When I started planning out this site, I knew that tour booking would have to be included, but knew that an entire book could be written on the subject. In fact, many have. But one in particular stuck with me. Sure, maybe it was more of a pamphlet than a book, but Raymond Biesinger’s “How to Book a Maybe Successful Tour for a Band That Didn’t Get Hype on Pitchfork, Etc.“ (2010) always seemed more relevant to the types of bands I played in. Partly, this was because he played in a rock & roll band I respected (The Famines), partly because it was clearly written from hands-on experience, partly because it came from a very realistic musical world view, and partly, and perhaps most importantly, because it was specifically about touring in Canada.
So I reached out to Raymond to see if I could link to it, or share it in some form. He agreed with the caveat that I “contextualize it, including mention of its shortcomings how some parts of it haven’t aged exceedingly well.” So, I’m doing that, but with a big caveat.
Raymond’s guide was originally published in 2010. While sure, Pitchfork may no longer be the arbiters of taste and a shortcut to indie rock success like it arguably once was, and sure, a full-blown website is maybe not as crucial as having an active Spotify/Bandcamp or Instagram profile, and maybe WeirdCanada no longer exists for a press quote, but I still think the broad strokes of this thing, to borrow a phrase from Raymond, resonate exceedingly well.
I’d like to thank Raymond Biesinger for allowing me to share this here. Raymond has made great music and continues to make great art. Consider supporting him?
How To Book a Maybe Successful Tour for a Band That Didn’t Get Hype on Pitchfork, Etc. (originally published 2010)
This is a guide to booking a tour for a band like yours or mine. It’s formally called “How to Book a Maybe Successful Tour for a Band That Didn’t Get Hype on Pitchfork, Etc.,” because that’s where we’re all at, and the magic hand of a booking agent, hype machine, respected label or competent manager isn’t going to be descending from the skies and helping us any time soon. It’d be foolish to sit around waiting for them to show up, as all our bands will probably be broken up and hate each other by the time they arrive, if they ever do.
The First Things
Of course, you need a band, a van, a website, some merch, and a set of cities you could presumably reach in that van during a specific time slot. You also need to send out promo and collect the results. That’s what this section is about. A whole lot of bands don’t bother to send out promo records any more, and expect that campus radio or blogs and magazines will just find them. That isn’t true. Maybe some of those mediums are largely powerless at creating audiences these days (ie. campus radio, arts weeklies, small blogs), but they do an important thing: a touring band needs to argue to promoters and bookers that someone outside of the band gives a shit about the band. If that argument is made well, a promoter or booker will give the band a date.
I asked a good friend about how established booking agents convince promoters to pay for relatively unknown bands, and it turns out they do it by subtly leveraging other, more established, acts. Their argument is, indirectly “book these little guys, or you won’t be able to book these big guys.” Sad we can’t do that, no?
How does a band like ours make that argument? First up, by having a decent website with which a promoter can hear the band’s music with and generally understand them through. Then, just as importantly, by collecting what I call “gold stars.” That is: every positive mention of the band online and in print (reviews, previews, bios, etc.). Then find other 3rd party evidence that someone outside of the band cares about the band. That includes chartings on campus radio, a list of successful bands the band has played with, etc. Then sort through the best of it and make a standard booking e-mail. I won’t reproduce it here, but the Famines’ is basically:
- the subject of the e-mail is something like “the Famines in Saint John, 9 Nov. 2010?”
- a quick, flexible introduction with easy description of the band (“Edmonton noise garage duo,” etc.
- a single date or array of dates from which the promoter can chose one
- directly asking if the promoter would be interested in putting on a show for you
- a reference to the band’s website and what can be found there
- “Noteworthy,” being a section of quick, easy to read unique band facts and accomplishments.
- a sign-off, with your name and contact info
- we close the e-mail with quotes from newspapers, etc., who have been enthused about the band.
It takes some finessing to make it read easily and not look like junk, but keep things simple. Think about getting a writer friend to help you with it. The goal is to keep it quick, friendly, and informative as can be while not being corny and stupid. Another goal should be that everything you write about the band in your outgoing booking e-mail is factual. Never say “you should book us because we’re awesome and the best.” Let others toot your band’s horn for you; let the words and actions of others describe the merits of what you’re doing. The more “cred” the source of your “gold stars” has, the more powerful your argument will be, but even relatively unknown and small-time sources (misc. prairie alt weeklies, local campus radio, Weirdcanada.com reviews, etc.) have descriptive and convincing power.
Planning A Soft Route
The next step is to plan your first tour route, capitalizing on “good” dates (Thursday, Friday, Saturday) and minimizing the others. The Famines’ first year involved doing two adjacent long weekend runs, like Calgary-Vancouver Victoria one weekend, Saskatoon-Regina-Winnipeg the next, with an Edmonton show the following Friday. Turnout will be much better on good nights than on off nights, and given you live in Kingston, doing a north run (three dates between Peterborough and Quebec City) one weekend, a southern (three dates between Windsor and Toronto) the next might be a good way to start. This routing presents a wide variety of cities from which to find good shows in, all on good nights. Research more!
A key, though, is to be flexible and know that at this point driving a few extra hours out of the way for a show is good policy. Once you’ve toured a few times in a region and get a better feel for who you can actually depend on on what night, you can start making more efficient straight-line tours with less driving time. At that point you can even think of expanding the tours and taking on a Sunday or Wednesday or other shitty nights. Maybe sometime they’ll just become a big nine-night trip. In the meantime, though, you’re better off casting your net wide for the first two or three tours, trying to fill only good nights with whoever shows enthusiasm and actually responds to e-mails. You’re always better off having more offers than nights, rather than the other way around.
Send far more cities and venues than you actually have time to play, as a large majority of them will reject you. Learn, too, to accept rejection gracefully. What is a “no” this tour might be “yes” on the next, but it definitely won’t be if you turn the rejection into a gross e-mail shouting match.
Who To Send To, How Many To Send, When
Who should you cast your net to? Everyone. Do research on the internet, with friends’ bands and in fanzines. Keep track of everything, too–that way you won’t have to do it all again on your next tour. And know early on that the people who you think will put on your shows are rarely the people who will end up putting on your shows. We’ve all played with 1000 bands from other cities while in our own city, and almost every one of them says the classic band dude phrase “we’ll set you up in Guelph, no problem!” That sounds great, true, but whatever drunk band dudes’ best intentions are, such hookups rarely materialize. He probably didn’t even believe it when he said it. As your band’s primary tour-booker (there should only be one, honestly) you need to cast your net wide, do your research in advance, and send as many possible venues, promoters, and accomplices as you can, all at once and repeatedly. Send far more cities and venues than you actually have time to play, as a large majority of them will reject you. Learn, too, to accept rejection gracefully. What is a “no” this tour might be “yes” on the next, but it definitely won’t be if you turn the rejection into a gross e-mail shouting match.
Timing’s important: the Famines have “preferred” promoters and accomplices a range of dates in each city exactly four months in advance of the date, hoping to lock up favourite folks early. We can’t afford to wait too much, though. Even for us, half of them won’t bite immediately, some never will. Two weeks later, we’ll open things up and send absolutely everyone we know of in whatever cities are still unconfirmed, trying to fill everything that wasn’t quickly filled by the preferred people. Every week and a half after that, we’ll resend everyone in every city where a date isn’t pegged down yet.
First Come First Serve
That “first come first serve” approach might seem harsh, but it wastes too too much time working in single file (ie. waiting for rejection from one promoter before moving on to the next). Chances are most rejections you’ll get will be silent ones (ie. no response) or ambiguous ones (“talk to me again in a month”) and time is a luxury. The first promoter who wants you, go with. If you’re satisfied with it, quit sending out to other promoters in the same city. If you’re not satisfied, think again: you’re going to have to take a lot of chances early on, and it can be very difficult to tell in advance if a show’s going to be successful. The Famines are constantly surprised by sure things gone wrong and wrong things gone good.
And yes, sending repeated e-mails is tedious. To help with that, use any real excuse available for sending new booking e-mails. Something like, “Hiya Steve, just dropping a line to say our availabilities have changed thanks to landing Toronto and Peterborough. We’re now just available on the 10th. Would that work for you?” That works in a few ways: it’s a valid excuse to send again because information has changed, and it also demonstrates that promoters in other cities actually take you seriously.
Money’s an awkward thing. It needs to be dealt with, early, or it can get even more awkward. The aforementioned “informal” venues will bristle at the thought of a guarantee and think of you differently (read: badly) if you ask for one, and a surprisingly large number of them can simply be trusted to treat your band as well as they can, given the circumstances.
A Word On Venues
There are many varieties of venues. Though the “gold star” approach I’ve shown above is effective for more formal venues, sending such a thing to more DIY/art rock/punk rock/house party place is pretty much the worst thing you can do–the equivalent of complaining about taxes at a Marxist-Leninist meeting while wearing a top hat and monocle. Informal venues are becoming more and more the norm for bands like ours, and if bands try to be super-formal with them, bands are going to look bad. Research who you’re sending to, and edit your booking letter to make sure it’s appropriate for its target and isn’t making you look like some piece of shit Mississauga try-hard band. The first thing we cut is the “Noteworthy” section–most punk houses don’t care that we charted here and there and once played with Bon Jovi. They just want to hear our record online to prove we’re not horrible, and maybe we’ll let them know that some of their pals pointed us their way. Hitting the right tone is important.
Money’s an awkward thing. It needs to be dealt with, early, or it can get even more awkward. The aforementioned “informal” venues will bristle at the thought of a guarantee and think of you differently (read: badly) if you ask for one, and a surprisingly large number of them can simply be trusted to treat your band as well as they can, given the circumstances. I’ve made it a habit to say exactly that to them, early, so nobody’s afraid of us asking for a guarantee a week before the show or other unwelcome late surprises. Every venue should be asked if the show is a flat fee (the club has an enteratinment budget that does not vary depening on attendence), a bar deal (band gets a percentage of bar sales–do the math in your head), a door deal (bands get to share the amount of money that comes off the door, sometimes less a fee for the door man or something) or a pay what you can scenario (more on that later). The type of set-up can usually be distinguished just by asking “so, how will the money work for this show,” and any good promoter will be comfortable explaining their system.
Some venues we do ask for a guarantee, and usually those venues are more formal and that guarantee is reasonably calculated based on previous shows’ income. Asking for one the first time is most likley a bad idea, unless you’ve had successes in that city with previous acts. It’s totally fair to ask a promoter of any place that doesn’t provide a guarantee if they can provide a place to sleep for the band, and usually informal venues are thrilled to do that. Ask about set length, drink tickets and food, too, if it seems appropriate. Just deal with things early. And like anything, talking about money comfortably takes practice. Keep on it, and by the time your band is in a position to negotiate (ie. has a draw) you’ll probably be comfortable enough to be the one doing the negotiating, and well.
A Note On Pay What You Can
This form of shows is on the rise. We’ve had great, well-run, ones, where a culture has been established in which the touring band is well-supported, and only those who strongly oppose the touring band don’t donate. We’ve had horrible, badly-run, ones in which no hat is passed and nobody notices the band they’re dancing to is only getting an empty gas tank and broken guitar strings out of the deal. Touring bands must encourage PWYC promoters to take to the stage before and after their sets, reminding crowds of their obligations and how to fulfill them.
Other Things To Do And What Not To Do
So, the tour’s booked. If it hasn’t been made clear, ask each promoter whether it’s in their hands or yours to make a lineup for the show. Hopefully it’s in their, because they should know their scene better than you do and it’ll save you lots of time. Make a tour poster, preferably a cheap black and white 11×17″ .pdf file (and a low resolution .jpg file version for the internet) that you can send to every venue and promoter cheaply, a little over one month ahead of the tour. Make it appropriate for your band, with your band name big. If your band is headlining, they can use it. If you’re not headlining, they can make their own. It sends a hint that you’re serious about the show being promoted and promoters love not having to pay a designer. If you’re super keen, ask promoters whom, locally, you should send a record/promo package to for review. Also: send out to venues a week before the tour, generally checking in and expressing excitement, asking to confirm everything. Improtant, too, is using the internet to warn all friends, acquaintances, etc. of your impending trip to the city. Every head you can bring in theat the local bands (and promoter) doesn’t recognize is a very shiny feather in your cap.
Some things not to do: promoters generally despise when you ask if other bands can be on the bill at the last minute. Give the other band contact info for the booker and leave yourself out of it, as you probably actually have zero sway on whether the band get on the bill or not. You’re actually not in that much of an influential position. Also, do not tour in a “package” with other unknown bands–promoters hate that, and your goal should be to play with as many local bands as possible until you have an actual draw of your own. Playing the same city more than once within one month is pretty much a no-no, too. And as far as playin order and lineups go, try not to get too involved; the promoter or organizer will be more aware of local conditions than you, and should generally be trusted.
A Note On Your Van
A simple reminder: be good to it and it will be OK. Oil change every 5000 kilometers. Be mindful of parking rules and it won’t get towed, and peg yourself to 9 km/h over the speed limit and you’ll never get a speeding ticket. We know it sounds boring, but we know of a and that had its van impounded on the second day of a Trans-Canada tour for driving 40 km/h over the speed limit, and they actually had to rent a vehicle for the rest of the tour. That’s an expensive price for a meaningless act. Stay awake by driving in short shifts, and don’t ever be like the way too many bands we hear about that die in van crashes. Oh, and buy the Club, watch where you park, and do your best to conceal that your van is a band van. That’s right: no stickers, no hanging out around it unless you’re getting ready to drive it away. Criminals aren’t everywhere, but some bands make it way too easy for the ones that actually do exist.
Playing The Shows
Now it’s time to play some shows. You’ve played shows in your home town a lot, but note that things are different when you’re touring. You might not know the sound man and bar staff or promoter, and it’s your job to be good to them even if they’re a little stand-off ish. They see a trillion bands a year, all of those bands are probably dicks. Be good to the staff and they’ll do their best to be good to you. Tip them, even if it’s on free stuff. You’d be surprised by how much better a night can go if the staff’s on your side.
Another important thing to remember is that though you’ve got a million friends at home, making pals on the road is very high on the list of things that’ll make your nights good and your draw increase. You can all be shy and difficult megalomaniacs once you’re firmly lodged in the green room at the Budokan, but for your first hundred tours your vand will live and die on whether people actually enjoy being around your band off-stage. If you have a super-chatty bandmate, don’t be sad when they’re a little slow packing their gear up. Every fifteen minutes that guy or gal spends gabbing with strangers will probably bring another five people to your next show. Try it yourself, too, and you might actually find it enjoyable.
A Short Economics Lesson On Being A Touring Band
Enjoyable, yes, but touring shouldn’t be taken lightly. Certain regions like Western Canada (with its tremendous distances and high costs) destroy friendships and eat new bands alive, and some attractive gems like the USA bring a whole other set of problems. And simply put: the economics of touring are not in our favour. If you track the history of live music in Canada back to the 1950s you’ll probably notice the last few decades haven’t been kind to musicians.
A strong argument can be made that live, local, regional or “indie” music has slid from a very likely night-time entertainment option for a lot of Canadians (as it was in the 1960s) into being a niche-interest activity that appeals to few people. Yes, the internet can let us experience a range of music that is truly impressive, but most of us use it to stay in contact with what Celine Dion is up to or to develop interests in bands from far and wide that maybe don’t exist any more and probably won’t ever tour here. The internet has also made records incredibly difficult to sell; everybody said they’ll buy records that they’ve already downloaded for free, but few people follow through. As well, cheap recording technology allows absolutely anyone to make a record. This has resulted in some wonderful art, a lot of bad art, and millions of competitors ready to crawl through garbage to play in front of a declining number of interested ears.
If we want to look at the results through the lense of “class”: the upper class of music (as represented by major label acts) is still gigantic, though maybe not as powerful as it used to be. The lower class of nich-interest bands is larger than its ever been, produces a tremendous amount of music, seldom tours, and often breaks up because the rewards of being such a band are few in number. The middle class was formerly occupied by regional touring acts that could actually make a living doing music, but they’re not largely extinct. They’ve steadily shrunk over the last four decades, are very often making their ends meet via government grants instead of selling records or concert tickets, and have found themselves in a horrible position thanks to the expenses of being middle class (ie. a booking agent, publicist, designers, management, professional grant writers, etc.). Such is the price of being known more widely.
Yes, this is gloomy talk. Maybe too gloomy and a bit off-topic, but it helps us understand the reality of being a lower class band that wants to tour. A lower class band has to self-publicize, self-manage, self-book, self-design, and probably does not meet any grant criteria. And touring costs money. Lots of it. Right now it costs (in gasoline alone) $11 per hundred kilometers to pilot a mini-van down the highway. Show-goers, too, are just willing to pay enough of a margin on merch to justify its production, little more. Some promoters are gross and not to be trusted, too, but the majority are in exactly the same spot that bands like ours are in: largely volunteer-based, wary, wondering if things are going to improve.
And they might. But in the meantime, a touring band needs to be smart about money while not letting the inevitable financial shit show ruin the experience of touring. None of us will get rich, or even earn a living wage from this. The band breaking even is the best case scenario. Next to nobody gets to that point. Focus on the intangible payoffs, keep things posi, and things just might be OK for a while.
So, congrats. You’re going to tour, and maybe this pamphlet will help make that happen. We hope so. We also hope that you find some way to appreciate the experience of touring. Some people don’t enjoy it while in the act and only find true appreciation after it’s done. Others are born naturals. Others hate it during and after. Any way, though, it’s worth celebrating. Remember: don’t waste the audience’s time, keep things fun, and spoil the band every once in a while to keep morale high. And try not to break up too soon–things get better with age.