Going ‘On Tour’ has long been seen as a necessary step in the growth of any musician or group’s music career, however, if you don’t have the support of a major or even independent label, a touring company, or a tour manager – is managing a tour on your own possible?
Like many other roles such as social media manager, booking agent, and accountant – Being your own tour manager is another discipline that can be done on your own as a way to minimise costs and maximise the overall contributions of each band member.
Dale Prinsse, of Australian progressive metal band Caligula’s Horse, is a musician-turned-producer, turned tour manager, who spoke to Music Industry Inside Out about the importance of being multi-disciplined, and his personal tips on how to plan, book, and manage your own tour.
When is it the right time to tour? What stage of career, what time of year considerations.
I think this is an awesome point to start out on, because it really should be the first question any artist asks themselves. And honestly, it’s a hard question to answer without knowing where you’re at in comparison to how others have gone about it. Most bands don’t ever do an interstate tour, and even fewer manage to make it overseas.
I always return to this one simple logic to start: where is your home, and can you support yourself there alone? The idea here is that building a home base locally will enable you to erase debts that you take on as you take slightly more risky or financially lossy touring opportunities. This extends to international touring too. If you can’t hold your own in your suburb, city, state, in your country, how easy and beneficial would it be to invest in those other areas where you’re starting new?
The next aspect to consider is obviously money. At certain stages of your personal and musical career your hunger for making it work will be different – you really need to listen to yourself on that one: we’re in this for longevity, not to burnout. If breaking yourself on a headline interstate tour that gets you 10 followers at a show, or 50 uninterested punters, is it worth it? Sure, if you’ve got disposable income. But most people are working minimum wage jobs and not able to earn money while on tour. So, is the loss worth it? We consistently think about the bottom line and that trade-off between loss versus reward, or profit versus effort. There’s also some important attention that needs to be paid to production value: what’s your band worth, and what’s the show doing to prove it – but I’ll flesh that out later.
Pay attention to your favourite bands, specifically mid-tier bands that are on the rise. Search through their social media and see whether they became an overnight success (uncommon) or whether they slaved away at support tours for years. I recall, before I was even in Caligula’s Horse, the amount of support shows that the band did before they even undertook their first headlining interstate tour. You can never underestimate the importance of this. Support tours are, and I’m generalising here, far less risky, and have a much greater payoff for audience crossover by relying on the pull of the headline band.
Now, with this being said, at a certain point the transfer rate of fans from the headline band to your band dwindles surprisingly low. By this I mean the amount of merch sales you get on that show, and the amount of new fans you see at the next show as a result of supporting x band. Think to your own experiences as artists, maybe even as a kid going to see bands: I never particularly cared about the local opening bands if I’d go to see Metallica or Pearl Jam (I certainly changed my tone).
The next one is considering how musically proficient you are on stage. Many artists get filled with a false sense of security that they’re not even aware of playing to their rent-a-crowd at home and then don’t have that when they eventually branch out, feeling as though their show has fallen flat. There are a few acts I’ve seen at say, The Triffid, for example, who’ve shot up to national fame on Triple J, and look sheepishly amateur on stage because they recorded one song and had never taken their show live. In direct contrast, I’ve seen 21-22 year old musicians playing like they’ve been on stage for 20 years studying and critiquing their craft playing similar venues. In fact there was a story about a rapper in America who had this happen, and so their label booked this small tour that wasn’t marketed at all. The dude went under a different alias so that he could get his sea legs together before entertainment centre level gigs.
Just for some final comments on this extraordinarily large and important question. What is the purpose for your tour? What is the tour supporting? A single? An EP? An album? In my experience, single launches perform far worse than album launches. There’s just more substance to an album and its easier to market. Again, returning to that first point: most bands don’t ever record a song, let alone an album. So the legitimacy of that should speak for itself. Many people will consider pursuing PR campaigns paying hundreds to thousands to market a tour. This is simply pointless if you don’t have any fans to begin with and that money could be better spent on, say catching a flight at a better time so your voice isn’t ruined for the show? I remember being told this early on in my music career, and PR is really only necessary when you need alternative methods of access to people who may be aware of you, but aren’t engaged with you.
Where to start with Planning a Tour? Local or international, how to plan your tour locations
So there’s two preferences you might consider when planning a tour: the package (meaning who you want to tour with), and the time you want to tour. A solid package will ensure that people aren’t pissed off by the out of tune guitars, the boring music, or the unexpected intensity of the band you didn’t vet before you asked them to play. There’s something to be said for ramping up the energy throughout the night and changing up the style too – not every band on the night needs to be the same style, they just need to have great music and a great show. Remember, you’re putting on a show for people – so try and ensure the night is good for them too.
I suppose the next consideration is routing. Spotify for Artists is increasingly being used by booking agents, managers, and promoters to gauge the profile of bands in countries and cities. It’s an incredibly powerful tool, and I wish Spotify would invest more into developing the insights available – even something like how long it took for the second album versus the first one to reach 10,000 listens overall. Anyway, I digress…As artists, you have access to your Spotify for Artists portal to see where you’re popular. If you’re looking to book a tour in Australia, check out if Sydney or Melbourne has greater amounts of people listening to your act and book them on the night that will allow the most amount of people to come out. You don’t want to book a city with 200 listeners on a Thursday when you could replace it for the city with no listeners on a Friday.
The terminology that I refer to is block touring, weekend touring, or spot touring – you see all of these for different reasons.
How to find/book venues outside of your home territory? What to look for in a venue
We’ve turned down multiple tours and venues because they simply can’t oblige the production standard that CH holds ourselves to. By this I mean if you’re charging $10 for ticket, you don’t expect to see a show with a $10k lighting budget, LED screens for visuals and a team of 10 crew. I’m not saying this is where we’re at, but it’s simply to say that we have certain expectations to provide the best show for our audience.
Venue selection is important too. If people feel a bit awkward standing in an empty venue because you booked a 400 pax room when you have 50 fans, it might feel a bit off. The other point is the aesthetic of the venue. Are you an electro-indie band playing a venue blasting grindcore upstairs? Is it as simple as the actual venue is too pristine for how you see yourselves? Feeling at home and suited to a venue is important.
To answer the question, the best way to find/book venues outside of your home territory is to research, like I said before. Find bands at similar levels to you and see what venues they’re doing. Search through hashtags for venues, sift through venue’s social media, as well as bands. Just be in the know with other people’s movements and progression.
How to manage a budget? How to make decisions informed by your budget. How to avoid going over-budget
As I said earlier, always looking at the bottom line. If you’re a serious musician, and you want your band to be making money at some point in your career, you need to reinvest the money that the band makes. Particularly early on, most costs should be coming from the band members so that the ‘band’, as its own entity, is never out of pocket. That’s one of the only ways you can grow your fund at the beginning.
Cash flow is a word that you want to get used to as well. You might be making money off your shirts, and off your shows, but where’s the money coming from? Imagine you order 300 shirts for a tour expecting to sell all of them. What happens if no one likes your design, or the punters are just coming for the support band and they buy their merch? All of a sudden, you’ve forked out lots of money and haven’t broken even for an income source that won’t come to fruition for months until you play more shows and sell that original backlog of merch needed to break even. If instead you’d ordered 50 shirts, you would’ve made a profit straight up and be ready for the next lot.
Now budgets specifically…Under-estimate income, and overestimate expenses. You think you’re going to sell 20 shirts meaning that’ll balance out the overall expenses? Tough luck, budget so that you’re only selling 25% of what you estimate. Are you projecting 300 ticket sales because last show you headlined got 200 people and you’ve got an album out now…again, tough luck – budget so that you’re only 225 people are coming to the show. The rationale here is not that you might be right, it’s that you never, and I truly want to emphasise never, want to get to the end of a tour and owe more money after already investing hundreds or thousands. You can only ever mitigate financial risks by being slightly skeptical of your budget and unforeseen costs. The bonus is that you might’ve been right in the first place, and now you’re killing it.
Best ways to cut costs/maximise efficiency on tour? Being Multi-disciplined, calling upon friends and family for support/accomm.
Yeah, I often refer to the usefulness of multiskilling in these days. Back in the 2000s and early 2010s having audio engineering knowledge for DIY and cheap recording was the most sort after bonus skill. But now, in my humble opinion, social media has pushed on us that media and content is what bands need. Most artists could use help with this, so pick up a camera, learn to edit EPK videos and shoot stills of yourselves, and maybe eventually all your high-quality social media will help prospective endorsers see you as a legitimate investment.
Do it tough for the first few years on tour, do it cheap. Pose it as a challenge to yourself: how cheap can I be on tour without sacrificing the quality of the show and my performance (within reason).
With that being said, calling on friends and family is all well and good to help reduce costs. But if you have to drive 40 minutes after the show, and 20 minutes to the airport the next morning, you’re sacrificing sleep, increasing fuel costs (you originally didn’t want to pay $50 for a hostel), increasing the number of logistical variables (what if there’s unforeseen traffic the next morning), plus working around other people’s schedules. Sometimes it really is easier and worth the extra money to just bite the bullet and get a hotel. People often flock to AirBnB, but they never consider that they might have to go get the key to enter the place when their soundcheck is happening, or that 10am is a shit time to exit the house and leaves them waiting with lots of gear at the airport for 2 hours.
Now here’s two things that will immediately help with interstate touring. If you’re flying, the oversize baggage people (in Virgin at least) will allow you to take one of their massive trolleys FOR FREE (you give them your driver’s license as collateral) and load your equipment into the terminal. Secondly, Virgin and QANTAS both have musician’s baggage allowances meaning you get 64kg of baggage each member. Research this. Thirdly (I know I said two, but this third one’s for sticking around) TAG Global Travel and Event Management Company are a company who will give you discounts on van hire across Australia as a musician/event, you’d be silly not to look into this.
Last point: if you don’t have the budget for a tour manager, elect one member of the band who for the duration of the tour/show is in charge, no matter what. They are the leader and are aware of when things need to happen. This is not to say that they have to do everything, if flights need to get booked someone else does it and reports to the tour manager when it’s ready. Their role is to make sure things get done, not just to do it themselves. The power imbalances that can come out of everyone being thought of as equal is dangerous, and you need someone whose job it is to say: “Get your arse out of bed, and down into the lobby or you’ll be booking another flight for yourself”. Making sure you have one channel that information flows through, and returns to, is crucial. The other point that needs to be made is that you’re on a team, and any one mistake is everyone’s problem. You don’t solve mistakes alone, you call on your team. Transparency is key and hiding issues or potential issues is a nuke waiting to happen. All mistakes made are the band’s problem.
Time to Start Planning!
Since the Corona-virus outbreak, the viability of touring as a musician in Australia, or overseas, has been massively compromised. Tight border restrictions and social distancing laws have impacted venues across the world and made the possibility of exposure and income from live-performance increasingly difficult. However, there is a silver lining.
As restrictions begin to ease in states such as Queensland, Western Australia, and regional areas such as northern New South Wales, the possibilities of touring interstate are beginning to open up. As established acts are finally rolling out tours and shows that have been postponed since as late as January 2020, venues and booking agents have been busy scheduling for the return of live-music as we know it.
Right now, is a clear opportunity for savvy Australian musicians to plan ahead and set goals for themselves in terms of returning to the live-music circuit. The reality of a post-COVID music industry is that acts all the way from the top of the charts, down to the freshest of faces has been affected by a loss of live-performances – and as a result – the demand for live-music entertainment has been relatively unfulfilled for some time. Although it may seem ironic, now could be the best time to start planning a tour or your next performance, as venue’s calendars are about to get very, very, full.
Keen on learning more? Check out our courses on Touring and Booking