On The Road To Somewhere: Behind The Scenes Of An Unsigned Artist Tour

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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The Best-Laid Plans

And a successful tour starts with a well-planned route. That’s where Elli and Samantha started when they came up with the idea for the Road Maps and Bra Straps tour in late 2012. Once they agreed on a 50/50 partnership, they sat down to plan a route and got to work finding good venues.

“The goal is to make sure that each stop has minimal travel time between it. You don’t need to be driving more than five or six hours to a gig unless they are offering a nominal amount to get there,” Thetford recommends. “And 99 percent of the time, the route changes multiple times throughout a tour.”

For Elli and Samantha, route changes have been good and bad. In Rochester, a spot on NPR affiliate WXXI’s Open Tuning show lead to an extra gig at a downtown coffee shop. They didn’t make a dime off of merch sales and only $2 in tips at that extra show, but the opportunity to play to 50 attentive people in a room so quiet you could hear a pin drop was worth giving up a night off.

“To play room like that, and know that you’ve won over new fans and did your best to sing your heart out and catch people’s attention — that’s a good show,” Samantha says. “All those terrible shows that we play—that everyone in our position plays — are compensated for by the fact that sometimes you know you’re going to have a great show. And it’s in those worst times that you have to reflect on that one show, and know the next show has the potential to be even better.”

But very few shows are played for an attentive and respectful audience—most of the time it’s just the opposite.

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What’s a Success?

Anyone who has been on the road knows that a successful tour encompasses a variety of factors. Of course, the money is nice, but it’s not all about the money. It can’t be all about the money.

“Obviously, we want to sell merch at every show and make money off the door—but it wouldn’t be realistic to plan a two-month tour and expect that to happen every night,” Elli says. “At the end of the day, if I can load my stuff back into the car and feel like Samantha and I have both won over a room that started out the night not caring about us, then I feel like I’ve done my job and gained more fans.”

At their show in Pittsburgh, Elli and Samantha did just that. When Samantha took the stage to play a 45-minute set, the room was filled with members of other bands on the ticket and a few stragglers. But as she told jokes and belted out lyrics about heartbreak, a stream of newcomers trickled in. By the time Elli stepped up to the mic, she felt that the crowd was primed and ready to listen.

A show with five other bands allows for networking, too. Although that means sticking around the bar until the last chords are played at 3 a.m., Elli and Samantha walked out of that gig with a little bit of money and suggestions for good places to play in Chicago.

“On the grassroots side of the industry, it’s all about relationships. You start tapping into contacts you’ve met through traveling or the Internet, and you call them as a friend and get suggestions for places to play,” Thetford says. “We do a lot of show shares with bands in other cities, and a lot of times, they can help us out with radio spots or house shows, too.”

Even if your route is great and you come home in the black after two months on the road, it’s hard to figure out how long one can sustain a life on the road before throwing in the towel.

The hope is that planning your own tour gets you enough exposure to hop on a tour with a big artist, find label and booking support, license your music with another artist, or land one of your songs on a television show. But with thousands of unsigned acts working toward their big break, the prospect of getting discovered can seem dim at times. And there’s nothing glamorous about living out of a suitcase, eating from a cooler full of food and crashing on couches every night.

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After a long drive from Rochester to Philadelphia and getting screwed out of $100 from the door of the venue, Elli and Samantha can’t help but start wondering out loud when it’s time to quit. Or if that time will ever come.

“The thing about pursuing your dreams is that the further into it you get, the less you want to quit, even though the odds are completely stacked against you,” Samantha says. “But they say that if you’ve got a talent and you keep at it—you keep working at it and keep your head down—eventually someone is going to notice.”

“I don’t know if I know how to give up music. I’m better on stage than I am in person,” Elli adds. “I never feel more like myself than I do when I’m on stage or when I’m behind the wheel of a car before and after my shows. And I certainly don’t want to let down the people who love me and who support me and believe in me. I don’t need to make it big, but I’d like to not be scraping by.”

One way or another, every artist breaks. They either catch a break that launches them into a music career, or they break down and hang up their instrument.

“To just walk away would piss me off. I can’t just quit. I’m not a quitter. It would irk me beyond belief to know that I failed myself by not reaching my expectations,” Samantha says.

In the driver’s seat, Elli nods and glances at the GPS. They are 50 miles from New York City and another six weeks of working towards catching that break they so desperately need.

“At the same time, what could be better than this?” she asks, gesturing at the car full of instruments, suitcases, merchandise and discarded coffee cups. “Driving all night in a jam-packed car and doing what I love. I’ll honestly feel lucky to be doing this for as long as I can.”

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