I’ve been doing a bit of touring lately and had a few words of basic advice to share. Hopefully it will generate some discussion and we’ll hear thoughts and wisdom from other musicians who are out there hogging the road.
First off, good press does not necessarily make for good shows. Instead, its all about people. Nothing drove this home more than my most recent tour. On previous tours we’d gotten quite positive but scattered press coverage. My focus in planning those earlier tours was all in the booking details. I was very careful and picky (as careful and picky as a relatively unknown indie-pop songwriter could be at the time) about what venues we played, what cities and on what nights, what bands we would share bills with. It worked well. And while not every show was a religious experience, we had a lot of good nights.
But, in my mind, this most recent tour was intended as more of a publicity blitz down the West Coast. My publicist had gotten great feedback from several writers at the LA Times about my latest album so we wanted to capitalize on that opportunity quickly. I hurriedly booked another tour, made plans, got the band in the van, and began driving through a severe winter snowstorm in Southern Oregon and Northern California. Not the best time for a tour, admittedly, but sometimes you’ve just got to spring into action.
Anyways, we lived through it all and played Portland, LA, San Diego, Modesto, San Francisco, and Seattle over the course of a week. Looking at this tour as a publicity run, it was a smashing success. The LA Times did a show preview and reviewed it quite kindly in their official music blog the next day. Both major weeklies in San Diego featured us as picks of the week. The San Francisco Examiner, Bay Guardian, and the Onion all wrote something nice. And yet… our BEST shows were in the towns where we had no press at all, Modesto and Seattle. Why would that be? Because those were the only two shows where I’d payed any attention at all to actual real live breathing PEOPLE in the booking process.
The other shows were set up in a mad-dash to get the good press my publicist had lined up. But in Modesto and Seattle, I had friends and acquaintances in those towns who set up shows on our behalf. They booked the venues, put together good bills with local acts that regularly draw crowds, and then they delivered the goods. Both shows were amazing and absolutely packed. I have since booked shows in Portland for those bands in return, and the pressure is on for me to bring out the peeps. That is the way it works. Friends, favors, fun. These 3 things can form the basis for an amazing tour. Obviously, you’ve still got to put in some hard work and a little cash upfront, but you’ll get a lot further working this way than you will by directly approaching club owners, promoters, and bookers.
Don’t have any friends in San Francisco? That is OK. I’ll bet you’ve got a MySpace friend there! Write them. Find out what bands you’d fit in well with in that town. Then befriend those bands, too. Have one of them set up a show for you and promise to set something up for them in return. Don’t flake on that promise, either. If the show they booked sucks and seemed tossed together, of course, don’t go all out when you pay them back. Don’t book them at the hottest club with the hottest acts. But put something together that at least works. If they deliver a great show, pull out all the stops in your home town in return. There is nothing better than playing in a foreign land to a room full of appreciative people. You wouldn’t have ANY audience at all if it weren’t for these fun little back-room deals known as “gig swapping”.
As for the good press? It looks real nice shining in bold letters on MySpace, or on a promo flier, or on a sticker on the front of my next CD. Its nice to have. But those rooms we played in towns where we had received such fine praise were decidedly NOT filled to capacity. It didn’t do a thing to bring out a crowd. (Well… actually, it usually brought out 2-5 people that wouldn’t have come otherwise, which is nice.)
I don’t want to seem like I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth, either. I’m extremely thankful to have been in a position to have such nice ink thrown about in my name. It lifts the wings a bit. Strokes the ego. Makes me smile. Basically, its what we all need from time to time to keep going, good old fashioned validation. However, next time I’m going to put my focus back on friends, favors, and fun. I’m going to really work the connections to get the right people together for a great night in EVERY town. To get a band to take time off of work for touring with any less of a goal in mind is a waste of everyone’s time. Then if the press covers THOSE shows, all the better.