Booking Your Own Tour

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Videos by American Songwriter

Imagine…watching DVDs in your state-of-the-art tour bus as your driver cruises down scenic interstates, taking you from adoring crowd to adoring crowd, your every gastronomic need met in plush green rooms while you make a killing on guarantees and record sales.

Oh, wait. That’s not your tour. Quite possibly yours will be something like this: Sitting on a bed of potato-chip crumbs for eight-hour stretches, holding in your pee because you’re late for a gig in a town you can’t find, and when you do, your three-hour set (for tips) coincides with the annual darts championship. You sell one CD to the four visiting Presbyterian ministers who stay long after the locals file out under the “Hippies Use the Back Door” sign.

Those were some of the lowlights of a tour I booked for my acoustic duo. Know this: DIY touring is always a learning experience–and a full-time job. Here are some tips:

The Plan

Start booking well in advance (3 months for bars, 6 for colleges). Choose your dates, and stick to them. Then choose your route, which may depend on the weather (we picked the South over the Midwest in late April, but we still ran into a blizzard on our very first day). Select the cities you’d like to hit, draw a line between them on a map, then put a date or series of dates next to each city. That way you’ll know you have a two-day window to book something in, say, Austin and its neighboring cities. It’s best to pick destinations that are no more than a 3-hour drive from each other if you are booking back-to-back gigs. And give yourself a day off here and there, especially if you are doing all the driving yourself.

Figure out how you’ll be getting around before booking. Also factor in gas costs when choosing what kind of vehicle to drive. (We had to cancel a show because it was 10 hours away, and our rig cost $80 to fill up—nearly every day!)

Have your press kit ready to go. Generally, it should include: a glossy photo (with individual band members ID’d), a bio, quotes or press clippings (if you don’t have any yet, try to get a few quotes from venues you have played or other musicians) and a CD. I also included a one-sheet with a list of venues we’ve played, tours we’ve done, albums we’ve made and a paragraph about our upcoming plans. Make sure everything has your contact info on it (phone, email, website).

I used the Musician’s Atlas to do most of my booking at clubs and colleges (colleges are the money gigs!). And CDBaby.com has a great college list. Use online searches for casual places like coffeehouses. I found that the venues I booked through Musician’s Atlas were more reliable than those I found online. Note that contact names change frequently, so many publications quickly become outdated. Also check out the websites of bands that are similar to yours for venue ideas.

Many clubs have booking instructions on their sites (usually hidden under “Bands,” “Music” or “Calendar”), so look for them. Not following those instructions could cost you a gig.

Getting in Touch

When the booking information includes an email address, you might want to make initial contact so that when they get your kit in the mail, it will ring a bell. This note should be brief and informative. Don’t phone unless there is absolutely no other way to contact a booker or the venue’s web site instructs you to do so. And do not send an email if the web site specifically discourages it.

Sample initial contact email. We are a (type of music) band from (hometown) and will be in (venue town) on (date/dates). We’ve heard good things about (venue) and feel it would be a great place for our music. Please keep an eye out for our kit, which I’m sending out today.

If there are no booking instructions online, but there is an email address, use the same note, but substitute the last line with “Please let me know the best way to get our music to you.” If all you have is a general phone number, call and ask for the name and number or email address of the person who does the booking. Don’t take it personally when they don’t get back to you. Be persistent, but not annoying. Be sure to give the booker a block of 2-3 days from which to choose.

E-mail your contact one week after you put your kit in the mail. Chances are they have not even seen it yet, but this communication will set things in motion and hopefully bring your goods to the top of the pile. After that, you should give the booker roughly five days to respond to any contact you make. You, however, should always respond to them immediately.

To Book or Not to Book

No doesn’t always mean no. Ask if they have a featured act on open mike nights— it’s a great way to get exposure. Even if you don’t get an open mike booking, you might find yourself with a bit of free time to stop in at an open mike, wow them with your musical prowess and poise yourself for a future booking.

It’s not you, it’s me. Be sure to ask why you are not being booked, and don’t take it personally. Bookers have a good sense of their venues, so chances are you’re probably better suited for a different place. Ask if they have suggestions for other local hot spots.

Another reason not to take it personally is that unless you are a national act with a following, you likely can’t guarantee a crowd. To head this off, partner up with a local band. Check Craigslist and MySpace.com or any other musicians’ exchange.

Once you’ve secured a booking, ask these questions:

a) What is the pay/guarantee/tips?

b) Is there a cover, and how much of it will I receive?

c) Is food/bev included?

d) Is there a contract?

e) Are there any other acts playing that night?

f) Is there parking?

g) How long is the set, what time does it begin and what time is load-in/sound check?

h) Is there a house PA/backline (if you have specific needs, e.g. amps, piano, lots of mikes, ask now)?

The Gig is Up! (er…booked)

Time to make posters, solicit press and radio and get your merch in order. If you don’t already have good photos (a snapshot will not do), schedule a photo shoot. You can usually find a photographer-in-training to take your pics either for free or for a nominal fee. Check schools, ask friends. Be creative with your images. Come up with a concept before the shoot. Avoid the classic five-guys-in-front-of-a-brick-wall picture. It’s really boring, and you want to intrigue.

Posters.11×17 with an attention-grabbing photo works best. Leave a white space on the bottom to hand-write venue information. You’ll need about 6 per club, plus more to flyer outside of the venue on the day of your show. Send posters about 4 weeks in advance.

Press photos. You will need to send these either in glossy photo form or digitally. Have both ready.

Be ready to send press kits or direct people to online information.

Soliciting press/radio. Ask your club contact for a media list. If they don’t have one, do an internet search for local papers and radio stations. You can make initial contact with newspapers via email or by phone. Be quick and to the point. Give an honest but catchy description of your music. Tell the editor where you are from and where/when you will be playing, with the exact day, date, time and mention anyone else on the bill. Your best bet is to come up with an angle. For instance, my act got lots of press as soon as we mentioned that we would be doing the tour in a 1986 Winnebago. Concentrate on what makes you/your tour different.

Solicit radio in much the same way. You do not, however, need to send a full press kit (if you are watching costs); a CD and a bio should do it. Include a cover letter with gig info, so they can promote your show. You can send CDs to radio in advance, then remind them about you a week before you come to town, but you’ll have more luck using it as a promotional tool if you send it out closer to the gig (2-4 weeks). Also suggest that you are available for an in-studio appearance the day of, or a day before, your show.

Following Up. Follow up with one e-mail to make sure your press/radio contact received your package, but no more. They will get in touch with you if they think your story is interesting. If they do express interest, drop an email the week of the show to ask if anything was written about you. Then make sure you get a copy of the coverage for your press kit!

Getting there/Being there

Mapquest your route. I’ve found that this, plus an atlas or regional map, is the best insurance against getting lost. Because you may not be sure where you’ll be sleeping (hey, this isn’t that kind of a tour!), get driving directions from venue to venue. This will serve you well even if you deviate from your route a bit.

People are quite generous on the road. We seldom needed a place to crash, but when we did, we politely asked during our set if anyone had a suggestion for cheap accommodations. Bring extra CDs (plus your manners) as gifts for the kind souls who put you up for the night—and sleeping bags. But get a list of cheap hotels for the towns in which you’ll be playing, just in case. (A note: Campgrounds are tricky; many close before 10 pm; call ahead.)

Get your personal affairs in order (make sure that kitty doesn’t starve in your absence!) and off you go! Your adoring fans are waiting.

 

Extra tips:

*Look into taking on an intern to help you plan, research, book, get press/radio.

*Book cities close together.

*Add up estimated costs—beforehand.

*If possible, bring a non-band member to help drive.

*Use an alias when you book. This gives the illusion that your band has at least one enthusiastic supporter.

*Keep track of all correspondence! Every email sent/received, phone call made, message left, details about the call, names, addresses, phone numbers, emails. I did this in a notebook, but there are programs out there (like Indie Band Manager, previously featured in American Songwriter) that can help you keep everything organized on your PC.

*If you have expensive instruments, explore insurance options, which, sadly, are few. The best option I found was a homeowner’s plan with off-premises protection. Be sure to ask lots of questions: Will this plan cover theft outside the home? Instruments? Property stolen from a car, etc.?

*Have all your info available electronically. (Check out MySpace.com, where you can set up a web page with MP3s for free!)

*Keep all your receipts; this tour is tax-deductible!

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