A certain new and exciting credibility is lended to bands when they transition from playing locally to performing at venues around the country. If you’re new to playing music, you might think that touring is an experience filled with non-stop fun, venues filled to the brim with adoring fans, and luxurious accommodations, but the dramatized version of tour portrayed in movies and TV rarely reflects the massive challenges that come along with heading out on a national tour as a small band. If you want a more realistic picture of what it’s like to head out on tour with an unknown band, think sparsely attended shows, strained finances, and sleeping on floors.
But even with the general stress and discomfort that touring usually brings for smaller acts, it’s an absolute necessity if you want to be taken seriously by fans, press, and labels. There’s no better manifestation of an artist’s hopes and aspirations than seeing them set out for a long national first tour for the first time.
If you’re interested in booking your first national tour, this article was written specially for you. Making the transition from playing locally to regionally and eventually nationally can often be overwhelming, so we’ve assembled ten helpful tips to help you get started.
1. Build a presence and performance experience in your hometown
The first three steps in this article are general tips geared towards helping your band gain credibility and experience needed in order for national venues to seriously consider booking you.
This probably goes without saying, but don’t even think about trying to book a big national tour if haven’t built up experience playing locally. If you want to make a meaningful and lasting impact with a national tour, you won’t be able to do that without bringing a solid and engaging performance.
The very first step towards booking a national tour is to build a real presence in your hometown. If you’re new, play as often as you can to build up your experience and confidence. Do your best to build positive relationships with local venues and try to open for national acts when they come through. Curry the favor of these venues by promoting your shows, packing the room when you play, and sounding great on stage.
2. Branch out and start playing shows in cities in your region
Once you’ve built some performance experience locally, branch out and start playing shows around your region. Playing a weekend of shows in new cities in your region is great practice for getting ready to play a lengthy national tour. All the necessary skills for regional show booking directly apply to the ones you’ll need to develop if you’re set on booking your own national tour.
Choose a couple of cities in your region and pitch your band to the venues there. You’ll most likely have to start by playing in some unideal locations (open mic nights, coffeehouses, ect), but try your best to hang in there and bring as much excitement and professionalism to your performances as you can whether you’re playing to an empty house show or a packed club. The experiences you have playing regionally will most likely closely match the ones you’ll have on a national tour.
Regionally, your goal should be to become well known and even considered a local band in the cities near your hometown. If you can build real momentum and interest in your region, national venues will be much more likely to give you a shot. This all takes time and plenty of trial and error, but successful national tours don’t happen for bands who haven’t built a solid reputation and foundation at home and in their region.
3. Generate local and regional attention by engaging press and media outlets
So far, we’ve only discussed the performance side of things. Similar to the way you’d construct a resume and cover letter to send to employers, building a list of press and blog quotes will help give you something to send out to venues on tour. Whether it’s a full-fledged feature in the local newspaper or a passing mention in a blog based in a nearby town, press quotes are quick takeaways that will let venues and other music industry people know you’re a serious band that’s worth their attention.
Start small by asking for blogs and local press to release your music. When releasing anything new, whether it’s a single, video, EP, or album, have a special release show, and get as many local music industry tastemakers in for free as you can. Once you have a short list of positive quotes and mentions from press and blogs, you’ll be able to reach out to national venues and press with more experience and credibility.
4. Build your tour around the release of an album or EP
Sure, you could book a big national tour just for the sake of it, but why would you? Being on tour is a huge sacrifice for bands even if they’re established and financially successful. Everything from making little to no money––and even losing money sometimes––to spending weeks or months away from home and loved ones are unavoidable consequences of long national tours for most bands. Yes, serious touring pays off in many ways, but it’s most effective when it’s based around something like the release of a new album or EP.
A national tour is much more than just playing in a bunch of random cities. It’s about introducing your band and its new music to a national audience. Truthfully, the biggest impact you’ll have in a city might be the features or mentions you receive from newspapers, alt weeklies, and blogs, and none of them will be interested in covering you if you don’t have new music.
Booking a national tour that coincides with the release of new music makes sense because it exposes new listeners to your music city-by-city. Lot’s of bands make a habit of touring non-stop no matter how recently they’ve released music, but if you’re new and trying to get the most out of your first national tour, time your touring right after you’ve released new music.
5. Create a budget and list of realistic goals and priorities for your tour
Musicians aren’t typically thought of as great planners, but that’s exactly what you’ll need to be if you want to have a successful tour. Long before you start booking shows, have a real conversation about things like finances and priorities. Who pays the bill if the tour van breaks down on the road? How should the band spend any potential money made on tour? Is your band more interested in attracting music industry attention in music meccas like New York City and Los Angeles, or is a more realistic goal to introduce your music to the broadest audience possible by playing as many cities as you can?
Knowing what you want to accomplish by touring and having an accurate idea of the scope of your resources is mandatory if you’re planning on booking a successful national tour. Your priorities and limitations are going to be the things that shape your tour the most, so early in the planning process, talk about what you want and what you’re working with as far as money and time goes.
6. Create a smart route for your tour
After you’ve had a real conversation about what you hope to gain from touring, start planning potential routes. If making money or simply just breaking even is a main priority of your band, you’ll want to book as many shows as possible within the length of your tour. This means reaching out to venues in cities you’ve never heard of, but the music scenes in small cities might surprise you with their enthusiasm of your music.
Book shows in cities that are close together to minimize drive time and fuel costs. When you have a good idea of where you want to go, create a tentative timeline of when you’ll play each city. I say “tentative” here because things always change from the original tour you’re setting out to book to the one you’ll ultimately play. Leave a bit of flexibility as far as dates go when you start booking shows, but don’t take shows if they throw you off your route too much. Bad routing decisions could cost your band precious money and show opportunities.
7. Construct a database of venues and contact information and start booking shows
These next steps are time-consuming and usually thankless, but they’re crucial for booking a tour. To make things easier and more fair, split up the duty of booking shows equally between you and your bandmates. Start booking shows at least three to five months before you plan on touring. This will give you enough time to solidify dates with venues.
Expect to write anywhere from five to ten venues in each city before getting booked. Make a compelling case for why a venue should take a chance on you and resist the urge to take it personally when your emails are met with no’s and silences. This will be the most difficult and time consuming part of booking a tour, but it gets easier the more you do it. Try your best to get your foot in the door of solid venues, but expect to have to take some shows in some unconventional spaces from time to time.
8. Craft a pitch using snippets from reviews and features you’ve received locally and regionally to send to national press and media outlets
If you’ve worked hard on getting local and regional press quotes like we discussed in step #3, then this process won’t be so difficult. Once you’ve booked the shows on your tour, create an engaging pitch, and send it out to blogs, newspapers, magazines, and other media outlets in the cities you’ll be playing in.
Talk about your band, your new record, when and where you’ll be playing, and make sure to include highlights from reviews and write-ups you’ve received locally and regionally. Yes, the focus of your tour will be your performances, but sometimes the press attention you get in each city you play will have a greater positive impact on people than your shows will. It’s strange, but that’s the nature of the beast. Also, press quotes from a music scene’s blog or local alt weekly are great when you want to come to town and play again.
9. Practice and design sets of varying lengths
Unless you’re headlining your first national tour, each show you play will most likely be pretty different. Create a few different sets to roll out on the road. Some venues will ask you to keep your set at under thirty minutes and others might want more than an hour. That’s a pretty big difference as far as songs go, so make sure to practice everything you’ve got in case a venue asks you to play everything you have. This doesn’t happen that often, but you never know.
If you can, try playing a show shortly before you embark on your tour to make sure you’re confident and ready to hit the road.
10. Nail down accommodations
Even established bands typically find cheap or free places to stay on the road. With hotels costing anywhere from $50-$100 a night, it’s just not realistic to pay for a room every night on tour. Long before you leave for tour, think about each city you’re playing in, and try to set up accommodations with friends and family when you can.
For the places you don’t know anyone, try online communities like Couchsurfing.com or consider reaching out to your fans or even the bands you’re playing with for help with a place to stay. It takes work, but this should be tackled way before you hit the road if you want to find free places to stay on tour.
Patrick McGuire is a musician, writer, and educator currently residing in the great city of Philadelphia. He creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.