How to Book a Tour
Assuming you've released (or about to release) some music, it's time to go on tour and take the message to the people!
I’ve written a detailed chapter about releasing your music in the Musician's Map eBook & Audiobook which is also available in the members area. Sign up for free access at the bottom of this page.
For now the best way to promote your release is by playing shows. Not just local shows either, now you’ve got a professional product you need to get out and spread the word. You need to go on tour.
“But only big acts tour” you might say. Wrong. You can tour and it’s awesome. You’re ready.
This is a big one so let’s start from the start. Let’s plan a tour from scratch using Great Britain as an example, because it’s small, easy to picture, and doesn’t require any international flights (sorry Northern Ireland, you miss out this time). You can apply what follows to any country or state. Let’s assume you’re in a 4-piece rock band purely for ease, but this can apply to soloists and any other type of act.
These are people who make money from booking gigs. When you hire a booking agent you are paying for their connections, knowledge and experience in a particular country or region. They will either charge you an up-front fee or a per-gig fee (or both), and they might have a list of venues that pay them to book talent.
I’ve hired a booking agent a couple of times. One guy also ran a promotions company and he booked a two week Australian tour for my band. His financial arrangement with us was a percentage of the ticket sales for our shows and he was worth every dollar we paid him. He was professional, his shows were well organised and we played to thousands of people. The last ‘agent’ I hired was on advice of a record label looking to sign my band. This booking agent was to my surprise, just an intern who booked us a series of progressively worse gigs, costing us hundreds of pounds in transport, fuel and accommodation, and a couple of years of painstakingly-accrued spirit.
Agents can make or break your tour so the moral here is to do your research thoroughly before hiring one. Or you could just do book it yourself.
Choose your dates.
You probably work a job or two, and probably need to book time off work in advance. Talk to your bandmates and decide when the optimum time to tour would be; don’t leave it too long after the release of your album (ideally you’ve booked a tour to coincide with the release). Schedule your time off work.
Take your audience into consideration when you choose dates; is your audience predominantly 25 to 35 year old’s? They probably have young children and may be away during the school holidays, meaning they won’t be around to attend your gig at that time. Are they high-school students? Don’t play on a school night. Don’t tour over Christmas or Easter, your audience will be with family and won’t come to see you play.
**Side note - depending on your situation and the city you're in, some of these rules don't apply - if you promote your tour right you can break all the rules! Special easter concert? Why not! Give out easter eggs at the door!**
Weekend or week-long?
Many bands choose to tour on consecutive weekends rather than spending a week or two on the road. This means you can take less time off work and play venues on the most popular nights of the week (Thursday, Friday, Saturday). The problem with weekend tours is that you often have to do more driving to return home each weekend, and if you’re renting transport, multiple rentals can cost more than one long-term rental. Weigh up which is best for you.
Hopefully you can find venues with a PA system (see below) so you don’t have to take your own or hire one. What else you take will depend on the venue and acts you are playing with. It’s common for venues to have a ‘house drum kit’ and ‘house amps’, but they are often in poor condition due to overuse and beer spillage. If you are comfortable using house gear then you can just take the basics, leaving the drums and amps at home. Alternatively you might ask local acts to borrow their gear on the night, but again, this is at your own risk. In either situation it is essential to take what we call ‘breakables’. Breakables are things like: Kick pedal, snare drum, cymbals, drum sticks, guitars, keyboards.
It can be helpful to take your own vocal microphone if you are a singer, this way you don’t have to share a mic with the spit of a thousand singers.
Personally I don’t like to risk having to use bad quality gear; I always take everything I need to put on the best show I can. If the house drums are actually quality then great, mine can stay in the van for this gig. If they are rubbish as usual, I’m not forced to play them.
Do you or one of your bandmates own a reliable vehicle that can fit all your gear? If not then you need to borrow or hire a van, or a vehicle that can fit what you need. Hiring can be great because if you ever break down you are covered and no one has to sacrifice their vehicle, but it can be expensive. You also need to add fuel costs to your budget if you are driving. Find a fuel cost calculator online and work out how much it might cost based on your vehicle, route and the price of fuel.
Remember that you can also tour in a car if it can tow a trailer. Trailer hire can be much cheaper than van hire, just make sure it’s a solid, enclosed trailer.
Now you need to plan which cities to visit. Aim for major centres where there are a lot of people, but also look at towns along the way; places you could use to break up the trip if it’s a long drive between major cities. A great way to start planning is by looking at recently completed tours by acts similar to you. Do you see the same cities and venues popping up? Does everyone play Newcastle, but no one ever plays Blackpool? There’s a reason!
Your hypothetical band is London based so to start with in GB you should aim for the major cities: London, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leicester and Bristol. Since you’re a rock band you could also target cities like Brighton for its renowned live music scene, and Oxford and Cambridge because of their student populations. That’s 13 stops on your tour already, almost a gig a night for two weeks! Can you handle that? Can your singer? Do you need to visit them all? Let’s look at where your fans are.
Find your fans.
Most of your fans are local so you need to find out if you have fans anywhere else. It’s important to play to new audiences, but having a few fans in the room will always make for a better gig. Look at the analytics of your social media accounts and websites to determine where else your fans live. Also, post about your upcoming tour and ask your fans where you should play, hopefully you’ll get a good idea of cities and even venues to try and book.
It’s around now you should begin to see a rough idea of where you can play. You’ve decided to do the whole tour at once, but you might skip Leicester and Cambridge because you’ve no fans that live there and haven’t noticed any other rock bands playing there. That leaves 11 stops. You’re driving, so you want to be as economical as possible with your travel time between cities.
Here’s what your dates and route might look like:
That’s nearly 2000 km (1240 miles) and 24 hours of driving over 13 days. I hope you’ve got more than one driver!
Make a list of all venues in these cities that put on gigs. Use other bands tours as a template, adding all the venues you can find that have hosted gigs in the last year. Does every touring band seem to play The Crown and Anchor in Liverpool? It’s probably because they have a good PA, or pay well, or attract a regular crowd; there’s the first spot on your list for that city.
Compile venues with names and email contacts and start getting in touch, asking about the specific date you want, or other possible dates that they could accommodate you. This kind of thing:
**fake email addresses for example only.**
Find out which venues are available for your dates, then book your tour! Make a spreadsheet so you know where you need to be and when, and include any other info you think you might need. Like sound-check times, promoter details, cell numbers, and accommodation.
Unless you’re making a tonne of money already, or you have wealthy friends or family, you probably aren’t going to be staying in hotels. My first question once I’ve booked a venue is “do you have any accommodation?”. Sometimes venues have a room or an apartment they will let you sleep in for free or a small fee. If they say no, ask if they can recommend somewhere close to the venue. You’re looking at hostels, b&bs and motels. If you’re on a really low budget, consider asking friends or fans in that city if you can stay with them. This is where touring with sleeping bags comes in handy. More on that in the next chapter.
A final option is to ask the acts you are playing with if they have anywhere you can sleep.
Depending on your situation, you might either be put on a line-up by a promoter, or charged with creating a line-up yourself. The latter option is harder but can reap huge rewards; here is your chance to play to the crowds of the most popular bands in that city. See who is playing regular shows in the area, get in touch and ask them to play on your line-up. Always aim for acts that have comparable or higher popularity than you to give your show the best chance of success. Don’t be afraid to give up the headline-slot, it’s usually worse to play last anyway.
You can ask how the venue and local acts plan to promote the show, what they can offer, and then you do the rest. Make posters and flyers, send them to the venue and other acts to distribute around town. Make a tour poster and plaster it everywhere. Create facebook events for each show. List each show on all local and national gig guides. Call local radio stations to get on their gig guides and try to get them to play a song or do an interview before your show.
Look at your schedule and identify your weak points. You’re playing Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham on either Tuesday or Wednesday nights, which aren’t typically big nights for live music. You will need to focus extra promotional attention in those cities for those dates.
Put it all together and you’ve just booked a tour. Now go!