Watch Atkins' Explain the 'Five-Pointed Star' Touring Strategy
Dev note: migrated from resource_media
Since writing Tour: Smart, Martin Atkins has traveled the country teaching aspiring musicians and bands the basics of how to have a successful tour.
Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Drummer Martin Atkins spent the 1980s and 90s performing and touring the world in such bands as Public Image Ltd., Killing Joke, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails and his own band Pigface — bands that have both packed stadiums and struggled to fill the tiniest of clubs. Through all of that, he's seen firsthand the pitfalls awaiting all naive rockers — everything from poor gas mileage on tour vans to getting stiffed by club managers at the end of a set — and he has come to know the basic rules that apply to all touring musicians.
In his recent book, Tour: Smart, and its companion DVD, Atkins has compiled his experiences to create a valuable resource for any aspiring touring musician or band. Atkins is now touring the country himself, telling bands all the things they don't tell themselves. He spoke with Andrea Seabrook of All Things Considered about the book.
"The basic rule that I'm finding now," Atkins says, "is I'm trying to let everyone know that they are completely and totally screwed. But if they can just accept that fact, then they might not be."
Atkins doesn't see the digital world of MP3s and music theft as the main cause for alarm, but as a way for new bands to spread their music.
"I'm old enough to remember some horrifying, outrageously illegal device called a blank cassette tape, and people used to make mixtapes for each other. Having owned a record label for the last 20 years, all you ever dream of is 'I just wish that more people could hear this music.' So I don't think that MP3s and downloading have affected anything. People just need to understand that they're not going to make the money they thought they were going to make from releasing one CD anymore. What do they need to do? They need to tour."
Atkins teaches the business of touring at Columbia College in Chicago, and says that it's through touring that bands can find and develop their audience, often one album and one person at a time. His book, which he describes as "part basic knowledge, part math, part poetry, part alchemy and part understanding of your limitations," was originally intended to be a textbook for bands, but quickly morphed into something different.
"I got wrapped up in geography, math, and all the poetry, the risk, all of that was missing. So I started to add that in there, and then I realized — unusually for the owner of a record label — that I might not know everything"
Atkins reached out to more than 100 people for their knowledge and opinions in their particular areas of expertise.
"I think that got a real good balance — the bus company saying, 'this is what you need to watch out for with the bus,' the journalist saying 'this is what we don't like from some smartass,' the promoter saying 'it would be nice if a band would do this."
Atkins says he also included pieces from agents, stage techs, sound guys, people in bands, managers and even drug addicts.
"There's a fantastic piece from one of the guys from Sheep on Drugs talking about playing bass guitar on acid, and his ears aren't working properly because of the drugs. And I didn't know that about acid. It's a beautiful piece about drugs. I don't think it will make anyone want to do drugs, but it's good information."
Atkins says the math part of touring — the general demographics and geography — is also important for a band.
"If I draw a line from Minneapolis to Texas ... 17 of the top 100 largest are west of that line. The other stuff that's west of that line are all the 900 mile drives, the exploding transmissions, the exploding bass player's head because he can't deal with the 18-hour-a-day drives, the bad shows because you don't have a soundcheck, the lack of human interaction because you smell bad and you probably sound bad. And even if there's 50 amazingly hot girls or guys at the front of the stage, you've got to drive 900 miles to be late for the next show. And that strategy, it's insane. But if you stay east of that line, the drives are 90 miles."
Atkins says the logistical strategies for building an audience in cities across the country is explored and explained in Tour: Smart. Bands, he explains, have to think of themselves as small businesses. And to be entrepreneurial, they have to take responsibility for themselves.
"You'll be paying the price for whatever hasn't been taken care of," Atkins says. "Promoters these days open the doors to venues, and they take out some ads. [But] promoters don't really promote, agents don't really book, managers don't really manage — bands need to grab ahold of their situation. And that's what I'm telling bands. They want to be U2 or whatever, I tell them success is really being able to sustain. If you can sustain, you can learn and grow and make it better and do it again."
Language Advisory: This excerpt contains language some readers may find offensive.
CHAPTER 56: Marketing IV — 61 Strategies For A More Successful Show
A lot of this might sound like economics, marketing, demographics, and whatever that you might not be interested in, but all of this enables a great show, sweaty bodies, and that magic that makes your head tingle. If you don't want to deal with this and other aggressive strategies, find someone in the band who does or put your Wal-Mart uniform in the washer — you're going to need it.
1. Give your ticket-buying fans plenty of time to commit. Time is a huge factor in determining the success of a show. And give yourself time to promote! There is an exponential growth curve to ticket sales. The sooner you begin the process, the more tickets you will sell. Unless of course, your band is shit.
2. Tour within a reasonable time of a new release. You can gain some traction from a larger presence in stores and online and during a short window of attention and radio play. Take advantage of your record label (if you are signed). Enhance the chances of getting good reviews and having those reviews mention your live appearances. Tag a multi cut co-op ad with "Appearing at ..." It is great for the venue owner to see that someone else is shouldering some of the financial burden and increases the chances of stores putting up your posters.
3. Create Your Own Event! (See that chapter).
4. Play the right venue. If you are a Country Western band, play a Country Western venue. It is very, very difficult to capitalize on a catastrophe . So don't have one. No one cares that you played the wrong club on the wrong night in a snowstorm during a curfew. All they care about is the fact that no one was there.
5. Play the right venue on the right night!
6. Play where your fans are. Use your web site or database to find out where your fans are — go play there! (Thanks Zim)
7. Listen to Sun Tzu, "Don't take your country to war unless you are certain of the outcome." If your band is based in the Midwest, why, why, why — other than hanging out with members of Ratt or buying speed from the waitress at some cocktail lounge on the Sunset Strip — would you go to LA? You should carefully expand your geographical range, you stand a chance of having your best street teamers and fans travel 50 to 100 miles to a city you have never played in before. Turn it into a crusade (because it is). Once you are more than 100 miles away from a place you have already played, it gets tough. Without any eyes and ears on the ground, you could be heading for a problem show. Do research on the web, and if you cannot guarantee success, at least avoid humiliating disaster.
8. Advertise in Secondary Markets! If you have covered all the bases in the city you are playing in, then before you spend ten more dollars in that city, spend that money in the closest secondary market. You will getter a better return.
9. Be aware of larger tours going though a big city or its secondary market within ten weeks of your show. One, you should avoid playing the same night as a much larger band in a similar genre — or in the event of a larger tour that milks all of the money from your scene, make sure you are at least one pay period away! Unless it's a late, late, after-show party with a $5-off-the-ticket stub. Two, use the event as a parking lot flyering opportunity. Use the huge following of the other tour as an easy opportunity for you or your reps to advertise your show. Put up posters in the toilets; buy a ticket for a rep to get into the show. Be careful if it's a competing promoter, they will not like you advertising in their venue. Talk to the promoter of your event — he might end up being the promoter of the larger event. Use a larger event like this as a genre boost and piggyback on its success.
10. Involve a strong local band as an opener. But be careful. Local bands often play their market too much. Confirm the information they give you: How many people are on their e-mail list? Do they have a local street team that will help? Have they played recently? Are there any other bands that would be good additions to the show? Sometimes a local band doesn't realize the full nature of their role in the success of a show. Explain to them that they have the opening slot not just because you like their music, but because they kick butt in the flyering department and are willing to travel to neighboring markets and you really need them to do that for this show, too. Be prepared to offer the band similar services and hospitality in your town (Oh my God, an alliance!). Suggest that you will open for them if they have a good local draw. The main thing is to play for people. Anything you can do to play to more people sooner will be beneficial.
11. Plan, promote, push. Use my five pointed star inward crush. This can be applied on a large scale with cities or on a smaller scale with suburbs and secondary markets. Each point of the star is a show within driving distance of a larger city or show, play each of the points of the star first then incentivize your new fans to come to the main show. Plan, promote, push! Use a venue or a night that has developed a loyal following (a built-in) to your advantage. Look at the strategies in the booking chapter to increase the chances of success.
12. Provide a service to another, larger band that needs help. Offer your resources, whether they be equipment, transportation, or road crew help. Buy a larger vehicle and offer space to another band if there are four of you and you can afford a vehicle. This can also help you cut costs ... if you do it right. Make sure to include all expenses involved (gas, repairs, etc.). See the Transportation Chapter for more.
13. Give your show a name. Five or six disconnected small events in New York City became a week long assault when Jaz, the singer from Killing Joke, titled the week "Days of Sweat and Madness."
14. Involve a sponsor! If you know ahead of time about any support you are getting, it might make it easier for you to get a decent show and a decent offer. There is no shortage of companies looking to involve themselves in the promotional power of music. Make sure there is some kind of a fit and give value and courtesy to the sponsor. Send them pictures, keeping them involved even after the time for their help is over. Take any help that is offered. If it isn't exactly what you need, it is still the beginning of a relationship — and more help than none.
15. Involve a local radio station! It doesn't have to be a commercial radio station to be of assistance to the success of your show. Commercial stations might have a show such as "Local 101" on Chicago's Q101, where they feature local bands (another reason to involve a local band in your show). If you are getting airplay at the college level, talk to the promotions department about giving away free tickets with CDs or shirts for the show. This way every time they give away a ticket they will be announcing the show. Do this as early as possible. The promotional materials have to be at the station before they begin to give anything away.
16. Save some resources to kick into higher gear in problem markets. Make sure you have something left in your war chest for problems.
17. Talk to the promoter. Sometimes a DJ from the venue might also be a DJ at the radio station, a bartender, a journalist, or work at the record store. It's the same amount of effort to send a package to the right person as it is to the wrong person.
18. Get a media list from the venue. The venue is going to be your best source of the top five or ten places you need hit. This helps you allocate your resources and send packages to the right people. If the venue cannot send you a media list or come up with one off the top of their head it is a red flag and you need to be on your toes.
19. Get information out to local press. Keep the information simple and direct. Bullet points. No one has time or desire to learn how you and the guitarist met. Provide links to easily downloadable graphics and help them fill their paper with things people want to see. Make sure the listing goes out and the information is correct.
20. Send the venue elements for their website. Well-mastered music that slams and sounds good on the web — not the song with the really long, quiet, acoustic intro. And all the bullet points of good promotion: photographs, a few sentences for some respected resources, links to reviews, etc.
21. Get information to the local record store — and any other stores. Call. Send a poster. Tell them when you are playing. Maybe someone there works at the venue or is in the band opening for you (ask the promoter). These types of contacts could give you feedback on the venue such as, "Oh God, you are playing there! On a Tuesday!" Good stores are happy to help, within reason. Do not, not, not suggest an in-store appearance unless you are, in fact, Michael Stipe of REM. There is no such thing as a "moderately well-received" in-store or a "good" in-store. They are either fantastic or catastrophic. If in doubt, watch Spinal Tap. There are some record stores in remote parts of the country who have stages and welcome touring bands. This is because there are no alternatives close by. Take this opportunity to dazzle, amaze, and befriend an audience (hopefully) and a record store owner at the same time.
22. Track your packages. If you wait two weeks to call to make sure a package has been received, that's when you find out the person who does the booking is only there on Thursday and you called on a Friday, so you call back the following Thursday and that's when you find out that the package hasn't been received, and you just blew three weeks. FedEx is expensive. You can FedEx Ground something for $7 or $8 or add delivery confirmation from USPS for $0.60 then you can allocate your resources. FedEx packages to the 10 or 20 most important venues and use a cheaper method for the additional packages. Follow up within a few days of the venue receiving the package. That way, if they say they didn't get the package, you can refer to your organized notes and let them know who signed for it. This might lead them to finding your package and opening it.
23. Make sure that you "guest list" people from these outlets that want to take the time to come and support you. It is not enough to put somebody on the guest list. Make sure the guest list gets to the door before the doors are open. Also, make SURE it is typed and alphabetized and your band leader, manager, or rep checks with the door man frequently in the first hour or two, less frequently after that. Use the guest list to help a show that needs an attendance boost.
24. Type the guest list. Even if you only have seven people on the guest list — still type it. You'll get into the habit and what was a seven person guest list at 3 p.m. might explode into a 58-person list by the time the three radio stations that you didn't know about bring you their give-away lists. Bonus: When you are typing up the seven person guest list, you realize that your ink cartridge is fucked. Even though you bought three (like I'm going to tell you somewhere else in this book), you realize that the keyboard player has stolen them again so he can print more "Bass Players Suck" stickers to plaster in the bus toilet, and it's the night before the big LA show. You don't want to be tooling around LA at 4 p.m. looking for an Office Depot, do you?
25. BUY ON. If you are independently wealthy or injured in a car accident, you can buy on to a larger show or event with a guaranteed attendance for an evening.
26. Give away free tickets. There is nothing as bad as a poorly attended show. And now you get to go up one of the ladders on the Chutes and Ladders board.
27. Sell tickets to an event through your own website. Once you realize that getting people to commit early is essential to a successful show, begin to guarantee success by pairing up tickets on a deal: "Two for One," "Buy a ticket, get a free shirt," "Buy a pair of tickets at full price, get a free shirt and a laminate." These are all strategies that don't cost very much, but are very effective. Not only do advance ticket sales help with your cash fl ow and the financial crunch of getting the tour out the door, they also open up lines of communication with fans from other cities. If you have never played in Atlanta before and 20 tickets sell quickly, give these eager fans information (now you have their e-mails) and they can help boost word of mouth and create success. Present this as a "Free ticket to the show when you buy a CD" or "Free ticket to the show when you buy a T-shirt" deal. Let the promoter know that you are aggressively promoting the show on the web by giving away t-shirts and CDs with the purchase of tickets and that you will be ready to make a ticket buy the day of the show if necessary. Track sales by city — you can use this information to allocate funds accordingly.
28. eBay a ticket or a concert! See the story about Local H in the Using the Web chapter. They auctioned a concert on eBay and were wildly successful.
29. Give away an iPod. Advertise a free iPod on the web. You can also offer prizes: get some giveaways from local sponsors like gift cards from a music store, clothing store, or tattoo shop. Put the logo of the shops who donate gifts on the fl yer. When people buy tickets to your show from your site, enter their name into a drawing. This enables you to see how well the show could do (or not) and act accordingly.
30. Bundle This is a new trend for concert tickets. Prince did it first — I think with no label. Every concert ticket came with the new CD. Good idea removing the choice, removing the Soundscan hassle, and jacking up sales. Be careful — overaggressive bundling can cause a backlash. Make sure you are giving value to your fans, not ripping them off.
I just called to get tickets for the Chicago FIRE soccer team playing Chelsea FC — one of the best teams in the UK premiership division. "Great!" I thought. "$70 isn't bad for two tickets." The girl told me that was part of the "two-for" deal. Err. No, she called me back to tell me it was actually $90 — you get tickets to see The Fire play DC United in September... ugh! It's not a rip off as such; I can tell myself that at $20 a ticket, I'll take the family, etc. But it certainly is outside-of-the- (penalty) box thinking and aggressive as fuck! At the Chelsea game, there were license plates from New York and Minnesota ... you can bet none of those people came back up to see DC United.
31. Have a contest. I know it seems like maybe it's lame and one step away from bingo, but these strategies work — especially when they are smart and imaginative. You can read about Luke's strategy with Dope in the merchandising section and Local H's eBay strategy earlier in this section. Here's a great one from Pegasus Unicorn, a band in Erie, PA. They had a gumball machine on stage. The person with the prize winning gumball (like the Willy Wonka Chocolate bar) got a song written about them on their new album. See? It doesn't have to cost a fortune to be priceless.
32. Don't ever be an Asshole ... to your fans! Don't be an asshole to anybody who shows up. They showed up! If only 50 people show up to see you in a 400 capacity venue, it's 50 people more than NONE. Don't sit in the dressing room for an extra hour waiting for another 300 people to show up from nowhere, because the promoter said, "It's a late crowd." (He or she is correct — the Tuesday night crowd is so late you won't see them 'til Friday.) Instead, rise above. This is your mistake, not theirs. Given a chance, and some help and encouragement, a small crowd will go to great lengths to prove that each one of them equals five in number — which is great, especially if they buy stuff. Don't tell them to come to the front ... they won't. Don't be an asshole to the promoter, nobody needs it. You are going to have to make them a lot of money to make them consider dealing with you again. You may not get the chance to apologize. Promoters are people, too, running their own business in a very competitive field, overworked and stressed.
33. Recognize and reward. If you are in a city for the second time, stay on top of your database and make sure that people who have helped you in the past are recognized and rewarded on the guest list. If you cannot give them a shirt, do something that at least lets them know they are valued. Spend some time; they have earned it.
34. Get and give accurate information. It is difficult for one person to tell another person (you) that ticket sales are bad and no one really likes your band. If a promoter knows he or she is talking to the artist, your request for a ticket count will probably elicit the response that everything is fine or some nebulous feel-good response. What you have to get from them is an accurate and up-to-date count of the actual number of tickets sold. This will enable you to use your limited resources wisely, in the place where they are most needed to prevent problems.
35. Think about alternative places to promote. Local press, radio stations, and record stores are constantly bombarded by bands, managers, etc., daily and hourly. You could target nontraditional outlets such as tattoo and piercing, hair, clothing, and the skate/snowboard markets. Sending out hundreds of promotional CDs to record stores is like sending buckets of stupidity to President Bush. When we sent CDs to clothing stores, we got phone calls thanking us. Anytime you can ignite a reaction from anyone, it is a good beginning of something, which is more than nothing. And by constructively forming relationships with retailers, you might get plugged in to more opportunities that could be helpful later on.
36. Do a Promotional Postcard!
37. Print your poster in small quantities. If you're a new band, make your posters at Kinko's or somewhere that allows you to print a small quantity. As soon as you get good press, put this information on your poster so that you can adapt, react, and regurgitate. People want opinions of the band that aren't from the band.
38. Partially underwrite some of the expense of the tour by selling the other side of the promotional postcard to a band that's too lazy to leave home. Remember: you are not just offering half of the postcard; you are offering to place that postcard at the center of a group of fans. You will be saving them a ton of postage and spreading seeds on fruitful ground. You might fi nd a clothing company, a printer, a graphic artist, anyone who might be interested in a real concrete promotional opportunity.
39. Make the booth the reason to go to the show. Cool shirts, free samplers, free stickers, etc. are all extra incentives to come to a show. Make sure people know you're going to have a cool booth to add one more reason why they should not miss your show. Make the booth the only place to get the new CD with three songs from the upcoming album.
40. Get as many e-mail addresses as you can when you have people assembled to see you. Make sure you use this opportunity to say hello. You will need these emails when you begin the process all over again. Be prepared to give stuff away when you begin. No one is going to buy an album from a band they've never heard.
41. Pay attention to age limits, curfews, and transportation availability so you can advise your fans and compensate when possible.
42. Pay attention to routing and your fans' income streams. Sarah Williams, a student in my class, suggested that if your band is doing the flower petal routing on the weekends you should either: avoid the end of the month and hit the middle of the month when everyone has more money or ...
43. Play for free. As a new band, you're not going to get paid much (if at all), so why not just bite the bullet and play for free? At the end of the month no one has any money. You can understand and avoid this fact by using the strategy above or understand and use it by playing at the end of the month for free. The bands that have the most to gain by this strategy also have the least to lose. If you're only making $150/show, that means that after gas and fog juice you're only putting $15 a piece in your pocket anyway. So be heroes—play for free. It'd be popular as all hell with fans, help you get some new fans, and make all of the other bands in town look like bourgeois money grabbing fuckheads..........and, the upside could be huge! If it goes off well and people drink a lot you might even end up getting paid.
44. Always double double-check everything! See the Cyanotic example in Case Studies.
45. Use a hot issue to your advantage. Global warming, politics, voting, human rights, animal rights, education, music—but mean it!
46. Hire a celebrity to sit in with your band. "Featuring a special sit in from Mr. xxxx xxxx on xylophone."
47. Create a smaller event four weeks before the main event as a satellite publicity device. Be your own advance man. This could be a small acoustic show, a reading, a DJ night, a BBQ in the park, a lecture, an art event—anything that gets people out. So now you're saying "What, I was happy blaming my agent, but now in addition to suggesting I create my own event, now you want me to create another event four weeks before my other event?" Yes!
48. See the "Experience Is Good" list in the appendix ...
49. Don't travel too far away from your home base. When you create an accidental collision of events you have to be able to go back to that city to put that smoke in a jar. See the Project .44 Case Study as an example.
50. Stay sober. In his piece about accounting, Darren Guccione advised taking care of mind and body and pointed out that even the most amazing accountant is no match for drugs. For a band starting off it seems that all kinds of problems would be helped if they were dealt with by at least one or two members of the band being sober. It's easy to get pulled into the world of sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll and get swept up into the idea of what you think it is. The reality is that it's very hard work, the pinnacle of three-dimensional-multi-tasking, and next to impossible if you don't know exactly what you're doing all of the time. Instead of having a designated driver in the band, I'd suggest the opposite; a designated idiot. It's that person's job to get drunk that day; insult the soundman; accidentally unplug something on stage; trash a mic, a guitar, a monitor, something to the value of around $150: insult some fans; puke in someone's car; get lost; fall asleep; delay the band's departure by several crucial hours; piss themselves, and then puke in the van.
51. Get GPS. Here's a really easy way to have a better show: Don't get fucking lost on the way there, you stupid fuck! Someone in the band needs to get directions to the venue from Mapquest, a road map at the library, or your $300 GPS system. If you're late to the venue, you're not going to get a soundcheck, you're going to be stressed, and you're going to sound like shit.
52. Don't think of the promoter as a promoter. That's as misleading as calling a guarantee a guarantee. The safest philosophy for you is to think of them as door openers and remind yourself that that is the only thing you are relying on them to do. Anything else will be a pleasant surprise. As your experience of different promoters grows you'll find some who are fantastic and some who don't care. If in doubt, use this strategy.
53. Don't give up your day job. Once you give up your day job you have to invest completely in the idea that one day you're going to be huge and you become susceptible to pie in the sky philosophies. With the grounding of a day job, or two, or three, you're more likely to have the resources you need to make smarter choices about touring. You'll be able to play for free and start the building process.
54. Create a guest list of the twenty-five coolest people you know three to four weeks in advance of your event. Then these influential types will become part of your promotional team (See more from Curse Mackey in the Chapter on Creating Your Own Event chapter).
55. Put a celebrity in your merch booth.
56. Be your advance/promotions team. Create a reason to be in a tour city six to ten weeks ahead of your show: a DJ slot, spoken word appearance, anything. While you are there you can do a radio interview, stop by local stores to tell them about the show and leave postcards, meet with your street team and play them new tracks from your new album, give them the materials they need, and plant the seeds for greater success.
57. Tour in the smallest, most efficient vehicle you can - not the coolest. One of our bands had a 1970's bus and they spent more time painting the flames down the side than they did planning their tour or making sure the brakes worked (which they didn't).
58. Tour in the coolest vehicle you can. Never mind efficiencies and size - this will become your unique signature.
59. Don't play a market too often, especially your own. An exciting event is one that doesn't happen every three weeks.
60. Buy on to a larger tour for regional dates. Then book shows in smaller venues in each of those markets four weeks later. Use your buy-on as the reason to get the smaller club shows that have previously eluded you.
61. Have a new shirt for every new home market show. This does two things: it makes you have a new shirt for every show, and it might make you stop playing your home market to the point that all of the people that used to love you more than any other band on the planet now hate you because of the impositions you are making on their time. Go and ask your biggest fan right now, "Would you like it if we played every two weeks?" They'll say yes...then move to another country. You might say, "We could only have a new shirt designed, printed, and ready for a show every three months" ... OK! Maybe your fans will get into the habit of collecting the shirts from each show. As long as it's four per year, it's special and cool. And you'll be the band that has special stuff at every show... someone will wear the shirt from the show two years ago and people will talk about it.
And for heaven's sake, try writing a Thank You Card! I'm not saying that a thank you card is an unusual thing ... but we should have included an oxygen tank with each one!