Posted: Nov 2, 2020
"If you’re selling out shows nationwide, this probably isn’t for you. If you’re just starting out in music, maybe you’re embarking on your first headline tour, or you’re trying to pick up a few extra tips on how to improve your success out on the road, then this article is for you. I’ve been a touring independent artist for 10 years. I’ve booked, advanced, produced, and promoted almost every headline show I’ve ever played. I still have a long way to go, but I’ve been fortunate to play some amazing shows to fans across the US and over the years I’ve picked up a few tried and true tips and strategies that have helped me that will hopefully add value to you as well. So without further ado.
1. Promote your tour in advance. It sounds obvious, but most news artists still don’t promote their shows with enough lead time. You should announce your tour no less than 6-8 weeks in advance from the date of your first show. Make sure every date on your tour is listed correctly on your website with ticket links ready to go before you make your announcement, that way fans can buy tickets as soon as you post about the tour. Double-check before you announce to make sure all the ticket links work, all dates are correct and all cities are spelled correctly. (I’ve made the mistake of accidentally posting the wrong date on my tour poster and it caused tons of confusion among my fans). Once everything is loaded on your website, make your announcement across all your socials and encourage your fans to tag friends in the comments section for a chance to win free tickets, free merch, etc. Add some kind of incentive to help your post garner the most engagement possible. After you make your announcement, launch your social media ad campaign. I strongly recommend setting aside a good amount of your budget for Facebook and Instagram ads. As an independent artist, I don’t get promoted on major radio stations, so all of my fans hear about my shows through social media. Use this powerful tool to your advantage. It works! This will dramatically increase the attendance at your shows, which is what we all want.
2. Make it special. On any given night, there are at least 20 different concerts in each major city, so why should fans come to see your show over another one? You have to give your fans a reason to come see your show. You have to make it special. Start by giving your tour a name to add some extra excitement. You can name it after your new album, your latest single, or whatever you want. Rather than just announcing a generic list of dates, giving your tour a name (“The Black and Red Tour”) along with releasing new music, new imaging, and new merch will give your fans an exciting reason to come and see your show.
Update your setlist from the last time you played in town. I keep a detailed record of all my setlists with the city, venue, and date, that way I know exactly what songs I played last time I was in town and I can be sure to add new songs to my setlist on my next tour. Taylor Swift is a master at this. Every time she tours, you know it’s going to be special. Every tour has new songs, new production, new merchandise, the whole 9 yards. After the tour is over, you’ll never be able to see that exact show again! It really comes down to creating scarcity. People love having rare and special experiences. Try to implement this same strategy, but on a smaller scale that fits your budget. Aim to make each show and tour a special, unique experience that keeps your fans coming back for more.
3. Offer presale tickets at a discount. Again, this might seem obvious, but there are still club owners out there that don’t understand the importance of this. If your “day of show” ticket price is $20, offer presale tickets for $15. Your goal as a touring artist is to sell as many tickets as possible – and a presale discount of $5 off will give your fans another reason to purchase their tickets in advance. Pro tip: always check the contract before you book a show to make sure the pre-sale ticket price is lower than the “day of show” price. If it’s not, you can ask your booking agent to make that adjustment for you.
4. Rehearse. The more work you put in on the front end, the better your show will be. Plan out each musical transition from song to song. Make sure you’re happy with the way the set flows, the key changes, tempo changes, each guitar change and transition to ensure that there’s not any unwanted “dead space” between songs. Remember, you can always improvise and slow things down while you’re on stage, but having a tightly mapped outset and plan will give you confidence knowing you have your showdown to at.
If you have a FOH (front of house) engineer, be sure to step out front and listen to the mix and give him or her any feedback on the mix. This is your show, and your time to get your product dialed in the way you want it before you hit the road. Take time to get the details right. The more you rehearse and the more time you put into the show, the more confident you’ll be while you’re performing on tour.
Once you’ve worked out all the kinks, rehearse your set from start to finish, without stopping. Time your set so you know exactly how long your show is. Make sure your show is long enough so that you fulfill your contract, but not so long that your fans get bored and want to leave early. I’m always conscious of not making my show too long. I’d rather my fans leave my show on a high note, wanting to come back for more, rather than thinking, “man, that was a really long show”. Pro tip: always leave a few songs in your back pocket as an encore, in case you need to extend the show.
5. Offer VIP packages. As an independent artist, every dollar counts. Offering VIP packages will give you an extra revenue stream to help pay for your expenses. Examples include: early access to the venue, private meet and greet with the band, pre-show photo opp, signed setlist, exclusive access to merchandise, access to soundcheck, exclusive VIP lanyard, etc. This is something I just started doing a few years ago, and it has really helped my bottom line and deepened the connection with my fans.
6. Book the right room for you. As musicians, we all want to play to a packed house. Picking the right-sized venue for you and your band is critical. If you have 200 fans in Houston and you book a venue that holds 1,500 people, it’s going to be a very underwhelming night. We’ve all been to those shows where the band is playing to an empty room and the energy is just absent. You’ve also probably been to a show where the venue is packed shoulder to shoulder, and the energy is incredible. That’s the kind of show experience you want your fans to have. Don’t worry if you have to book a tiny room with a tine stage. You gotta start somewhere! If the venue only holds 100 people, try your best to sell 100 tickets and sell the place out, that way you can promote on your socials you had a “SOLD OUT” show and can work your way up to the next sized venue from there. Remember: it’s better to play to a sold-out crowd in a small club than play in a nice, big venue that’s half empty.
7. Do Giveaways. Every venue sets aside around 20 “comps” (or free tickets) per show. Reach out to the venue or promoter 2-4 weeks prior to your show and ask how many tickets you can give away for your show. Give away as many tickets as they’ll allow. But here’s the catch — make sure you give away the majority of those tickets to people who don’t already know who you are or who wouldn’t come to your show otherwise. That way, your current fans pay for tickets (since they’re happy and willing) and you use the giveaway tickets as potential “fanmakers”.
For example, let’s say the venue gives you 20 tickets to give away. Give away 5 tickets to your hardcore fans via contests on your socials, and reserve the other 15 tickets for giveaways with local blogs, local businesses, local influencers, and radio stations. Look on Instagram in the market of your show and identify a handful of bloggers, businesses, and/or influencers with big audiences and ask them if they’re willing to run a ticket giveaway on their page in exchange for two free tickets. A simple example of how you might reach out (via DM) is:
“Hey ___, my name is ____ and I’m playing a show at (venue name) on (date) at (time). The venue gave us 5 free tickets to give away. Would you be interested in doing a ticket giveaway on your page? Tag 3 friends for a chance to win. I’d be happy to include two tickets for you and a friend!”
Be sure to include a photo of you as well as your one sheet in the message. Nine out of ten times these local businesses or bloggers will happily oblige as they’re always looking for new ways to engage their audience.
Each ticket you give away is an investment. Let’s say you give away two free tickets to a local blogger with 100,000 followers and he or she comes out to your show and posts a video clip of your new single on his or her Instagram story, that’s great exposure for you.
If you give away 5 free tickets to a local business and they pick a family of 5 as their content winner. If they each buy a t-shirt after your show and become lifelong fans, that’s a huge win! If you give away 10 tickets and each person brings two friends to your show next time you’re in town, you just made 45 new fans by one small action. These small investments add up over time.
8. Stay Healthy. This might be the most important one of all. Touring is extremely taxing, both physically and mentally, especially during the early stages of your career when you’re not traveling on a bus. If you’re not healthy, your entire tour can come to a halt.
First and foremost, get as much sleep as you can and drink tons of water. Particularly if you’re a singer, these two things are especially critical. It’s easy to get excited after a great show and want to stay up all night talking and hanging out with friends and fans. This loud talking actually hurts your voice more than the actual singing on stage. Be sure to warm up and warm down your voice before and after shows and talk at a normal volume so you’re not straining your voice by yelling over a loud PA. Treat a tour like a marathon, not a sprint. If you have 4 shows in a row one weekend, you always have to leave enough gas in the tank for the next show.
Get as much exercise as you can. Long drives in the van, day after day, can really take a toll on your mental health. Take a walk around the city after your soundcheck. Lift weights at the hotel. Go for a run. Get outside, get some fresh air, and get your endorphins going. I keep a “mini medicine cabinet” (a Ziploc baggie) full of Emergen-C, Tylenol, cough drops, decongestants, Allergy medicine, etc, that way you have it in case you need it. Keep a bottle of hand sanitizer at your merch booth so you can stay clean after you shake all those hands after the show. Pro tip: If your voice is tired, drink coconut water. It’s extremely hydrating, more so than water.
9. Airbnb it. Airbnb has been a lifesaver on tour. I travel with a crew of 8, so we typically need about 4 hotel rooms, which usually costs me anywhere from $400-600 per night. On Airbnb, I’ve found some amazing places for half the price of hotels and it makes for much more fun and enjoyable experience for everyone. The band and I get to hang out, play music, and eat together after the show, rather than being cooped up in our hotel rooms.
10. Protect your gear. Vans and trailers notoriously get broken into on tour. Luckily, (knock on wood) it’s never happened to me. Here are a few tips that have kept me out of trouble. (1) Never park in dark areas overnight. Always park your van in a well-lit area, preferably in a parking lot under a streetlight. (2) Avoid booking a hotel or Airbnb in high-crime areas. Do some research to make sure you’re finding a safe neighborhood. It’s worth paying a little extra to save your precious able gear from being stolen. (3) Don’t leave guitars or computers in the van. After the show, when you arrive at the hotel or Airbnb, have everyone take their instruments inside to avoid enticing any burglars. It’s a little more work, but again, it’s worth it. (4) Buy a tracking device for your van. Dewalt makes a great tacker (you can buy them at Home Depot). That way, if by a bad stroke of luck your van does get stolen, you’ll know exactly where it is. (5) Invest in heavy-duty locks for your trailer. I have 3 massive locks made out of aircraft aluminum on my trailer called “Blaylocks”. They’ve been a great deterrent for burglars and have kept my gear safe for years. They’re worth every penny."
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