The 2nd in a series of posts from our friend Jason Lekberg; frontman of metal band IKILLYA and VP of Digital Marketing and Strategy for the Eleven Seven Music group, where he tells us his experience of taking his band from New York to the United Kingdom.
Touring is probably the most complex part of being a musician. It’s simultaneously the most fun, most expensive, most effective and most difficult part of growing as a band. I think I can speak for all of you that the thought of your job being cruising from place to place with your friends to play music is one of the main reasons we started playing in the first place. It’s a blast and the feeling of working for yourself is really irreplaceable. You know your songs and how to execute them so you don’t wake up in the morning stressed about getting your job done or having to put up with some asshole boss who makes everyone else’s life hell because they hate their own. You get to play for people who (hopefully) dig your music and are looking forward to seeing you. You sell music and merch and begin to build a base of people who enjoy and maybe are even moved by your music. It’s the next step in your career and as a musician in heavy music, it’s the only real way to make yourself known. You can put out music and you might get some accolades for it, but if you have any hope of becoming more than a weekend warrior local band, you have to tour.
That’s all the good stuff. The bad is that it costs far more than you’ll ever make starting out and you’ve got to do all the work of booking the gigs and finding food and lodging on your own. For many people the intersection of “old enough to make money to support your band” and “too much responsibility to quit your job and hit the road” comes very early. When you’re young you’ve got no real money to support a tour and by the time you do, how you make that money doesn’t allow you to take time to go on tour. It’s a tough place to be and many bands never make it past the discussion stage at that age. I’ve been in bands on both sides of the coin and have learned a few things that may hopefully help you when it comes time to make that choice yourself.
It goes without saying that your band has to love to play more than they love money to survive but you still have to figure out how to eat. I’m sure most of you are already playing cities in your local area that you can get to by car or train on the weekends so we’ll jump right to touring somewhere you need time off to get to. When IKILLYA decided to go to the UK (we’re from NYC) to tour last year I booked the whole thing on my own. It’s just like booking your own city, kind of.
Once you’ve decided to tour, the first thing you need to figure out is how you’re going to get there and how you’re going to get around while you are there. Figure out flight costs, van costs, gear rental, gas, hotels/lodging and food in advance and then add 30% (cause there are going to be expenses you don’t expect) and if you can’t afford all of that, stop now. If you’re reading this you’re likely a band looking at one of their first tours so there probably won’t be a lot of money to be made from the door or merch. My advice would be to expect that you are going to make no money at all and if you do, view it as a bonus. If you’re going to another country, research the Musicians Visa process and prepare to file. Most countries won’t let you even file until you have a tour routing, but you’ll need to know that countries laws and be as prepared as possible so you can file quickly once you’re done. I think the show “locked up abroad” should convince you it’s not worth the risk of sneaking in. Once you’ve got all that done, you can start booking.
I started by using Facebook, Google, and ReverbNation to find other bands similar to my own in the UK and then looked at where they were playing. ReverbNation has an amazing tool called Gig Finder that lets you put in a location and shows you venues played by other RN members in that area. I began building an excel document of each venue, it’s address and booking contact information, and the same for any promoters I saw putting on heavy music shows there. I also began reaching out to bands to see if any of them would be interested in either helping us set up a show or introducing us to their local promoter or club. Most bands were not helpful, but a few were and we got some great shows from them. I was also fortunate enough to receive an old promoter and club contact list from a friend in the industry. It needed to be gone through as many of the clubs and promoters listed were no longer operational but after combining that list with mine I had a great starting point. I’ll be honest, we’re talking about a week+ of late nights putting this together.
Once I had my list, I began personally emailing each contact with a short letter I put together that gave an overview of my band, our achievements (specifically those that would show we had the possibility to attract fans in the UK) and links to our music, video, EPK, how much $ we were looking for and what dates we were looking at. I thanked them all for their time in advance and worked hard to be very honest about the level my band was at. At this early stage you are building relationships and the last thing you want to do is have a promoter/club book you on false pretenses and then be pissed after your show. The industry is very small and if you want to come back (which you need to and should be planning to if you’re going this far) you’ll need friends and professionals who speak highly of you. If they’re not interested in taking a chance on you, you don’t want them to anyway so don’t get upset when you don’t hear back.
I haven’t counted exactly but I estimate I got responses to about 5% of the emails I sent. Some of the responses were people being kind enough to let me know that they were not interested, some were people kind enough to give the contact of those who could help me and a very few were actually interested in booking us. I logged the dates when I emailed each contact in my excel sheet and also their responses. I then took the new contacts sent to me and emailed each of them as well. As I began confirming dates I built a google map marking the locations of potential and confirmed shows so that I could schedule the dates in the best way possible. I’ll be honest though, the end result did have us doing a bit more traveling than I would have liked, but at least we had shows.
Once I had the semblance of a tour together I sent one more email to those on the list who never responded letting them know which dates were still open and asking if they could help fill those. This actually got some responses as I’m sure many people read the first note and thought “these guys are never going to get themselves over here so I’m not going to waste my time”. As soon as it was apparent we were coming either way I’m sure they saw less risk. Eventually I had a whole routing together, but I’ll be honest – it took nearly 4 months. By the time I was done I had been passed on to someone else so many times that my excel was almost 3 times as long as when I started, and we had to move the whole tour 2 months to make it work.
Once your dates are solid you can submit for your Visa, buy your flights, rent your van and gear and start promoting. If you don’t already have them, make up posters and ship them to each venue at least 3 weeks before each show. I also bought super targeted facebook ads through ReverbNation for each show. They cost $25 each and just ran to the people in each specific town targeted to those who like the magazines we had gotten features in. Of course you’re going to promote it on your sites and if you have a publicist have them release a press release and begin reaching out to local press in each city for interviews and show reviews. If you don’t have a publicist, hit up google and make yourself a new excel. Put together a list of the local press and reach out to set up coverage.
Simple right? Now all you have to do is get your ass there and play the shows. haha. I have a few last tips for you though. Before you leave, make a tour book that lists each show, it’s address, the address of where you’re staying, the location of hospitals close to both, the promoter/venues phone number name and any other info you may need about it. You have no idea how good your cell service will be and who knows if your laptop battery will survive so print that stuff out and give everyone in the band a copy. If you have confirmed press, put that in there for each day too along with what time you need to leave each city and arrive at each venue. Next, remember that most countries will charge you tax for bringing merch to sell into the country. You can either find a local merch distributor to print stuff for you in that country or pack it in your suitcase. If you’re the size of my band you likely won’t have enough merch to arouse suspicion or really be worth taxing so I think this is an acceptable risk.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, be a professional to the clubs, promoters and other venues. Show up when they ask, thank them for their time and effort and roll with the fucking punches. There are going to be lots of them. If the venue doesn’t have a good PA, make the best of it. If they don’t want to let you soundcheck, deal with it. If the other bands play too long, roll with it and cut your set a song or two short. You want to leave there with everyone wanting you to come back as soon as possible. Hopefully, you won’t have to deal with any promoters that try and screw you out of money they promised, but if they do, remember that you don’t want to go to jail in a country you’re not a citizen of. If you properly budgeted as I described above then you don’t need the money anyway so go about your business and when you get home, make sure everyone knows never to deal with them again. We were very fortunate to not have any of those issues and in general found everyone we dealt with to be pleasant and willing to go out of their way to help us. I expect you’ll find the same 99% of the time.
After all that, it’s all about the music. If people dig it, next time you’ll be able to ask for more money and eventually, you might not be losing money on the tour and that’s really all we can ask for isn’t it?