Booking a Tour

By Joshua D. Smith

A wise man once said, "If you're going to get anywhere in life, you have to get up off your lazy butt and DO something!" Or was that my mother? Nonetheless, it's sound advice. As a musician, it you have to work twice as hard at your "job." No one's going to do your promotion, financial planning, touring (the list goes on) for you, at least not for free. It's as though you have your own little home-based business. (The next trick is to actually make money doing it!)

As an amateur or semi-pro musician, there's no better way to promote yourself than touring — nationally, regionally, or even locally. Even if your music is getting exposure in some far-away place, you can't draw in fans-for-life without some kind of visual aids. Since you can't just call up MTV and get them to air your homemade video, you have to provide your would-be supporters with a real, live experience.

Touring sounds glamorous and sort of puffs you up when you tell people, "Yeah, we're touring the Northeast next month." But when it gets down to it, it's a lot of hard work that's not always fun-in-the-sun, partying, and babes. The pre-tour preparation alone can drive a person insane. With all the itineraries, financial planning, transportation concerns, and everything else that has to be taken care of, you could be totally exhausted before you ever get on the road.

This is why most people hire a booking agent. They'd rather pay someone else to do all the legwork. And that is all perfect and fine, but for all you pioneers out there who need to blaze your own trail, there are a few tips you might find helpful.

Booking a tour is like taking a handful of sand and arranging each grain to create an orderly design. It can be done, but it takes time and commitment, which to most people means "hard work." You need to do a couple of things at the outset.

First, get a national club directory. These little jewels contain info about clubs in every major city, including address, phone, contact person, and a summary of what kind of venue it is. You can get one in a large bookstore, or pick up Musician Magazine's "Musician's Guide to Touring and Promotion." It's an annual publication that's jam-packed with info on clubs, radio, press, and music stores in every major city (and some minor ones) in the U.S. It's definitely worth its ten-dollar cost.

Second, set a tentative itinerary for your tour. Select a period of time when you want to tour, preferably in the spring or fall (that's when the colleges are packed with potential audience members), and what cities you want to play in. Say you want to tour during the first two full weeks of September and you want to make your way through the Southeast. Make sure you set some sort of logical order to your route. Don't play Bowling Green one night, Miami the next, then New Orleans the night after that. That would be about a week's worth of travel for just three shows.

Follow a chronological order of cities along your way out and coming back. Try not to drive more than four hours or so per day. Also, give yourself one day off per week for kickback time and sightseeing. You'll need it.

Once you've gotten your club directory and itinerary, start mailing your promotional material to the clubs you want to play (see LMN 5/97). You should start this process about four months before your tour. Include a letter stating what dates would work best for you, but give two or three options and be flexible. You could play that venue on your way out or while coming back through.

When you've sent all your promo kits and letters, wait about a week and start calling the contact persons at each club you sent material to. It could take several days to actually talk to these people, as they are bombarded with dozens of packages just like yours every day. When you finally get through, your conversation could go something like this:

You: "Hi. This is Jim from Gin Sing Root in Louisville, KY. We're going to be passing through (insert dates here) and would like to play a show."

Club: "Uh…did you send a tape?"

You: "Yeah, you should have it there sitting under those piles of stuff on your desk."

Club: "Okay, uh…who are you? Does anybody know who you are?"

You: "Yeah, we've got a single on the college radio circuit that's doing pretty well."

Club: "What do you sound like?"

You: "We refuse to be defined, but we've got your basic guitar, bass, drums, and a guy in Spandex on a unicycle."

Club: "Uh…is this some kind of a joke?"

You: "No, we just want to keep things interesting."

Club: "Okay, let me find your tape. I might be able to pencil you in for…what date was that?"

You: "(insert dates)"

Club: "Oh yeah, maybe we could do that. I'll have to find your tape."

You: "CD."

Club: "Yeah whatever. Call back in a few days."

You: "Okay, thanks." (then hang up the phone)

There you have it. Virtually nothing was accomplished, but if that person isn't distracted by someone else in the next five minutes, they might actually find your CD, listen to it, and say, "WOW! This band is RIGHTEOUS!" Then they would proceed to book you on your first choice date and tell all their friends about you. Hey, it could happen.

You will have to do this over and over again until you have the gig "confirmed." A band that is fairly well known can usually get their dates confirmed in writing through contracts, but if you're just starting out and no one knows who you are, there'd probably be a better chance of getting struck by lighting twice in a row on a sunny day in the Arizona desert. Okay, that may be an overstatement.

When you finally do nail down a definite date with your friendly contact person, say these words, "What's the guarantee?" They will know you are talking about money. They may say something sweet like "400 bucks." They may be filthy rags and say, "No guarantee; you split the cover with three other bands." Then don't plan on making anything. But you're not touring to get rich. You're trying to promote yourself, make people remember you, sell a few T-shirts, and beef up your mailing list.

Since we're on the subject of money, there's a little matter of paying for your tour. It doesn't cost as much as you might think. Assuming you have a tour mobile, (a passenger van or some type of large vehicle with a trailer), your two main expenses are going to be gas and food. Don't stay in a hotel every night unless you just have a band full of prima donnas. You have connections. Stay with friends, family, friends of friends, sleep in the van, shower at truck stops, be resourceful! Whatever you do, take a few sleeping bags. You never know where you'll end up at three in the morning.

Budget your gas costs like this. Tally up the total miles of your tour with an accurate mileage log. Say it's 2000 miles from your driveway to the wild blue yonder and back. Divide 2000 by the average gas mileage your vehicle gets, say 20 m.p.g. That's 100 gallons of gas it's going to take to make it through the tour. Multiply that by an average of $1.25 per gallon of gas, and, bingo, you've got $125. Not bad.

Now for food, you should budget $12-15 a day for each person. For a four-piece band on a two-week tour, you're looking at about $840. That sounds like a lot, but if you're staying with relatives and friends, they will most always be willing to feed you. And many times, clubs will either give you free food or offer you a nice discount. A good way to save money is to take a lot of your own food. Get a big cooler and fill it with drinks, cold cuts, milk for cereal, cheese, macaroni salad, deviled eggs. It'll be a two-week picnic, but without the ants. You can always restock your cooler in the cities and towns you stop in.

Whatever you do, always be prepared for anything. Make sure one of your band members has a credit card, an AAA membership and a great grandmother in Birmingham for a home-cooked meal.

Before you go anywhere, you need to promote your tour. Even if nobody knows who you are, you should still send press release material to radio stations and newspapers in every town you're booked to play in. Include information on when and where you're playing. Ask the stations to play your disk (give them a specific title to check out) and ask the papers to have your CD reviewed. You never know, somebody might latch on to you and become a strong media voice for you.

Hopefully, your tour is successful. You never really know. Some nights you play for twenty people, some nights for five hundred. It all evens out although sometimes it really sucks. But hey, it's just the hard, beat-down road we travel as artists trying to get off our lazy butts and get somewhere in life. Good luck.

Some of the information researched for this article was found in Book Your Own TourBy Liz Garo.