Musicians Need To Tour Like A ’90s Band
In this article we look at the life of an up-and-coming band in an era before Spotify and YouTube, and why the practice of perfecting one’s touring chops which was utilized by many ’90s bands is something artists of today should consider adopting.
Guest Post by Brennan Haelig on IndieU
There was a time before SoundCloud, before Spotify, before even CDs, when artists lived and died by the road. The only way to stay in rotation with your fans was to hit the highway for the better part of a year, playing strip clubs, stadiums, and everything in between. Take, for example, Run DMC: the legendary hip-hop troupe toured relentlessly during their two decade run and came home with significantly less than today’s superstars pull for single arena show. This bred a rabid work ethic when it came to touring, and artists these days simply don’t shape up.
Crafting a sound and an image have largely become the focus for contemporary musicians. These are, of course, important factors in building a career, but touring can’t take a backseat. As streaming sites surge and album sales dip, artists overwhelmingly make the largest portion of their income from live performance. This means that even if you’re playing mid-sized theaters to thousands of fans every night, you probably still need a large-scale tour to pay your crew, label, management and backing band while still taking home enough to live comfortably.
There’s something to be said for taking pointers from rock bands. Go to Warped Tour and tell me those acts on the small stage don’t play hundreds of shows every year, sometimes for no one and sometimes for no money. They’re on the first legs of a high-thrill ride, and the ones that tour smart usually end up getting invited back year after year. Even local groups will pack up and live in a van for months at a time just to earn enough to eat McDonald’s every night.
Sites like SoundCloud and YouTube are tremendous resources for growing your following internationally, but they don’t pay your rent. You can have the dopest hooks in the game and still be living in your parents’ basement. Touring is undoubtedly the quickest way to build a fan base. Think your Soundcloud is poppin’ now? Spend a month on the road and tell me you don’t start seeing your numbers climb.
Learning to book shows and survive on the road is an essential skill if you expect to be a full-time artist. This doesn’t mean that you’re going to start pulling $1,000 a night off the bat—I booked my first tour and lost money—but that’s okay, that’s why it’s called an investment. (If you’re looking to tour smart and save money, read our DIY Guide here). I’ve seen so many musicians sign with managers after a few cuts on the Internet hit big, only to have those managers be lacking in every way essential for growing that artist’s career. If they aren’t getting you on the road, with a booking agent or not, then you should renegotiate that contract.
It is possible to tackle the road on your own, but you’re going to have to put in the time. If you’re in a group, divide the work. If you’re a solo act, convince a friend or collaborator to help represent you, or just be willing to put in the hours and reap 100 percent of the reward. The skills and knowledge you’ll gain about the industry and how to best plan your career are priceless, but be prepared to invest more than you get back for a while.
The key to successfully maneuvering in the modern music market is seeing the bigger picture and developing an understanding of how each section of the industry interacts. The combination of a well-timed release schedule with superior content and strategically curated live shows can put a young artist on the national circuit in only a few years. Major labels can definitely help, but they aren’t necessary anymore. Be excited that it’s easier to reach your fans than ever before, and commit the time to making it happen.