The One Secret of Booking a Tour with Absolutely No Empty Rooms

On one whirlwind tour I booked, six weeks to cover the entire Western half of the country, a fan called us “road warriors.” With a mix of appreciation and self-deprecation, we felt obliged to correct his semantics: we definitely identified more as “road dogs.” Your great-aunt at Thanksgiving dinner might not dignify your band as a “real job,” but I dare her to plan a transcontinental concert tour, drive 2-10 hours a day, keep three other band members happy and full, sweat out an hour of engaging live music every night, and not think that fan’s couch at the end of the night isn’t the sweetest lover you’ve ever known.

I’ve been on and off the road with my band for over three years now, and it’s been entirely DIY, grassroots, self-booked. We’ve learned a lot along the way, but I’ve discovered one secret to touring as the single most valuable principle to make sure your tours are worth the trouble. Never play a show without booking 1-3 other bands as local support.

I don’t care how cool the club looks or what they claim as a built-in crowd. If you want to make the conversion of a bar crowd into a fanbase, you won’t do it alone. If you’re just looking to play for three hours to earn $300 and a bar tab, read no further. There’s no shame in that, and I occasionally throw a couple of these gigs into a longer trip to pad the wallet. But if you’re looking to actually build equity in a market, the local bands are your best bet. Here, I’ll offer six simple tips to help make sure you never play an empty room again.

Joshua Powell & the Great Train Robbery live at Suzie's Dogs & Drafts in Youngstown

1. Take the initiative. A lot of clubs will give you a hold with the corollary that you must build the bill yourself. Others will just give you the date without any pre-reqs. Don’t call that an easy get. If you don’t have friends or a pre-existing, notable fanbase in a city, no one will be coming out to see a touring band they’ve never heard. Check with the venue to make sure it’s okay if you book some locals. “But that means the money goes to more parties!” you say. Yep. But you’ll be surprised at the generosity of most bands you meet. Many will yield their cut (or part of it) to you just because they know you’re on the road. And if you offer a show trade to support them in your own city, it’s suddenly worth their time. Just make sure that the venue knows you’re willing to put the onus on yourself. Most talent buyers will be more inclined to book you when they know you’re willing to work on the front end.

2. Do the research. I know you’ve already worked a lot to make a route, book the clubs, send fliers. But this will be the best return on investment you can get for your time. Look at the comparable clubs in the city you’re booking and see who’s playing there: these are locals who are already active in their own scene. If they’re playing out in other places consistently, they’re building their following. Booking them on your bill gets you access to their market segment. Draft a simple pitch email with a simplified press kit, include the show hold date, and offer a show trade. Then pitch those mothers. Like booking clubs, your’e not always going to get your first pick, so email/Facebook message more bands than you think you’ll need. Most clubs are cool with 3-4 bands on a bill, and that’s the sweet spot. A good rule of thumb is to contact 3x as many bands as you want to book. They have their own touring schedules too, and they wont be helping themselves OR you if they oversaturate their own home market. If you hit up 12 bands, you’ll likely get what you need.

When I contact a band that declines my offer, I usually ask, “Any other friend-bands in the area you can recommend?” They’re usually happy to oblige—they’re helping out their existing friends this way too! Stick with bands who are within 1000-1500 Facebook likes as yourself. If they’re under 500, they probably won’t bring that many people out. If they’re over 4000, they probably have a booking agent you’d need to contact instead, and bands of that size usually only play their hometown 4-6 times a year. Don’t have an overinflated idea of yourself based on social media metrics. These bands are doing you a service.

There are other ways to find locals bands. When you find one or two local bands, scroll through their Facebook feed until you find event pages. On those event pages, you’ll find the other bands that have shared their bills. This works like a charm for how many bands you can find in a short time. The simplest way is to ask the talent buyer if she knows any local bands that would be a good genre fit. And if all those are dry, go on and “browse” by location tag. Ctrl+F. “Baltimore,” and there you go. It’s crapshoot of judging a band by their album cover, but we’ve found a lot of cool friend-bands this way.

3. Set up easy transitions. Certain elements of your gear can’t be spared, but a lot of drums and amps are interchangeable, and if you and the support bands discuss it beforehand (and are never presumptuous), you can save a lot of time and effort by gear-sharing or back-lining. It’s usually a courtesy for drummers to use their own snares and cymbals, but the other shells are often easily shared, and you can save a lot of hassle for you and the sound engineer by using one kit for three bands rather than three kits—especially if mics are in play. Always treat the other folks’ gear with the utmost respect, and be willing to share your own. Too-long transitions between bands totally kill the vibe of a room. Be expedient about your own load-out and don’t linger on stage. Then make sure you triple-sweep at the night’s end to make sure you’re not leaving any gear behind.

Ryan Corley of Joshua Powell & the Great Train Robbery

4. Database. If you’re a creative personality type like me, you’ve already checked out on this bullet point. But trust me. Keep a clean, simple list of the bands you’ve played with, their contact person, where they’re based, and how the experience was. If you travel a lot, you won’t remember all these details.

Having a simple spreadsheet that you can search by location tag will make it easy for you next time. “Who was it that we played that show with in Pittsburgh?” Check your database. And they’ve doubled their fanbase since then! You’ve already established some rapport at your last gig, and it’s a lot easier to book an old friend on a bill than to make cold calls. I don’t care if it’s just a note on your phone—it will behoove you to keep track.

5. Stack the bill properly. The idea of “headlining” isn’t the same in the DIY touring world as it is for Taylor or Kanye. The absolute best place to play on a 3-4 band bill isn’t the 4th spot. People come out to see their friend’s band and then get tired. They have work in the morning. Or The Walking Dead is going to be on at 9pm. The first spot isn’t prime either. People walk in late to every show. But by slot #2 or 3, the stragglers have wandered in, and the tired people haven’t paid their tab yet. Most locals know this and will be respectful enough of your situation to yield you the prime real estate. Be flexible, but be assertive. Don’t act entitled. Humbly ask for the middle billing. If the local heroes go last, their fans won’t be leaving. They’ll have to stay and watch you too, giving you the opportunity for attendee->fan conversion. But if the locals play before you, even if they beg, “Stay to watch the touring guys!”, you’ll likely be playing their fans out the door.

6. Repay your karmic debt. A new road friend, an old road dog himself, opened his home to us on our first trip to San Francisco so graciously, we could hardly believe it. As we thanked him profusely, he simply replied, “I know what it’s like. I figure I might as well pay off some of my karmic debt.” Even sucked dry of mystical notions, this is an incredibly poignant point. Ever heard, “Treat others how you’d like to be treated”? This applies in the touring circuit just like anywhere. If a band supports your touring bill, open the door for them to visit your city. Share your local contacts with them and give them the go-ahead to namedrop you. (By the way, if you don’t have this local sway at home yet, you’re not ready to tour anyway.) When you’re not on the road, open for them in your hometown. Put those traveling bands up at your house. Put some beer in your fridge. Leave out towels and blankets. Have your wi-fi password handy. Cook them brunch. You know what it’s like.

We’re all in this together, and it’s only with each other’s help that any of us can make the dent we dream of making. Every band is going to be a lot quicker to help you when they remember how you’ve helped them. Don’t let the scales of karma tip too far your way without  giving back to the art community.

Connections with venues are good, but connections with bands are better. They can get you in better rooms than you could get in yourself. They’ll share their kitchens with you after the show. And they’ll bring people to the dank little rooms you play every night on the road. Rev up your work ethic, do your homework, smooth the transitions, keep good records, strategize the order of the evening, and give back at every opportunity.

And look for us while you’re out there—we’re in the business of making friends.

One response to “The One Secret of Booking a Tour with Absolutely No Empty Rooms

  1. Love this blog post! I try to do all of these points, but as I’m sitting here booking another tour, these are great reminders! Loved sharing the bill with you on Cleveland. Hope you’ve been doing well!

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