TOURING and not paying to play

You may have noticed the article on the pay-to-play tours put on by the XiL company. Unfortunately there have been other rumblings of these pay-to-play tours being initiated by some national companies. Just like local shows, there is never a reason to hand money over to be on one of these tours. Many bands have been recently complaining that I only give the negative side of paying-to-play, especially when it comes to touring. They say I don’t offer any advice. That’s fair. It seems pretty obvious to me, but if a little of our experiences can sway a band to try this on their own and not pay $1500 to travel on a coach bus to play to nobody, I’m game. Since I’ve been on many tours all over the US, Canada and Europe, maybe I actually do have a couple of insights and ideas that might be helpful.

Just like I state with my opinions on playing without paying, this is just my opinion. This is how our band has done things and it’s worked for us. We’ve logged a lot of miles over the years so I’m going to discuss a few of the particulars. -Bon/Girl Trouble

INTRO
Touring is hell. There, I said it. Even though it can be exciting, even though it can be fun, even though it can be exhilarating, going on tour is HELL. If you’ve watched videos from rock bands depicting how glamorous it is to be on the road, bagging the smokin’ hot babes, participating in one giant orgy of sex, drugs and rock and roll, get that image out of your head immediately and never think of it again! Actually, once you’ve really been on tour, you won’t ever think of it anyway. When I hear songs and see videos about how hard life on the road is for some brooding rocker who gets driven from city to city and only sees a series of hotel rooms I think, “Somebody DRIVES him!? He actually gets a hotel room? How lucky can you get?! And he’s whining about that? Jeez!” On the road being able to afford a hotel room is like Heaven and the only guy that’s going drive you around is a member of your own band! When the rubber meets the road you’ll be sleeping on somebody’s sofa or floor (and thank God for those people), eating at Burger King for the 20th time in 20 days, listening to the constant roar of the van for so long it never leaves you, and probably getting the dreaded “tour cold”. When you’ve finally located the club, double parked it in heavy traffic, and unloaded the van...it’s time to get up and play a “fantastic” show! By the second week this grind usually hits like a ton of bricks. The Girl Trouble name for the result of bad road food is called Goofy Goo. You’ll know it when you get it, and you will get it.

WHY GO ON TOUR?
So why do we do it? Girl Trouble tours because we feel it’s an important step in band life. You have to go out a peddle your wares every so often and it must be “hands-on”. There’s nothing like having people see our band play live. That’s where our strength is. There’s no amount of records/CDs, youtube videos or internet connections that you make that can take the place of actually meeting people and other bands. There are times when you’ve just got to get out there with the people. We haven’t toured in awhile but we will again. The very thought makes me shudder.

WHY DO YOU WANT TO TOUR?
This has got to be the first question you ask yourselves. What are you trying to achieve? Do you just want a wild experience? Do you just want to be able to claim you’re a band that’s been on tour? Or are you making a organized plan to promote yourselves and your music in another city? A good self examination of your reasons will help you to know what your goal is and if you really are serious about being a band on the road. There has to be a reason.

BEFORE YOU LEAVE THE DRIVEWAY...

HOW WELL DO YOU GET ALONG?
The first question I ask any band who is contemplating going on tour is: how well are you currently getting along with each other? Playing shows aside, this trip will be an endurance test of your ability to tolerate each other in extremely difficult circumstances, when you are at your lowest. It’s very similar to all those popular survivor reality shows. Our temporary Girl Trouble member David Duet always used to say, "Going on tour either makes a band stronger or it makes them come back separately". How many bands have we watched drive off in their van for that big exciting tour, only to face hardships that ultimately broke them apart when they got home? We’ve lost count. Touring can do some heavy damage so you must be absolutely sure each member is up to the challenge.

Everybody has little habits that drive the rest of the band crazy. This is just normal human behavior. There isn’t a person alive that doesn’t annoy somebody at some point. Before going on tour you really need to think about how well you are all getting along. If there are already band fights, misunderstandings and constant arguments during practice, you can be sure that being stuck in a van all day will bring that out faster than you can get out of town.

Does the guitar player tell the same stupid jokes over and over that drive you nuts? Is it hard to watch the drummer constantly flossing his teeth? Are you annoyed when your singer will only eat a certain type of food or wears the same shirt every day? Take any of the little insignificant things that drive you crazy about your band mates and then think of five weeks of being stuck with them day after day in a confined space that jars your insides. If I’m not being too corny, for touring to really work, you’ve got to love these people a whole heap and think of them as family. And they’ve got to love you back.

BE TOLERANT, BE FLEXIBLE, AND DON’T GET YOUR PANTIES IN A TWIST
You can set all kinds of goals for your tour but if you can do your setup shows and come back safe and friendly with each other...that is a hugely successful tour. At some point the shit WILL hit the fan. It will come in a broken down van, or a gig that isn’t what you expected, or somebody having problems at home and not being able to be there, etc. And it will come when you least expect it. This is why you need to be flexible and tolerant of everything that’s going on. Don’t sweat the little stuff. Pretend you are a ping pong ball that just bounces with whatever comes your way. You’ll learn this on your first big tour. We did. But more than any help we can give you, it’s so important to be there for each other. This is your family. You are a team. It’s you against the world. If you can remember that, you can weather any storm that’s coming your way.

A ROCK AND ROLL BUSINESS TRIP
Think of your tour as a business trip. Even though touring can be a fantastic experience with lots of laughs and fun, ultimately you are working. Like a salesman who goes out of town to sell his wares or gain new contacts, you are taking your band out of town to spread your music farther than your own back yard. You are making new friends and broadening your fanbase. Your band should get in the tour van with this in mind. It is up to everybody to pull his/her weight. Partying is not the primary objective. If one of you decides to stay f'd-up for the duration of the trip, the other band members are going to get really sick of it. On top of that, if your new band friends think you have a jerk in the group, they aren’t going to be so happy to have you come back. Even though it’s inevitable for each of you to occasionally stray from this and get totally messed up and throw up on somebody’s futon (after-gig parties can be hard to resist), partying should not be your only reason to go on tour. Remember that for this to work, you are out on the road for the purpose of representing your band and showing off your music.

And here’s an important sub-step: Leave the “significant other” at home. This is not a vacation or a romantic getaway. You will not have enough time to devote to your girlfriend/boyfriend. Romance and touring do not mix. Since the significant other is not part of the band there is no payoff for them. All they do is hang around and watch you. That might seem exciting/interesting the first couple days but wait until you are on week two of a grueling five week tour. They get bored and start complaining. The rest of the band gets to either watch the couple fight, or sometimes worse, be all lovey dovey. No van full of horny guys (and to be frank from the time men leave to go on tour they instantly become 8th grade boys - this is a scientific experiment I have conducted numerous times) wants to watch one of the band members getting all the benefits of love while they are running on empty and pining for their special someones back home.

And here’s a sub-step to the sub-step: No sexy unattached merch girls/boys either. We’ve been with enough bands who thought adding the sexy T-shirt girl would enhance their sales. We’ve watched the extreme high drama that followed as each guy tried to hit on their band sales girl. It’s excruciating to watch and can come close to busting the band up. Touring is hard enough on its own. Leave the drama and the romance at home. Make this policy right now amongst your band members. No romance. Send travel postcards instead.

BUT AT THE SAME TIME...
Try to keep the mood as light as possible. When you are all spending so much time together, laughter really is the best medicine. All of you together, making fun of something that should piss you off can release a lot of the pressures of dealing with the annoying things that are bound to crop up. You can turn a negative experience into the tour in-joke.

READY TO GO ON TOUR...

BUY A BAND VAN:
Like a guitar player needs an amp, if you are going to tour your band needs a van. There’s no touring band on the road who doesn’t own their own. If you are serious about taking your band out on the road, you’ll need to have one. This will be the first step to good touring. So bite the bullet and buy a van. Used vans work great. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Find a mechanic you trust to check it out for you. My personal requirement was making sure it was a window van. I refused to travel 10,000 miles in the back of a van I couldn’t see out of. You’ll have your own list of necessities. And it’s best not to get fancy. I know school buses and hearses look totally bitchin’ but when you are broke down in Kansas and in need of major repair, having a regular vehicle with standard parts is a blessing. And we think it works to keep it looking as non-rock as possible. We kept ours looking like a broken down van for camping. Putting lots of stickers and painting your band name on it is code for "Equipment inside, rip me off now!" It’s up to your band demographic how ownership will work, who’s name it will be under, how you’ll work the insurance. We have our van under one name and the band fund (all our gig money goes back to the band) pays off the insurance and upkeep. We mostly try to keep the van for official use only.

And our personal advice...get Triple A, and be sure it’s the AAA Plus. No, we don’t work for them but they have saved our skins more than once out on the road. This is worth every penny you spend on it. You want to get the Plus because of the amount of towing. In Rochester NY we got our van towed back to a garage (the back axle came apart on the freeway!) AND several hours later they also towed the borrowed car from the club booker at the Bug Jar (also broke down). Two tows in one day! You might think your van is running perfectly when you leave home, but after putting 5,000 miles on it, sometimes shit happens. And it always seems to happen on the freeway. When you are alone on some desolate highway at 2 AM and that tow truck is coming to help you out, you are going to thank me.

HAVE A FANBASE IN YOUR TOWN:
Before you decide to conquer lands beyond, it’s a good idea to have built up a consistent fanbase in your own town. If you can’t get family and friends to come see you on a regular basis, you need to work on that first. Make sure you are doing well in your own town. And having that consistent amount of people show up will be an important asset when you start to trade shows with out of town band friends. If you can’t draw a crowd within 10 miles, what makes you think you can draw them from 500 miles? Think of this as popularity that radiates outward from your central location. So make sure you have your town covered before you cover somebody else's.

DIP YOUR FOOT/FEET IN THE WATER:
Before you take the full plunge of touring, shorter out of town shows are a good way to see what a tour is like. You’ll be able to see how your band handles themselves in a town where they are lost, late for the show and everybody has to pee. Find the next biggest city next to you within a few hours of driving and book a show. Doing it as an over-nighter is good too, or go to a couple of cities over a three day weekend. For us living in Tacoma, we would travel to Portland OR or Bellingham WA. That’s around 120 miles. That gave us a lot of ideas before we went far enough where it was too late to turn back. We gradually learned what worked and what didn’t by going 200 miles out of town instead of 2,000.

PARTNER UP WITH OTHER BANDS:
All initial out of town gigs are best gotten by having bands in that town “host” you. They’ll set up the show and you’ll do the same for them. Myspace is now a great tool for meeting and knowing about out of town bands you’d like to play with. Try not to be pushy about it. Get to know the band first before you start suggesting they set shows up for you. A cold call from a band you never heard of can be off putting, but a call from friends sounds like fun. And in turn, be sure you do the same for them.

THE BIG BAND TRADE-OFF:
As you become more friendly with other bands in cities farther away, there are usually a few that you automatically click with. This is where you have the opportunity to trade groups of shows in your respective areas. We did this with a little known band from the Bay Area called the Mummies. They had a good fanbase and so did we. So we decided that they’d set up shows for us and we’d do the same. We set up shows including Seattle and Bellingham so they could come up for a long weekend and play with us. We did all the promoting, made sure our friends were there to see them and put them up at GT guitarist Kahuna’s house. The shows went great and we had fun showing them our town. About a month later we went to their hometown and played great shows that they’d set up including San Francisco and San Jose. They also rolled out the red carpet, let us stay with them, took us to their favorite thrift and record stores. For the Mummies it was their first shows in the Northwest and they went on to be legendary in garage rock circles. For us it was a chance to play in the Bay Area and make friends and contacts we might not have made so quickly. Girl Trouble and the Mummies went on to do lots of shows together over the years and we are still friends. Where setting up shows in a faraway town might be almost impossible, your band friends might be able to do it with no problems. And these bands can get you out of a jam, offer you a safe place to park the van and equipment, entertain you...so when they are in your town it’s important to make sure they are taken care of. We’ve got many band friends (and just GT fans/friends in general) who’ve save our butts and occasionally we’ve been able to rescue a few in return. All of you will sort of turn into one big family without even realizing it. Tours like these can keep increasing as you venture out a little farther with each tour. Pretty soon you'll end up having friends in every city.

US TOURING
I’m not going to claim that this is the gospel on doing a U.S. tour. For every point I make there will probably be another band to tell you they do it different. But I’m going to tell you what we’ve experienced. Again, this is just to give you some ideas.

HIRE A REAL BOOKING AGENT
Either your record company will already have somebody they work with or you will find somebody who’s good by asking other touring bands. You can get away with booking a week or two down the coast and trading shows with other bands, but when it comes to really booking a full-blown five-six weeks around the country, you probably won’t have enough contacts. This is like a giant jigsaw puzzle that they must assemble and for a tour this size, we always felt it was best to leave it to the professionals. Another good feature of a real tour booker is the leverage they have when they want a guarantee for you but the club doesn’t think you are worth the price (not every club booker will be into your band). They normally work with a roster of bands and the club realizes that to get Band A they need to work with Band B. Doing the booking alone will not give you the clout you need to negotiate with some clubs.

GUARANTEE
What the booker does is get you a guarantee at each club. For all this work, to set up each show so it makes sense as you are driving (not killing you on the miles), to keep the big cities for the weekends, to make sure you get a guarantee, you will pay a percentage of the total of the guarantees you get from the tour. This will all be agreed upon before they even pick up the phone or send the first email. You’ll sign a contract so each party knows what’s expected of them. You are trusting them to get the best shows possible and they are trusting you to do each show to the best of your ability. They will also have you pay for any mailing, sometimes phone stuff and the preliminaries of getting everything together (sometimes you pay and sometimes your record company will foot that bill). It’s a huge job and these people are worth every penny they make (unlike pay-to-play “bookers”). And if a gig goes bad, they'll be available to iron it out for you. A good booking agent can save you some real headaches and advise you what to do. Booking agents we dealt with charged from 10 - 20% depending on who we booked through (percentages may have changed but the set percent should always be fully discussed prior to setting up the tour). We never had to pay up front for our US tours. Before you go they will send you the tour itinerary which will have info on every show, the club address, possibly what bands you are playing with, what the guarantee is, if you'll get a meal, etc. On the road it’s best to alos keep a record of the money you’ve collected (we also keep a log of gas fill-ups and mileage) because later it’s difficult to remember. After we came back from every tour, we figured out how much we owed and sent the booker their cut. Be sure to get that money to your booker in a timely manner. We always managed to get it out within a week of being back home. We always appreciated all the hard work it took and we’re happy to recommend them to other bands. We salute real booking agents!

TOUR ON A MAJOR RELEASE:
The only real reason to go out on a full US tour is to pump up the sales/visibility of your latest full length album. Many bookers won’t even touch a band that doesn’t have a new major release (and they won’t work off a single record either). The reason for this is simple. What you want from a tour is lots of press for your record/CD. Sometimes just showing up in a town is not enough to get you any notice. If a music paper can have a new CD to review, a bio or interview to write about...and you will be in town on a certain date to play live...now that’s newsworthy! Many times you can work in some interviews on college or indie radio stations too. It’s works way better when they can talk to you and then play a cut off the new release. Having a new CD will also give you something substantial to sell during the “merch portion” of your tour and help you to keep more money flowing through the gas tank.

SENDING OUT YOUR PROMO STUFF:
Timing is important to get everything in the right hands to every city you’ll be playing in. Your booker will give you details about that but we’ve found it’s usually around a month before you leave. Sometimes your label will send the necessary items and sometimes it will be up to you. The EPK (electronic press kit) has taken the place of the old big manila envelopes and cuts down on all those leftover 8 X 10 glossy band publicity photos that some bands still have piled around in their practice shed (who us?). However I feel that sending a physical CD to each city’s music paper is still important. It’s evidence that you really do have something real released. Again, your booking agent will let you know how to handle it all. But when it works correctly there’s nothing like pulling into a city you’ve never played and finding a prominent article/review (and your band photo) in the local music magazine to meet you.

TOURING WITH ANOTHER BAND:
Even though it seems like fun, booking agents generally frown on doing an entire US tour together with another band (unless you are specifically doing support for a bigger act). The main reason is that when they are trying to get your guarantee it’s harder to get double the price for the two bands. Clubs will often try to get a “two for one” deal and that’s not going to help either band. A more suitable solution is to meet up with your band friends who are touring at the same time from another direction. You’ll play a series of four or five shows and then continue on. The booking agent will be able to negotiate for both bands separately. It really gives you something to look forward to when you know after 2 1/2 weeks on the road you will get to meet up with your best friends who are in the same boat. The term “sight for sore eyes” never applied more.

DIVERT YOUR ATTENTION:
After a few weeks, seeing the inside of a bar/club day after day can get pretty boring. They all look the same and there’s not much to do other than play pool/video games, listen to blasting music you didn’t pick out and drink. Getting away from the whole “rock” environment can recharge the batteries of even the most weary, burnt-out band. If time allows (and it doesn’t always so you can never really plan ahead) we like to visit historic landmarks, amusement parks and weird roadside attractions. When we play in LA we always save up and go to Disneyland. A day at the “happiest place on Earth” can shake those rock and roll cobwebs off fast, especially when accompanied by some of your band pals. We’ve climbed up into the Statue of Liberty, been to Independence Hall and seen the Liberty Bell, toured the Smithsonian Institute’s aviation and US history museums, been inside the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota and ridden the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island to name a few. Doing something other than rocking is important to keep your head clear.

THINK OF THE TOUR AS A WHOLE:
On your tour, you will undoubtedly come up with shows that are less than desirable. Some gigs will be so fantastic you won't believe you are actually doing them, and the next one will be so awful you'll want to turn around and drive straight home. It's important to remember that with every stinker, there will be dream gigs. You can't predict them and you'll never be able to count on them. So don't sweat it when 25 people show up in a city of seven million. The next show down the road might surprise you.

MERCH - DON'T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT
It's hard to guage the merch thing but you absolutely need it. Some bands have super-salesmen and come out with a line of 25 items in assortments of colors and be able to sell the whole thing. Other bands have a few shirts. No matter what you decide on, merch is always important. You'll have your new CD to sell and sometimes that's easier than a shirt, but we've found shirts to be popular. When the show didn't do well, sometimes selling a couple extra T-shirts can make the difference. And don't forget that these are also important compensation for somebody who's done you a big favor. If someone puts you up at their place and lets you all take showers and made you some scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast, the least you can do is give them a shirt and CD. That is a small price to pay for those good samaritans who will let you take over their homes. And when in doubt, don't forget that your T-shirt is also great advertising.

CONGRATULATIONS!
Being able to tour isn’t for everybody. If you pulled it off you should be damn proud of yourselves. Each time you go out you’ll learn a little bit more about what works and what doesn’t (and you’ll probably tell me to take a hike on my stupid “suggestions”). When we roll into Tacoma, I always feel like we’ve come home from a major battle. No sleep, crappy food, loud music, grueling miles, adversities and total boredom...but we made it! We played our music to people who loved it, we made all kinds of new friends, we saw places we've never seen before, we worked as a team and had an absolute blast in the process. You’ll experience it all. We wish you the best tour ever!

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