ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
You think your road trips are tough, think of what it's like for the poor touring rock band. Sweaty guys piled into 1000 year old van, amps and drums weighing down the beast as it lumbers along at two-and-a-half miles a gallon. All to play some half filled club in Tucson. It ain't easy out there for a rocker.
Martin Atkins knows all about it. He played drums for bands like Public Image Limited, Ministry, and that's him with Nine Inch Nails. He also runs the indie record label Invisible. Now, Martin Atkins literally wrote the book for aspiring bands, advice on what to do and what not to do on the road. It's called "Tour: Smart."
I caught up with him just before a seminar at Washington, D.C.'s Club Five. I want to paraphrase the introduction to your book. This book is part basic knowledge, part math, part poetry, part alchemy, and part understanding of your limitations. What's the biggest part?
Mr. MARTIN ATKINS (Author, "Tour: Smart"): Well, when I finished the first version of the book, I think I was all wrapped up in the idea of well, it's going to be a textbook, it's going to be a textbook. And...
SEABROOK: You wanted to write a textbook for indie bands?
Mr. ATKINS: Yeah, well I teach - I teach the business of touring at Columbia in Chicago. And so I got wrapped up in okay, you know, geography, math, and all the poetry, the risk. All of that was missing. And so I started to add that in there. And then I realized, unusually for the owner of a record label I realized that I might not know everything.
So I called about 110 other people. And I think that got a real good balance of the bus company saying this is what you need to watch out for with a bus. The journalist saying, well, this is what we don't like from some smart ass drug addict. You know, there's a fantastic piece by one of the guys from Sheep on Drugs who I think is an expert on drugs.
Talking about playing bass guitar on acid. I mean, there's a bit by a doctor about the effects of drugs. But he's just talking about the bass guitar is made out of sponge rubber and his ears aren't working properly because of the drugs, which I don't know that about acid. He's a smart guy so he has this great idea of looking at the drummer to get the time signature.
But of course, the drummer's arms are just melting. And it just - it's a beautiful piece about drugs. I don't think it's going make anybody want to do drugs, but it's good information.
SEABROOK: Let me ask you about which part is math? What is the math of touring?
Mr. ATKINS: In general, demographics, the geography. I had this idea. If I draw a line from Minneapolis to Texas, how many of the largest 100 markets in the U.S. are west of that line? I think there's 17 of the top 100 markets west of that line. What - the other stuff that's west of that line are all the 900-mile drives, the exploding transmissions, the exploding bass players head because he can't deal with the 18-hour-a-day drives.
The bad shows because you don't have a sound check. The lack of human interaction because you smell bad and you probably sound bad and even those 50 amazingly hot girls or guys at the front of the stage, you've got to leave to drive 900 miles to be late for the next show. But if you stay east of that line, the drives are 90 miles, 110 miles. It's all of - it's that stuff.
SEABROOK: I think that's some of the most fascinating stuff that you're talking about is this idea that bands are small businesses and that they have to be entrepreneurial. You're touring yourself now going around telling these bands all of the things they don't tell each other, you say. And what are you telling them about how to be flexible and entrepreneurial in this environment. What are you telling them to do?
Mr. ATKINS: I tell bands to take responsibility for themselves. You'll be paying the price for whatever hasn't been taken care of, and what do they need to do? They need to tour. Every politician knows you have to get out there. You can't affect change from a distance. You can't affect change with a MySpace page.
How do you become U2? How do you sell five million albums? One album at a time, dude. And that's all I'm telling bands. They'll say, well, you know, they want to be U2 or whatever. I tell them success really is just being able to sustain. If you can sustain you can learn and grow and make it better and do it again.
SEABROOK: Martin Atkins, musician, educator, author, drummer, thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. ATKINS: Thank you. Nice to talk to you.
SEABROOK: With that, Martin Atkins takes the floor. A bunch of young musicians gather in a semicircle taking in every word.
Mr. ATKINS: MySpace, more than three million bands on MySpace. The next time I go through whatever state it is that has corn I'm going to get out of the car and just pan around a huge endless field of corn because that's what every band on MySpace is; an ear of corn exactly the same size as a few million other ears of corn.
And then I'm going to get - I'm going to flag down a car and give my camera to somebody and I'm going to go in the middle of the field of corn and start jumping up and down because that's what you need to do in the middle of the field of corn. And then I'll start jumping up and down even more as the guy with my camera drives off. And then in a fabulously viral way I'll be the guy whose camera this guy stole, I'll be on his Web site.
SEABROOK: Martin Atkins at Club Five in Washington, D.C. Next weekend his own tour takes him to Lake in the Hills, Illinois. The book is called "Tour: Smart." The DVD companion hits stores Tuesday. To read Martin Atkins "61 Strategies for a More Successful Show," go to the music section of our website. It's npr.org.
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