How To Run a Small Tour
by Jim Bessman
If a band is lucky enough to have a label with the resources to provide concert tour support, well, the road is already beckoning. But if there's no label to foot the bill, putting together a small tour can require plenty of planning to ensure cost effectiveness and maximum gain.
Peter Himmelman provides a good case in point. Himmelman, who hails from Minneapolis and now lives in Los Angeles, is a brilliant singer-songwriter who has released albums through two major labels, but is now independent. While he records and often plays with his band, he also goes off on smaller solo acoustic tours.
"He's in a unique situation," says Mitch Oakman, head of the Mob Agency, a booking agency in Los Angeles whose clients, besides Himmelman, include No Doubt. "He has a live cult following that's developed over the years, and has been around long enough so we know where he does well--where his best tour markets are. But his life is different from other rock artists, in that he has four kids and is very much a family guy. So he'll go off and fly to New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., or back to Minneapolis, Madison, Wisconsin, and Chicago. So he's not gone from home more than three days."
In other words, Himmelman is able to go back regularly to the places where he knows he'll do well, and make money there by going solo and keeping his expenses down. Jane Siberry, the acclaimed singer-songwriter from Canada is in a somewhat similar situation, having recently left Warner Bros. Records--her second major label affiliation--and started up her own cash-strapped indie label Sheila Records. She also performs solo and with a band, but recently put together a five-week tour where she was backed just by a piano player essentially to pay the bills.
"I'm only going out now because of the money, so I'm bringing the smallest crew possible and trying to use as many people from the venues as I can," says Siberry. "But I do have a great crew from my contacts on the road, and I'm sending a really clear contract rider so the venues know what I needless, my road manager is getting in touch with the sound people at the venues in advance, so they know exactly what we want, like making sure the background music turns off two minutes before we start so we can keep the energy level consistent through every show."
Further helping to "keep the energy up," adds Siberry, is getting a nice hotel room on those occasions when she and the crew are staying in one place for two or three days, "otherwise we'll go for a cheaper one and try to give everybody their own room." She also hires a person to sell merchandise at the shows and provides clear instructions on what to do in that area.
Tour information, meanwhile, is emerald to Siberry's data base and also put up on her Sheila web site, where she offers to trade free tickets to hairdressers "if they come an hour before the show to touch up my hair!" The Internet, she adds, allows a small tour like hers to be "much, much more efficient in terms of maximizing efficiency," both in terms of getting word of the tour out to her fans, and in the useful feedback from the fans which it generates. "They know exactly which radio stations and record stores should be contacted which is very valuable," says Siberry.
Getting the fans involved is also key for New Jersey punk band Blanks 77, says Sue Blank, their manager, tour organizer, and self-professed baby-sitter. "We want to have Blanks representatives all over the country to mail-out posters or put them up!," says Blank, whose explanation is quite instructive for young "baby" bands who have yet to learn how useless professionals in all areas of the music business so often are.
"We make a standard flyer for every kid and fanzine and little record store and we have to get them out all by ourselves because clubs have no ideas!," she says. "So sometimes, even though you only booked or tour-managed, you end up running the whole thing. And sometimes it's a kid that books the show, who gets nervous because he doesn't know what he got into, and you have to run around and say, 'Okay, okay, don't worry!' But you also have to make sure the band's happy, so it takes a lot of planning, and damage control: We're talking about punk bands, things getting destroyed and people being a little over the edge when it comes to organization!"
Blank also books other punk bands and works at a club, "so I know what it takes to do a good show and I've learned what not to do by trial and error, and disaster!," she continues, cautioning, "There's a million different ways to advertise, and you have to do all of them or else there won't be anybody there! Most places don't know how to deal with a punk show, so they only advertise in the paper. Boy you have to realize that most people who go to punk shows don't read the paper! So make sure you're on the Internet, and keep your web site up-to-date. Remember, you're trying to reach 13- to 15-year-old kids who don't have cars, don't read the paper, and don't leave the house, so it's word-of-mouth, fanzines, and the Internet."
Blanks 77, obviously, is lucky to have a manager as resourceful as Blank. New York-based modern rock quartet Furious Styles, however, has no manager, no label, no agent but they do have a growing following and a bass player, Scott Sheerest, who ably doubles as the booker of the group, which takes its name from Lawrence Fishburne's character in "Boyz In the Hood". "I figure out exactly what it is we want to do and where we want to be, and then send out packages and call the talent buyers," says Sheerest, whose promo "packages," most importantly, contain a tape of the band's music, and then a bio, photo, press clippings, and letters of recommendation "so clubs know we're for real."
Sheerest books most of the band's dates, and turns other bookings over to local agents in regions where he's already made inroads. "We'll get four or five good NAACO dates," he says, referring to college dates secured through the band's membership in the National Association of Campus Activities. "So we'll find a good, solid booking agent in that area and give them a piece of the dates in exchange for filling in the holes there's no dead time in between dates where we're spending money we don't have."
Here Sheerest also stresses the importance of keeping tour travels as linear as possible. "You don't want to go play Rhode Island, say, and then go down to Washington, D.C., then back up to Boston," he explains. "That extra 10 hours driving back and forth, passing the same places is murder! But a little forethought is all it really takes: Most clubs are pretty good about helping and finding something to fit you. You have to just play and be glad you're playing!"
Sheerest's last point may be the most important one, notes Oaken. "The last thing you want to hear from a club owner is, 'I lost my ass on a bunch of assholes, and I never want them back!' What I want to hear is, 'There were only nine people here, but the band was great and the nicest people and they can come back any time!' That's priceless, because they'll keep going back and build up a following. So in the beginning stages, just be nice, because you're not drawing anybody and the club people are doing you a favor."Back to magazine