Even in today’s digitally-driven music industry, touring is still a powerful way to build your audience and sustain their attention. But executed the wrong way, DIY touring could be a costly waste of time and can sometimes be disastrous enough to damage your career in a huge way. If you’re a small or unestablished artist, DIY touring is almost sure to end up costing you money whether things run smoothly or not. Bad tours can be devastating for morale, especially in band settings. And in an age where musicians are succeeding by creating and sharing as much great music as they can, every day you spend on the road is one you’ll spend away from your songwriting process at home. Touring can build your career by expanding your audience, but only if it’s done correctly and at the right time. These four tips will help you make the most out of your tours if you’re a small or unestablished band:
Start with short regional tours and expand from there
Your band may be chomping at the bit when it comes to sharing your music with the world through touring, but your resources probably don’t match your enthusiasm. Long DIY tours are hard to promote and even harder to execute, and an especially bad one can spell doom for your band. Most bands will be far better off by starting with short regional tours and slowly expanding. These tours are much easier to promote and invest in, and they’re far more likely to result in more listeners discovering your music. A long, country-spanning tour might sound like an adventure, but unless there’s a noticeable demand for your music in each city you book shows in, it’s most likely going to be a costly waste of time for your band. Start regionally and build from there, and don’t book shows in faraway places that will be difficult to return to.
Create a realistic plan and budget for the tour
Tour is supposed to be fun, so there’s no need to worry about money or logistics, right? Starting a tour without a plan is like walking through an unfamiliar place blindfolded. Touring can be one of the most fun and rewarding things your band does, but it can’t work without smart budgeting and planning. Everything from where you’ll sleep to how much gas money it’ll take to move you from show to show should be considered during the planning process, and it’s important to be as realistic as possible. If you’re booking tours yourself as a small band, you’re probably not likely to earn much money at each show. Instead of planning for what you hope happens, form your budget and strategy around the likely outcomes of each show.
Focus more on promoting important shows and less on playing often
On its face, the idea of playing almost every night on tour sounds like a good plan. More shows mean more chances to earn money and win over fans. But the truth is that this strategy can result in constant long drives, morale-sucking shows, and money problems for you and your bandmates. Since you and the musicians you play with probably have jobs at home, being on the road for long stretches with the goal of playing as many shows as possible starts to take a serious toll on your finances in a hurry, even if the band is making a little money every night. But even more important than money is the fact that booking shows just to get you from point A to B almost always results in sparse crowds and nothing that gets you closer to your goals. Most of us are better off playing less often and doing everything we can to promote important shows through local radio, press, and interviews.
Don’t tour without good music and a good reason
This last tip is the most important. Touring is too much work to do without a good reason. If your music isn’t developed or you haven’t built performance experience locally, a national tour isn’t going to do you any favors. The foundation of your band should be great music, and a perfectly executed tour won’t matter if you don’t have solid work to perform with. But even if your music is great, it may not be the right time to hit the road. Promoting new music or road-testing unreleased songs are a few reasons why bands should tour, but if it’s been years since your last release, you’re almost certainly better off holing up in your studio and creating.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.