With revenue related to touring now accounting for 80 percent of the average artist’s income, learning to build a sustainable touring career is an essential skill for every musician.
That’s why I wrote the new Grassroots Touring course for Berklee Online.
In the course, you’ll learn how to build a business as a touring artist, from the first gigs to the first national tour, with lessons that range from booking to marketing and attracting an agent to protecting your mental and physical health on the road.
One of the course topics is how to grow your live performance career from local to regional and eventually national. Several strategies make it easier, including building in an ever-widening region around your home base (Hub and Spokes touring) or in between your home base and a music industry hub like Nashville, NY or LA (Straight Line touring).
I first learned about one of the more clever touring strategies when I booked a date on the debut US tour of the now multiplatinum band the Police.
One of my first jobs in the music business was helping to book a Boston nightclub named The Rathskeller. “The Rat,” as everyone called it, had become the local hub for a burgeoning genre of music broadly dubbed “New Wave.”
Boston bands like the Cars, who went on to sell millions of albums, built their early fan base and got signed playing at the Rat. National and international bands like Blondie, R.E.M. and the Ramones all played their first Boston gigs there. Even Metallica and Tom Petty played early gigs in this dingy basement venue that held at most 400 people crammed in so tight that the fire inspector would have had a heart attack. When the music got really loud, scared rats would literally scurry over your head on exposed pipes, trying to escape.
One day we took a call from a booking agent that we knew who wanted us to book the Police. None of us had ever heard of this English band whose US record deal with A&M Records consisted of a then unreleased single called “Roxanne.” Despite all that, the agent insisted that they wanted to— even had to—play at the Rat for three nights in a row.
We were very skeptical, but then he made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.
The Police would play the Rat on a Sunday through Tuesday—three of the hardest nights to draw a crowd at any club—for just $300 per night vs. a percentage of the door. Even back in 1978, booking a band from England who had any kind of record deal for $900 total for three nights felt like a pretty good deal.
The Police rolled into Boston on Sunday afternoon, crammed with all of their gear in an old Ford Econoline van. No fancy crew. Just the band unloading and setting up their own instruments. I will always remember Sting, sheepishly asking for an advance on the first night’s $300, so that the band could afford to buy something to eat.
Right after an early soundcheck, the band dashed out the back door for the first of many college radio and other interviews they would do over the next few days at MIT’s 760 watt WMBR–FM with a volunteer DJ who broadcast using the name Oedipus. He talked to the band, pitched the three days of shows and played “Roxanne,” the only music they had with them, twice.
Only a few hundred people people listened to Oedi (“Eddie”) on a good day, but they were the right people. His listeners tuned in because he was the tastemaker known for unearthing great music. He went on to be named Billboard Radio Program Director of the Year several times for his work running Boston’s WBCN–FM. When the Police were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, they thanked him personally from the stage for his initial support of the band in America.I will always remember Sting, sheepishly asking for an advance on the first night’s $300, so that the band could afford to buy something to eat.—Bruce Houghton of @Hypebot on the first US tour of #ThePolice Click To Tweet
The Police show that first night drew less than 50 people. Oedipus was there, as were a few curious hipsters checking out “that band from England.” Some low-level staffer from the local office of their label A&M came late, but stayed through the end of the band’s set to say hello.
While I don’t claim to have known that they would go on to sell 75 million records, anyone in the room could tell that the band onstage was something special.
Over the next two days, the Police did many more interviews.
Each night there were more people in the Rat, including every single person that worked at the local A&M Records branch, most of the DJs, journalists, and record store clerks that Sting and the band had met during their three days in Boston and dozens of hipsters who had heard the buzz surrounding the band.
For years afterwards, more people in Boston claimed to have been at one of those shows than could possibly have fit in The Rat in three days.
The Police were my first introduction to slow touring.
The Police deliberately spent three days in Boston, playing their single for DJs, doing every interview offered and visiting record stores that were not yet selling their records. They were on a mission to make friends and build buzz.
They repeated the same pattern of only doing a limited number of shows each week for the next three months to leave time for interviews as they drove their own van to cities across America.
“Roxanne” was finally officially released in the US in February of 1979. Even though the song peaked at No. 32 on Billboard, the Police were on the road to success because they had taken the time to make friends in the media, earned the respect of influential hipster fans and had proven to their record label that they were willing to do whatever it took to be successful.
Slow touring is a phrase that usually applies to travel. Bicycling through the French countryside is “slow touring.” Driving through the French countryside is not.
I’ve applied slow touring to concert touring to describe those artists and agents that schedule tour dates not just to maximize income, but also to allow time for media appearances, in-stores and other promotional activities.
For some artists, slow touring means playing every other day or scheduling dates with short travel time between them, leaving room for stops at local radio stations and record stores. For others, it’s leaving the day off before a show to do media appearances in major markets like New York City.
In my experience, slow touring is a powerful yet underutilized touring strategy. Fewer shows each week usually means less income. But the potential long term benefits are enormous.
Just ask the Police.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE NEW GRASSROOTS TOURING COURSE
In addition to being a Berklee Online instructor and course author, Bruce Houghton is founder and president of Skyline Artists Agency, representing a diverse roster of national and international touring talent including Zoe Keating, Darlingside, Poco, Freddie McGregor, Roger McGuinn, and many others. A sought-after industry expert and speaker, he has served on the Advisory Boards of Midem and SXSW Accelerator, is a graduate of the prestigious Leadership Music program, and serves as a senior advisor to Bandsintown. His top-ranked sites Hypebot and MusicThinkTank cover the new music industry and the way that technology is changing how music is created, marketed, consumed, and monetized.