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Tour Early and Tour Often

Over and above the obvious perks of being on the road (getting to REALLY know your bandmates, fawning groupies passing out at the mere sight of you), touring is instrumental in bringing your act to the NEXT LEVEL. Now, what this NEXT LEVEL means is entirely up to you. It could mean making beer money by playing your songs at coffee shops and local pubs in your area. And that’s fine. But for bands that are a bit more ambitious, touring provides the “spark” that will kick-start your sales and marketing machine – if you have a plan and stay on top of the fundamentals.

First—and this is not to be taken lightly—be sure that your live show is awesome. Playing live is like speaking to a large group of people, and if you haven’t prepared what you’re going to say, the chances that you are going to crash and burn increase incrementally. This is your one chance to show everyone what you can do, and it’s essential that you lay it all down at every gig. People want to see and hear you do something that they can’t do. I’m reminded of the track “Ian Underwood Whips It Out,” from the Uncle Meat record, where Ian documents his “audition” with Frank Zappa.

Underwood: “How do you do, my name is Ian Underwood and I like your music. I’d like to play with your group.”

Zappa: “What can you do that is fantastic?”

Underwood: “I can play alto saxophone and piano.

Zappa: “Alright, whip it out.”

Mind-blowing saxophone solo follows - Underwood joins the band]

Once you have won over the crowd, you have a unique opportunity: a captive audience looking for more from you. Anything more. This is where your pre-show planning and attention to detail comes in. Keep the following in mind:

The Message

The most obvious and effective way to build your following is by collecting the names, physical addresses, and e-mail addresses of your new and growing fan-base. Back in the day, Phish used to send out a regular physical mailing to their member-base called the Doniac Schvice. It was a wonderful update with editorial from the band and their crew, band artwork, tour news, and an order form to get the newest merch - a highly effective way to build a community. While I still think that an occasional physical postcard or flyer mailing works to fire up your fans, nowadays a more cost effective way to communicate with your fans is through the distribution of HTML e-mails. Not only is an HTML newsletter WAY less expensive then physical mailers, bands are also allowed the opportunity to present a wide variety of mediums to their fans – links to unreleased audio clips of new music, QuickTime video files, downloadable poster art, etc. There’s a ton of cheap web-based email marketing services that bands use to create and send professional-looking e-mail newsletters to their fans. I’ve found that both Constant Contact and E-Zine Director are easy to use and very effective tools for creating HTML e-mail templates. Both also provide real-time reporting, so you can see who opened your newsletters and what they clicked on.

1) The Cream Rises To The Top. In addition to keeping your fan base informed through regular newsletter updates, it’s also important to segment this base, and pay special attention to the fans that will go the extra mile - those that approach you after gigs, post on your message board (you do, of course, have a Website), and are generally enamored with your music. These folks will become part of the viral effort to spread your music as your new STREET TEAM. The mailing list form that you provide at shows should also have a “Join The Street Team” checkbox. People that are added to your street team list should be treated like insiders, and receive specialized newsletters with merch offers, free tickets to shows, unreleased tracks, or EPs. In return, your street team will be instrumental in word-of-mouth marketing and visibility - putting up flyers at local coffee shops for upcoming shows, calling local college radio stations to request your music, and making internet postings that extol the virtues of your band. <!--[endif]-->

2) Sales Sales Sales. It drives me nuts when I go see a live show from a band that I really love and they either have no CDs for sale or they are only carting around the disc that I’ve already had for a year, when I know they have rare singles, or some other odd release that I would love to get my hands on that I can’t get in stores. The biggest mistake a band could make after playing a great show is to have nothing of any interest for sale immediately afterwards. One band that’s completely on top of show sales is the San Diego-based band Pinback. I know that no matter how many times I see them, there will be a new limited edition tour-only EP available in a beautiful hand-stitched sleeve. Pinback understands that not only are they making extra cash from folks who may already own all of their studio releases, but they are also ensuring that their fan base is kept updated with new music, and the buzz on the band continues even if there is a lag time between albums.

3) You Want A Deal? The days are gone when an A&R folks, like Danny Fields, would sign bands like The Stooges to great labels like 1960s-era Elektra after simply seeing one show. No matter what the record industry evolves into in the future, the two questions all A&R types will continue to ask is: “What kind of fan base does this band have” and “How many records has this band sold in the past?” It’s extremely difficult and expensive for labels to manufacture a fan base and convert new listeners into record buyers. The $.99 cent bins at used CD stores are littered with the Elwoods (Remember him? Probably not…) of the world – artists that had plenty of raw talent, but no fan base to work for marketing purposes. If you do get signed to a record label, all of the different departments within the label work off of one another. The director of sales cannot get the record into stores unless he can convince the buyer that there is a need for that particular store to take the record. Same thing goes with radio and press. Unless there is a story somewhere, you are not going to get “traction.” In many ways, touring provides this traction and gives your team at the label the openings they need. And if you do decide to release a record on your own, the same principles hold true. Publicity needs to start somewhere, and while many of the traditional marketing aspects are out of your control, your live show is the one area that you have (almost) complete control of.

While there are definitely examples of artists that hardly toured at all and ended up making it big (Nick Drake being key among them, but who really cares about commercial success twenty years after you’re dead?), with the current state of affairs with record labels and the record industry, it makes all the sense in the world to get out there and do everything you can to promote yourself. So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to kick out the jams.

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Published: 08/29/2006