[This article was written by guest contributor Brett Newski, an indie-pop songwriter who has toured extensively in Europe. Check out Brett’s online course called “How to Tour Europe without an Agent or Label.“]
Touring can be brutal. You know this if you’ve been on the road, especially in America or the UK. Don’t worry. It gets better. Europe is the holy grail of touring for musicians: great hospitality, primo food, unpretentious attentive audiences, government arts funding. It’s the mega jam. I try to spend at least 8-10 weeks per year touring Europe. This fall will mark my sixth European tour. It’s a place of extreme loyalty that you’ll be able to go back to for decades (if you do it right). Below is what I learned about getting started DIY touring Europe.
Before You Leave
Please make a good EP or CD. Booking gigs without good songs/recordings is going to be truly tough. Don’t skimp on graphics. If you suck at Photoshop, hire a designer. Many great albums get passed by because the cover art is a turd. In the age of infinite albums, great cover art will give your record a chance of getting heard.
Have a quality Web site. No legit venues will book you without this. It doesn’t need 10 tabs and run 40 pages deep, even a sleek splash page will suffice. (Good examples: Ezra Furman, Laura Lou, Small Houses)
Consider stripping down your band for the first EU tour. If you’re a songwriter you’re in good shape. If you’re an eight-piece band, good luck. Strip it down to 3-4 journeymen and play stripped down. This first tour is a recon mission that you will build upon.
Get an international unlocked smart phone (I use T Mobile). This will be your personal Jesus. GPS is going to save your ass out there.
Hit the gym: you’ll be grinding it hard on foreign terrain for several weeks. Getting sick on tour will destroy your mind and body. Work out leading up to the tour, especially if you’ll be drinking those free beers many nights.
Let’s just be straight with each other right away. You’re about to set foot on very foreign terrain. It’s Euro tour numero uno. This might not be the greatest tour of your life (though it might be). Prepare to get your ass kicked with logistical curve balls, language barriers, and a few tough shows. Hope for the best. Expect the worst. Odds are, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Remember, you’re paving roads and laying groundwork so you can enter the EU as a touring force the second time around.
The good news is, European crowds are very forgiving and their hospitality is amazing. No more sleeping on shitty American/UK hardwood floors and eating at 7/11. Prepare for appreciative crowds and hospitality upgrades all the way around.
Before you go abroad, which of your musician friends have toured Europe? Reach out to them and ask if you can meet them for coffee or a phoner. Say something like “Jimmy T, it’s our first euro tour and absorbing some of your wisdom would save us loads of headaches and soul-crushers on the road.” Offer to hook them up with good gigs/contacts in your strongest US regions.
Keep your booking emails short. English is not the first language of these Euro folks. Use 3-4 sentences pitching your band. What are your top 2 selling points? Put your site and two best press quotes under your signature. Germans/Swiss/Austrians love representation, so if you have a manager, have he or she email the clubs instead. If you have a reference from a musician ally, be sure to drop their name (ask first). Remember that Europeans place the date before the month. Use this format in your subject line for clarity.
Subject: Brett Newski (US) | KultureHaus Hamburg | 3,4,5 Oct
Multiple gigs in a major market are generally ok on a first tour. People don’t know you yet, and there’s no label or “suit” to piss off if you play twice. Be sure to ask the promoter if it’s cool.
Don’t Fear “Pass the Hat” Shows: Many venues will offer “play for the hat.” Germans, Swiss, Austrians, Belgians, Norwegians can be quite generous on hat shows. They understand gig etiquette and you’ll generally be walking with at least 200-300 euro. MAKE SURE the hat is enforced. There should be a sign on the door stating “8-12 euro donation” and the host should pass the hat between acts. If there is only one act, ideally pass it once at the beginning and end. An announcement about the hat should always be made by the host pre-show. AVOID “hat gigs” in Netherlands, Sweden, Spain or Italy.
Sofa Concerts: The best house show site in Europe. Primarily for solo acts and songwriters, but if your band has a stripped down set you’ll be good. https://www.sofaconcerts.org/. Buy the “pro” profile. It’s only 42 euro per year and grants access to an active community of hosts.
European House Concert Network: Decent site with a well-established community. Generally the hosts are older “folkies” that really love music. Best for songwriters and not full bands. I have yet to use this site personally but numerous musician friends have used it successfully.
Couchsurfing: CS is your friend. This community is VERY ACTIVE in Europe. I’ve booked a large handful of gigs on Couchsurfing when I needed to fill gaps between club shows. These are generally backpacker crowds, so they don’t throw down much $ on the hat (there are exceptions). Odds are you won’t make huge cash on these shows, but you’ll get dinner, room, some money and a network of people all over the world amped to host you in their town. I’ve made anywhere from $30-400 on a CS gig. Make sure you talk to the host about enforcing the hat before the gig. They may have no experience hosting shows, so kindly guide them.
How to book on CS: Create an event in the city you’re looking for a gig.
Meetings vs gigs: Don’t take too many gigs on your first tour (unless the $ is there). Over-gigging will crush energy and morale. You’re better off playing 4-5 nights a week and leaving a few days off for meetings/hang time. Research labels and agents in a particular city. Email them and ask if it’s cool to drop a vinyl or CD at their office. Do research and drop names from bands you like on their roster. Keep an eye on Meetup and Facebook for music networking events such as songwriter nights, indie happy hours, etc. Connecting with someone at a label over a beer/coffee is far more valuable than making 60 euro and selling two CDs at a crappy show.
If you’re a one-man-band, you’ve got a few options. If you’re a 3-5 piece band, you’ll likely want to rent or buy a car. Again, having an international unlocked phone is essential. It’ll grant you full GPS that you can use for car, train and on-foot navigation.
Car (recommended): Rent a car. I went this route the first four tours before buying a car on the fifth tour (I named it Chuck Ragan the Car). Most rental companies are generally bastards, so be aware of hidden fees. Also be aware that transit police in Europe are simply cameras over the highway. You cannot go even 2 km/hr over the speed limit or they’ll mail you a ticket. On the bright side, there aren’t cops on every corner gunning for you like in America, the land of the free.
Bus: Cheapest mode of transit. Flix Bus and Mega Bus are good. Remember, if you have a lot of gear, you’ll have to grab pricey taxis to get to venues. I’ve also fu**** my back carrying gear for 10 blocks. While affordable, buses take logistical planning and inhibit freedom.
Train: not a great option unless you have a sugar daddy giving you cash. Pricey transit.
BlaBla Car: Quality app for hopping in peoples’ cars and getting cheap rides city to city. This takes some logistical planning time but not much. As a driver you can also pick up people and make gas money. The downside is you’re reliant on others to get to gigs on time. Europeans generally aren’t flakey.
Your friends and allies will make your Euro tours enjoyable for years to come. Take care of them and offer to show them around when they travel to your town. Keep a list of everyone you meet on the road in an excel sheet. Columns should include name, city, email, what you talked about, etc. I even keep a “legend status” column ranging from 1-3. “3’s” are power legends who bought a record and expressed full genuine interest in the show. This way you can personally email super fans next time thru.
I have one tab for friends/fans and one for industry contacts. It’s a little bit extra work, but this grid is the single most important database you’ll ever have and will keep you alive on future tours.
Ideally, you’ll want an ally band or songwriter in every town, someone in your genre who works hard and has good songs. You can share bills, knowledge, and databases. You can help each other in respective weak/strong markets and ideally play with them when you’re in town.
Have a great tour. Remember, it’s all about the long slow burn. Each tour builds on the next. Stay in the game, persevere, and don’t get discouraged. We all have crappy shows no matter what continent we’re on. European soil is something you’ll want to nurture and grow. It will be there for you for years to come. Take care of the people, respect the foreign customs, and play great shows. The loyalty of these countries will keep you coming back for years to come.
Feel free to drop a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
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Do you have any European touring tips to share? Let me know in the comments below!