Here are some tips and tricks I learned while touring the country (DIY) as a singer-songwriter/duo
**Guest Post by Ezekiel Morphis, San Diego based Americana/Folk Singer-Songwriter.
"I am a San Diego-based Americana/folk singer-songwriter and I just finished touring the country with another musician, Dan Versman. From the San Juan Islands to Brooklyn, dive bars to vineyards, living rooms to piano bars we went. If you just started playing music last week, this article will aid you further down the road as long as you stay committed and work on your music first. If you are like me — two EPs completed, well practiced, working on an album, playing for a handful of years, don’t mind smelling like beer and shame for days on end and still want to know how to tour DIY — then this is the article for you.
I read countless articles and blogs before my tour, looking for information on how to make my tour happen. While searching, I found that many nuances and crucial tips were not streamlined into one article that I could access, so I’m writing this to aid other singer/songwriters and acts. Everything from original material, social media accounts, creating routes, marketing, merch and mishaps are detailed below. I hope you can use what I’ve learned to enable your own success, and keep in mind that touring is a full-time job!
1. Have enough original material
Most music venues will have your act on a bill and will expect you to play a 45-minute set on average. However, non-traditional music venues, such as breweries and vineyards, may ask you to play a two- to three-hour set. If you play in such a setting, you don’t want to repeat songs while guests are still present. Most people won’t sit for three hours, but the longer they stay interested and entertained, the better. If you are repeating yourself every 30 minutes, people will catch on. Also, many venues want original music (and some even have legal restrictions prohibiting musicians from playing other artists’ material) and you want to establish yourself as an original artist. We need more original music out there — we don’t need any more Skinny Love or Wagon Wheel covers. It’s a lofty goal, but you can do it — make your music familiar. I have created two EPs (Unquiet Mind, Storied) and am currently working on an album (Haro Strait).
2. Have all social media updated and ready
Website: Is it easy to navigate? Do you have a bio? Up-to-date images and videos? A link to your music?
Your website establishes your validity as a professional musician and serves as your first impression to potential bookers. This is your hub to connect to all of your social media. If you don’t have a professional bio, don’t bother attempting to book with establishments that probably have hundreds of requests per week. This, as it turns out, is much more important than I knew before trying to book gigs. Please note that a “Musician’s Bio" is a specific type of bio, so do your research. Here's an article I found useful.
Have live videos that express your style and skill well. Create videos that show the diversity in your music and always have your best video first.
Sound Cloud: This is how many bookers wanted to listen to my music, so make sure that it is updated and active. You may want to include a link in your e-mail pitch and most certainly have a link in your website.
Facebook: It'll hit a certain group of folks and is a great way to post event invites, images and videos. I have found some bookers use Facebook messenger to communicate with me.
Instagram: Duh, do it and post often. Little music clips are a great way to get views and create excitement. I also post the poems that my songs stem from.
YouTube: This has proven to aid many musicians and is a great way for people to hear your music. Live video is an immediate way for people to know if you have the chops and skills they desire, and if they can connect to you without meeting. I’m currently striving to get mine on point. There are platforms like The Intersection LA that support up and coming musicians and create an excellent live performance video at no cost to the artist.
Previous to my national tour, I did not have an Instagram account and I currently do not have a Twitter account. There are countless social media sites at this point and they keep coming. While some are more geared for music like NoiseTrade and may be beneficial, do not feel overburdened if you do not have them all. Just start with the basics and keep going from there. And don’t forget about your email list (you might want to use some sort of email service like mail chimp to help you create lists and track what you send and who opens it. You can also include a link to your music and capture how many people actually open the link to your music in addition to the email - click through rate).
3. Establish where you want to go and create a route
Where should you go? I chose the whole country! I had experience playing up and down the West Coast briefly, so I wanted to expand my horizons. I decided to play in towns where I had some support of folks who wanted to host me for a house show. Then, I filled in the space with music venues, bars, breweries, vineyards, etc. I would suggest starting with regions that are smaller (e.g., the Southwest or the Northwest) to work out the kinks, build the stamina required and assess if you really want to continue to share your music this way.
4. Book Shows
This step can be daunting. I enlisted the assistance of Kyle from indieonthemove.com, which was a critical move on my part and definitely worth the minimal fee. Kyle aided me with my pitch , route and contacting venues. I dealt with negotiating price, times and dates once the initial emails were sent. I also looked up venues in areas to try and fill gaps.
I would recommend booking 6-12 months out. Many desirable venues (the paying ones that also draw people in) book quite a bit in advance and many musicians are vying for one spot. By the time you’re ready to plan a tour, you should have experience playing locally and making sure your set is polished and professional.
Be Creative: Have a mix of places to play. While they may not pay much typically, music venues will give you exposure to other bands, bookers and music fans. Breweries and vineyards pay decently, give you beer and wine, and expose you to a different fan base that is typically very supportive. Call to Arms Brewery in Denver made a beer based off of my first EP, and they even named it after the title track — “An Unquiet Mind” — and released it the night I performed (it was delicious!). House shows pay well, are rejuvenating, keep dedicated fans supporting you and are wonderfully intimate. Booking colleges is different I found this article useful. I tried to have a mix of venues to balance cost, exposure to new fans, existing fans, musicians and bookers. The variation kept me sane and enjoying myself.
Email Pitch: I enlisted the help of Indie on the Move once again and read up on this. As an unknown artist, the pitch is very important. This includes style of music, experience, links to your website, live videos and reviews as well as dates requested.
Press Kit: I have never had a venue ask for a press kit. I have found that my Email pitch is essentially acting as a Press Kit. This is not to say you should not have one.
Follow up: Make sure to always send follow up emails. If you haven’t heard back while trying to book, shoot them an email. After you’ve played, thank the venues/hosts for allowing you to play. You may want to establish a residency, which is the goal in many places if you plan on touring through the area again. Remember, these people also chose you amongst many, and that’s pretty awesome.
Phone call: This has proven to be successful in connection with my emails for certain establishments — mainly breweries, vineyards and nontraditional music venues. Most traditional music venues do not want you to call them.
Fill in the gaps: Make the tour as tight as possible. It keeps you working and making money, not spending it. I would have liked my own tour to be tighter. This is another reason to plan 6-12 months in advance.
Tip: Many Bookers in other towns will ask if you can bring in local acts that draw a crowd. I found that Indie on the Move’s forum to post requests for local acts in their database was clutch. There were a few times when I needed other acts or had to rearrange a show and needed bands and this platform was a great tool.
Tour partner: Having another person aids immensely in splitting up driving, navigating, problem solving, carrying gear and safety (someone who’s got your back). Make sure you can be with them often!
5. Market your tour
This is a ton of work!
Social Media: Synchronizing your website to bands in town and other platforms is wise. (I wish I would have done this before the tour!) Facebook, Instagram and flyers are all crucial. The other important thing is to make sure of is that the venues you are playing at are putting up your info on their social media accounts (friendly reminders help).
Flyer: Have a flyer made to send out to venues. Some require snail mail with a physical copy and others a printable digital file. I personally like flyers where the date and time can be filled in with a marker. This enables you to use a base flyer, so you don’t have to edit it in case the dates and times change, which on occasion they will.
Radio: Most venues can give you a list of local stations and contacts. Ask them! The venues want people there when you play and are fine having you do the work. Also, indieonthemove.com has a comprehensive list of radio stations on their site for most areas.
Local Publications: There are many online and print publications in every town. Once again, ask the venues you are playing at if they have lists, and if not, look them up! Do this well in advance.
Business cards also work. Name, email, website and Instagram are perfect. Add your phone number as well if you'd like.
6. Should you stay at the Grand Budapest?
Being open and realistic helps save money. If you are loaded, stay where you want. House shows typically host their performers. Hostels can be eccentrically interesting and cheap. (You may look out into a snowy field and notice footprints leading directly under your window to discover another human has relieved themselves below the very window you are attempting to get fresh air from, and not the yellow snow kind… it happened to me). We also had gracious fans that had spare rooms that they shared with us. The site couchsurfing.com can be a good asset to save money and crash for a night. However, you’ll have to sift through a lot of options. If you want to have extra fans and check out your couch surfing host, invite them to your show! Occasionally sleeping in your tour rig is prudent because hotels can be costly! Camping can also be nice and refreshing if the weather allows.
7. Your tour vehicle
I love my rig! I sold my small car for a 2004 Ford FreeStar. The “Notorious RIG” (as it is known) is an excellent tour vehicle for a solo or duo act. I did my research on automobiles and was glad I chose the vehicle that I did. It has amazing fuel efficiency, a decently sized engine that doesn’t mind a little extra weight (V6 3.9L), comfortable seats for long distance driving and it's inconspicuous as a vehicle loaded with gear and/or people sleeping within. I also added a little build out that enabled me to have storage, which transformed into a bed.
Load your RIG with healthy snacks, as they are difficult to find on the road. The old beaut was a bit leaky, so think ahead and purchase fluids at cost at a wholesale store. Make sure to service your rig before the tour! During the tour, check often to make sure you have healthy tread, fluids, etc.
Unexpected issues: Road tolls. If you are spending a lot of time in one area, get a pass!
8. Gear and PA
Having a hardy, great sounding, compact and easy-to-use PA is critical. You will play at venues with a sound person and the gear you need, but what about the breweries and alternative venues? It's important to always be prepared.
PA: For our duo and solo sets we used two ten inch speakers on eight foot stands, one eight inch monitor and an Allen and Heath Zed 10 effects mixer.
Extra: Bring extra cables, power cables, mics, strings, etc. I’ve had cables disappear or get damaged on tour. Having extra of what you can (within reason) is important.
Theft: This a very real and serious issue you will face, so secure your gear. Either bring it in where you are staying or have it secured in a way that one could not easily see it or take it (covered, cabled, locked in a trailer, etc.).
Do it and have it, you’ll sell it. CDs may seem a bit spendy to have produced, however, you will make a profit. It’s a bit silly to tour performing your music and selling it without the take-home product available. I decided not to print shirts and I regret it. A common question was: “Do you have shirts?” Merch is certainly a way to make a profit. If people like you and your music, they will want something physical to connect to. You want them to listen to your music, to remember you and to promote you. It’s less common for someone to go download your music unless they are very connected to you.
10. This is a business!
After reviewing this list you may be saying to yourself, “Wow, this seems like a business.” It is. You are essentially running a small business. You and your music are the product. You are the CEO, Accountant, Marketing and Sales Manager, Social Media Guru, Operations and Logistics Manager, Public Relations adviser, Sound Person, Navigator, model (unfortunately) and musician. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t know how to do something. You can always learn or enlist help. I would suggest that if you want to enlist assistance, do so from people that know what they are doing. Online sources are fantastic for learning skills and tips to be successful in the field you seek. If you choose to bring in other humans, I highly suggest incentivising them within your budget and reason. Friends are great, however, this is your business and professionalism and quality are critical. Be relentless, be bold, keep learning and keep creating.
Costs: Food, vehicle maintenance, cards, merch, flyers, fuel, vehicle, vehicle maintenance, road toals, accommodations and unforeseen mishaps.
Disclaimer: I am still getting better at all of this and striving to become more efficient. These are all based off of my personal experience, how I’ve been advised professionally (and had results), and research. I hope it can be of assistance to others! Live your dream. Please, you inspire me.
11. Unforeseen mishaps
Life can be quite interestingly beautiful and educational. For example, your recent ex — who you still love and is the source of some great material in your songs — contacts you and informs you that they are already living with someone else. Meanwhile, the show you are playing not only has an AWOL bartender who answered a mysterious call and bailed, but he’s also the guy who’s supposed to be collecting money for the show and has locked up the bar leaving some pissed people for you to deal with. Then, your rig gets broken into during the worst rainstorm you’ve ever seen. With a laptop and other items missing and a rig full of glass and water, you are faced with the harsh reality that you don’t have money saved for such events.
If this happened to you — which it did to me — you will have an emotional break down, park your rig under a highway overpass to keep the rain out, secure it the best you can with your mexican blanket and duct tape and take your $5 tip from your failed show. You walk into a ghetto bar to spend your $5 on a beer and hope someone in the bar has a charger for your cell phone like the one some prick stole from your rig.
This, my friends, is where having a savings is very beneficial — for the unforeseen events. I would also like to note that none of my stolen items were visible for thieves. They must have had incredible criminal spidey sense. I used most of my finances on the Notorious RIG and other gear and was up a creek, literally. My RIG was like a creek of despair. Thankfully, I have an incredible support system that aided me through the mess and got me back on track.
Setbacks will come. Knowing how to deal with them and how to persevere through them is critical. You better have money saved or supporters to phone. This setback got me in line to have a successful experience after. The rest of my tour was wonderful and filled with beautiful encounters, excitement and growth, but those stories are for another article.
With an ever changing music culture, I’m certain that each act will encounter different experiences. However, I found that following general steps, tips and insights can be very useful. Be bold and creative — not just with your music, but with opportunities that may seem out of sight. Be courageous in what can seem like a daunting, lonely venture. These elements will give you the opportunity for success more than anything. You are not alone, you are a visionary entrepreneur who can get results and inspire others, just like me."
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