Planning a successful music tour from start to finish
[This article was written by guest contributor Kristine St-Pierre.]
Do it yourself (DIY): the act of doing or creating something without the aid of experts or professionals.
Going on tour can often seem daunting, especially when you’re trying to plan the whole thing on your own. Where do you start? And how do you go about it? When I decided to do my first solo tour in 2010, I remember feeling scared, but also extremely excited for what was to come. While every day had its ups and downs, I came home not only feeling proud of what I had accomplished, but with a bunch of new songs and stories!
Having only done two tours, my experience cannot be compared to that of a seasoned touring artist. However, I’ve had many people ask me about my experience and about setting up their own DIY tour, so I thought I could share my own experience. So here are a few tips for conducting a successful tour on your own. No booker, no PR, no marketing agent. Just you.
In addition to my perspective, I’ve asked a few artist friends to share their own DIY touring tips. Hopefully these tips will prove useful when planning your own tour.
1. Map out your itinerary
Where do you want to go? Will you be driving, flying, or taking the train? Look at a map and start identifying a possible itinerary and write down the cities/towns along the way and the distance between them. Are there specific areas where you absolutely want to go? Do you have family, friends or acquaintances with whom you could stay?
If you plan on taking the train, pick the specific route you’d like to take and identify the arrival and departure times, as these will be crucial when booking gigs and making sure you have enough time from one town to the next. For me, the choice of itinerary was based on the desire to go somewhere I had never been before and take the opportunity to visit a bit of the country.
2. Identify venues & local performers
Once I had an itinerary in mind, I looked up similar artists whom I knew had previously toured the area and made a list of all the venues on their tour. In addition, I searched for live music venues, which I thought would suit my style, and looked for open mic nights.
Another way of going about this is to find a local artist to open for or with whom to play, a tactic used by both Heather Hill and Jessica Speziale on their respective tours. Heather found it extremely valuable to open for someone who can draw, especially in a city where she didn’t have an established fan base. Jessica, for her part, found that getting in touch with local artists directly and contacted the venues with a full bill of familiar names was a great way to address the lack of a fan base.
Randy Young of the band Cherry Suede has a slightly different approach, given their already thriving fan base, but one worth mentioning. They use a rough rule of thumb: a 10:1 ratio of their known and active fans vs. their expected draw. If they have a 1000 fans in a region, they estimate a draw of 100. Randy also warns artists to choose their venue carefully: “Your venue needs to be the type of place that YOUR fans will enjoy. Don’t set up a show in a grungy bar if your fans are the type to prefer a theatre. EVERYTHING matters. And most importantly, play only a venue you can fill. If you expect only 20 people, then play a venue that holds 18. So many bands book a large venue based on ego and not data. 100 people in a room meant for 400 is empty. 100 people in a room meant for 90 is a sellout.”
3. Contact venues
Start early! I usually start thinking about a tour 6 months in advance and start contacting places 3 months ahead of the tour. However, even that is a little last minute! Justin Lacroix who has toured across Canada multiple times suggests starting 6 to 12 months in advance. “Start planning 6-12 months ahead of time. Lock in your key shows, find other musicians to share the stage. There is a lot of organization needed to book an efficient tour. For me, I often get caught up in the booking. More specifically, waiting for venues to get back to me… or not get back to me. So the greater challenge for me is in the prep – timing it right so that more dates can be booked well ahead of time and so that I can send out posters and press releases 1-2 months ahead of time instead of 2 weeks before the show or worse or not at all.”
In addition to timing, there is the challenge of credibility. Award-winning singer-songwriter John Allaire explains that his main challenge when booking himself is just that. “There seems to be a lack of credibility when you book yourself, as opposed to an agent doing it. It’s still a struggle to get venue owners to believe in you.” I find this extremely unfortunate, especially as more and more artists, both emerging and established, are trying to go at it on their own.
4. Save/Raise $$$
While the ultimate goal would be to make a profit, or at least break even, the reality is much different. That said, there are many ways of ensuring that you do at least cover your costs so that the money from your CDs and other merchandise goes to you directly.
* Apply for funding. There are numerous organizations (in Canada) that give out funding for national and international tours, including the Ontario Arts Council and Canadian Council for the Arts.
* Raise money. Crowdfunding is becoming increasingly popular as a means of financing the production of a cd or a tour. Look into it and talk to artists who have done it.
* Be creative! Check out Amanda Rheaume’s “Loons for Tunes” campaign, which she launched in 2010 to help her pay for gas during her 8-week tour across Canada!
5. Don’t be afraid to do this on your own!
Sure, doing things on your own can be scary. How many of us are scared of going for dinner on our own, let alone going on a road trip for two weeks or even a month. It’s not easy, but you can do it! Plus, you’re never really alone if you’ve got your music, right?!
I like doing these trips alone, because for me it’s a time to explore and reflect. It’s also a way to prove to myself that I can do this. That said, you can also take this opportunity to travel with your friends, partner, or family! Heather is a perfect example. As a mother of two, she used her tour as an opportunity to travel with her husband and kids!
“Travelling with my family was very fun. While it was tiring, it was so great to wake up each day and know I could explore a new place through their eyes. I used to travel with work in my past and I never liked going to new places and living in different hotels. With kids, it was fun doing things they would like – having breakfast in bed and trying out all of the pools were highlights. It was nice having them at a few gigs and watching me set up my equipment and cheer me on!”
6. Don’t give up, be persistent, and have fun! Seriously 🙂
To finish off, I asked each artist to share a final thought or one of their favourite venues (I’ve played at all three mentioned here and completely agree with the selection!).
John: “The key to touring is persistence and not getting discouraged by a few poor turn-outs here and there. Use it as an adventure. Go play somewhere out of your comfort zone. Work for your money. Win people over. It’s the only way to improve. I was playing Ottawa to 100 people per solo show… getting complacent until I booked a show in Manhattan. I had to make people like me there. To them, I was just the next guy on the bill. Push them hard enough…make them like you. When you come home, your audience will see how you’ve matured and will appreciate your shows even more.”
Heather: “LopLops in Sault Ste. Maire. Steve the owner worked so hard to make the night successful. He put up lots of posters helped contact the media, etc.”
Justin: “Networking, pooling resources, staying flexible, sustained efforts and perseverance are key. Oh, and once you get to the gig, it’s all about the musical sharing experience…give it all you got and it always comes back tenfold. The Apollo in Thunder Bay. Why? Character, caring owners who do their share of promoting. You charge what you like at the door and keep the earnings. There’s a great sound system and a good sound guy. They also put you up in their “hostel-esque” abode above the venue.”
Jessica: “The Griffin Gastropub in Bracebridge, ON. It’s a full night, it pays well, and the people LOVE music!!”
Randy: “Be a master of your hometown first. If you can’t sellout a venue in your hometown – you will have an even tougher time on the road. Touring is a lot of work and a lot of detail – and it takes a team. I’m not talking about an artist needing an “agent” or a “manager” – if you are a band, you have a team built in. Assign tasks, deadlines and accountability. I would book ONE show every 8-12 weeks in your hometown until you sell out the venue. This will reveal any strengths and weaknesses at EVERY level of your show – from performance to promotion. And only then – try a town nearby and do it again – until you build a few markets within a radius that you can re-visit.”
*I’d like to thank the following artists who contributed to this article: John Allaire (www.johnallaire.com); Heather Hill (www.heatherhill.com); Justin Lacroix (www.justinlacroix.com); Jessica Speziale (www.jessicaspeziale.com); and Randy Young (www.cherrysuede.com).
For more information about booking your own tour, download our free guide:
[hana-code-insert name=’touring-dont-miss’ /]
[Picture of North America from Shutterstock.]