On the Road Again

Whether you’re in a band or you’re a solo artist, booking your first tour is like jumping into the void. There’s a swirl of mysteries and, yet, a yearning for answers that only taking the leap toward the road can provide. What’s beyond the clubs in your region that you’ve been playing? What will touring be like? How will strangers react to your music? What’s the difference between a grinder, a hoagie and a po-boy? How much do bed-bug bites hurt?

Touring can answer all those questions. Plus nothing tightens up a performance like playing multiple nights on the road.

Here are 10 tips for booking your first indie tour:

• Be ready: If you’re playing original music, have a repertoire of at least one hour you’re very comfortable and happy performing. On your first spin you’ll likely be an opening act playing 30- to 45-minute sets, but a few extra songs under your belt can be helpful if your stage time gets stretched by a no-show band or for any other reason.

• Have a web site: A web site is essential if you’re booking a tour. It’s great to have a stand-alone site, and cheap hosting companies and flexible software like WordPress make that an easy goal. But a free page on Facebook or some other social media site is fine — although these days MySpace is pretty much just about bands spamming other bands. On your site you need a bio, contact info, music and video links if they exist. The rest can come later. These days the vast majority of club booking agents prefer to see and hear you or your band on line when deciding whether or not to schedule a gig.

• Have a product: Hitting the road is great, but you need to attract people who aren’t your friends to away-from-home performances. That requires getting others to spread the word. One of the best ways to get radio stations, newspapers and regional blogs to give you airtime or ink is to release a product, which can range from a full length CD, an EP or even an on-line only release. If you’re not affiliated with a label, simply getting your product on CD Baby, which requires a minimal fee, can get your music access to all of the major on-line outlets including Amazon and iTunes.

• Get an anchor date: Pick a key city that you want to play. Book your first gig there, and then look at the map. Your goal is to book as many potentially paying shows to that city and back home. Having a goal like this makes targeting cities simple. You should be excited about the anchor gig. Shoot for a location or club that has some emotional value to you. Emotional rewards might be the only kind you ever get on the road, so make it count. If you need a refresher on how to book gigs, check this piece that appeared on Gibson.com on September 5.

• Do set-up: Once you’ve booked your show, send posters to each venue at least 30 days before you are scheduled to play it. Then call or email the club’s production person at least two weeks before to let them know about your stage configuration: how many people, amps, vocal mikes, size of drum kit, D.I. inputs, etc. Rational club management teams appreciate professionalism and courtesy. Those qualities, along with a good performance, can sometimes get you invited back even if you don’t have the best showing at the door, and returning to a market multiple times is one of the key ways to build an audience there.

• Gear: Do not depend on clubs to provide gear for you. Many venues in major cities have backlines available that include drums (typically sans kick pedal, cymbals, snare and throne) and bass and guitar amps. But in most places across the U.S. you’re expected to bring your own gear to gigs. Every piece of it, including cables, extra strings and duct tape, which are all road essentials. Hey, if you’re serious about tone, you’ll probably want to play through your own amp anyway.

• Fuel: A word about gas prices. Any indie touring musician can tell you how much high gas prices have damaged their income over the past five years. In some states the per-gallon cost has doubled. Given that you’ll be lucky to pull in $50 a night as an opener in most music rooms on your first indie tour, burning through even just a single tank of gas a day will more than eat that money up. For that reason alone it’s smart to travel in one vehicle. Of course, the ancillary benefit of putting everyone in one car or van is enhanced esprit de corps.

• Financial planning: Take some time to estimate costs before you leave – maybe even before you book, unless you’re already sure you can afford to pay for your inaugural run. Depending on region, gas is going to cost about $65 to $80 per tank. You will probably cover 250 to 300 miles per tank in a band-sized vehicle. (Think mini-van instead of 15-footer.) Hotels will run about $40 to $50 a pop, and if you book ahead and use Priceline or other discount web sites, you can stay at decent two-star joints for that cost, instead of flophouses. Nothing kills a post-gig buzz more than coming back to the hotel at 3 a.m. to find police tape across the entrance of the room next door, or having to wear a hat for the next two days because bed bug bites have made your ears look like Alfred E. Newman’s. And then there’s food. Cheap as fast food may be, do not eat it every day. There will be nasty consequences. Having a charge card is a great hedge against problems, so try to have one in good standing before you roll.

• The kindness of strangers: Ever since the punk rock revolution of the ’70s a lot of bands simply count on fans or new friends putting them up in each town. Usually this works out fine, save for a bit of discomfort from sleeping on floors and couches or in the van when luck fails. But be aware that this can have its pitfalls. If you don’t want to party all night long and other people do, you’re going to get tired and burn out. If you’re allergic to pets, expect that every home you visit will have at least two of them who want to rub up against you. Don’t like to carry cockroaches home in your duffel? Hey, they need a nice place to stay, too. And on top of that you’re stepping into other people’s lives. I’ve experienced the arguing couple, the naked sleepwalker, the vomiting rookie, the acid tripping space king and the closet drug dealer enough times to never want to leave accommodations to chance again.

• Embrace the positive: Sure, lots of things can go wrong on the road, but, with just a bit of luck and practice, every time you step on stage it’s going to go profoundly right. Nothing feels better than playing live music in front of people who get it, and sharing the kind of deep non-verbal communication that happens among musicians on stage. Be prepared for the worst, but always, always anticipate the best.