A Guide for Touring in the Music Industry...

by Patrick Hess | The Huffington Post

Finding a place to eat where everyone in the van is satisfied is a challenge. Having the thermostat set in a hotel room where everyone is comfortable is a negotiation. Forgetting the bathroom spray when four males all "boo boo" within the same hour is difficult to forget. Trading off driving when everyone is a zombie is frightening. Setting up the sound system, merch table, and video gear is trivial compared to finding and training volunteers to handle any of these areas. 

Overcoming the countless mistakes or oversights by the venue staff or promoter team is frustrating. Learning to exhale the disappointment of seeing only a handful of fans show up is a definite gut check whether a career in music is worth it.

Watching fans beg for selfies or an autograph on their phone case, yet ignore the merch table is irritating. Pouring out every ounce of energy on stage to entertain the non-responsive crowd while fighting technical issues with mix or monitor levels is deflating. Pushing your voice to hit that high note after days and days of grueling travel and lack of sleep is humbling.

Hearing a tour owner or concert promoter tell you they want you to pay-to-play or they aren't willing to cover any of your expenses is a sobering reality. Watching peers post recap photos on their social media from events that appear to be the holy grail of shows is depressing when you're struggling to find bookings. Seeing a perceived equal or lesser talent get picked to headline or open on a major tour is confusing. Having members of your touring crew back out at the last minute before leaving and scrambling to find an equally qualified replacement is maddening. The list goes on.

Not so long ago the only way for a music artist to get known was by performing live shows. In fact, the standard was that the live show dictated an artist's credibility and artistic ability. Thanks to the internet, many of today's artists have used YouTube as their proving ground to gain popularity. This virtual stage does not guarantee an artist is a good live performer, but when it comes to gaining fans and industry attention, it has worked.

Having access to a clever studio engineer helps this internet famed artist gain even more legitimacy among a virtual fan base. But at some point, the live show separates the men from the boys.

Reality shows like American Idol and The Voice require the art of performing live, with no help of auto tune or studio tricks. It's just the live audience or panel of judges, and the artist. I had the occasion to talk to a manager of a band a few months back about his experiences the past 25 years in the music industry. He shared of the discovery of talents the old fashioned way (touring bands and artists) versus nowadays where the internet is overflowing with electronic artists o'plenty.  He said that one thing he observed most was that talent today is not used to performing live in front of crowds. They are used to using a video camera or performing for small groups in their home town. Either that, or the ones who have a lot of stage experience aren't necessarily long for radio as much as Broadway.

He discovered an artist online that was almost too good to be true with talent, but soon realized his prodigy was not capable of showing it live in front of a crowd. The artist had golden pipes for singing, but lacked in knowing how to work a stage or crowd.
While the creation of an artist can be made online or in a studio, the proving of the authenticity and longevity of career for an artist is born solely in touring and the live show. Simply, if an artist expects to make money and become a legitimate force to be reckoned with, touring must be the goal.

My opening paragraph of the burdens of the life of touring was intended to highlight the reality. I'm positive my citations are a limited list of challenges an artist faces while touring. Staying healthy, getting sufficient rest, maintaining positive attitudes, etc. are all equally a burden. Long before you're on the road and touring is the process of evaluating the opportunities from a business perspective. Like anything in the music industry, the live event or concert is an industry within the industry. Understanding the roles of people you deal with while planning a live show is important. Understanding how to weigh the opportunity against your career plan at the time is equally important. As such, the obvious blessing of touring to gain new fans and honing your craft is overshadowed by the priority of using wisdom to carefully evaluate each opportunity. In order to do this, I've created a checklist to follow. It loosely defines what to consider in each opportunity before signing up to tour.
    • When an artist is just starting out, exposure events are the most common form of gig you will book. These are simply where you perform for an audience just to gain exposure. There is typically minimal to no financial gains from these events. Plan on spending more time and money than you'll get in immediate return. These events are intended for long-term goals like fan growth or refining your live show for the future hope of being invited on a tour or having your own tour. It's the dress-rehearsal or practice game where you can work on your artistry in front of an audience.

    • Local Venues
      • These usually start at local venues wiling to book you for tips or as a favor to a family member who knows the owner. These are always a great place to gain experience in an environment where you can experiment with your live show format and set list. The expense of playing local is very minimal because it's local. You load up your gear, drive a short distance, set up, do your show, pack up and be in your own bed that night.

        • The downfall of local events is that you're likely playing in front of people you know. While it's comforting to see grandma or your friends smiling wide during your show, you're not really experiencing real world scrutiny. It's more of a confidence building venue than a true test to your fortitude in the face of potential rejection.
    • Distant Venues
      • This is a more calculated risk as a performer. Many exposure events outside your local area require planning more sophisticated travel means. Renting a trailer for gear. Having a van or multi-passenger vehicle may become necessary since not everyone in your crew or band can just b-bop across town to arrive at the venue. Therefore, the financial consideration is now a lot more important.
      • Because it is an exposure only event, many promoters are providing you stage time in exchange for a paycheck. Stage time is always great when you're starting out and should always be a highly prioritized item on your list. Simply performing on stage in front of people you don't know is an invaluable experience in the building blocks of your career as an artist. You quickly learn your current strengths and weaknesses as an artist on stage.
      • Understanding the real cost of travel (food, hotel, fuel) is an important factor in planning future shows. So traveling to a distant venue has a benefit simply from the financial wisdom you gain.
    • Figuring out your worth is usually a dartboard method. Just because you've been paid one figure before doesnt mean that's what you'll get every show going forward. Many factors go into a promoter paying you a certain fee or covering your expenses. Sometimes it's a relationship that helps dictate the fees and other times its your fan base in an area that help earn you a certain paycheck. Sometimes there's a flat fee for every artist being booked. There is no standard industry guideline for a paid gig. It's all negotiation.
    • These are frustrating, but sadly the norm nowadays. For instance, the West Coast venues (California) are almost 100% pay-to-play for anyone who don't already have national radio exposure. The scale of pay-to-play depends on a lot of things. Your resume, your style of music, your type of live show, your geographic locale, etc. In the end, paying a promoter to gain stage time is something you need to carefully calculate. If you're offered the opportunity to open for a well-known artist and it costs you a fee to do so, it may be worth the investment.
    • Buy-on tours are very common. A known tour has a reputation for featuring great headliners and the size of audience at each city is large. These tours are valued highly among major labels trying to launch an artist. These large labels purchase slots on these tours for their up-and-coming artists. They own the opening slots before a headliner. This is a lucrative business for tour or event promoters. They know that their stage is valued real-estate and they charge a premium for it. So when you see an artist on a tour poster or as an opener for a major headline, you can be certain that someone in their camp paid a premium for that. It's not like their talent earned them an invite. I've yet to come across an emerging artist who was invited to perform on a major tour or event and didn't pay a premium to do so.
    • Paying to perform (have stage time) is the first of expenses. Sometimes these pay-to-play events or tours also take a percentage of your merch sales. They find ways to earn money off your performing because they can. As long as artists are willing pay this premium, the promoters will continue to require it.
    • Sometimes you're invited to perform based on tips or donations from the audience. This type of opportunity should carefully consider the venue owner's marketing plan. With no guarantee of performance fee or expenses being covered, you should be convinced the event will be marketed well so the exposure you get will offset the investment of time and money to do the event. In this case, you should consider the EXPOSURE EVENT breakdown above.
    • These type venues usually do not provide a captive audience there to solely watch you perform. They provide other stages or attractions that divide the crowd's attention among the event. These are very difficult opportunities to do because it's hit and miss with the crowd. Outdoor versions of these are also difficult because of weather conditions (hot, rain, cold, etc.) As such, it's a gamble that it will justify the investment. Many festivals and community events like a fair assume their thousands and thousands of attendees are a draw consideration for any artist. But unless you're already well known, you're pretty much having to create a crowd by having a strong enough live show to turn their head as they walk by.
    • These are events you put on yourself and are solely responsible to promote and host at a venue of your choosing. While everything about the event is under your control, it's not always the best use of your resources. The financial success or failure of the event is squarely on your shoulders and the overseeing of details that you would ordinarily not be required to care about can be something that interrupts the flow for an artist.
With the difficulty the music industry is facing in selling music for income, the live show and merchandise have become a highly sought after method to earn an income. It's the new gold-rush of the music industry. Record labels are now reinventing their models to include 360 deals which mean they get a percentage of all income from an artist which used to be limited to publishing or record sales. Now it is very common to see record labels have internal booking agents, tour departments and staff, merchandise coordinators, etc. To an artist, the live show and merchandise is still the only area where they could possibly earn 100% of the income resulting from the event or concert.

  • Placement in the lineup and set length are important.
    • If you're opening for the headliner, it may be worth the investment. If you're only afforded a 10 minute set, but still right before the main headliner, it's a serious opportunity. If you're given 10 minutes and the promoter isn't bringing in a major headliner, you may want to pass. The expense and time to be involved may not be worth the exposure. Conversely, if you're trying to work out a new set or just getting started, 10 minutes on a stage is 10 more minutes to learn your craft.
  • Technical support at the venue is important to understand.
    • What type of equipment are they providing?
    • How experienced is the sound engineer?
    • Do they have stage lighting?
    • Do they offer video screen near or on stage for a visual support to artists who want to have a video backdrop to their show?
    • Do they use hazers which may affect the voice of an artist?
    • What time do you get for sound check and when?

      • Many venues only afford you a quick monitor check and not a full rehearsal of a song or two. This is very important to understand before agreeing to the opportunity. Many emerging artists need a good sound check to work through the acoustics in the room and making sure they hear themselves well with full house speakers blaring.
    • Will the venue allow you to run sound for yourself if you're very particular about the live mix?
  • Does the venue provide any volunteer support
    • Often times you can save money and resources if you can leverage volunteers to help you load-in and load-out or work your merch table for you.
  • What is the stage dimension
    • Sometimes you arrive at a venue and have to rework your set or stage setup because you didn't realize there were restrictions or sightline issues once on the stage. Seeing the audio engineer, speaker placement, etc all can affect the artist's show in some way.
  • Venue capacity
    • Knowing how big the room is where you're playing can formulaically determine your potential merch sales. If you're invited to play a room of 60 capacity, you can do the math.
    • Sometimes you are offered a piece of the door (ticket) as pay. Knowing a venue capacity, again, can help you decide the upside potential income.
  • Carefully research competing events in the 50 mile radius on the same date
    • Sometimes you book a venue only to realize there was another concert nearby that same night that appealed to your target fan base. This is important to consider.
  • Understand the artist lineup
    • Do some research to know if your genre and live show will appeal to the fans at the event. If you're a singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar, chances are that you won't appeal to the fans at a primarily hip-hop artist lineup.
    • Additionally, if the artists are all exactly the same genre, who you are going on after and before can be something to consider. Your set list or style of show may need to be modified to help you stand out as original.
  • Where will your merch booth be located?
    • Seems trivial, but when you're at a venue where other artists are performing, you want to make sure your newly acquired fans have quick access to see your merch. Also knowing if the venue is providing tables is a positive to know before you pack.
  • If there is a scheduled meet / greet, is it before or after the event?
    • If you're the only artist, this is up to you. If you're one among many, usually having a meet greet following your show maximizes your chance to sell merch since the fans will have reason to want to meet you after seeing you perform. It may seem trivial, but the difference of $50 in merch sales versus $800 has come solely from when fans have access to meet the artist after their set.
  • Have a good variety of merch
    • Many new artists haven't developed a good merch display or even have enough items to consider having a merch table. This is a huge oversight that artists shouldn't ignore. Even if the artist buys trinkets, prints color photos of themselves, or burns their own CDs, it's imperative to have a true merch setup. It provides invaluable branding, but also legitimacy of an artist. Transport of a merch display booth should always be part of the planning process. Most artists at a venue will have something to offer their fans, so at least make sure you appear the same as your peers in offering something for sale.
  • Media coverage
    • Does the venue plan to invite media or have a media interview plan?
      • Always work with a promoter to learn this so you can possibly schedule a radio interview or photo op with the media.
  • Does the venue / event allow video recording?
    • Always record your live shows and use them for online promotion to show snippets of your live show to fans considering attending your show in the future. Booking agents and industry members will want to see your live show without traveling to see you live. It's the same as a highlight reel for an athlete trying to get a college recruiter to consider them.
    • Streaming live is also something to consider to help promote your brand and increase your fan base.
  • If the opportunity does not offer a written OFFER SHEET, ask for one
    • This is simply a contract that spells out what they will do and what you're agreeing to do. NEVER agree to a show without one.
  • Have a RIDER available for the venue or event promoter
    • This rider is a document that spells out what you require to perform live at their event. Things like dressing rooms, load-in access, needed security, etc. are all items you want to have on your rider. It's your way of guaranteeing that you will have what you need to perform your best show.
  • Understand the financial exchange
    • Fully understand how you're getting paid, when you're getting paid. Don't just assume they will give you cash. You may want some sort of advance to help cover your cash flow needs to get to the venue or event. If you're getting paid afterward, make sure you discuss the check or payment method with the promoter before you go on stage.
  • WiFi
    • We live in a society where internet and cellular access are critical. Some venues are built with steel frames and assuming you can use your cell phone or 4G connection is naive. Ask them if WiFi is available so you can stay connected. Sometimes you want to process credit cards for merch and need a reliable internet connection.
  • If it's a touring opportunity, what's the capacity for your band and crew
    • Some touring opportunities only pay for limited space on the tour bus or in their expense coverage. You may be responsible to pay your own travel for some of your crew or supporting members. Find out right away before assuming it's an all expense paid tour.
  • Venue locations and conditions
    • Sadly, attendance at a show may be hindered because the location of the venue or condition of it are sub-par. Make sure you see photos of the venue and ask about neighboring businesses and the local perceived safety of the location.
  • Venue security
    • Some venues provide general security for legal and ordinance reasons, but that may not extend to artist safety. You may need to have your own security person to watch during meet / greet or when outside the venue.
  • Weather related issues
    • Understand how weather or similar Acts of God type issues will affect your ability to perform. Will they simply cancel the event? Will your set be moved or shortened?

      • This issue has affected many of the shows we've encountered and the knowing of the backup plan in advance would have dramatically helped our attitude and ability to plan in advance whatever alternatives we had available.
The burden and blessing of touring is important to know for an artist wanting to make a living from their talent. The naiveté of family managers of artists or artists themselves regarding touring or performing is a huge reason many walk away embittered or jaded. Taking time to carefully evaluate each opportunity is essential. Not every opportunity is a good fit and having the boldness to turn down an offer is important if you're to develop a strong business knowledge for your career.