By Tony Hinds
When emerging as a newbie musician, the notion of DIY touring can seem terribly daunting. You mean I literally have to do it myself? An artist's mindset does not always lend itself well to the world of business, which can lead to many needless mistakes out on the road. Some mistakes can even be made long before the tour has begun, casting the inevitability of doom onto your entire trip.
Thankfully, there are ways to avoid these pitfalls and even set yourself on the track to the perfect DIY tour. Booking agent Steven Himmelfarb of the Billions Corporation, who has worked with massive Canadian talents such as Hayden and Tokyo Police Club, took some time to chat while in Winnipeg for Manitoba Music's DIY Series workshop on touring on November 4.
"It's an exciting time," Himmelfarb says. "It's not just 'Can we get on THE radio station and get THE review to get noticed?' You have to find your own path. There is no right or wrong way to do it. If you have no resources, you need to get resourceful. There's no one single way to become a rock star, or I would just become one. We would all become rock stars. It's not that simple."
1. Do the research.
It's important to familiarize yourself with your region's musical landscape. Get to know every venue in every city. You may have to take on the role of the manager, the publisher, the label, and the salesman, all yourself. Be prepared.
"You have to put on your business hat and your creative hat and look at your band as a business," Himmelfarb insists. "Look at other bands at your realistic level and think: What other bands are slightly above us? Where are they playing? Study them and learn."
2. Be careful with paid publicity.
Publicists might feel like the answer to all of your prayers. There is undeniable power in positive word of mouth. If you say you're good, that means so much less than if someone else says it. However, you don't want to blow all your money on publicity fees at the wrong time. Himmelfarb insists artists should be realistic about what they expect to gain from this type of publicity.
"You'll want a publicist for when a tour is announced, and when a tour is happening, over a two or three month period where you can evaluate each market," Himmelfarb explains. "I don't think you need a publicist until you actually have something to promote. They can't work miracles. They only promote the story the band has. If your story is, 'we made a record and we're trying to get some tour dates', you should get your expectations in check because there's only so much they can do."
On the other hand, Himmelfarb feels the benefits can sometimes be worthwhile, if your wallet can handle the expense.
"If money isn't an issue, I say why not hire a publicist," Himmelfarb adds. "You're basically buying a team member. The publicist is one of the only team members that you can buy."
3. Don't hide yourself away in your room.
Linking up with other bands can breed opportunity. You should be asking yourself... what scene am I in? Who am I friends with? Get out there and spread the word. Nobody will blame you for sending emails, which are as easy to respond to as they are to ignore. Himmelfarb believes networking with other artists in the community can also allow these DIY conversations to continue indefinitely.
"You have to make friends, which is weird because you kind of stop doing that at a certain age," Himmelfarb aserts. "It's tough to think: 'I have to sit back and make friends.' Even if it's not helping the business side immediately, you need to find your artist's circle. Bands becoming friends can often lead to one band taking another on tour. Let touring bands stay at your house. Opportunities can emerge without even realizing it."
Himmelfarb also stresses the importance of staying in touch with promoters during the down time in between tours.
"Try and befriend them the day of the show," Himmelfarb states. "If you're good, maybe they'll champion you. They'll stay connected to you, if they like you enough to follow you on social media. Otherwise, it's up to you to keep them posted. Add them to your mailing list. In the early stage, it's hard because you won't have much news to announce. But if you sign to a small label or get a song featured somewhere, you can send little notes and updates."
4. The art of the paycheque.
Tuning up to play a cool little pub on live music night? Admittedly, nobody is coming specifically to see your three scheduled sets. The audience is just there for non-specific live music. Yet, these venues can be fantastic avenues to gain experience and cut your teeth on stage.
"There's no shame in that. One night at a pub can bring in $300 - 500. At real venues, you're not really getting paid. You're getting a door deal at best. If you're not expecting people to come see you, don't expect to make anything. Every deal is different. As you get bigger, you get a guarantee. Often it's a guarantee versus a percentage of the door."
If you plan on putting together contracts for a DIY tour, Himmelfarb feels there are some sobering truths that should be carefully considered.
"Unless you reach out to a lawyer, they're not legally binding contracts," Himmelfarb says. "At this stage of an early career, you're looking at more of a 'deal memo,' so to speak. Keep it to the point. Short and sweet. Each venue is different. That's why you have to do your research to find out which venues pay and which do not. On a bigger level, there are some clubs that don't pay, and only offer door deals. You could go to them in an email, saying: 'We're just checking in. Can we do a guarantee?' And they'll say: 'What do you need?' or 'No, not at this point.' It never hurts to ask."
5. Maintain a realistic self-image.
The tragic reality of DIY touring is that not everyone will be as excited about your band as you are. Some bands are simply not creatively developed enough to tour without potential disaster. Himmelfarb insists there are ways to overcome this essential dilemma, through experience and unbiased criticism.
"How do you get fans?" Himmelfarb asks. "You have to look at the people who you like and you pay money to see. Are you that good? Sometimes you need to reassess and make sure what you're doing is top quality. Get feedback from anyone outside of your core group of friends and family. Avoid touring when you don't have to. Is your current project so good that you're going to tour and generate fans? Most musicians are not good enough to tour and do this for a living."
6. The simplicity of touring routes.
It's important to keep your tour route simple and direct. There are big markets everywhere. Even near Winnipeg. With big markets come even bigger music scenes, packed with untapped audience members, hungry for new tunes.
"If you're in Winnipeg, you can go east for a week and come home," Himmelfarb says. "Then, go west for a week and come home. Minneapolis is also close and kind of a big market. 89.3 The Current is a super legit radio station. Even places like Chicago. But how do you get there? Well, you have to use those same strategic moves."
7. The point of DIY is that you have to do it yourself.
Even with a paid publicist, you will still encounter problems that cannot be solved with press releases or friendly phone calls. Himmelfarb is quick to point out the staggering difference in work ethic between the professionals and the amateurs.
"It just comes down to being creative," Himmelfarb says. "You actually have to do this on your own. Think your way out of this problem yourself. You have to hustle. You have to outwork everyone else. Don't be lazy. You have to want it more."
Need help? Stay tuned for more MusicWorks workshops on touring and more at manitobamusic.com/workshops and set up some time with Roland Deschambault, Manitoba Music's professional development coordinator.