Friday, November 27, 2009

The Keys to Failure: Tour Edition

I just completed a 60-date tour around the US in a '93 Plymouth Voyager minivan with a very skilled bassist and drummer, a 70 lb doberman/german shepherd (for the first half) and a tour manager in tow. We were homeless for 77 days in all. It was the single most educational experience in all my 11 years of touring and, for almost all intents and purposes, a success.
Here are some of the many lessons I learned:


Simply put, as an independent touring artist you cannot afford to be frivolous about money (unless you are one of those trustafundians from Williamsburg). There is nothing artistic about being fiscally irresponsible, just as there is nothing artistic about being a drug addict... this goes double for those that want to play progressive music - you have to be twice as business savvy if your music is twice as hard to digest as the average musician's. The two opposing perspectives I have always wrestled with have settled into this one congruent precept: idealism in art, realism in business.

A. There are two types of listeners: those that show up, and those that don't.

B. Keep spreadsheets of everything, and record your expenses daily so that you can spot a bad pattern early on.

C. Keep a good list of contacts, both of the shows you did, and the Carrots* you met - color code the shows by how good they were.

D. Help the band you're on tour with however you're able, share floor space and food costs with each other as often as possible.

E. When someone actually fills your rider, leave no crumb behind.

F. Never forget that Merch is where you make the bulk of your money.
   1. Be sure to have credit card capabilities at the merch table: CDbaby swiper or iSwipe for the iPhone + Web Payments Pro (Paypal).
   2. The location of your merch table is as important as what's on it.
   3. In an all ages setting, put out all your merch options, and free items as incentives.
   4. In a bar setting, limit your display to 2 CDs and 2 shirts, and keep the freebies away from drunkards.
   5. Deposit cash often but keep ample bank for change.
   6. Keep track of all sales, look for trends and adjust the display/stock accordingly. Experiment with the display constantly.

G. Be transparent about your business with those in the van - that way they're not surprised when they don't get paid much, and you're not surprised when the end of the tour comes and they come looking for the big paycheck. Let everyone know how important it is to stretch money, in real time, and make sure they can see the results.

H. On a big tour, being friends with the crew is of equal or greater importance than being friends with the bands.
   1. They can let your set go over a few minutes, or cut you off a few minutes early.
   2. They work with many many musicians that you would like to hear about you and consider taking you on tour.
   3. You may consider hiring them in the future.
   4. They spend all day with the headliner - a vote of confidence from them is worth a lot more than one from an average citizen.


A. Maximize impact.
   1. Get constant feedback from the road manager, band members, and audience members/fans about what songs/moments had the biggest impact. Never stop fine-tuning your show.
   2. Altering your music to appeal to a wider audience is suspect, altering your set list to appeal to the type of people in the room is just logical.
   3. Find rehearsal spaces as often as you can and use them.
   4. In a bar setting, play your loudest song first and your best song last.
   5. The right kind of charisma in a front man has far more impact than the tightest rhythm section.
   6. Write a short loop-able piece of music for every combination of instruments, so that when one band member has a problem the remaining members can immediately provide a soundtrack for the downtime.

B. Know your sound.
   1. Learn the sound engineer's name and use it on stage.
   2. When a sound man tells you your kick drum will be plenty loud in his club without a mic on it, without having heard your music or your kick drum, insist on a kick drum mic.
   3. Bring along everything you need to operate without a soundman: mics, mic stands, extra cables, a portable PA if possible.
   4. Be aware of your buzzy equipment and bring along ground lifts and power conditioners. Don't be in a position to be educated about your own equipment by a sound engineer (but ask her to educate you about hers).
   5. Bring a soldering kit and learn how to use it.
   6. Don't try to fix your equipment before a performance unless you have at least 3 hours of spare time (so you can find a replacement should you make it worse).
   7. Know how to run a small PA.
   8. Have a 2-minute piece of music that you always soundcheck with. Have it start quiet and slowly reach your loudest volume. Have it feature every instrument/patch/effect. If you check with the same thing every night, you will be able to spot abnormalities in the stage sound faster, and adjust for them. And the sound engineer will love you.

There are generally two types of venues: those that take care of their musicians, and those that expect musicians to take care of them. Unfortunately, there are far less of the former, but when you do find them, return often, and return that respect ten-fold.

A. Concern yourself with the line-up.
   1. Ideally you want your opening act to be attention-holding but non-threatening to your sales.
   2. House music is more cost effective than a horrible opener.
   3. Don't add local bands to the bill that just played a free show in their town 3 days ago
   4. Don't play on 5 band bills - that's the promoter's way of telling you "nobody draws"
   5. Don't let the club pay a DJ to spin after your headlining set. Bring an iPod and keep that DJ money (no offense, DJs).

B. Know who you're dealing with.
   1. Ask for a media list from every promoter. If they don't respond quickly with a list attached, then they are probably not a promoter.
   2. When a promoter tells you that the band you're playing with tonight will be "a good fit for you guys," it means she owed them a favor.
   3. When a promoter asserts "I'm an honest guy," that means he's not.
   4. On a huge tour, advance shows with the headliner's road manager, not the club directly.
   5. When you arrive, take stock: do you see any of your fliers hung in the club? Do you see any around town? Did you get a Facebook event invite from the promoter? If you answered "no" to these questions, challenge the promoter fee.
   6. Ask for stuff - if you don't ask for the hotel rooms, they'll never be offered to you. If you don't ask for a band discount on food, you often won't get it.
   7. If you've been doing shows for 13 years and a club offers you a door deal that seems really weird and illogical but they insist that this is how it's always been done, don't play the club. There's a reason most door deals look similar.

C. Don't rule out open-mic appearances - their audiences are 99% musicians, and usually very open minded (the downside is they're broke).

D. Do reconnaissance: if the town is cool but the show sucked, ask everyone where you SHOULD be playing and with whom. Ask your tour mates for clubs that they enjoyed playing in other towns - pool contacts with all the musicians you meet.

E. Proper routing is of equal importance to the actual quality of the shows you play: if you have to drive 16 hours to play a show (there and back), there is not much chance of you coming out on top financially.


A. Expect the worst show, and be prepared to play your best show.

B. Make an effort to relax on days off.

C. Value the sleep of your band mates as much as your own. If you're awake before everyone else and aren't late to hit the road, shut up until everyone else is sitting up.

D. If you need sleep, tell your host multiple times before arriving at their house. If they are drunk, tell them you have to get something from the van, and then sleep in the van.

E. Don't date anyone in the van.

F. Tour with people you can relate to: comedically, philosophically, financially, musically, etc.

G. When you get access to a kitchen, use it - not just for the nutrition and cost efficiency, but for the soul.

H. Long drives aren't just bad for the wallet, they're bad for the spirit.

Fuel efficiency is everything. Aside from a massive car accident, gas is the single highest expense on a tour, so your mission is to do everything to minimize the use of it.

A. Stay up on your oil-changes and van maintenance. Whatever the cost now, it'll be twice that if you wait (and your mpg will most likely suffer).

B. Observe the speed limit. "While each vehicle reaches its optimal fuel economy at a different speed (or range of speeds), gas mileage usually decreases rapidly at speeds above 60 mph. You can assume that each 5 mph you drive over 60 mph is like paying an additional $0.24 per gallon for gas. Observing the speed limit is also safer." -

C. Use cruise control wherever possible, and overdrive gearing wherever possible.

D. On long drives always give yourself two extra hours for a flat tire.

E. Get AAA. Get AAA.

F. Clean out the van at every other stop. Mold leads to sickness.


A. Bring enough earplugs for the whole tour. Buy in bulk and give them out at your merch table (with each mailing list signature).

B. Be sure to have GPS and an iPhone in the van at all times.

C. Be aware of all band members' allergies in regards to housing and hospitality.

D. Be aware of the climate you're traveling through: air conditioning for the desert, heat for the mountains.

E. Bring the same amount of clothes as your band mates and keep your laundry cycles aligned.

F. When in Philadelphia, bring all your equipment with you everywhere you go. Sleep with your equipment.

- waited too long to get medication once my LA Cough started
- talked too much before the shows, even though my voice was already on its last leg
- played shows in the midwest
- played shows in Pennsylvania
- played venues that allow smoking. The potential listeners will never outweigh the hospital bills and damage to my voice.
- failed to warm up my voice properly before every show
- didn't keep a checklist of equipment (cost me about $220 in gas and shipping)
- repeatedly asked for peanut butter on the rider
- didn't use flip flops while showering in the girls basketball team's locker room at Xavier College
- paid $115 to an "independent contractor" for a parking boot in Chicago. When it is not a state-sponsored boot, wait until the guy is gone and take it off with a lug wrench. Or call the police.

* car⋅rot [kar-uht] –noun
1. Someone who asks for a free "demo" to give to his cousin who works for Sony.
2. An audience member (one of four) that promises the next time you return to town (s)he will personally guarantee a sold out show.
3. A person masquerading as a promoter who claims the ability to put together a show for you at a larger venue in town with a big national act that (s)he "is suuuuuuper tight with." Rolling Stone, Spin, and various MTV sister stations will all be in attendance. NOTE: correspondence will slow to a stop as the projected date grows near.


Anonymous said...

1. Ask for a media list from every promoter. If they don't respond quickly with a list attached, then they are probably not a promoter.

what is a media list ? obviously I am not a promoter...

wintertrees said...

the midwest was really that bad? it sucks that I didn't make it out to your wisconsin shows... I hope that I can see you eventually. I would be a hostess if you ever needed one out here!

this is a really great crash course for touring! awesome tips.

hevans said...

Please don't give up on the Midwest(or at least don't give up on Illinois)....If I have to resort to empty promises, I will.

j00 said...

Hey man, the Shadow Lounge in AVA is known for their 21+ shows--I would've loved to see you, but I have another year to go before I can get into that shit.

I was looking forward to it for a helluva long time--don't rule out Pennsylvania, just come back and play Mr. Smalls or something of the sort.

Nick said...

Thank you for this. My band is about to start touring and I'm going to print this out as a helpful guide! I was at your show in Green Bay and was very impressed.

Anonymous said...

I really hope I wasn't a carrot when my contact fell through and I couldn't help you book a show.

Tim said...

Gavin whenever your touring next you should come to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Don't forget. Add it to a list of possible spots to tour at. Me and a lot of my friends love you and your music keep doin what your doin cause its fantastic.

Just another fan who loves your music. Tim

diesel said...

Check into playing Southgate House if you come back through the Cincy area (yeah, I know you said the Midwest sucks, but if you play the midwest, you get a hell of a lot of fans, and we need you all the more for the lack of good quality bands coming through).

(There was a lot of shit about the Xavier show that didn't add up, btw. Like the fact that the website said tickets for the floor were sold out, but if that's the case, why was it so empty?)

Southgate House is in Kentucky, and you do have to request that it be non-smoking, but they'll grant that request for a show. It's a venue with multiple sized spaces, so it's good for a show.

Another thing about the midwest/south/Kentucky/Indiana/Ohio/Pennsylvania area is that multiple cities are just a couple hours away from each other, play Cincinnati, Lexington, Louisville, and Indianapolis, or head down to Nashville, or there's Dayton and Columbus in Ohio.

Newport Lounge in Columbus I"ve heard is good, SGH in Cincy (technically Kentucky, but it's right across the river from downtown Cincy), or Molly Malone's in Covington would be great venues for you all, I'm not as familiar with Lexington but it's a big college town, so you can draw on that audience, Louisville is your best bet and there's multiple venues there (saw TBS at Oasis last year this time, was awesome) and it's a non-smoking city type thing, so no worries about your voice there, etc. It's also a college town and they have some pretty open-minded folk there. I'll travel to see you, and yeah, if I have my own place by that time, y'all can crash (really crash) there.

AdamD said...

Back in the Link 80 days, this was my philosophy for clean clothing. Keep in mind we were showering on average twice a week and sweating our asses off every night:

Socks: change everyday. keep all dirty socks in a sealed plastic bag, or throw away if you can afford it. Try to get "clean socks" added to your rider.

Underwear: change every 2-3 days. GoldBond or something on your balls keeps things from getting too swampy.

Shirt: These can last up to a week if you change before going on stage. Keep a stage shirt handy to keep your shirt for the rest of the day clean-ish. hang it out the window of the van (weather permitting) to dry.

Pants: Never change. You can wear the same pair of black jeans until they are visibly crusty. Don't wipe your hands on them if you can help it. Spot cleaning can keep them looking good for a whole two month tour.

Other thoughts pertaining to tour cleanliness and health:

-Wash your hands and face often, at every gas stop if you can manage. be it a quick rinse or a full head-neck-hand-forearm cleansing, it will help to keep you healthy, feeling cleanish, positive and awake. It'll also cut down on weird zits.

-a big ecomomy-sized bottle of chewable vitamin c tablets not only keeps everyone healthy, but provides a fun treat!

-No dirty clothes inside the van, ever. Keep it bagged up, sealed in your luggage and in the trailer if you have one.

-When you do get a hotel room, use it to the fullest potential. steal extra towels off of the cleaning lady's cart. take the toilet paper to wipe your nose in the van, take the boxed tissues too. Go swimming if they have a pool.

-When in doubt, sleep in the van.

rw said...

plan fun things along the tour as seriously as you plan the shows. bring a tennis ball and dart guns to play with in rest areas and a rubix cube for the drive.

Daniel said...

Gavin- very all-inclusive words of wisdom! sooo easy to wear out one's voice when touring, warming up is essential. and using the kitchen- couldn't agree more. well done.

Anonymous said...

i like how questions get answers around here...good work....

Ashley said...

I'm tickled that Chattanooga wasn't on your list of things you did wrong.