A couple weeks ago I wrote about the musician's conundrum of making enough money in music. It opened up some e-mails from other musicians that have done what I'm doing touring wise, not made enough money, and ultimately gave up on their touring schedule and ambitions. For the past year and a half, I've been playing small rooms with the goal of gaining fans and meeting people who've never heard my music before. It's true. There's not a lot of money in doing that. You essentially hold no leverage with a venue and you're competing with many musicians and performers who would gladly play those rooms for free. In addition, I think people are much less inclined to venture out and discover music in a live setting than they were 20 years ago because the quality has dropped off so much. Thus, venues aren't paying much to artists on this level.
Now with all that being said, there's nothing quite like honing your skills as a performer in front of an audience every night (read up on the Beatles time in Hamburg before they hit it big if you haven't). And if you don't have any label/management connections I still think touring at this level is one of the most effective forms of connecting to and finding an audience. I'm fully aware of the "power of the internet," and I've been able to harness that on platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and other streaming players. However, that's an even more crowded space and can take years to develop people into quality fans without a big marketing machine. Think about how many songs you've saved from your "Discover Weekly" playlist, heard a few times, and still don't know the artist's name. As musicians, we can sit around and wait for that online presence to turn into something, but I still think the power of interacting with people in the real world is a good thing to do in the mean-time.
So with that in mind, my strategy to make a living from touring has been routed in a couple of things. Number one: be flexible to play as much as possible and rarely turn down an opportunity. There's definitely artists that have told me they don't see it worth playing anything outside of a club environment with a lot of people in it. I get it on the surface...but to me it seems more like an excuse. You're not going to get better by not playing shows, and those opportunities will most likely be rare because you need a crowd to show up at them. I've played everything from medium sized clubs and breweries to community centers and coffee shops over the past year and a half. While I'm definitely more at home in a club environment, often the more unconventional venues provided the most positive feedback due to the ridiculousness of whatever it was we were doing there. It's hard to ignore Digisaurus in a wine bar.
Number two: Adapt to your environment. When we started doing shows in Columbus, we were pretty lucky to play some big stages at home and have the budget for a nice sized production to fit those spaces. We took it on the road a couple of times to some smaller places and quickly realized it was overkill. After looking at the guarantees/door split projections and the size of venues for the first tour, I realized I was going to have to adapt our show. If venues are paying out less money on this level of touring, reduce expenses. Unfortunately, the most expensive aspect of touring is manpower. It's easy for acoustic artists, but I'm hear to say that it's very possible for artists wanting to portray a more expansive show to do it alone too. Technology has come far enough that it's possible to present a full production of sound, lights, and energy with just me if I have to.
I know what you're thinking. We can go into a lot of semantics about how your band IS you and your four best friends and always will be forever and ever. But this isn't about your band. This is about you. If you want to be playing music full-time but the financial realities of supporting 4+ people on the road doing it DIY aren't feasible, then adapt. In Digisaurus' case, it was set up to be an incredibly flexible project from the get go in response to the numerous other bands I was in that hit a wall because of financial commitment. While I value the technology we're using to make things work on this level, I absolutely plan to scale up and get more musicians when I can. And they won't have to go broke doing it. In fact, we've already done that for a few tours with Jeff and Eric coming on the road. The budget and support was there.
It's easy to overly romanticize the idea of a band that made sense pre-2000, and you can certainly have a lot of fun with that model. But if it's holding you back, you should know that times have changed and there's a lot of different ways to connect to an audience than four people playing on stage. I'll be launching a tutorial series on YouTube in a couple of weeks that explores my set up a bit more in depth to help give you some ideas. And I'd love to hear yours too. Feel free to tell me about some of the things you do or are trying to do to allow you to tour more in the comments below, or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.