[This article was written by guest contributor Stephen Simmons, an award-winning Americana songwriter who has toured extensively in Europe, and whose music has appeared on television shows such as Sons of Anarchy.]
One of the biggest questions I get asked from fellow artists is about playing Europe. I have been traveling in mainly Western Europe and doing music tours there once or twice a year since 2007 (12 tours altogether, anywhere from 2-6 weeks long).
It is such a big topic (and I’m still learning), and it is one that’s going to be a bit different for everyone that gets to experience it anyway that I seldom know where to start. If we were real life friends, you’d buy me a few drinks and I’d tell you everything I can think of; But if we’re virtual friends swapping advice back and forth (which I am always open to) it’s too big of a subject and too long of an email; I never know where to start with folks.
But we have to start somewhere, so let me begin by saying that much of my specific advice about clubs and promoters would be limited to my genre of music: Americana & Roots Music. If you are a HipHop, Pop, Hardcore, or Soul artist —or any other of 1,000 sub genres of music — we aren’t going to be using the same agents, or promoters. Oftentimes, even the venues, towns, and countries can differ according to genre too.
A few specific suggestions, though, for those who want to tour in Europe…
I initially self released my debut album and saw that about half of my album sales (remember when we sold those way back in 2004?) on my website and on CD Baby were in Europe. Specifically the UK, The Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. I now know that many Europeans would order multiple albums from various CD Baby artists to save on bulk shipping. Eventually this lead to me getting a lot of DJ requests and music writers approaching me from those Europe markets, and by 2006 I had signed a distribution deal with a European Indie label.
The biggest thing they did was set up a tour and arrange a booking agent for me. That was a big step and it would’ve taken me years to figure it out on my own. However, those first few tours were just laying the groundwork. What I have seen in the 8 years since is that I’ve made contacts and friends and connections along the way at those shows that have helped me to continue to tour Europe. I have worked with many different agents (usually someone local from each country), and in almost every case it is where someone reached out to me. This goes for any genre, but I find that when it’s me reaching out and asking for help on a cold call (or email) it usually doesn’t lead to anything. It’s been my experience that people will find YOU if you are making a few waves in the scene, vs. contacting them asking for help. I’m not saying it can’t lead to a good relationship or even a referral to something useful. It’s just something I’ve noticed. The Americana genre is full of music promoters (and agents) who just love roots music. Often the promoters have other full time careers and this is their passion.
I often tell people who are starting out to begin with the Americana Euro Chart: http://www.euroamericanachart.eu.
All of the reporters there have their contact info listed and they are loyal DJs, promoters and label heads of the EU Americana Scene. It often just starts with one contact who wants to help you come over and play some shows.
This is something that might apply to many genres as well.
Americana is a lyrics-based genre, so it makes sense to tour in places like the UK and Ireland, since they speak English (though English is taught in many schools across Europe). But you should also consider touring in countries such as The Netherlands and Norway where they see/hear English spoken often on TV.
I have come to realize it’s much more difficult for me to book tours (esp Acoustic Tours) in places like Spain and Italy and even certain parts of Germany where they overdub the Television. People in those countries can read English often much better than speak it or understand it. They have years of schooling but they don’t use it or hear it as often, so promoters often prefer a band.
I have been told in some places it helps to play an uptempo set as people in certain towns will only catch every fourth word. So you can see why bands would be preferred, much more going on than just a dude with an acoustic guitar saying something you didn’t catch. But bands are expensive. Having said all that, I try my best to learn how to say things in German, Dutch, etc. Sure, I sound stupid with my Southern American accent, but they really appreciate the effort. Just like we do here.
Sky Miles! Sky Miles! Sky Miles! The average plane tickets were $700 when I started in 2007 and they are now usually $1200. (Yes, even though fuel prices have gone down). I would just advise you if you do book a tour/trip to try to stick with an airline that flies into a lot of the places you think you are going to be going. Granted you’re not going to know everywhere you might get something going. But when I first started out I flew American one tour, United one tour, and then Delta another tour, etc. And a few years in I realized I was going to keep going back and it was too late to claim some sky miles I should’ve saved.
For the Countries I tour the most (UK, Ireland, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Belgium, Spain, Italy) it seems like Delta flies into them and has the most options. So I have stuck with them and that way it’s easier to rack up enough miles for a free flight ever few years. Also, if you are on the verge of having enough miles for a free flight, a friend or family member can transfer sky miles to you. It costs money, and it only makes sense if you’re already close. But it is a useful tip if you have friends that aren’t gonna use theirs.
I have also noticed in the last few years that over six months out the plane tickets are super expensive (maybe they are hedging their bets on fuel prices?) But from two months out to about one month out the prices come down and then they don’t go back up till the last few weeks. So I have tended to buy my tickets about one month out.
The little connecting flights with various airlines all over Europe, though, offer good deals if you book far enough in advance (if, let’s say, you know you’ll be flying from Amsterdam to Zurich on a certain day). And likewise, when it gets to be the week or so before the flight, prices jump.
Taking a guitar on a plane (a sore subject for many musicians) is always an adventure. And of course it’s now the law of the land here in the good ole US of A that you be allowed to take your guitar aboard your flight (thanks Obama). However, I have noticed many of the large planes that fly overseas now have the super deep compartments that are actually not long enough for my trusty Guild D25 dreadnaught to fit in. So I basically smile and nicely ask if there is room in the closets up front and so far almost every time they have complied. Sometimes they are super nice and say no problem; sometimes they are not nice and act as if it’s too full a flight.
I have been guilty of “fudging” and saying another flight attendant told me I could. But remember to loosen your strings just in case you have to gate-check it. Another HUGE difference is in Europe they don’t have to abide by this. Especially those little puddle jumping planes and discount airlines — they’re horrible about trying to charge you an arm and a leg for an instrument (I’m looking at you Ryanair). Just remember that some of those airlines such as Ryanair and Value Jet and other discount airlines are meant for people traveling with hardly any luggage. If you have a suitcase packed for a few weeks and a guitar you are going to pay extra for both and they still will very likely make you gate-check the guitar (some won’t even let you gate-check a guitar; they will make you put it on a conveyor belt).
I have had several booking agents try to book a flight for me that’s cheap and I just say “no” nowadays if it’s one of these repeat offenders. Also I finally broke down and bought a little small bodied guitar for traveling. I love my big guitars but I’ve been on too many planes, trains, buses, and undergrounds fighting the limited space that is often available.
TRAINS AND CARS:
If you’ve never traveled in foreign countries that speak another language, public transportation might not be for you at first. I was a kid who’d barely been outta the country when I went the first time and I grew up in a small Tennessee town, so I was clueless. A TomTom and a rental car and a conavigator helped me survive. There are also folks you can hire to tour manage you and drive you around if you have the resources for it. I’ve never had the extra dough so I’ve always done it the hard way, but it’s enabled me to learn how to get around everywhere on my own.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a GPS (yes you can use a smartphone, but the data charges are expensive — more on that below). The absolute worst experience I’ve ever had on tour was being in the UK for the first time alone and the rental company was out of GPS units. They gave me an atlas. Driving on the wrong side of the road trying to navigate downtown London to find the BBC for an interview was beyond foolish. It was ignorance; I didn’t know any better (plus the phone I’d previously used in Holland quit working and phone booths aren’t all over like they used to be). I missed my interview and barely made it North to my gig that night. I spent 13 hours in that car mostly stuck in traffic chainsmoking and cursing and wishing I could use the bathroom. I came straight home and bought my own TomTom!
I’ve learned that one person traveling by train in the UK is cheaper than renting a car, but with two people it’s the same price. I’ve learned that Dutch trains go everywhere and are super inexpensive and a great way to tour. But Germany and Norway are too big and spread out. Again it’s gonna vary everywhere you go. I have liked using Auto Europe at times for booking both flights and cars. One thing I like is you are always speaking with an American and this way things don’t get lost in translation if something comes up. At times I have had to call to make changes to a car reservation, and it’s just easier over the phone this way. And you always have one number to call. Also it’s a really great way to get ballpark ideas about cars and flights from country to country when you are planning a tour just using the online “make a reservation” feature — even if you book it elsewhere.
There are great train apps in each country as well.
The first few years of touring in Europe I would use cheap mobile phones with top up sim cards. But they expire if you don’t use them for six months and the phones locked. You can have them unlocked and buy new sim cards each time but you have to find a phone shop. Also they are country specific so the numbers to dial into or out of a country will change (and the rates) when you take a phone from Holland into England for example. It’s just too easy now to take a smartphone that’s yours from the USA (that has a sim card) and use it instead.
Yes, using your own smartphone is more expensive but you can talk to people cheaply back home via Skype, Whatsapp, Viber, etc. The convenience of having a smartphone to double check an address or look up a hotel on the web is just priceless. It beats lugging around an old laptop and looking for wifi. Of course the most important button on your phone is the “turn data off” button. And try your best to get your emails and and everything else done while you’re on wifi. But there are times you just have to have it to save yourself a lot of hassle.
Trying to use a GPS unit in a vehicle in a foreign country, you can easily type the wrong city or province; turning on your smartphone occasionally to double check your route and the trusty screenshots is good for piece of mind. I’m on Verizon and they charge you $25 for about 100mbs of data and just keep adding when you go over. I usually have to pay about $100 for an average month overseas of data. But it is difficult to tour manage yourself in a foreign country without it. And the battery of my phone is often the single most important thing to manage when traveling via public transit. There aren’t always charging stations and it’s your one lifeline you can’t lose.
In the early tours for me it was lots of B&B’s and hotels and sometimes staying with the agent or a promoter who had a nice spare room. As time has gone on I have made friends with so many folks I rarely stay in a hotel at all. But starting out sites like http://www.hotels.com and https://www.airbnb.com are super helpful.
Obviously you’ve got to have one of those. Give yourself plenty of time. The first year I got mine apparently they had changed the rules and there was a backlog of folks trying to get passports. I had to go through my Congressman’s office and order a second one just to make my trip.
So far the only country that has required a work permit for my touring is the UK. They are pretty darned adamant about it as well. Even when I had work permits I have been detained for awhile as they verified it was all on the up and up. Work permits cost around $150 to enter the country, no matter if it’s just one show or you’re playing every gig for free! So don’t skip it. I know folks who’ve been sent home at the airport.
Every single other country I have been to doesn’t require it. I usually just say I’m on Holiday (even with a guitar on my back). If you are Bruce Springsteen you probably need a work permit for Germany or anywhere else in Europe, but at my level most places aren’t concerned. If you are booking on your own or with a small agent you aren’t making enough for it to be an issue. The agents I use of course report their tours and income to their respective governments, and if the tours were big enough, a permit would be in order. But again: Not the UK!
I always try to arrange to be paid in cash. And sometimes they pay the agent directly too and that’s ok. Traveling with foreign currency is nice to be able to pay for things as you go without having to use your own card. Banks will hit you with a foreign transaction fee and you have to pay the difference in the exchange rate as well.
There some banks (such as Bank of America) where you can deposit money in their Europe banks so that you don’t travel with so much cash on hand. Also, back to making friends. I have often just paid cash to a booking agent or promoter or good friend I stay with and they deposit it in their bank and Paypal it to me. You can transfer money to a friend up to a certain amount on Paypal without incurring a fee. A lot of Europeans use and love Paypal; it’s a great way to send money to people for tour expenses (like if they shipped CDs for you, printed up posters for you, etc).
REGISTER YOUR WORKS:
Also something I had no clue about back when I started: the royalties you generate from public performances. I would be in countries and fill out my set list for them to submit to their respective PROs and think “oh cool, I have some money coming back to me” and never saw anything. I had no publishing admin deal back then. I also didn’t understand that I couldn’t collect them from foreign territories without a publishing admin company representing me.
Eventually I did a sub-publishing deal with an indie based in Europe to help me collect those. However, I never saw a dime from them, or a single statement. It is VERY hard to track down those things from our shores. There wouldn’t be enough money there to justify hiring a lawyer to even try and sadly I think most folks know that. When my current PRO (SESAC) began paying for live performances for everyone I began to understand the process a bit more. Eventually they would even send my Europe tour info along to their International collections department; but it’s not their main area, and it was a very imperfect process.
Now I’m registered with Songtrust (who is partnered with CD Baby and anyone can access an admin deal via CD Baby Pro) and I enter all those set lists in directly with them and that money is collected much more quickly and accurately.
And this leads me to the subject of Distribution deals overseas. You don’t need a big distribution deal anymore, of course. You can do it yourself (I use CD Baby, but there are many others out there these days) but there are times when a distribution deal can be worth it.
If an indie label is able to hook you up with a booking agent that can get you on tour with decent gigs, or if they legitimately are paying to promote your album in the places it makes a difference then you have to look at it as a viable option. I have had indie label deals here in the USA and in Europe. Some have been good, some have been bad, some have been something in between. But it can be a huge advantage to have a partner to work with in a country that is still new to you. And also, when you’re touring, you can get your CDs directly from them once you arrive. Therefore avoiding packing a suitcase full of them that you might have to pay extra for or shipping them, which is super expensive nowadays (and that’s not even considering the VAT tax that hits them when they get there).
But you have to get those CDs over there somehow; it’s just something you have to accept. In the places that I tour, people still buy way more CDs than they do here in the USA. It is declining just like it is here, but not as fast.
These are just some of the main things I’ve learned that I wish someone could’ve tipped me on long ago. Some of the lessons were hard, but most of them were fun. Like anything you have to love the process; and I love touring. I love meeting people from other cultures and learning about their lives. Things that worked for me might not work for others and there are doors that open for other artists that don’t work for me. We all tend to flow towards where we feel we are making an impact and being appreciated.
I hope this helps anyone in the middle of trying to figure things out. And good luck out there.