually afford to go on tour. That involves being able to buy food and fuel, and, if applicable, renting a van and trailer as well as paying your merch guy/girl and driver, actually being able to carry merch with you on tour, plus some left over for the inevitable emergencies you will have. 

Are you physically and mentally prepared for the road?

Life on the road is literally that: you’re going to be living on highways with occasional breaks to play music. It’s physically and mentally demanding and not everyone is cut out for the long hours on the road, lack of sleep, bad diet, limited access to bathrooms and showers, and being in close quarters for prolonged periods with several other similarly sleep-deprived and possibly smelly, cranky humans. And don’t forget, you have to go on stage while in that state and put on a show for a bunch of people who likely have no idea who you are and probably don’t care, and somehow convince them to like you and care about what you’re doing. Yeah, none of that is easy.

But, if you are eager enough then touring is the crucible upon which you test yourself as a professional musician. Nothing builds chops like learning how to repeatedly hit a stage and put on a show while sleep-deprived. Stressful situations can fragment bands but can also bond committed individuals like few other things can. Coping with setbacks is a learned skill and learning how to deal with problems on the road is something you’ll have to do sooner or later. So don’t let the difficulty of life on the road deter you completely. Just be honest with yourself and what you’re capable of doing, and set your goals and expectations realistically.

2. Do Your Research and Plan Accordingly

Once you have decided that you are indeed ready to hit the road it’s time to start planning. Typically you want to get a real head-start on this, at least 6 months before you plan on hitting the road.

Choose your cities wisely

The first and most obvious decision when it comes to choosing cities is whether it is logistically possible to play those cities. You don’t want to have to crisscross the country wildly while desperately trying to make it from show to show. But, there are other things to keep in mind as well. 

For instance, do you have any friends or fans in those cities? It’s going to be a tough ask to get people to come out to see a completely unknown band play, so it pays to keep an eye on where your spotify or soundcloud listeners are from, as well as to befriend bands in other cities. These connections will come in handy when it comes time to get local bands on the bill in foreign cities in the hope of tapping into their fanbases, as well as possibly having a couch or floor to crash on and a shower to bathe in after the show. You should also take steps to befriend touring bands when they’re in your city because reciprocity is key to the DIY community

Another thing to keep in mind are how big the cities you’re playing in are. Larger cities might be more busy on a random weeknight and might also be more expensive to drive through and park in (oh look, another cost of touring) and this can add up. Some smaller cities or towns might have more vibrant scenes for your genre of music and therefore might be better markets to tap into. Doing your research and reaching out to musicians and promoters in those regions are good ways to get a handle on these factors.

Choose your dates wisely

You’ll want to choose your dates wisely because it’s always harder to get people to come out to a show on a random weekday, but if your tour is any longer than a weekend then this is something you’ll have to deal with. You’ll also want to give yourself enough time to get from city to city and venue to venue while accounting for the kind of weather conditions you’ll have to typically drive in. Driving long distances in the winter months in snowy regions is asking for trouble, while driving at the height of summer brings its own hazards and discomfort. Plus, venues tend to be more busy in the summer months making summer tours are harder to book without the requisite advance planning.

Additionally, if other much more established artists in your genre are also going out on tour then you may want to avoid having to play in the same city on the same night as them, and not force people to choose between seeing them and you.

Choose your venues wisely

It makes little to no sense for you to play at a metal-oriented dive bar if you’re a rapper, singer-songwriter, bedroom pop musician, or literally anything other than a hard rock or metal artist/band. So therefore it pays to identify which venues in your chosen destinations are suited to you and your style of music. Doing your research beforehand also ensures that you know that the venues are available for the dates that you have in mind and decreases the likelihood of you wasting both your and the venue’s time by contacting them about dates that are already booked.

Additionally, knowing how big a venue is might factor into your decision. Having 30 people come to a 100-person venue looks and feels a lot better than having 30 people in a 500-person venue and smaller venues will often give you a better cut of the profits.

Once again, there’s no shame in asking other artists who have played at a venue—which is pretty easy to do in the age of social media—about their experience with the venue in question. Certain venues might sometimes have unsavory reputations, either because of their management or their sound, and it pays to know what to expect.

3. Get the Ball Rolling

Once you have identified the cities and venues and dates that offer you the best opportunities for your b(r)and, it’s time to start getting in touch with the venues and booking those dates, generally 4-6 months before you plan on hitting the road.

Get and properly file contact information for venues and promoters

In the digital age, it’s easy to get contact information for venues and promoters from facebook, yelp and, more recently, indieonthemove. Make sure you have a spreadsheet with all the contact information as well as the status of your communications with venues. Email chains can quickly become confusing, so make sure you have written down all the relevant information about your communication with a venue or promoter and the status of a show at a certain location. Venues also sometimes won’t respond immediately to emails or calls and it’s important to give them time to respond before following up with them.

On a related note, make sure you also have your calendar set up so that once you have our dates set up you can save the information for your load in, soundcheck and stage times for each booked venue.

Make sure your EPK / website / social media / one sheet is ready to go

Having an Electronic Press Kit (EPK) or website is important to you promoting your music to venues and having them book you. Make it easy for the venue to get a feel for what you and your music are about so make sure that you include links for your music and social media presence. Also, make sure you have good images of the band as well as any logos and artwork that may be necessary to promote the show.

Start contacting venues and promoters

It’s usually a good idea to have a template email ready to send out to the venues you have in mind. It needs to be short and to the point, and the subject line should include the dates that you’re looking to book. The body of the email should let the venue know what kind of music you play and include links for your EPK, website, one sheet, and social media so that they can check you out.

Most of the time when you are booking a DIY tour you’ll also have to fill out the bill yourself. If you’re touring alone this means contacting local acts to see if they’re interested in hopping on the bill. You usually want to do this before you contact the venues because venues will definitely be more impressed if you have a bill sorted out beforehand and will be more likely to book you, but it isn’t always necessary. There are always hungry young local acts willing to jump on bills after the venue has been booked.

One good alternative is to contact promoters (after you’ve done your research, same as you would for a venue) and talk to them instead of the venues. Working with a promoter means that they’ll get a cut of whatever your door take is, but it’ll also take some of the pressure off you in terms of communicating with the venues directly, finding local acts to fill out a bill, and promoting the show in a foreign city. Promoters will also generally have dates already lined up at certain venues and have contacts among acts similar to yours making booking certain dates and filling out bills that much easier.

4. Prepare Properly

Once you’ve booked your tour it’s time to prepare for the upcoming tour.

Plan your entire itinerary

It won’t be enough to just map your route from venue to venue on a tour. It’ll also be necessary to plan where you’re going to be stopping along the way, where you will get food and fuel, where you will stop for the night, what time you have to be at any one of these checkpoints, what time load-in and soundcheck are, and so on. As a DIY artist, you probably won’t have the benefit of a tour manager, so you or one of your bandmates is going to have to step up and make sure that someone is responsible for making sure everyone and everything is running according to schedule.

Having everything planned out beforehand also means that you can schedule downtime to relax because you’ll need it.

Start saving and budgeting

As mentioned earlier, touring can be an expensive business, especially if you’re not smart about it. So the earlier you get started on saving money and budgeting your tour, the better. You can make reasonable assumptions about how much food and gas you will consume along the way, but other costs might come into play like equipment and vehicle rentals, repairs, new clothes, new batches of merchandise, and so on.

Get all your equipment serviced

If your check engine light is on, definitely, definitely, get it looked at before you hit the road. Murphy’s law is the law of the road: whatever can go wrong will go wrong, so make sure you take every step possible to minimize this. You will break a string. You will lose a tuning key or cable. The intonation on your guitar will suffer because of the travel and climatic changes. Make sure you are prepared to deal with these foreseeable problems on the fly.

Start promoting

Even if you don’t have an on-ground presence in the cities you’re playing in it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do your best to promote the shows. Social media is always a great way to do this, through Instagram posts/posters and FB groups for music scenes in those cities. But don’t neglect to send physical posters to the venues so that they can be posted at the venues or used as flyers for other bands on the bill to post.

Pack smartly

You only have a limited amount of space in your van and your musical equipment and merch are non-negotiable, so make sure you pack prudently for everything else. You probably don’t need as many changes of clothes as you think, because stage clothes can be recycled, as long as they’re aired out so that they don’t get moldy. But make sure you have enough socks and underwear, of course. Carry a sleeping bag, because it’ll come in handy whether you’re planning on sleeping in your van, on a friend’s floor, or at a campsite. A cooler for water and some kind of healthy snack is also a good idea so that you’re not completely subsisting on chips and soda for the entire duration of your trip. And don’t forget adaptors and extension cords because you’re probably going to be on your phone, laptop or kindle a lot.

Follow-up with the venues and promoters

Between 1 and 2 weeks before the tour, make sure you follow up with the venues and promoters and re-confirm your dates. Shit happens, and sometimes venues get double booked and shows get canceled, so it’s in your best interest to make sure to remind the venues that you’re coming through and to make sure there are no changes in the backline or the scheduling.

5. Have Fun!

That’s pretty much all of what you need to know to start touring. Touring doesn’t have to be a daunting prospect, but it does require proper planning and the more meticulous you are the more likely your tour is to be a success. Always give yourself plenty of time to plan a tour, and keep your expectations and goals realistic.

And remember to have fun. Because ultimately that is what will make the whole experience worthwhile.

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