One thing that I regularly try to do with this blog is to help you guys look behind the veil of industry elitism that so often excludes people who are trying to break into the music industry. This week I’ve spent and am planning on spending even more time hooking up a tour for some clients of mine and I realized that I haven’t really addressed the question of touring markets on this blog, as well as how to decide which ones to hit, when. There’s a lot to this question and it should shape how you approach touring and your music career as a whole – and this isn’t something you can straight up ignore. If you want to go on the road for more than two weeks, understanding your markets and how they work is vital.
The fundamental concept here is that we have A,B, C, D, and (arguably) E markets sorted by the potential audience size for your type of music in the town in question. For example, Philadelphia with a population of over a million people is widely regarded as an A market city regardless of genre. Nearby Allentown with a population around 120,000 is more often labeled a B. Wilmington, with a population of 70,000 but a strong scene is the largest city in Delaware and is often labeled a C. A D market would usually be a tiny suburban town that has some sort of venue or art space. D markets rarely have legitimate venues. E’s are even smaller than that (If they aren’t just lumped into D’s) and usually revolve around one band who the edgy high schoolers like to go see when they play their bimonthly show.
Now, as far as I know there isn’t a definitive list of what towns fit into which category or market but you can generally ask around to get an idea. Some towns can surprise you, West Chester, Pennyslvania for a long time considered a D (And rightfully so) had, until recently, a venue named Fennario’s that regularly drew crowds just because shows happened there. Things like this are important though – you need to regularly ask around and figure out if the venue you are playing is ‘the cool spot’ or if the one cross town is where you should be asking. Due to the fatefully fickle nature of independent music, especially in a live setting being able to figure these details out is crucial.
You might be saying, “Why would I ever want to play a C or D market city? Shouldn’t I exclusively focus on the A’s?” While yes – there is some validity to that remember that C and D markets can connect you between your A’s and B’s. Beyond that – sometimes it’s good to do C and D markets simply because you don’t want to wear out your A’s and B’s. You can play a A market at best twice in a given year, but if you want to go through and tour again then maybe it’s worth playing a suburb. Alice Cooper is doing that on his latest tour for example, choosing to focus on major outliers than any of the biggest cities in the country simply because he had already played them in 2015 with Motley Crue.
There are two big exceptions to these rules of markets. I’m sure you know them already. Odds are you have visited and played there. I am talking of course, about New York City and Los Angeles. These are the only two US cities with more than ten million people in them and they are kind of in a class of their own. You can organize special events in these cities, like Killswitch Engage playing five nights in New York or residencies for famous artists in Los Angeles. That’s just how they flow and where they fit into the independent spectrum. You can (And should) expect to make more money here but you should also be ready to deal with a lot more bullshit, because after all – just about everyone wants to live and play in these two cities.
This is one of those keys that a good booking agent will be able to make you fully aware of. Some cities might be a B despite a huge population and others might be an A despite a small one. A lot of it depends on how the market for a given genre is in a given town. For example we know that doom metal bands do better in Portland and indie rock can make a killing in Pennsylvania. A lot of this is derived from demographic information that is really only decipherable by a resident of these cities or a booker who has spent years at it.
In the end – routing your tour is ultimately going to depend on the kinds of shows that you can set up and how long you are willing to spend in your van. That doesn’t mean this shouldn’t be taken into consideration. It gives you an opportunity to figure out budgeting, price points and where you should be aiming to take your band. After a while though you will be able to work it out to the point that you know precisely how much to ask with each given city and what season is best to play there. Touring is one of those things that gets exponentially easier the more you do it – so understanding things like this, and doing it a whole hell of a lot, will help move your band forward.