I’m a soul/jazz singer-songwriter from California, currently based in Nashville. This past year, I spent 365 Days on the road with my partner Ken in a 30-foot motorhome; we played 170 shows and hit 36 states.
So I’ve had my share of experiences booking and executing tours, and I’d love to share some of what I think is the best advice I’ve got when it comes to setting yourself up for success with touring. Here’s what to do in which order when you start booking.
A quick disclaimer though: my experience is unique and based on my particular situation, musical genre, and network, as is your own. Please read this list with an open mind and remember we all have different ways of navigating this crazy world we love called the music industry. Alright? Let’s go!
1. Have your product ready
This is a given, but if you want to go on tour you need to have something to give to your fans.
By “product,” I don’t just mean physical merch—I mean who you are as an artist. Do you know what genre you are? It’s okay to be several genres. It helps to have other artists to compare yourself to, even if that feels icky.
I usually tell venues that my music has a “Norah Jones/Amy Winehouse vibe,” and that it “goes well with wine and beer.” Do you know who your audience is? What’s your live show like? Do you perform all original songs or covers as well? How long is your set? All of these things should be mentioned, and highlighted, in your bio and communications with talent buyers.
That covers the “who are you” section of your product, but now you need to show it. Here’s a shortlist of things that help to define your artistic identity to the world:
- Professional website: with an Electronic Press Kit, and music & merch available for sale.
- Social media channels: up, running, and active.
- Ready-to-listen music: get your music on all streaming platforms.
- High-quality photos: to use for promo.
- High-impact copy: press quotes, a bio, and who you’ve shared the stage with.
- Merch: CDs, LPs, cassettes, t-shirts, water bottles, shot glasses, whatever else you have to sell, bring it all.
- An email list: always bring a clipboard at your shows so people can give you their info, and don’t forget a pen!
- Free stuff: anything like buttons, stickers or postcards that you can give away to fans.
- A merch suitcase: something that holds your merch and makes it look organized.
2. Have your vehicle ready
A doesn’t get to B by itself! Unless you’ve already got a car, you’ll have to do some research if you’re planning to rent or buy a larger vehicle like a van, truck, or even using a trailer. If you’re interested in learning more about traveling in motorhomes, I recommend following Heath and Alyssa Padgett’s journey.
When you do a lot of driving, breakdowns are an inevitable fact, especially with larger vehicles. I learned this the hard way—we broke down six times over the course of a year. What makes the most sense for your band? How many people are going to be squished together in the back seat? If you decide to get a vehicle you can sleep in, ask yourself if you are truly comfortable enough with your bandmates to do this.
If you plan on taking a vehicle you can’t sleep in, plan ahead for where you’ll stay. Ask your friends, family, or fans if you can crash with them. Or, decide on a budget for accommodations.
3. Plan your (ideal) tour route
Now, figure out where you want to go, and dream big. Look at your options, think about where your audiences are, and spend some time on Google Maps to experiment with routes.
Plan your route using a spreadsheet. I use Apple Numbers, but Google Sheets and Excel are both great. If you’ve hit the road before, you know this: spreadsheets are key for organizing a tour and breaking everything down as clearly and concisely and possible. Break down your ideal date ranges* for each spot (i.e: May 3-7 L.A., May 8-18 San Francisco, May 18-20 Portland, etc.), taking into account the travel days and leaving room open for stuff along the way.
Pro tip: play in small towns. We all wanna play in New York and L.A., but more often than not you’ll find die-hard fans and more paid gigs in the small towns in between these cities.
*Your route and dates will inevitably change based on what venues are available and what opportunities pop up.
4. Set your budget and financial expectations
It’s always important to figure out the goals for your tour. Are you trying to make a profit? Are you trying to break even? Are you trying to simply play in new towns and build an audience?
Decide how much you want to make (specifically), and don’t sell yourself short. You are providing a service to venues and spaces that need your music to draw people in. You deserve to be paid. Never be afraid to ask how much a space will compensate you.
More often than not, venues will book you—and your inner artist will say “yay! I got booked! I get to play a show!” but then you realize the booker said nothing about payment. They’ll give you free water and some old crackers if you're lucky, and try not to bring it up until the end of the night. So, be very clear about what your financial goals are.
Next, figure out all your expenses. Get specific here. Once you’ve figured these out, you’ll be able to ask for what you need and how much you want to be paid. This can be scary, but it’s so important. Here are a few examples of what your major expenses will be:
- Mileage and gas: how many miles will you be driving and how much gas money will you spend?
- Tolls: Chicago, I’m lookin’ at you—your tolls are insanely expensive!
- Repairs/damages to the vehicle: this can be a hard number to decide ahead of time and depends on how long you’ll be on the road/traveling, but I’d say setting aside at least $500 for repairs, breakdowns and damages is safe. I know--it’s a scary number, but this is the truth.
- Instrument repairs or rentals: you gotta be able to play, right?
- Food per diems: per band member.
- Days off: those cost money since you aren’t making money on those nights.
5. Figure out what types of venues you actually want to play
I wrote an article last year listing 16 types of shows that we played on the road. There are so many ways to play music for people that don’t involve having to sell tickets, hustling to promote, or using money out of your own pocket to get press only to end up with an empty room and $0.
Once again, it really helps to know who your audience is and what they enjoy. There are tons of options beyond simply bars, such as: coffee shops, restaurants, house shows, art galleries, parks, etc.
In my experience, I found the most lucrative gigs were private house concerts, breweries and wine bars, and restaurants. At some of these places, we had to play 3- or 4-hour sets, which included covers and originals. If you’re not into that, then just make sure to partner up with local bands and promote your tail off!
6. Make your list of venues/locations
This makes up a big bulk of your work before, after, and during tours, because you’re going to want to keep a running list of venues or promoters in each city.
Using free databases like Indie on the Move or simply googling “live music venues in _____” works too. Add the venues to your spreadsheet with a column for their website, FB page, and booking contact, and whether you’ve played there before.
Pro tip: databases and Google are great, but I highly recommend using your connections to find places to play. Ask your friends on social media for recommendations on places to play and local bands who draw. Facebook Groups are useful here as well.
7. Reach out to venues with 3 to 6 months advance
Now the fun part! Start emailing everyone on your “top priorities” list. Which are the promoters and venues you’d love to play the most? Get in touch with them first!
3 to 6 months in advance is ideal, but 4 to 8 months is even better. Give yourself plenty of time to send emails and then follow up, and keep track of the date you sent each email in your spreadsheet in a column marked “Status.”
Craft your email well. Be concise and clear, and edit it to make sure your spelling and grammar are correct. If you can add a personal touch or connection of some kind (i.e: “I heard great things about this space from ___ of the ___ band!”), that goes a long way.
Note: with house shows and private house concerts, reaching out is a different ball game. We’re part of the Listening Room Network and that’s how we book our house shows, but there are other ways to book these types of shows and other house concert networks. Another way people book these is by simply asking friends and fans if they’d be willing to host a private house show in their home.
8. Follow up again, and again, and again
I can’t emphasize this enough: follow up! Follow up around 7 days later if you don’t get a response. Don’t expect venues and bookers to get back to you on the first try. It simply doesn’t happen all that often. People are busy, and people easily overlook things.
Remember to follow up politely (i.e: “Just following up with you on this, would love to come play for ya!”). Follow up only around three times, more than that and you might really bother them—which could harm any chance of building a future relationship. Perhaps it just isn’t the right time, and that’s okay.
9. Lay everything out visually, then share, share, share
Once you have dates booked (ideally with time to spare), make a flyer to celebrate! I use Canva and I love it. It feels really good to have something visual with all your dates and venues written out nicely. If you have a graphic designer friend to help you, even better.
10. Hit the road.
And that’s it! You’re ready to hit the road. Hopefully you will gain a plethora of experience, make lifelong friends, and build your fanbase. Remember to take each day at a time and keep an open mind—things can change at any given moment, and you never know what opportunities may arise!
I hope you enjoyed this list of what to do in which order before you tour. If there are any tips or things that came up for you that I didn’t mention, feel free to write them in the comments or reach out to me directly! Again, my experience is different from what you may encounter, but I hope I was able to give you valuable information based on what I’ve learned from my time on the road.
Ellisa Sun cuts out her heart and leaves it on the stage, which is why she never wears white. Her music is a unique blend of genres spanning R&B, jazz, and pop that creates a soulful, textured sound. Ellisa is originally from Los Angeles and now resides in Nashville, TN. Spotify
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