The more I tour and the more I book the more I realize some weird hidden secrets about the music industry and putting together shows. There are things that you only start to pick up over years of experience and hard earned observation. It’s part of why it’s important for you to tour a lot even if you aren’t in a band – you get to see how things work in different cities, and most importantly B and C markets. In some ways it teaches you that there is no such thing as a truly B market if you play your cards right and reminds us time and time again that with a bit of good planning and trying to set up stuff as far in advance as possible then you are going to be well on your way to making solid progress in the music industry. There is always a path forward, no matter how brutal things get you can figure out where things need to move. I had a great learning experience tonight in Bellingham, Washington and want to help you too figure out more about your scene.
What I learned in Bellingham, and honestly have seen throughout my life, is that if you hit a college town during the college season you are going to get people coming out. It doesn’t matter about the genre, assuming you are in a well located venue relative to the college you have a built in crowd guaranteed. The crowd will probably vary by genre, but college kids are desperate for shit to do, and you are there to provide it for them. The other advantage of these college towns is that college kids, by definition, have a lot of money to spend on the arts. They still are young enough to value the arts and realize why they are important. You need to take advantage of this, and if you can upsell to them they are going to crack. Why? Because college kids want to feel like they are a part of something greater, and still are young enough to invest heavily in the arts. College towns have a very weird place in the American economy, but the good ones in America make for strong tour stops and mercifully short drives.
On a similar note I’ve found that it can be surprisingly profitable to play B markets on a Friday or Saturday night, especially if you aren’t a huge band. The reason for this is that a lot of the big bands will focus their Fridays and Saturdays on major markets, making enough that they don’t need to worry about a few shitty shows in B’s for the rest of the tour. There is nothing to do in Omaha on a Friday night, I should know, I’ve been there, it sucks. So what happens? People in a major city might never have been interested in your band but these folks quite frankly don’t have much of a choice. They can either stay in or go to your show. You should take advantage of that. It can lead to a stronger overall tour and a better average take. In terms of morale too it’s so much better to have an average of 80 people a show rather then capitalize on an A on a Friday and play to 150 people. In the long run it ends up paying off quite a bit better too!
It’s important to figure out which cities on your route are truly merch cities. Every once in while I will stumble upon a new city where Tengger Cavalry will, instead of making an average of $10 per head on merch will make up to $13. Other cities just aren’t merch towns. Some towns, like for example New York (for Tengger at least) tends to average quite a bit lower on merch per head. Some of this depends on how much a certain band covers a market (Which is why locals sell so little merch) and some of it really just depends on the spending power of the local economy. I like to look at average GPP’s, overal population and other demographic information in order to determine what the merch take will probably end up being at a particular show. As crass as it might sound you can reduce a lot of these cities to spreadsheets, especially if you use your own experience and the experiences of your friends in order to use anecdotal evidence to modify those spreadsheets for maximum accuracy.
A final key thing that I’ve picked up is that some markets just have traditionally low guarantees. This can be for different reasons. For example for economic reasons Canada tends to have lower guarantees with higher turnouts and a minimal chance to go into points. That’s largely because their venues often have a lot of employees and have to pay taxes on American musicians playing their venue. Other cities, like Sacramento or Philadelphia have notoriously fickle markets, so it doesn’t make sense for them to give high guarantees. However in many of these cases they will be extremely open to go into points if you can prove that you maintain the right draw in those sorts of cities. You need to learn about each of these markets individually so that you can make sure that you are asking for reasonable things when you try to book in these markets and don’t come off as a complete asshole – which is always a good thing.
The music industry is an industry of experience and it’s only harsh experience that will improve your chances – you need to keep doing your best yo make this a win win for everybody. I think that relatively soon we will be at a point where record labels are totally obsolete so a lot of it now is making sure that things run more smoothly. Management can help you a lot with this and guide your way to figuring out which markets you need to be targeting and when. A lot of this can be very stressful and you need to keep learning in order to keep growing up yourself and your peers. It’s not a good time all the time, but if you got this far then I think you can handle the hard times.