Out-of-Town Gigs and Touring: The Hard Realities
By David Himes |
From: The Gig Kahuna
The truth is out there — but it's grounded in reality
In most cases, playing out of town and touring before you’re realistically ready is a foolish waste of time, effort, and money—all of which would be much better spent at home building your following, planning your next big local show, etc. There are, however, a few circumstances and situations where playing out of town and touring can work for you. More on that later, but for now…
Let’s say a band has a strong local following, and generally gets good turnouts at their local shows. But no one in another town that’s far away knows of you, and your local following isn’t going to travel too far to see you. Have you ever tried to book any dates at an out-of-town venue, only to be disappointed by the answer—if you even get an answer at all? It’s because any club or venue with any experience knows the very fact I’m pointing out. They’ve seen the same result a million times: Club books out-of-town band(s). Out-of-town band(s) draw no one, and therefore don’t get paid. Out-of-town band(s) then act like they “got so screwed” by “the greedy club.”
It’s not worth it to a club to go through that kind of grief, and it’s not worth it to you to spend your money on the gas (especially at current gas prices) and other expenses, and put forth the time and effort to play only for a handful of people.
Some bands might think of bringing their local fans to an out-of-town venue in a “party bus.” Forget it. It didn’t take too long for most clubs to catch on to that. The problem with party buses is the participants are already drunk before entering the club, and won’t be buying any drinks. And what’s the point in spending the money on renting the bus, the fuel cost, and other expenses when it would’ve made much more sense to just have the same people come to a local show?
Then there’s the popular myth about touring and playing out-of-town venues repeatedly, gradually building a following in those towns, each time bringing out another two people. With the exception of a very few bands, it very seldom works out that way. The band will likely split up long before building any significant following that way. Again, you are wasting your time and money. I’ve seen quite a few bands buy into that myth and give up once they figure out the point I’m making here.
Another lame justification I’ve heard for playing out of town is the idea of playing for the local bands’ crowd in their town. I’ve seen a few inexperienced or delusional club owners and talent bookers add one or more out-of-town bands to what they know will be a strong local band night. Big mistake. This will upset many local bands, especially ones at the mid-to-upper-level, and rightfully so. It’s not fair to them to bust their asses to get a good turnout, only to have some out-of-town band waltz in and reap the fruits of the locals’ labors. The local bands will then not want to play that club anymore, assuming there is more than one club in a given town. Seen it a million times.
The truth is until you have built a seriously strong local following, you are not ready to even think about playing outside of your hometown. If you can’t build a following in your hometown, what makes you think you can do so out of town? Even when or if the time comes to start thinking about playing out-of-town, you will need some kind of help. You will find it hard to continue working your local scene with the additional burden of working an out-of-town scene.
By now, I’m sure someone out there is calling for my crucifixion for being against the idea of “giving out-of-town bands a chance.” But actually, I’ve run across quite a few good out-of-town bands with a professional and sincere attitude. And like many others, I’ve found myself wanting to help them out. I’ve actually even given some of them gas money out of my own pocket; helped them build a following outside of their hometown, and had them back. So things like that do happen, but don’t count on it.
On a more positive note, there are a few circumstances where playing out of town makes sense: If an upper-level band has built a strong enough local following, it might be time to start looking elsewhere, although you will be needing some kind of help. It is possible a local band might have a strong enough following outside of their hometown, maybe even a strong regional following. It’s also possible the town you’re going to has only one club or venue, and that town’s locals have nothing else to do.
Some local bands have gig exchange arrangements with out-of-town bands. This is where a local band brings an out-of-town band to their local show. The out-of-town band then brings the local band to their hometown in return. This can work out well, but if you are a local band, I’d suggest bringing in no more than one out-of-towner, or you can, and likely will, seriously weaken your turnout.
Let's face it, unless you’re ready (honestly) or you have some kind of hook-up or backing, forget about playing outside of your hometown until then. Ditto for “touring.” Speaking of which, “tour” can be one of the most dangerous words in the local band’s vocabulary. If it’s not done right, if the band isn’t ready, doesn’t have viral online numbers (six-figure minimum, preferably in the seven figures), or if there is no backing or some kind of hookup, “touring” is another one of the most disastrous and foolish mistakes a band can make.
The word “tour” conjures up images of tour buses, green rooms, groupies, and insane crowd love night after night. But in reality, the tour bus is a van with six or more people crammed in; the green room is the filthy men’s room of some dive bar; the groupies are the toothless bartenders at Goober’s Tavern, and the mad crowd love is some old drunken bum in the corner yelling “play some Skynyrd!”
If you ask most local bands how they did when they come home from a “tour,” you probably won’t get an honest answer. Most will tell you how awesome it was and what a blast they had. But any band member who is honest will more than likely say they were lucky if they played for 10-20 people for the most part.
Seriously, the stress, low morale, and other potential hazards of an amateur tour can easily break up a band. It’s not too “awesome” when the van breaks down; when there’s no food; when there’s not enough door money to get you to the next town; when Joe Bad-ass Band Member suddenly gets homesick and wants his mommy (yes, it does happen); when all of you are cooped up in a van and smelling each others socks, farts, etc.; band members break into fistfights; and you have to hope and pray you make it home alive. Yes, these are among the hard realities of doing a tour before you’re ready to do so. I’ve seen lower-level bands on club tours actually walk around with a jar begging for donations for gas and food money. If that’s your idea of a “blast,” then go for it, I guess.
Here’s another reality: Did you know most tours require the lower-level bands to buy on? In other words, you actually have to pay a substantial sum of money just for the privilege of being an opening act. And it’s not just the big tours. Even the smaller club tours are doing the same. It’s been happening for a long time and is pretty much the norm. The cost is justified by the exposure you’ll supposedly get. But even on a big tour, you’ll more than likely play some side stage where you’re lucky if you play for 0-200 people, if that. And some of those side stages are hidden away pretty good.
Of course, most bands (or someone behind them) won’t admit they bought on to a tour. And even if they do come clean, they’ll say they were still “chosen.” Yeah, right. They were “chosen” because they had the money to buy on.
So with a few exceptions, “touring” is another major waste of time and money. But if you still absolutely insist on touring, here are a few words of advice.
- Before doing a tour of any length, test the waters first. Book two, three, maybe four dates fairly close to home, maybe within your state. This should give you an idea of how well the band will hold up, and give you a little experience. And if something goes wrong, at least you’re not too far from home. If all l goes well, work your way up to a few more dates and farther away the next time.
- Your vehicle will need to be as dependable as possible. You definitely don’t want a breakdown out of town. Avoid any bumper stickers, or anything else that can make your vehicle a cop-magnet.
- Bring as much cash, or whatever credit/debit card power you can muster so you can always at least get to the next town, and are covered for any emergencies. And a good-size cooler with ice, water, maybe other drinks and non-perishable food isn’t a bad idea.
The bottom line is a high band morale is very important. Touring before you’re ready to do so—and you have to be brutally honest with yourself about whether you’re ready or not—can kill that morale in a heartbeat.
David Himes is the author of the book Realities for Local Bands: Talent is not Enough. You can find it at Amazon. For a FREE sneak preview, click here. The book is also available in PDF format. Also, David published a local music scene paper for over 16 years and has held over 400 live shows, giving him a unique insight on the scene. Your feedback and comments are welcome.