Do traditional tours still make sense for independent artists?

April 28, 2014{ 36 Comments }

shutterstock 180210833 Do traditional tours still make sense for independent artists?[This article is written by guest contributor Jason Schellhardt, writer for the live entertainment concierge service Rukkus.]

Few things in the music industry are more romanticized than the image of the battle-tested road warrior. The old rock and roll narrative suggests that being a musician means going out on tour for months at a time, hitting any and every market along the way.

This used to be the most effective way to build a fanbase outside of your local scene, but like most other things in the music industry, the internet has changed that. Booking cross-country tours no longer makes sense for newer independent artists.

The advantages of social media have been well documented as it pertains to independent musicians. It has provided an unprecedented connection between artists, fans, media, labels and so on. Artists can record a track at home, post it on their SoundCloud account and share it via Twitter or Facebook without any other means of production or distribution.

While this has been a major coup for the independent artist, there is another major advantage to new media that is often overlooked. While it is great to know who is listening to your music or following your band, it is just as important to know where these people are.

Brett is a D.C.-based indie-pop band with a unique perspective on this issue. Though Brett is a fairly new band, all of its members have had experience touring the country in previous projects. They have seen the pros and cons to the lengthy, expensive traditional tour and the more cost-effective, targeted approach.

In an interview with DMVicious last year, guitarist Kevin Bayly and vocalist Mick Coogan explained how traditional tour schedules have become somewhat counterproductive for new artists.

“The whole concept of promoting your band by hopping in a van and touring the country is ridiculous. It’s backwards now. It used to be that way,” said Bayly. “We did that when we were younger, that’s how you had to get out there and meet people. Now it’s all online. It’s cheaper and you end up playing quality shows instead of Duluth, MN, on a Tuesday.”

“For the next year we plan on hitting [D.C.], New York City and Los Angeles. Those are the most important markets for us,” added Coogan.

By paying careful attention to the band’s online presence, Brett has pared down its most important markets and focused its attention squarely on audiences that have shown that they are receptive to the band.

The pros to this approach far outweigh the cons for a newer band looking to establish itself. Once a band has built a following online and in its targeted markets, national tours make a lot more sense. But, until then it is most often a massive drain on the band’s resources.

Here are a few geo-specific strategies to help you target your band’s prefered markets:

1. Build a strong social media presence and pay attention to every single one of your followers. This one sounds like a no brainer, but it is an invaluable resource. Figure out where your followers are located and if there is any obvious trend among them. If you notice a handful of fans in the same region, you are probably onto something.

2. Maintain your website and monitor the analytic data. Similar to the social media idea, using Google Analytics, or similar tools, to monitor your web traffic can tell you where each view is coming from. Many young bands forego their own websites in favor of maintaining their Facebook and Twitter accounts, but they are all equally important.

3. Keep track of any media coverage you may get. Another major factor in your band’s web presence is the amount of coverage you are getting from online media. Keep track of any blog or website that posts your music and find out if they target a specific geographic location. You can set up a Google Alert to make this easy to track.

4. Develop relationships with media in areas you intend to target. In addition to the last item, you should seek out blogs that are prominent in certain markets and try to arrange coverage for your band. This step would be most helpful once you have established a couple of areas you intend to target.

5. Pay attention to similar artists. Imitation is an age old tradition in the music industry. Find a more established band that is similar to your own, and look at the markets where they have had success. Chances are, you could find some success there as well.

Every band is different, and what works for some may not work for others, but this geo-specific strategy is a great jumping off point for any band looking to expand its audience beyond the hometown crowd.

If nothing else, this strategy will keep you from burning a ton of money and playing empty rooms in “Duluth, MN, on a Tuesday.”

What do you think about touring? Is it still essential for young bands? How have your ideas on touring changed over time? Let us know in the comments section below.

Free Guide: Book Your Own Successful Tour

[Road map image from Shutterstock.]

  • Tsuua

    Thanks Jason! Really interesting points. Targeting only main markets sounds like an interesting alternative. Each option’s pros and cons probably depend on individual objectives, resources and actual geography. But I think it’s good to keep a close eye on geographic data even when touring more traditionally and the tips apply even on a bigger scale.

    I think touring in some form or another is still essential to young bands. Great live shows are a really important way to build and strengthen a fan base. In my experience as a Community Manager for artists (so working with fans, mostly in social media but also at shows), even the most exciting social media content and active socializing doesn’t have quite the same effect as playing a great show and socializing with fans face-to-face after the show. The connection made with offline interactions tend to be stronger, deeper and last longer than excited “They tweeted me!” moments.

    Of course good use of social media is still important, too. At best social media and touring complement each other and add to the fan experience both in their own ways.

    • aetoricdesign

      I agree with Tsuua. Sure, getting in the van and going from PA to CA as soon as you’ve put your first song online is ridiculous, but people are never going to form a real connection with your music unless they see it live. Social media is a great way to expand your fanbase, and it’s essential to be online promoting your songs. Without word of mouth from people that saw you live, though, you have a lot less clout.

      Small bands should go on small tours. Minimize your risk by knowing the costs and what kind of money you’ll need to make to get to the next town. Steady growth from their will get you that nationwide tour in due time.

      • Rus Archer

        nobody buys or listens to magma or led zeppelin or hendrix or the beatles because they can’t see them live

      • http://www.superstarrunner.com Superstar Runner

        It’s true, word of mouth (in various forms) is how music gets discovered, but there are any number of bands that I love but have never seen live; and who I’ve been more inclined to go see because I know their music ahead of time. In fact, there are very few bands who I see live first, and then start following afterwards (even though I love local and live music, and hearing bands that no one’s heard of). I tend to connect more with music, before the live show. But Maybe that’s just me.

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Good catch. Poor Duluth. It must have some cool things going for it, right? All those times I toured through California, people talked so much crap about the central valley. But Merced and Modesto and such, those were always my favorite shows.

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Exactly. That’s why I loved some of those central valley towns.

    @ChrisRobley

    • http://www.sofiatalvik.com/ Sofia Talvik

      Smaller cities are always nicer than big ones – unless you’re already famous I guess.

  • Sam Densmore

    Sounds logical, but for music fans, there’s still nothing more compelling than a great live show, even if it’s on a Tuesday in BF Egypt. The internet is full of BS fake cardboard bands that can’t play live. Making fans and networking with quality venues requires an incredible amount of real world effort. The internet has promise and for some types of music it’s a viable marketing platform, but for a lot of styles of music and certain demographics, it’s behind the 8 ball.

  • paul

    total bollocks

  • Q Dot

    I would have to disagree with this post to a slight degree. The thing that has helped me most in touring and building a fan base as a solo act actually has been playing any market that’ll give me a show, online fan base in that town or not. Hip hop shows aren’t booked nearly as frequently as rock/acoustic/indie/folk shows so I’ve zigzagged the country to audiences in big cities and small towns that look for a good hip hop show every now and then. I’m from Seattle and I’ve played Philly on a Friday, Austin the next Wednesday, Seattle that following Saturday. (Keep in mind I’m flying to theseshows)

    Yes I’ve played empty rooms but I’ve also played packed ones and generally the next time I play the market with the empty room there’s 15-20 people there just based on what the few ppl that saw the first show had to say about me as a person and my performance.

    It’s a 1 fan at a time mentality.

    It’s staying on that steady route of hitting a town every 6-9 months that has helped me build an audience in these cities. I don’t know about any of you but the whole build a fanbase on social media thing is a little overhyped. Social media for me has been a place where I engage my current audience that I’ve built out in the real world playing shows everywhere I can.

    Then from there, I certainly follow the steps mentioned in the post like keeping up with followers, keeping track of press and radio play so on and so forth.

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, and the details of your touring experience. Keep breaking hearts (theirs) and legs (yours)!

      @ChrisRobley

  • aetoricdesign

    If you have no contacts or prior tour experience, you’re probably not going to be getting “quality shows” whether you’ve been a band for 1 month or 3 years. For new bands with experienced touring musicians, a cross country tour could do wonders.

  • Rus Archer

    those who don’t tour have more time to compose and record

  • Al Collins

    It is getting harder to make money touring. Making money is not the only reason to tour though. If you continue to play LIVE you can attain a level of musicianship that is not possible to reach by playing at home, rehearsing or even just playing weekends. I’ve been doing this a long time and always look fwd to the 2nd and 3rd week of the tour when you don’t have to think so much. Just play and have fun. It’s like working out or running. The more you do it, the easier and more enjoyable it is. If you never do it, you’ll not be able to fully understand the benefits of touring and how it makes you a better musician.

  • Orion Walsh

    you guys are foolish to think that the internet can take the place of real live performances. While you guys are busy posting to soundcloud I’ll be out playing live shows.

  • Joseph Michael

    This is wrong… in all my experience the only thing that 1. moves merch 2. builds new fans 3. builds industry confidence is getting out on good tours… obviously you can’t make bad biz desicions and book pointless tours but the internet does not break new artists… period… myth.

  • esolesek

    THis makes sense, and I’m a musician, but I have to say that I have spent more money on merchandise that I have bought at a show when I had a few drinks and saw a band I unexpectedly loved live, than I ever have sitting at home watching a band online.

    There is something to the in person experience. That said, you want some traction before you tour, I think, though if you start blowing the doors off of venues, that word will spread, and live shows are just the most motivating aspect around.

    Then again, I have to say that starting in a major market and spreading yourself around many different venues is a great idea. However, you still gotta get that great recording. WIthout it, no amount of touring will get you there.

  • esolesek

    I know touring matters, but it matters as much for the ability to meet the incredible producer, engineer, and become a more incredible band.

    Smells Like Teen Spirit was conceived and executed in the studio, not live. It blew the other songs that were supposed to be the leads out of the water. It’s what turned Nirvana from a touring indie band to the second coming. Same is true of other great recordings. Touring and great recordings go hand in hand.

  • velvetpiano

    This is science/business, not art … and btw – denigrating Duluth, MN is NOT a smart strategy

  • Eric John Kaiser

    Interesting article about using the tools the web offers like analytics. To work smart is a great idea. I would just add that the web is nowadays also saturated with music to listen to. Especially since anyone can record a song just by using a laptop. Getting new fans on the web seems almost as difficult as booking gigs. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  • velvetpiano

    This proposed method is all about the science of business, not the creation and broadcast of art to an audience. If that’s accepted, perhaps it has some merit but, people/fans and artistes haven’t changed (technology has) and being treated as a unique individual (an act AND an audience member) with a live show in ANYwhere’s ville, is the most captivating thing and holds it’s own as a gold standard for fan-creation. BTW – disparaging Duluth MN will come back to bite you in the a**, man.

  • Nic

    People said the same thing to my band in 2006 and they’re still saying it apparently. Even back then there were a ton of bands that refused to tour and to take the hard shows because they “weren’t worth it”. I know this: I took off night shows in NYC, Austin, Chicago, and tons of nowhere places. I played good shows and met people on the road. Eventually those people gave us opening slots on good nights that led to headlining slots. The internet and social media are tools for musicians. They will never replace the actual act of playing gigs and especially playing to a few empty rooms. Thats part of the process, you have to crawl before you walk.

  • DLindsay Mouatt

    We’ve toured so much in the last 2 years and there has been some great shows and noticeable traction but with the rising costs of fuel, its a detriment to the band in the end.

    One thing we’ve started doing is picking key cities within an 8 hour radius to us. In MI where we are from we focus on Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and of course MI. There are tons of cities in these states and we are never more than 8 hours from home max. We aren’t worrying about excessive gas prices for a 14 hour ride and the guarantees can be negotiated a little bit more since we aren’t needing $400+ to get to the next show. We are now focusing on Friday/Saturday shows as those tended to be the best nights out and its been paying off so far.

  • Nic

    You have management and a label that take care of the “focus” for you. Maybe you recall what it was like before you had help? You probably played whenever and wherever you could so that you accomplished two things: 1. You improved 2. You engaged with audiences 1 person at a time

  • Shaun Hatcher Kelley

    I think extended van trips to empty venues in Podunk Wherever have broken up more bands than major labels or girlfriends. That said, i also think that the actual up-close-and-personal musical quality of bands who spend an inordinate about of time “social networking” instead of rehearsing is pretty spotty.

    The bands’ internet following be damned, the way to have a really great live act is to–you guessed it–PLAY LIVE. A lot. AND rehearse. Maybe even more. But even with a regular and rigorous rehearsal schedule, musicians have to be experienced and flexible in being able to deliver when it does’t sound remotely like it did in rehearsal on stage. The only way to develop this resiliency is on-stage experience, which hopefully enables a performer to stay up and engaging the audience instead of retreating to shoe-gazing when the monitors are sub-par. “Man, I couldn’t hear shit” is a lame excuse for a bad show. Guess what, the audience DOESN”T CARE.

    So, the article sounds good to me, as long as they band members are not risk-averse to playing for peanuts in the early stages of developing a market they have identified as receptive to their stuff through the internets, including traveling long distances and thereby coming hoe with little to nothing to show money-wise (except maybe for merch.) But brother, you better be able to KNOCK ‘EM DEAD when you do get a chance to play!

  • http://www.sofiatalvik.com/ Sofia Talvik

    Totally agree with the other comments. The best way to form a strong connection with fans is through live shows. It’s also a great way of getting new fans. This doesn’t mean you have to play shit shows. Also to get local press you have to do the local shows, which will earn you more fans in the long run. It’s great to try to target key spots for shows, but then you only cater to people who are already your fans and you might not get that many new.

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      Hey Sofia,

      Of all your US touring, what are a few of your favorite small towns to play? Also, any luck with that work visa stuff?

      @ChrisRobley

      • http://www.sofiatalvik.com/ Sofia Talvik

        My favorite small towns – for me that is (it could be different if you play another genre of course) would be Tuscaloosa, AL, Cullman, AL, Salem, OR, Mechanicsville, PA, Logan, UT, Pocatello, UT. But it’s very subjective, because I had great shows in great venues there.

        • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

          Wow. Salem, Oregon? Where did you play there?

          @ChrisRobley

          • http://www.sofiatalvik.com/ Sofia Talvik

            I played the Grand Historic Theatre.

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Yeah, she’s turned her YouTube channel into a moneymaker for sure.

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Hey Russ,

    Great points. Thanks for sharing. I definitely concur about smaller markets. Whenever I toured the west coast, smaller towns were always better gigs than LA and San Francisco, at least in terms of turnout/merch sales/etc.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Rus Archer

    “people are never going to form a real connection with your music unless they see it live”
    i guess i don’t appreciate any of the music i listen to that i didn’t get to see live

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Good point about synergy. If only synergy could be calculated! Instead, I guess you just put energy smartly where you can, and hope for the magic confluence.

    @ChrisRobley

  • the hub

    Our Joining the Dots funded project matches similar bands to enable out of town acts to share audiences for similar music. http://thehubuk.com/blog/2014/05/23/off-axis_jeff_thompson_intro_blog/

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Well, it’s certainly one path, but not the only one. You could always concentrate on regional tours and then find other ways to get your music to fans in other parts of the country (YouTube, streaming concerts, one-off shows where you fly directly to cities where you’re guaranteed to have a great crowd, etc.)

    @ChrisRobley

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