12 Tips For Your First Tour As An Indie Musician

There’s this great community called Balanced Breakfast; it’s a San Francisco monthly meetup for musicians to talk about various facets of the music industry.  Last week in the Balanced Breakfast Facebook Group, someone asked this question:

“Does anyone have advice for someone trying to book their first tour? I’d like to do a west coast tour (Santa Cruz, LA, maybe Portland and Seattle) but don’t really have any connections in those areas. Thanks!”

And my answer got some positive feedback so I thought I'd share it here for others. In no particular order...

  1. Don’t expect to make much money. In fact, don’t expect to make ANY money. To that end, try to keep expenses low. Portland is 2 full tanks of gas away, easily. Seattle is even farther, and you still have to travel back home too. AM/PM coffee is nowhere near as good as Starbucks, but it’s available 24/7 and costs pennies in comparison. I hate Dennys but at 3am after a show…what options are better and still affordable?
  2. Do expect to play shows to basically empty rooms. Like literally 1 or 2 people. (I played a show in LA once, and the ONLY people in the audience were my brother and his wife.) On that note, contact literally anyone and everyone you personally know when you’ve got a show in their  town! Not just a post on Facebook. Send that old roommate that now lives in Seattle a personal message. Ditto for those 2 cousins you only kinda like but now live in Santa Cruz. They all know people in those towns and may bring more bodies to your shows (and/or possibly offer you cheap places to stay).
  3. Do be prepared to rock those virtually empty rooms just as hard as if it were Madison Square Garden. Yes it’s a challenge to get psyched up for those shows, but you never know who is in the audience that might work for a zine or become one of your super fans. Also, playing half-assed is disrespectful to the few people that DID come to the show — give them what they paid for.
  4. Do expect to run into a wide variety of PA systems. Some will be great, with working monitors and rad sound engineers to run them. Others will be 1 wedge that is supposed to be the monitor…but since no other speakers exist, you’ll have to prop it up on a chair, point it at the audience, and use that as your PA system. I have actually had to do these things on several tour dates.
  5. Do not expect every club you contact to write you back. They simply don’t have time to respond to all the bands, it’s nothing personal.
  6. Contact local bands directly. I had -much- better luck booking out of town shows by contacting bands than I did contacting the venues. Find some similar-ish sounding band in, say, Portland and offer to trade them for a show in SF whenever they head this way. You may still end up playing the Tuesday 1am slot, but at least you’ll know the other bands were nice people that you can keep in touch with.
  7. Touring college towns while college is in session makes things a LOT easier. College in session means packed house shows, free or cheap places to crash, lunch-time shows promoted by the campus, and WAY more kids in town looking for fun things to do. Touring college towns over the summer has way fewer benefits. Plan accordingly.
  8. Bring your mailing list! Your Facebook page is NOT the same thing! Real physical email addys and phone numbers you can contact later are still worth something (and can never be taken away from you).
  9. Write a tour journal. Virtually every touring band I know that’s journaled their experiences has fascinating things to say, even if it doesn’t seem like it at that moment. Plus the journal entries make great web page content.
  10. Share your tour journals. Ya know what causes Google to bump a site up in the rankings and become visible to more people? New content! Finish your tour, add the email addys to your list, then once a week throw a new journal entry on the website and tell your e-list about it to get some traffic. Boom.
  11. Reliable transportation. Either get a super sturdy car, or find a credit card with enough space on it to put a few car repairs. Throw the repairs on a card, and just forget about them until you get home from tour.
  12. And don’t forget to have fun! :)