This is the first question that any band should be asking themselves at almost any stage of their career. Even major touring bands need to properly think this one out. There are a lot of times when you are not ready to tour, and that’s fine, you just need to accept that as part of the polemic. Plotting out tours and getting them booked is tricky to be sure, but it’s also an essential part f making money as a band. There are a ton of factors that come into play when you are trying to determine if you should be hitting the road and I want to help you be able to pick them apart and determine if tearing up the nations highways in the name of rock and roll is right for your band right now. There are a lot of good rules of thumb you can use, and from there we can start to figure out when, where and for how long you should be going out.
The first metric I like to use is for beginning bands, or at least bands who are having hard time getting onto real tours – what is your draw at home? If your draw at home is under 50 people then you probably shouldn’t be hitting the road. I know that sounds crass and is kind of brutal, especially in a lot of smaller markets, but it’s true. The bands who hit the road and have a fair amount of success are the ones who are able to pull folks in their home market. I like to use this number for a couple of reasons. First of all, if 50 people in whatever city you are from care so much about your music that they will come out for your music, odds are people in nearby cities are also going to end up being interested. Furthermore, if you are drawing fifty people it means that you probably are opening for all of the cool touring bands when they come through your area. This is obviously a good thing because it means your network has grown and you have access to some truly special opportunities that you might be able to parlay for bigger shows on the road.
This doesn’t mean you can’t hit local regional markets, and one thing I recommend to a lot of local bands is that they hit up smaller markets around whatever the main city they live by is. It allows them more chances to play live and touch on a slightly different market. The odds are your small unsigned band is not going to draw anyone from the city to a suburb, but I can guarantee that in a suburb where nothing really happens you are going to find people who might never go to a big city for a band they don’t know coming out. This can be hyper beneficial in the long run and boost you to that 50 person draw you need. A small regional tour is also often a good idea from a branding perspective because it sets you up as a ‘touring band’ even if you’re playing towns within a hundred miles of your city – of course at that point you would probably be better served by just setting up weekend dates. The beauty of local level weekend runs is, assuming you have access to a big enough variety of markets you can do them as often as you want and keep playing to new people.
There is an issue though that we have to talk about that impacts touring bands of all levels – oversaturating a market. Unless you are going out and playing kickass opening slots on national tours every few months, you probably don’t want to hit the road more than once every four to six months, or at least not hit the same markets. You can sometimes pull off your first two tours near each other as a sort of one two punch, but after that you’re going to want to step back and try to figure out how to space them out best. Obviously you want to tour around the release of new records, and then usually you can pull off one more national tour in a year, then after that you’ve kind of exhausted your market. Maybe you can do a few small local things here and there but you don’t want to be that band who play out too much and end up ruining your draw. I know it’s tempting to try to keep going out there, but until you have new content you are just going to suffer.
The other thing a lot of bands need to realize is that an opening slot can often do little or nothing for your band. It really depends on getting on the right package. It’s better to say no to the wrong opening slot, even if it is for a bigger band, and wait for a better opportunity and increase your fans desire to see you than it is to deeply invest yourself in a tour you have no business being on. A tour is a long term time and financial investment, you don’t want to waste that out on the road with someone you shouldn’t tour with. Sometimes a weird package can work in your favor, but most of the time it doesn’t. You need to look at the kinds of fans both bands draw and determine if that crossover is worth taking advantage of. Sometimes, even if you don’t have that fifty person draw you can justify going on tour because the crowds will be huge regardless, keep this in mind as you plan the future of your band.
Odds are regardless your first tour or two will suck. I know bands who have been touring the country for years now whose tours still oftentimes suck. There’s nothing you can especially do about it, that’s just how it is, there’s a lot of bands and a relatively limited market unfortunately. Sure that’s shifting, but you can’t lose sight of how lucky you are to go on tour, if you can. Don’t go forcing yourself on the road when you’re not ready for it and it’s no ready for you. Rather feel things out piece by piece and fall in love with what you can and avoid what you should. Going on the road is a scary experience, so be sure you are totally ready for it before diving in.
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