Want to Plan a Tour in the USA? How One International Artist Did It Right

An interview with Swedish indie folk-pop artist Sofia Talvik

Long before I knew she was coming to America I’d been a big fan of Sofia Talvik’s music, starting in 2008 when I heard her album Jonestown (full of lush orchestral folk-pop, equal parts Nick Drake and Tori Amos).

Earlier this year at the International Folk Alliance Festival, I hung out with Sofia and her husband Jonas and asked them all about their strategy for touring in the States.

At that point, they were one month into a 2-year plan to travel around the country non-stop, hitting each circuit multiple times over that span.

I was impressed with how “together” they were in terms of advanced planning, division of labor (Sofia is the musician; Jonas is the audio/visual/technical guy—and together they handle booking, promotion, driving, etc.). Plus, they were just all-around sweet people. It’s been fun to follow their adventures on Facebook. Now that 9 months have passed, I thought it’d be a good time to follow up since (as you can see from the photo above) they’ve put a few thousand more miles behind them.

CD Baby’s Chris R. and Molly K. with Sofia Talvik and Jonas Westin

Rabbit ears!

Anyway, back to the topic at hand—a little less than halfway through their “Drivin’ & Dreaming” Tour, here’s Sofia Talvik (writing from Idaho while en route to the West Coast) with her advice on how to execute a successful indie tour of the United States.

 Touring in the United States as an International DIY Musician

 CD Baby: How did you arrange to come  to the US as an international artist and work in music venues legally?

Sofia: It was quite the process to get an artist visa to the US. I hired a company called Tamizdat to help me and I’m really glad I did because this isn’t something you can do on your own.

Be prepared to put a lot of work into the application. For example I had to present a tour plan with venues, addresses and estimated pay for the entire period of time I was applying for and I needed contracts too. As an independent artist it’s hard to get a random venue in the US to sign a contract that they are going to have you play there two years from now, so I approached my fans and friends and had them sign contracts for house concerts. This turned out to be a great thing since many of them actually wanted to host a house concert when I arrived.

In total it took me almost 6 months from when I started filling out the forms until I got the visa, so make sure you have plenty of time for this, or you’ll end up paying ridiculous fees for speeding up the process.

How did you get a driver’s license? What was your experience like buying a tour vehicle?

If you have a drivers license in your country it’s not hard to get a US drivers license. Just visit the local DMV office and pick up the brochures and book a time for a drivers test. It is different in different states so the best thing is to go online and see what’s required in the state you’re in.

You need to have a vehicle for your test too but a rental car is ok as long as its rented in your name.

For buying a vehicle you can go to a dealership or check out Craigslist.com. We purchased an RV from a private seller. Just make sure title and everything is in order. Depending on what you’re buying it can be a good thing to have it checked out by an independent mechanic before you buy it. Buying a used vehicle from a dealer doesn’t mean it’s less crappy. Have it checked out! If the owner won’t let you do this it’s an indication that something probably is wrong with it. In that case move on. You don’t want to break down on the way to your first gig, right?

When you’ve purchased your vehicle, go to the DMV again and get a license plate.

And do not forget you need insurance! Geico is a good choice if you’re unfamiliar with US insurance companies. To get insurance you need a valid drivers license.

To get all these things you usually need proof of address. So wherever you’re staying; if you rent some place or stay with friends start out by ordering some information brochures  and stuff from geico or the bank or whatever so you have at least three envelopes with your name and address on.

For more info check out DMV.com and geico.com

What did you do to pimp out your RV?

We spent two weeks pulling everything out of our 29 ft RV. We pulled out carpets, wallpapers and everything. We had a rental car so we made at least two or three trips to IKEA, Home Depot and Lowes every day. We wanted to make it as simple as possible but still comfortable and nice.

The first thing we got was a new bed from IKEA. To sleep in your own bed every night is one of the best things with traveling in an RV. The bed was our priority, and probably the most expensive thing we bought for the interior.

For me it was super important to have an RV that had a bedroom. Some smaller RVs only have a sleeping space in the overhang. Depending on how long you plan to tour for you can make a decision on how comfortable you need to be. Do you just need to crash back in a van for a few weeks or is this going to be your home for the next two years?

If you’re thinking of purchasing an RV here’s a check list:

1. Decide on what kind is best for you; class A, class C, a fifth wheel or a van. Different tours calls for different things and you might want to research this before you start looking so that you can eliminate all that you’re not going to buy anyway.

2. Look for water leaks. Water is your enemy! (We didn’t do that and have spent a year trying to fix them). You can tell if an RV is water damaged by a few simple signs. If the exterior looks bubbly it means the wood has swollen from water. If you get a class C, lift the mattress or floor in the overhang to check if it’s damp underneath. Smell is a good indication. Does it smell musty like an old cottage? Then it’s probably damp.

3. Get it checked out by a mechanic. The motor is your most important part!

4. Do all the appliances inside work, fridge, water and toilet, stove? Test all these things; don’t trust the seller.

5. Is your generator in good shape? This is what will keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer as well as charge your laptop.

6. If all is in good shape and you want to buy it – read up. There’s tons of stuff that you need to know about your RV. It’s a lifestyle. Make sure you’re committed. Join an online RV forum where you can do research and ask questions. You’ll need it!

Home sweet home.

You always seem to be staying ahead of things in terms of tour routing. What is your booking strategy?

We book about two to three months in advance all the time. Booking is a really time-consuming thing so if you don’t have a booking agent be prepared to spend a couple of hours on the computer every day for this.

To find venues we mostly use indieonthemove.com and Reverb Nation. We also look at artists similar to me and where they’ve played. There’s also a fair amount of Googling involved.

When you approach a booking agent or venue you want them to notice you. Spend some time to put together a good standard email that describes your music, what the tour is about and anything you think is important to share. Include links to your music and some live videos. We put up a page on unbounce to create an easy landing page where we included quotes, videos, bio etc and included a link to this page in the booking email.

You already know this, but never attach mp3s in your emails.

Is this a tour where you need to get paid or do you see this as an investment in your career? If its important for you to get paid, include a paragraph in the email that you usually ask for a guarantee to cover your costs. Be prepared to negotiate. Also be prepared that 90% of the people you email will never get back to you. Focus on the venues you want to play the most and follow up.

How do you promote yourself on the road?

There’s some good services for this as well if you don’t have a publicist. StoryAmp is one of them that’s easy to use. (And CD Baby artists get 20% off!) Indieonthemove.com has also started to list press. I also use artistdata.com to get a good overview for my shows and it sends out to calendars and event listings in the area you’re playing. The best result will still be a personal approach though. I use usnpl.com which lists newspapers, tv and radio in every city. I then look for contact info to the entertainment writers on every newspaper and email them.

This is similar to your booking approach – spend time to make a good pitch to the reporter. What’s special about you and your tour? What’s the thing that’s going to make you stand out?

Again – include links to your music and professional high resolution press photos. Remember! An interview or a write up in the local newspaper may be the difference on if there will be 2 people or 200 at your show.

Depending on what type of music you play it can also be a good thing to contact organizations of other sorts. If you’re not American, check for organizations specific to the country you’re from. I’ve done a bunch of shows that were co-arranged by Swedish organizations or had a lot of swedes come out to.

Look for forums and blogs specific to your genre. They might not see your event listing in the free entertainment paper but will only read about what’s going on on their forum.

Ask the venue you’re playing if they have a press list or if they have suggestions for publications and radio that might be hard to find for you online. Lots of venues have lists of local reporters and that will make your job much easier. Also help the venue to promote your gigs by sending them posters/flyers and set up Facebook events that they can invite their customers to. If you show the venue you’re serious about promoting your gig there they just might go the extra mile too.

How do you make sure you stay stocked up on merch?

I started out with 500 new albums and 70 t-shirts. I still have tons of tees lying around and had to restock my albums twice.

Get small quantities of the merch you want to sell and try it out. In a month you’ll know what sells and what doesn’t.

If you need to restock while on the road, check with a friend, a fan or the venue you’re playing and ask if it’s ok to have some stuff shipped to their address.

Always keep a newsletter list available at your gigs. Offer a freebie to get people to sign up, like a download or something. The next time you’re in the area you can easily reach your fans and alert them that you’re back! If they can buy mech from your website, even better!

Get square! It’s a simple card reader for your phone that will allow you to accept credit cards on your tour. Sometimes people don’t have cash but you don’t have to lose that customer if you have a square. You’ll need an American bank account for this but that’s not hard to set up.

You’ve done a whole series of “Drivin’ & Dreaming” web videos which showcase the ups and downs of DIY touring. Can you talk a little bit about shooting and editing video on the road?

If you have a smart phone there’s no excuse to not stay updated on your social media and your website.

Take pictures and video from your gigs as well as on your time off. Your fans will want to see all this wether they were at your latest gig or not.

We take pictures of every concert and post on my website and Facebook. We also share the pics with the venue and let them use them on their pages. Your fans can tag themselves and then more people will see the pics and find your music. It’s also great to keep as a memory of the tour for yourself!

I started out on a very ambitious note to document everything from the tour. But when you do all the booking and PR, as well as playing the shows, filming and editing 15-20 minute episodes each to every other week was a bit of a challenge. I made 10 episodes and now I try to be more ambitious about making some short videos with my iPhone as well as posting more pics and stuff like that on my Facebook Artist page instead. (http://facebook.com/sofiatalvikmusic)

So how do you keep your gear in order?

It’s all about being organized. Take good care of your stuff and it will be easier to set up next time and they will keep longer.

Always double check when you leave a venue that you have all your stuff. I forgot my vocal mic in Miami on the first month of the tour and had to buy a new one as well as arrange for the venue to ship my mic to where I was. You can do without that hassle.

Also make sure your gear is in shape. If you realize a cable is broken, put it away from your other gear or put a piece of colored tape on it immediately. There’s nothing that’s more annoying than gear that doesn’t work. I did a bunch of showcases at Folk Alliance not knowing that three of my cables were damaged and had a short in them. They worked and then they didn’t when I needed them to. It was really embarrassing and I felt less than professional. Cables break all the time and now we actually got ourselves a small soldering kit so we can fix them if they break.

Is it worth it to arrange your tour schedule around festivals?

That’s what I’m trying to do for my next year of this tour. Why don’t you ask me next year and I’ll let you know 😉

Any tips for artists when they’re actually on-stage?

When on stage always remember to introduce yourself. Unless you’re in a room where there’s ONLY your closest friends, people will want to know who you are. Do it at least one time at the start of the set and one time at the end of the set.

Also remind people you have merch for sale. Joke about it and tell your audience your poor gas mileage on your RV (we get 7.5mpg on ours) or something else that’s personal and will make people want to support your tour by buying your merch.

Don’t forget to tell them you accept credit cards. Someone who didn’t bring cash might not even approach the merch table if they don’t know this.

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You can follow Sofia’s adventures and mishaps across the United States at:

www.sofiatalvik.com

Sofia’s Facebook Page

Sofia Talvik: photo by Gustaf Waesterberg

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