We’ve all heard people say “work smarter, not harder...” but I have lately found myself telling many artists to “tour smarter, not harder.”
When you are an up and coming artist, you spend so much time knocking on doors that you hope lead to opportunities, just trying to get people to listen to your music. You beg for attention, you hope the gatekeepers hear your art and fling open the doors. You pound the pavement year round, and you think that you can earn your place in the spotlight by putting in the time.
That’s not always true.
Here’s the truth - playing at 1am on a Tuesday night in Idaho to a crowd of three people is likely not going to make your career. In fact, it’s going to be demoralizing, it’s going to cost you money, and it’s going to make you question if you are doing the right thing with your life. I have been on the other end of a phone call in the middle of a night with one too many artists struggling with that very situation.
Don’t put yourself in that situation.
I’m not a booking agent, but I manage and have managed artists at many different levels. Here are my Five Tips for Touring Smarter:
1. Plan VERY far in advance.
If it’s April and you are asking about shows in May, you are three months too late. If you do find a venue, you’ll get a terrible set time on a day no one else wanted, and you’ll have very little time to get the word out about your show. Give yourself time to get the date and venue that you want. Give yourself ample time to promote the show when it’s confirmed. Give yourself three months or more if you have to have a very specific date that you need (for instance you want your record release show on a Friday night in a major market and it just has to be that specific night).
2. Get people to the merch table.
Come up with a reason for people to head to your merch table. Examples of this: hold up a t-shirt from stage and proclaim it’s the softest t-shirt in the entire world and you challenge the entire audience to go touch it and confirm your belief. Offer a giveaway at the merch table like a sticker to any fan that signs up for your email list during the show. Tell fans when you will be standing at the table and what you’d like to discuss upon meeting them. And when they get there, make sure there is someone manning the table. I have so much respect for bands that tour manage themselves and sell their own merch, but you miss out on 20% of sales if no one is sitting at the merch table throughout your performance*. Ask a fan to help you work the table, or pay the venue to have someone sit there- the merch person always ends up paying for himself many times over.
3. Have a well-stocked merch table when they get there.
Vary the pricing so that you have something to sell everyone from a college kid with an extra $2 to a yuppie who has had a few drinks and can spare an extra $75. Have at least one new item for sale every time you return to a city. Look for high margin items. Create items that encourage fans to “collect them all” (see airfresheners).
No seriously, give it a rest. I understand, you are a creator. You need to play, and perform, and create. But sometimes, the best strategy as an artist is to sit still for a minute. Stay home, save money, come up with great songs and great content. Take a cue from smart booking agents who warn their artists not to burn out markets. You want to give your best markets a rest for a few months - make them miss you, make them yearn to see you play again.
5. Keep accurate records!
Where have you played? What rooms? How many people were there? No really, how many actual tickets were sold? What day of the week was that show? What time was that set? What was your door deal? When you start touring, please please please keep a detailed and accurate record of your tours. Then, use this information to make better decisions. Don’t lie when promoters ask you your hard ticket numbers, and don’t estimate. Tell them the actual number. Know it. Maybe you can sell 50 tickets on a Saturday night in Chicago, but that doesn’t mean you can sell that many on a Monday. Same thing with 7pm sets versus 10pm sets. Another great thing that happens when you keep accurate records: you can actually see the growth! You can determine which markets are growing faster than others and you can plan accordingly to stoke the fires in the right places.
*That is an estimate I made by comparing my own artists’ sales with and without a merch person on average.
For keeping records on the go and working as a team, you should check out Artist Growth now at Artistgrowth.com
Erin Anderson runs Olivia Management and is a professor at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.