Let’s state the obvious upfront here: Independently booking tours is hard work. That’s why booking agents exist; to book better tours than you can on your own! Quite often artists don’t have the time, expertise, or patience to do it all themselves. Researching, pitching, negotiating, and planning can start to feel like a full time job for a musician.
The worst part is, after all the work is put into booking the tour there is absolutely no guarantee anyone will come. In fact, one of the only things I can guarantee when you’re heading off on your first DIY tour is that you will have some disappointing nights. Yes, probably more than one. I’ve literally played to an empty bar before – just the bartender and some chairs. It got pretty lonely when he went out to smoke.
But don’t get discouraged! The weird thing about touring is that the great shows make all the bad shows worth it. Wouldn’t it be nice to play great shows every single night? That should be your goal when you’re booking a tour; play a great show every single night.
If you want to book better tours, you need to rethink your touring strategy. Here are some thoughts to get you started.
1. Book opening slots whenever possible.
If you are on your first, second, third, or even fourth DIY tour, how many people will you be pulling out to a venue? 40? 50? Maybe 80 people…if you’ve been at it for a while.
Having people at your show feels pretty good. Okay, it feels really good. The problem is, nobody wants to come out to see some band they’ve never heard of. That’s the truth, and it’s time to realize that.
The best way to make sure there are people at your show is to play an opening slot for another band. Whether it’s for a larger touring band or a popular local act, try your best to secure opening slots wherever you can.
It may seem weird to go on tour only to open up a bunch of shows, but trust me; there is nothing glamorous about a “headlining” tour when you’re an indie band. You’ll be playing quite a few empty rooms and playing to people who aren’t there for the music.
This is a strategy that I adapted from the extremely common practice of putting smaller touring bands as support for larger touring bands. For example, before Ed Sheeran was incredibly famous, he toured North America as support for Taylor Swift. Lucky guy!
There’s no reason why you can’t take the same approach but on a smaller scale. Try to get on local bills. Make connections with local bands and take what you can get.
2. Look to book major markets on weekends
Before I get into this tip, I want to stress that you should not rely on a venue’s “built-in crowd.” Generally speaking, they don’t exist. If they do exist, the built-in crowd is often not really there for music. They’re interested in 2-for-1 wing night.
That being said, if there is any built-in crowd, it’s going to be on weekends.
So, there are two reasons to play major markets on weekends. First, you’re more likely to have a built-in crowd of people who go out to a venue just because it’s a weekend and they want to hang out somewhere.
Secondly, there’s a better chance that anyone will come out on a weekend, given the traditional 9-5 work life most of us are accustomed to.
The reason you want to have the most people at shows in major markets is simply because they matter more. Nobody cares if you can get 300 people out to a show in your town of 40,000 people. People (industry) do care if you can get 300 people out to a show in Chicago. Or Toronto. Or L.A.
3. Play appropriately sized venues
If you know you can only pull 40 people in a given market, don’t play a 300-person room. It won’t be fun for anybody.
Have you ever been to a show in a big room with very few people? The energy is terrible. It’s a little awkward for fans. The performer knows it and the show suffers. Nobody likes going to a show like that.
It’s not fun for you either. 50 people is not too bad in a city that is not your hometown! Still, 50 people in a 300-person venue does not look right.
If you put 50 people in a 75-person room, suddenly your show is feeling pretty good. In fact, it could be quite a party depending on the atmosphere!
It can be hard to find these venues sometimes, so it’s worth asking around. Cameron House in Toronto that has a 65-person cap, which is awesome if you can draw a small crowd. Even 40 people will feel full in there!
4. Be realistic when you’re pitching
Some of these strategies are easier said than done, so it’s important to have a good perspective on it. Even if you can get a few opening slots and a good show on a weekend in a major market, it can be a win.
The truth is, you may not be able to get a show at the “coolest” venue in a major market on a Saturday, because they want their Saturdays to be busy. It takes a lot for a promoter to go out on a limb on busy nights.
Instead, take a Thursday or a Wednesday and try to put together a really good local bill. Again, don’t headline if possible. Try to be the middle band.
Just do your best and try to focus on shows that will benefit your career in the future. Now is the time to invest in your career.
5. Book one or more anchor dates
The other thing that you’ll quickly realize when using these strategies is that they won’t make you very much money.
You’re lucky to be paid $150 for an opening slot and small venues with small crowds won’t bring in much revenue.
If you can, find an anchor date or two to finance the rest of the tour. House concerts, events, and bars in smaller cities are great anchor dates. I even know bands that will play as a cover band for a night or two just to make some cash. Try to strike a balance between career building and moneymaking gigs.
If you use even half of these tips, you’ll be leagues ahead of most DIY touring bands on the scene. Play well!
Liam Duncan lives in Winnipeg, Canada and likes to make music with his band, The Middle Coast.