Dan Sheron of the band Balto lived in Russia on-and-off between 2008 and 2010, so when he toured there as a solo performer earlier this fall, it wasn’t like the country was completely uncharted territory.
But Russia is VAST, and it’s a big leap to go from living in a single town to traversing the often unforgiving landscape in public transportation to play a string of shows in places that could be more than a thousand miles away from one another.
Dan kept a great tour blog of his adventures in Russia for Marmoset. It’s a celebration of the people he played with and for, a chronicling of the challenges (little sleep, bribing police, etc.), and a reflection on why — despite the grueling schedule — it was all worth it.
I thought I’d ask him some questions about the logistics of touring in Russia, from booking to travel to show promotion. Thanks to Dan for his thorough and thoughtful answers. Here’s our conversation below:
An interview with Balto’s Dan Sheron on touring Russia as a solo performer
CR: How’d you go about booking this tour? How far in advance of the shows did you need to start the booking process? Did you rely on a promoter, local friends in each area, or something else?
DS: I started the booking process about two months in advance of the first dates – it really all centered around locking in a showcase at Moscow Music Week, which was being organized by a friend of a friend… When I started to float the idea of doing some Russia dates back in July, my friend suggested I reach out to the MMW people as a start. So once that date was confirmed, I had a starting point, and started reaching out to a combination of friends and their contacts – so in some cases I interfaced with promoters who lined up venues and helped with promo, in others I worked with the venues themselves, and in a couple towns my friends just set something up. But I was confirming dates as late as the week before I flew out. Based on time constraints, and to keep the organization relatively simple, I kept the geographic range to the European part of Russia; in the future I’d like to go farther out into Siberia.
Were there guarantees? Did you rely on merch sales and donations? A door charge? How does concert revenue work in Russia compared to a comparably sized gig in America?
There were a handful of shows that had guarantees – the rest were door deals. We tried to keep ticket prices down to encourage better attendance, which I think worked in our favor. We had some great turnouts in towns where I didn’t know anyone and had never been before. That said, the exchange rate right now is pretty awful for Russians – so a 250 Rouble ticket works out to $4.00 – back in 2010 that would have been $8.00. The same went for merch sales – I sold all the shirts and vinyls (and CDs) that I brought with me, but we had to make sure that people could actually buy them. In a few towns we did tips as well. The door deals looked a lot like ours in terms of percentages – 80% to the artists, or 100% after expenses.
I know that tour routing was one of your big challenges? How so, and what did you learn form those challenges or mistakes?
Russia is huge. It had been a very long time since I’d travelled there, and I’d forgotten that train trips are often measured not in hours, but in daylong increments – “How far are you going?” answer: “two days.” As with all the tours I’ve booked in the past, my goal was to play as many shows as possible in as many towns as possible, and as such, I didn’t allow myself any wiggle room to get from place to place – this meant that I would get to town just in time for the gig, play, and then leave. While this is standard practice for touring in the states, it’s usually done with your own vehicle. Roads in Russia are notoriously bad, and I traveled mostly by train and bus.
Most long distance trains are comprised entirely of several grades of sleeper car, and I generally managed to book night trains between destinations. Some of the stops were at awkward hours, and, being bound to those schedules, my sleep suffered a lot. I would be out late after shows with people, then sleep four hours and have to go catch a very early morning train, or arrive somewhere at five o’clock in the morning. In a couple cases, I hadn’t really thought through just how far I was going to need to go in one day.
Here’s an example: I slept about 4-5 hours in Yaroslavl after my gig there on 9/22. I had to take a four-hour train to Moscow, transfer through the metro to the commuter train to the airport, and fly to Samara, only to find that the airport was an hour-long cab-ride from the city. I got to the venue about a half an hour before the first band went on. After the show, the promoter, Matvei, and one of the other bands invited me out with them. Around 3am (now 9/24), Matvei offered to drive me back to the airport to catch a 6am flight to Kazan, so back we went, and I staggered through the airport, onto the plane, connected to another flight in Moscow, took a train to Kazan’s city center, transferred to a crowded inter-city bus, and drove another 2.5 hours to Yoshkar Ola with my guitar on my lap. In the future, I’m going to need to take days off in between these shows – I ended up more worn out than I can ever remember being.
The picture you paint in your diary is that Russia is a hard, even brutal country to tour through, but the ordeal was worth it. Why? What is it about the shows or people that outweighed the worst bits of your travels?
I hope I’m not being too negative about it – there are some really beautiful things about the place too – endless, gorgeous woods, really cool architecture, some amazing food you can’t get anywhere else, and of course just the best people…. But, outside of the obvious tourist centers it’s a really challenging place to travel, let alone tour. Foreigners often need local “fixers” to help them navigate the environment. I’m fortunate enough to speak the language, which gives me a different level of access to the system, but, for example, when I got to Kazan, I found out that I didn’t have a ride to the gig in Yoshkar Ola as expected, so I had to find the small, informal bus station. The ticket office was hidden in a series of nondescript, low-slung buildings down a side-road from the train station, behind a muddy parking lot. There was a massive line to the tiny ticket desk, which took over an hour to clear. Russians have a specific queuing culture, with a complex web of different people holding spaces in line for one another, so what may look like 20 people can actually be more like 50, off running other errands while the line slowly shuffles forward. People were getting really bent out of shape about the wait as well, filming it with their cell phones and angrily arguing with the people at the ticket desk. When the time finally came to get my ticket, they took down all my passport information and assigned me to a full micro-bus, which didn’t have any room for my guitar or backpack (or me, at first) – the driver angrily insisted I wouldn’t fit, but ultimately, the other passengers helped me get all my gear stashed into the aisle/onto my lap, and we set off. These are small issues, but they appear several times daily, and compound on one another.
But that said, everyone who helped make these shows happen, old friends and new ones made the whole thing well worth it. You definitely get the feeling of a hard exterior from many people on the street – a very intense universal frown, but once that level of unfamiliarity is cleared, the kind of communication and warmth that opens up is incredible. My solo set was peppered with Russian-language explanations of the songs, so after the shows, people would want to come up and talk about the stories – there was already a context for contact – and people really appreciated that I’d come all the way out there to play for them. Playing for that kind of audience is so invigorating – I’ll get into that later.
Beyond that, I got so much support from the promoters, not just in terms of setting up the concerts and getting people out to them, but they also showed me around their towns, introduced me to their friends, and set me up with places to crash. Most shows also had local artists on the bills with me – they were so welcoming and passionate about what they do as well, and it’s pretty awesome to see each town having its own scene, a lot like we have in the states. I experienced so much generosity on the part of my friends – I’ve got a lot of Karmic debt to pay back…
One last thing I’ll say about Why Russia? is that it’s always been a very strange, paradoxical place for me to go personally – I have a lot of various feelings and emotions wrapped up it, for various reasons. Being there can be complicated and challenging, but I don’t think I’d have it any other way. Discomfort, distress, and occasional exasperation gives way to a sense of vitality and movement, and I find myself feverishly writing things down the second the wheels hit the ground there.
It seems like you encountered a lot of Russian resourcefulness: converted warehouses, cultural happenings inside decommissioned riverboats, lots of underground music scenes, etc. What were some of your most resourceful moments on the tour, and do you think you were inspired to meet the challenge because of the culture you were moving through?
It’s definitely true that I encountered a lot of converted spaces, a lot of creative use of surroundings and circumstances – I think it’s just been a fact of life in Russia for many, many years. Lots and lots of Macgyver-ing. I highly recommend looking up the history of Samizdat in the Soviet Union – while it usually refers to the underground (often homemade) reproduction and distribution of banned or censored literature, they also used to reproduce banned records on used X-Ray prints from hospitals. The converted arts spaces that are proliferating in old industrial zones are really cool, and I expect that there will be more cropping up in the next couple of years. As for what that brought out in me? I can’t say… maybe the constant need to “rise to the occasion,” adapting to unexpected twists and situations – they come up constantly, be it staying up all night and convincing airport staff to let my guitar on the plane, or bribing my way out of a police interrogation. But I don’t necessarily think that is exclusive to touring in Russia – I think touring in general is often a steady series of “barely making it out alive…”
Is your “average” Russian audience — if such a thing can be imagined — more attentive and supportive than your “average” American audience?
That certainly seemed to be the case while I was there – but I don’t know if those audiences were really average – for most of the shows, people were coming out specifically to hear English-language songs outside mainstream Europop – so mostly young-ish people who were clearly into indie-rock. But then there were a couple shows where the audience was more incidentally there (the free, bar shows) – and even that crowd was astonishingly engaged in the music – quiet during the quiet parts and enthusiastic in their applause. These weren’t just young folks, but older couples, taxi drivers, drunks, etc. – and they seemed to really get into the stories, and especially the fact that so many of the early Balto songs are tied to the time I spent living in Moscow. A lot of it probably comes down to the curiosity factor – so many Russian artists sing in English, but you just don’t ever see Americans touring out there, and people really do get excited about that novelty. And I sold out of merch, which is always a good sign.
When you’re constantly on the move, bouncing from plane to bus to train, how do you promote a show in Russia? Social? Regional publicists? Friends?
In comparison to six years ago, there’s wifi just about everywhere, so I was able to stay plugged in on my phone more than I initially expected, sending out posts and stuff with some regularity – but I definitely felt the limitations of being in constant motion. I relied a lot on my friends, the promoters, and the other bands to promote through whatever channels they had – mostly on the Russian social media platform analogous to Facebook, called vKontakte(VK). Communities of music-lovers stay pretty engaged through their VK groups, often organized regionally, and they share stuff freely and widely – and they actually come to events that they’re signed up for. The promoters really engaged their networks through VK and it was pretty surprising how well that worked (especially compared to everyone’s fatigue with Facebook promotion in the USA). The local bands that I played with in each town also brought their fans out. Besides that, I have some really close old friends that helped “agitate” for shows and get people out – all in all, it was a pretty incredible, adhoc effort, but the results were fantastic.
Besides some adjustments to routing, what would you different next time? Will there be a next time?
There will be a next time! This was really a preliminary mission to Russia on behalf of our band – I wanted to see what the audience response was, what the challenges were, and how best to proceed in setting up a full band tour. That will be super challenging, but I think the groundwork is now there for it – the people I was working with over there seemed really excited about the prospect of bringing us over, so with enough forward planning, I think we can make it work. In the future, I think ensuring there is solid tour publicity will make all the difference in getting larger numbers of people out, and also finding other performance opportunities alongside the shows in various towns will be really important. Ivan Bezborody, who set up the shows in Nizny Novgorod and Yoshkar Ola, booked me for a radio interview (which I ended up missing due to bad traffic) and a Q&A at a cultural space called Ziferblat. That turned into one of the highlights of the whole tour – it was an informal conversation over a late lunch with around a dozen young people and the local band – Givenshy – that I’d be playing with later that night. It was an open discussion about music, travel, and language, sprinkled with some songs by both me and the other musicians. That setting really opened up a space for real cultural exchange, and I hope that in the future we’ll be able to do more events like that.
Touring Russia is obviously great for making fans and selling merch over there, but in what ways did you use that experience to promote your music or make new fans in the US?
Besides in this Q&A? J I accidentally fell into Russia about eight years ago, and I definitely didn’t know at the time what a great conversation starter it was going to be. I’ve wanted to play shows across the region ever since I started touring!
But as evidenced by this article, people are really curious about the former Soviet Union – it’s still relatively unexplored by Americans and to play music there puts you right in the middle of the action. You can’t really be a tourist or an observer – the memories I end up with are a very specific vision of the country and I’m glad that people are interested in hearing about it. At the same time, there’s something to be said for purity of purpose. Balto has definitely gotten a publicity boost in the states from this last tour, but it has to remain about the process and our new Russian fans – touring and playing for the sake of itself and the people it connects with – the press, the business, the promotion – I know it’s important, but I really try to push it to the side as much as possible.
Thanks again to Dan for these answers. Always nice to read about other musician’s touring adventures in places I’ll probably never perform. But if you’re considering traveling as a musician in Russia, was this interview helpful, motivating, discouraging? Have you already toured in Russia? What was your experience like? Any tips for booking or promoting shows in that country? Let us know in the comments below.
Check out Balto’s music at www.baltoamerica.com.