Touring: How To Build Your Band On The Road

photo by Bekah Cope

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Say you’re an “emerging” artist with big dreams; you know you’re green, but you’ve got heart and songs for the world to sing. You even tried to prove it last summer with a month long cross-country trek, but all you really proved was that you could lose money, survive playing to six (sometimes seven) interchangeable drunks at 20 dive bars in the scariest slums of North America without getting stabbed, and make it back without breaking up.

Now you dread the thought of reliving such horrors, almost as much as you’re sick of spinning your wheels gigging in your local scene. To get out of the vacuum, you need to get in front of new warm bodies in distant cold towns.

As the recording industry falls further into the red, the starry-eyed musician’s dream of an A&R rep plucking them from obscurity and putting them on the fast-track to worldwide exposure has gone the way of the eight track …. or the CD, for that matter. Consequently, the term “indie” has greatly broadened – making it just as likely to be self-applied by the latest Nickelback or Jack Johnson soundalike as it is to the next scruffy sons of Stephen Malkmus.

With the diminished importance of the majors in the art of “breaking a band” – they simply can’t afford it – artists (be they faux or classic-indie) are circumventing the A&R rat race and looking straight to managers, publicists, and, perhaps most importantly, booking agents as they hit the road to try and build their base one fan at a time.

A good booking agent is paramount in accomplishing this, but as David Newgarden, a New York-based manager who handles artists like Guided by Voices and Turbo Fruits, says, “The field of bands is so crowded and competitive these days, that I don’t think you should look for [a booking agent] until you get big enough that they start coming to you.”

So, how do you get them to come to you? Ask Sam Hunt, of the Windish Agency – who book indie fodder such as Best Coast, No Age, Animal Collective, Yeasayer, and Deerhunter – and he’ll tell you he bides his time reading blogs and music magazines, and talking with promoters and other bands. “These days agents will come to you the moment you get even a hint of buzz,” he says.

If you’re an indie artist in the traditional sense (i.e. you don’t just define yourself as such by virtue of lacking major label support), then you probably aspire to one of two philosophies. There’s the good old fashioned do-it-yourself punk-rock ethos – you’ve read Get In The Van and know you must hit the highway and play 365 shows a month, 13 months out of the year. Then there’s building the blogworthy buzz – you read Pitchfork, claim to disagree with everything they write, but only because you know your band sounds better on drugs than Animal Collective and could handily blow Arcade Fire off the stage, if only you had the hype to prove it – and attracting the attention of a booking agent.

It might seem old-fashioned, but the key is still to first build up your local buzz and then spiral out into nearby cities until you’ve gained traction in your region. “When you’re starting out, play, play, play, as many shows as you can … house parties, big venues, small venues, etc., says Jonas Stein, of internationally road-worn Nashville punk luminaries, Turbo Fruits. “Once you’ve established some ‘hype’ or ‘demand’ then be a bit more choosy with your shows. After you’ve penetrated the local scene, it’s time to move on to other cities.”

And when it comes to the shows you play, Jake Orrall, of fellow-flagship Nashville punk duo, JEFF the Brotherhood – who play upwards of 150 dates a year, and are now traversing territories such as Europe and Australia – says, “always show up on time and never play more than 25 minutes. … Play as many different kinds of venues as you can for as many different audiences as you can. [And] if there’s only six people there, give [them] the best show you’ve ever played.”

The strong local following you cultivate is currency when it comes to trading shows with bands who draw well in neighboring cities. “Find like-minded artists online and befriend them in any way you can,” says Aaron Hartley, proprietor of Nashville’s Theory 8 Records and Management – home to Caitlin Rose. Hartley suggests sites like Bandcamp for finding those bands, then picking 10 neighboring cities to travel to on weekends, when your day jobs are flexible. This way you’re not just throwing darts at a map of the U.S.A., only to end up playing at Pittsburgh’s hottest new reggaeton club on a Monday night.

And Orrall says to not be shy when reaching out to bands in these cities. “Beg them to do ridiculous favors for you, such as find a place for your band to play, get other bands to play too, and get people to come to the show and pay money to watch you. Call them every day until you know that it’s been booked.”

Don’t be afraid to be a pain in the ass,” he continues. “A good time to start looking for an agent is when you are ready to quit your job and move out of your place and tour full time.”

Now, once you’ve conquered your town, lit up your region, and given up your career as a barista, and you’ve (hopefully) got a myriad of agents and agencies beating down your door, how do you go about choosing one? You don’t want to partner up with a smaller agent whose clout and resources you could quickly outgrow among your burgeoning hype. And you don’t want to find yourself standing in line behind a host of bigger artists that will take priority over you at a larger company like, say, The Agency Group. “They couldn’t do anything for my band. They are hype chasers [who] only want to work with bands that are already successful,” says Stein.

According to Hartley, the balance is to find the agent that – large or small – “loves your music enough to want to book you.” Which, ultimately, makes a lot of sense.