10 Tips For Booking Your First Tour

Whether you're in a band or you're a solo artist, booking your first tour is like jumping into the void.

Ultimate Guitar

Whether you're in a band or you're a solo artist, booking your first tour is like jumping into the void. There's a swirl of mysteries and, yet, a yearning for answers that only taking the leap toward the road can provide. What's beyond the clubs in your region that you've been playing? What will touring be like? How will strangers react to your music? What's the difference between a grinder, a hoagie and a po-boy? How much do bed-bug bites hurt?

Touring can answer all those questions. Plus nothing tightens up a performance like playing multiple nights on the road.

Here are 10 tips for booking your first indie tour:

01. Be Ready

If you're playing original music, have a repertoire of at least one hour you're very comfortable and happy performing. On your first spin you'll likely be an opening act playing 30- to 45-minute sets, but a few extra songs under your belt can be helpful if your stage time gets stretched by a no-show band or for any other reason.

02. Have A Web Site

A web site is essential if you're booking a tour. It's great to have a stand-alone site, and cheap hosting companies and flexible software like WordPress make that an easy goal. But a free page on Facebook or some other social media site is fine - although these days MySpace is pretty much just about bands spamming other bands. On your site you need a bio, contact info, music and video links if they exist. The rest can come later. These days the vast majority of club booking agents prefer to see and hear you or your band on line when deciding whether or not to schedule a gig.

03. Have A Product

Hitting the road is great, but you need to attract people who aren't your friends to away-from-home performances. That requires getting others to spread the word. One of the best ways to get radio stations, newspapers and regional blogs to give you airtime or ink is to release a product, which can range from a full length CD, an EP or even an on-line only release. If you're not affiliated with a label, simply getting your product on CD Baby, which requires a minimal fee, can get your music access to all of the major on-line outlets including Amazon and iTunes.

04. Get An Anchor Date

Pick a key city that you want to play. Book your first gig there, and then look at the map. Your goal is to book as many potentially paying shows to that city and back home. Having a goal like this makes targeting cities simple. You should be excited about the anchor gig. Shoot for a location or club that has some emotional value to you. Emotional rewards might be the only kind you ever get on the road, so make it count.

05. Do Set-Up

Once you've booked your show, send posters to each venue at least 30 days before you are scheduled to play it. Then call or email the club's production person at least two weeks before to let them know about your stage configuration: how many people, amps, vocal mikes, size of drum kit, D.I. inputs, etc. Rational club management teams appreciate professionalism and courtesy. Those qualities, along with a good performance, can sometimes get you invited back even if you don't have the best showing at the door, and returning to a market multiple times is one of the key ways to build an audience there.

06. Gear

Do not depend on clubs to provide gear for you. Many venues in major cities have backlines available that include drums (typically sans kick pedal, cymbals, snare and throne) and bass and guitar amps. But in most places across the U.S. you're expected to bring your own gear to gigs. Every piece of it, including cables, extra strings and duct tape, which are all road essentials. Hey, if you're serious about tone, you'll probably want to play through your own amp anyway.

07. Fuel

A word about gas prices. Any indie touring musician can tell you how much high gas prices have damaged their income over the past five years. In some states the per-gallon cost has doubled. Given that you'll be lucky to pull in $50 a night as an opener in most music rooms on your first indie tour, burning through even just a single tank of gas a day will more than eat that money up. For that reason alone it's smart to travel in one vehicle. Of course, the ancillary benefit of putting everyone in one car or van is enhanced esprit de corps.

08. Financial Planning

Take some time to estimate costs before you leave maybe even before you book, unless you're already sure you can afford to pay for your inaugural run. Depending on region, gas is going to cost about $65 to $80 per tank. You will probably cover 250 to 300 miles per tank in a band-sized vehicle. (Think mini-van instead of 15-footer.) Hotels will run about $40 to $50 a pop, and if you book ahead and use Priceline or other discount web sites, you can stay at decent two-star joints for that cost, instead of flophouses. Nothing kills a post-gig buzz more than coming back to the hotel at 3 a.m. to find police tape across the entrance of the room next door, or having to wear a hat for the next two days because bed bug bites have made your ears look like Alfred E. Newman's. And then there's food. Cheap as fast food may be, do not eat it every day. There will be nasty consequences. Having a charge card is a great hedge against problems, so try to have one in good standing before you roll.

09. The Kindness Of Strangers

Ever since the punk rock revolution of the '70s a lot of bands simply count on fans or new friends putting them up in each town. Usually this works out fine, save for a bit of discomfort from sleeping on floors and couches or in the van when luck fails. But be aware that this can have its pitfalls. If you don't want to party all night long and other people do, you're going to get tired and burn out. If you're allergic to pets, expect that every home you visit will have at least two of them who want to rub up against you. Don't like to carry cockroaches home in your duffel? Hey, they need a nice place to stay, too. And on top of that you're stepping into other people's lives. I've experienced the arguing couple, the naked sleepwalker, the vomiting rookie, the acid tripping space king and the closet drug dealer enough times to never want to leave accommodations to chance again.

10. Embrace The Positive

Sure, lots of things can go wrong on the road, but, with just a bit of luck and practice, every time you step on stage it's going to go profoundly right. Nothing feels better than playing live music in front of people who get it, and sharing the kind of deep non-verbal communication that happens among musicians on stage. Be prepared for the worst, but always, always anticipate the best.

Thanks for the report to Ted Drozdowski, Gibson.com

21 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I hate it when Americans cry because of the so-called "high fuel prices". In Europe we pay 1,80 a litre, which is about $11,13 a galeon. I would be happy to tour in America because it's so damn cheap, however the overexpensive flight tickets are of course the problem here.
    You are not a real band until you have to change transmissions in a Kmart parking lot in the middle of Ohio in January.
    Or...maybe NOT take the motel...and sleep at the Walmart parking lot?
    That thing about fuel and money is bullshit. If you are a band on your inaugural tour, plan to make 0$ every single night. If you count on any money at all you are bound to get screwed over. I know this sounds negative but its true. I went on tour this summer and we would be lucky to make 20$. Plan on nothing and you won't be disappointed. Secondly, don't stay at a hotel unless you have no other options.The car/van/outside with a sleeping bag is a better option. Why waste the 50$? Before you get into town email some people, make a couchsurfing account, ask some friendly people at the show. When push comes to shove it might be a little awkward, but if it feels scary or uncomfortable just split. I've met too many nice people to ever worry about where I was going to sleep. Worse case scenario I'd have no problem sleeping bagging it. It's better than nothing. Lastly: If you're going on tour, throw everything you knew about comfort, cleanliness, and joy out the window. Live simply to have fun, play music, and make friends.
    I wish my band could get enough paying gigs together at once to call it a "Tour", LOL.
    10. Embrace The Positive with the Negative FTFY If something ****s up (that doesn't irreparably damage the rest of the tour) don't dwell on it, don't expect it to happen every night, and learn how to stop it happening again. It's all part of touring whether it's fun or a pain in the ass. That's a fact worth accepting before you set off
    Obama FTW
    You cannot stress how important gas money is. Especially if you're driving around a big, old van. Those babies will suck up the gas, so try to be as gas efficient as possible.
    Also, if you are serious about your band...make sure you find an engineer (FOH, monitors or, if you are big enough...both). Not only can we all do with the work, but at least you know that you will get the same attention to detail every night.
    Im starting to feel lucky, that me and my bandmates got told (by an uncle of a band member) that he can get us a Bus (a common one, but still a bus) if we start tours, and that we only would have to pay the gas... xD
    That's actually kinda cool Good luck with your tour!
    Tour should come after we release an EP with my band, we still working on it, we were stuck doing nothing for 2 years, now we got a frontman and we are doing in 3 months what we haven't done in those years.
    The Spoon
    Pretty good advice. I've wanted to book my own tour, but i'll be honest, i'm probably not the touring type.