Top Three Touring Tactics: Lessons from Portland, Oregon

Everybody loves End-Of-Year Best-Of lists, right? And those of you who say you don’t still like to complain about them, which means you really DO love them! Well, the CD Baby DIY Musician Blog, WeAllMakeMusic.com, and a handful of other great sites are collaborating to bring you two new “Best Of” lists every day this week.

For CD Baby’s bit, we’ll be looking at three Portland bands who are touring smart in very different ways.

With so much upheaval in the music industry, there has been a lot of talk lately about how “indie bands are now in the business of selling t-shirts.” Well, while we don’t think that is exactly true (CD Baby’s physical CD sales are UP from this time last year!), it does raise a good point: Everything is changing, even touring.

Without tour support from a label, DIY artists have to make sure they’re getting maximum return on their time, financial investment, and effort when they go out on the road. After all, touring is one of the main ways musicians grow their fan base. And for the following bands, it is working!

1. Blue Cranes Go By Train-

In one swift move, Portland’s favorite jazz rock collective teaches us 3 valuable lessons: garner massive press attention by embarking upon an environmentally & economically conscious national tour and have your fans pay for it all. Blue Cranes is a busy band. They gig often. They’ve toured often. But when it came time to consider a national tour, the cost of the undertaking was tough to wrap their heads around. But rather than be deterred, they took the challenge to their fans, successfully using crowdfunding site Kickstarter.com to raise enough money to mount the tour.

Oh, and this wasn’t just any tour. Blue Cranes is going by train, coast to coast and back again. The unusual mode of transportation makes for good camaraderie, a good story for press coverage, and good Green thinking (both in terms of the environment and the almighty dollar.)  Check out Blue Cranes’ Kickstarter video HERE.

2. MarchFourth Marching Band Brings the Spectacle to You-

They describe themselves as a “mobile big band spectacular,” but even that doesn’t seem to do them justice. Along with a giant band and giant sound (saxophones, trumpets, trombones, a drum/percussion corp, and a battery-powered electric bass), they’re accompanied by stilt-walkers, dancing girls, flag twirlers, clowns, and acrobats. It’d be quite an undertaking to pull off this kind of show in your own hometown. Now imagine touring with it! Which is exactly what MarchFourth has been doing for 7 years, including several long trips to Europe. The onslaught of visual and audio sensations is stunning and they’ve been able to dazzle kids at school assemblies, sweaty masses of ravers, house partiers, families at street fairs, club-goers, variety-show attendees, and almost everyone else that sets eyes and ears upon them.

Now I’m not suggesting that every touring artist should think of themselves as a little slice of Burning Man or Cirque du Soleil. Rather, the lesson here… create something memorable! Do something dramatic. Do something at your show that people just aren’t going to see if they go to someone else’s concert, something they just won’t get from the TV or X-Box, something that must be captured in the moment.

Consider what it is that only YOU do. Now magnify that thing so that everyone in the crowd can really feel it, whether you’re a solo singer-songwriter or a travelling funk-rock circus. Check out MarchFourth in action below:

3. Nick Jaina Gathers No Moss-

He’s a busy guy, constantly writing and recording, constantly going out on the road. But how does Nick Jaina, one of Portland’s most solid songwriters, manage to STAY out on the road? Years back, he discovered the secret of modularity. No, this isn’t some newfangled pseudo-science. I’m talking about a band’s ability to break down and expand without disrupting what is essential to their songs and aesthetic.

Here on the DIY Musician Blog I recently wrote an article called “Strip Down/Extend Your Reach” (and yes, I meant for that to sound a little naughty). In it, I spoke about how bands with a big sound, lots of gear, and complex arrangements can get more exposure and opportunities to earn income by figuring out how to do a stripped-down performance. That way, you can do your big rock show at the club AND do a simple acoustic set for the local radio station, for the cool indie record store, or… as Nick Jaina’s band does, for passersby on the street.

Nick and his band are sometimes able to earn more money and sell more merch by busking (performing on the street without any amplification or microphones) than at their proper club shows.  By now they’ve discovered all the good spots in the good cities, figured out the cities where busking is a waste of time, and been able to sustain a regular touring schedule for years.

The other little modular trick here is that, since Nick is the principle member of the band, he can travel with a rotating cast of musicians (so no one gets burned out), he can travel solo if the budget is tight, and he can bring a big band out if finances permit. All the while, because they’re his songs and his voice, all the various versions of the band seem authentic and engaging.

Here’s a little shaky video of Nick Jaina and band busking in Madison, WI:

Honorable mention:

Touring Without Touring-

Our hats are off to everyone who has made a splash on YouTube, Vimeo, uStream, and Justin.tv without ever leaving their own homes to perform. The internet is presenting creative people with so many opportunities to connect with fans in new ways. Of course I’m old fashioned and think that nothing beats a truly transcendent live performance. But if it just isn’t in the cards for you to tour, don’t let that stop you from entertaining the masses.

-Chris R. at CD Baby



Join the Conversation