Posted: May 13, 2019
**Guest post written by Ellisa Sun, Jazz/Soul musician formerly based in San Francisco currently full-time RVing across the USA.
"200 days ago, my partner Ken and I left our home base in Oakland, CA to spend one year full-time RVing and playing as many shows as we can to build an audience, learn about the industry, and hopefully earn enough money to survive.*
The first 100 days were chaos, magic, and lessons learned. These second 100 days FLEW BY--and they were a bit more “nose-to-the-grindstone”. We got into more of a groove with our RV maintenance, so the following 10 Things I’ve Learned are more focused towards DIY Musicians like myself.
I went into this year-long tour with a completely open mind, ready to take any gigs I could, play as many places as possible, and meet as many fellow musicians as possible. I did not have any real “rules” for what types of gigs I would accept. Yes, I have certain “flat fees” I’ll propose if the venue asks, but for many of these shows there were several different types of deals. If you know in your heart that you cannot play a gig unless you’re paid a certain amount, that’s okay. But remember to stick to your guns and insist you get paid what you think is fair. Ari Herstand’s article Take the Gig or Pass? gives great guidelines on how to measure whether or not you should take a gig based on payment, career-building potential, and enjoyment.
If a venue tries to stiff you, a fellow artist treats you like garbage, or a booker miscommunicates something, be assertive and stand your ground. As a woman, I struggle a lot with this. It takes time and it can be scary, but do the best you can.
I’m not just talking about money when I say non-negotiables. Think about the kind of artist you are: are you comfortable playing covers so you can play longer sets? Or do you prefer originals? Do you care if people talk over your music? Do you feel comfortable playing with local bands you’ve never met? Are you comfortable playing in front of over 200 people? Are you comfortable playing in front of the bartender and only the bartender? If you’re a solo woman artist, are you comfortable playing in a bar with a majority of men? Be prepared for any and all of these situations.
This one’s simple and for the RVers out there: we went to Florida for basically the entire month of January and struggled to find affordable/available campgrounds. Everyone goes to Florida in the winter. Make reservations at least 3 months ahead of time. And if you’re stranded, remember there’s always Walmart. Use Allstays to check which Walmarts allow overnight parking, because not all of them allow it.
I was so focused on booking shows that I neglected to reach out to press outlets in the towns we’ve played. Granted, I’m just one woman, and I do not have time to do booking and press and promotion for every. single.gig. I wish I did. But for these second 100 days I’ve spent a bit more time reaching out to local papers and radio, using the Indie On The Move database. I had a show on 2/27 in Jackson, Mississippi, and Jackson Free Press printed it because I simply sent them an email.
Of the many types of shows we’ve played, one type is when you find 2-3 local bands, put the bill together, and book the venue. This is a great idea, but if the venue doesn’t have a built-in crowd it’s up to YOU to get people out. This is known knowledge with us independent musicians, and it’s so hard. I know. But do your best to promote. Promote on all social media platforms. Put your show on Bandsintown and Songkick Tourbox (Songkick links directly to Spotify.) Send out a newsletter to your email list and ask your friends if they’ve got friends in that town.
If you’re the touring band and you’re pairing with local bands, don’t be afraid to urge the local bands to promote. Be transparent with the locals that you might not bring many folks out because you’re not from there. They will (hopefully) understand and will promote the show/bring their fans out, and their fans will become your fans. This is the best case scenario, of course, and I know how hard it is to get people out, but do your best, ok?
If you left your hometown and you had a band, chances are they will be down to work on stuff with you remotely. We started a series called Motorhome Music Monday, where we release a cover video every Monday that we film in the RV. For some of these, I’ve sent the song to my bandmates and had them add their instruments. It’s a great way to keep your creative juices flowing, to inspire you, and get you out of your own head.
I’d love to collaborate more with artists I’ve met on the road, but because we’re moving so much it’s difficult. I did meet up with a fellow touring artist Melissa Plett, and we sang some songs together for fun—and it felt so damn good to sing with another lady again.
When you meet fellow musicians on the road, don’t be afraid to jam with them. It’ll feel good and give you a sense of community, especially if you’re a solo artist.
Be patient with your partner, bandmates, and new people you meet on the road. If you’re a really professional musician and you take your work really seriously, that’s awesome--but remember not everybody does. Not everybody thinks like you do. Not everybody has the same work style as you. When a gig isn’t working out the way you wanted it to, or a soundperson is being rude, or your bandmates are pissing you off, try to take a deep breath and remember you’re doing what you love.
A given freebie at a lot of gigs will be alcohol. Try not to drink too much—it’s easy to get caught up in bad habits when those habits are free. Take care of your body. Get lots of sleep, drink TONS of water, and take Vitamin C. I drink Emergen-C a lot, even when I don’t feel sick. If you start to feel the beginning of a cold, Zicam is a good remedy. We also started using our Planet Fitness membership, which has been awesome to have on the road since there are so many locations.
This could be because I was raised by a single Chinese-American mother, but I was taught to write Thank-You cards for EVERY.SINGLE.THING.I.EVER.GOT. But I’m so glad my mother taught me this. For every house show we’ve played, I send a Thank-You card. It makes the host feel good and makes you feel good. House shows are so awesome and it takes a lot of work for the host to open up their home and get people out. Be grateful.
I included this in my 100 Days on the Road blog, but I’m reiterating it here. The more time you spend on the road, the more you’ll miss your hometown and your community. Facebook groups are a great way to stay connected to like-minded folks. I’ve met other RVers, touring musicians, and even people from my hometown that I didn’t know before. Some great Facebook groups are the RV Entrepreneur, Music Launch Hub, Music Biz Besties (for women), ACN: Music (for Asian Americans), Rock/Star Collective, DIY Tour Postings, DIY Touring Folk/Americana/Bluegrass, The #WomenCrush Collective (for women), Balanced Breakfast (for San Francisco Bay Area, but they have chapters in a few other cities), and Everyone Knows Everyone in the Music Industry.
Be open to opportunities and keep an open mind. Try net to get too negative or cynical (trust me, I struggle with this one.) Don’t be afraid to work with people of different genres. Be open to any and all opportunities that come to you (within reason of course—if something feels shady it probably is.)
And that’s it! 200 days on the road, 165 to go. The lessons are endless and this has been such an amazing journey. Thank you so much to all my friends, family, fans and supporters who’ve followed us. Remember to stay updated on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and add your email to my email list!
*we’ve been on the road since August 2018, and we lost money every month up until December 2018, when we started breaking even. This is HUGE accomplishment for us and we’re super excited about it! But each month will be different since everything depends on what types of shows we book."
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