As a musician, one of the best feelings in the world is playing live music. This past year, music fans and gigging bands have been on a respite as we’ve taken care of our health and safety. Some artists have been able to livestream, sell creative merch, and crowdfund epic albums to pass the time.
While many musicians have found success in isolation, now is an exciting time for musicians who thrive on live performances. With restrictions lifting, a return to live shows is on the horizon.
Once you’ve played your local venues again, and re-connected with your music scene, you might set your sights on a bigger musical adventure - a tour.
If you’re managing your own band, planning a tour can be both challenging and rewarding. Whether you’re touring to support a new album, to connect with other musicians, or to present your project to industry professionals, a successful tour can be life changing.
Touring in a van is one of the easiest ways to get on the road and get the exposure your music needs. As a DIY musician, these thirteen rules for touring in a van can help you have an awesome experience.
Gearing up for the road
1. Go where your fans are
With most music tools, you can track where your plays and purchases are coming from. Use the data from your website traffic reports to target major cities connected to the landscape of your fans.
For instance, if you’ve been using a single to promote your new album and it’s getting plays in Lowell, Woburn, and Littleton, Massachusetts, set a tour stop in Boston. You can take advantage of the metropolitan aspects of Boston, like appropriate venues, local promoters, and regular venue traffic, and your fans from neighboring cities will be just a short ride away from seeing you play.
If you haven’t gotten enough data yet, think of a few major cities you’d like to play and find local bands that have a similar sound to you. You can reach out to them to ask more about their music scene and build your country-wide rapport.
2. Send your EPK to local promoters
Now that you’ve plotted out the ideal locations for your tour, reach out to bands you would want to play with, promoters, and venues. They’ll want a snapshot of your best tracks, a little bit of backstory, and promo images - you can even include a stage plot to give them a heads up about your technical needs.
Creating an EPK is the perfect way to introduce your music project. Send a personalized message to industry professionals to make a genuine connection with them - they might receive hundreds of inquiries a month, so stand out with a sincere and thoughtful introduction. Since you’re organizing a tour, mention a series of dates you’d be able to play in their city.
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3. Share your tour dates with fans to sell tickets beforehand
Once you’ve established dates and locations, add events to a calendar on your website. Not only will your fans know where and when they can see you shred live, but you can sell tickets to shows beforehand to get a head start on your guestlist.
Don’t forget to add details, like the other bands you’re playing with, a description of your band or the album you’re releasing, and anything else that might be press worthy for the event. This information will grab the attention of potential show-goers when fans and promoters share the event.
4. Get your merch ready
On a van tour, some nights you might not make enough from door cover to pay for food and gas on the way to your next gig. To supplement your cut of the ticket price, prepare merch to bring on tour with you.
As a musician, you probably have creative merch ideas or have picked up some interesting goods at other shows (like custom-made earrings or a toy car with a download code pasted to the chassis).
Whether you’re bringing t-shirts, buttons, or poetry books, make sure to keep your merch in its own case, separate from your instruments and socks, and keep track of your inventory and profits.
Speaking of download codes, don’t forget to print download codes and add them in the CD, vinyl, and cassette sleeves of the physical albums you’re selling on tour. Your fans will thank you.
5. Be tight before you leave
This is probably a no-brainer, but try to be as well-rehearsed as you can before you leave. Especially if you’re touring in support of an album release, recording in-studio and playing live are dramatically different. There are tons of variables on unfamiliar stages, so this is crucial for a successful tour.
Practice with your pedals setup. Practice different transitions between songs. If you can (or even if you can’t!), practice with each others’ instruments. Get to know your songs inside and out so you can recover and improvise in any circumstance. It’s also a good idea to have at least two setlists practiced, so you don’t get tired of your own music.
While you’re practicing, don’t forget to have fun with your bandmates. A kinship with your band is one of the main reasons to make music and, as an added bonus, this bond can help you anticipate and react to each other’s flow. When you’re ready, set a tour kickoff event in your local town so you can get feedback on your set and start your journey right.
On the road
6. Prepare your gear
Your music gear is your gateway to success. Every day and night, you’ll be playing tetris to figure out the best balance between your guitars, keyboards, drums, and personal items, so it’s important to establish some basic gear rules to abide by. Here is a shortlist:
• One person sleeps in the van with the gear each night.
• Everyone loads gear in and loads gear out.
• Bring extra strings, sticks, daisy chains, and patch cables.
• House kits are house kits. Bring your breakables.
7. Road hygiene
You’ll likely be packing light for a tour, but there’s three essential things to bring or buy along the way: a first aid kit, spare socks, and apples (or bananas). You might be surprised by a random bug bite in the Okanagan, you could be caught loading in gear during a thunder shower in Toronto, and your liver will be working overtime thanks to drink tickets at every bar you play. These three items can be packed before-hand or picked up at any gas station on your journey.
Mental hygiene is also critical for any road-worthy band. Touring is full of highs and lows, so keep your mental health in check. If maintaining a physical regime makes you feel at your best, bring along a jump rope and get a few hops in at rest stops. If you like to meditate, ear plugs and a sleeping mask can help you center yourself.
Try to establish a daily check-in with your band mates - a simple question like, ‘What’s your rose and thorn of the day?’ is a non-confrontational way to see how everyone is feeling and learn what’s important to each member in the band.
8. Bring a mailing list signup sheet
A mailing list signup sheet is one of the best instruments for engaging your fans (beyond your guitar). Bring a lined sheet of paper, or print a fancy excel sheet, with a column for email addresses, names, and locations. You can place the mailing list signup sheet on your merch table, so even if a new fan can’t purchase a pin or shirt that night, your next newsletter blast will remind them of the awesome show and help build your fanbase online.
9. Document your tour
The strangest things become inside jokes on tour. Let your fans in on your daily banter, describe the cool venues you’re playing, and give props to the local bands in a dedicated tour blog.
Along with quick text updates, visuals rule. Photos and video taken on your mobile phone can be uploaded to your socials and blog in a snap. If you update daily, it can also boost your social exposure and remind your fans you’re on your way to play for them.
As a bonus, bring a disposable camera to document the best moments of the tour. With a disposable camera, you’re limited to the amount of photos you can take and it takes time to develop. When you get back home, you’ll be happy to have a packet of physical momentos to review at the next band practice.
10. Thank the locals
Whether it’s a small club or an arena, headliners always thank the performers before them. Local openers do a lot of the leg work by bringing in an audience, warming up the crowd, and helping you out behind the scenes. Give them kudos for their awesome set and camaraderie.
After the show, you might leave the venue with a few bucks for gas or a few hundred dollars to go toward your next record release - which may not leave room for the expense of a fancy hotel every night of tour. In the DIY tradition, local bands or fans may offer you a place to stay for the night.
To show your appreciation for a roof over your head and (in the best case scenario) a hot shower in the morning, leave a small gift for your hosts. A gift can be a signed CD or even a cool doodle on the back of a gig poster. Keep the DIY spirit alive with an offer to your nightly saviours.
11. Drive safely
This should go without saying, but drive safely. Remember, you’re driving long haul for hours a day with band members, gear, and dreams on wheels. Keep up with your van maintenance before you head out and put some engine oil in your kit. An unsafe vehicle can be devastating in more ways than one.
When you get to the venue, draw sticks, take turns, or rochambeau for who gets to be the designated driver that night. It’s an important responsibility, so stay well below your limit or go straight edge for the night so you can get your band and gear to the next location without a scratch.
12. No fighting in the van (or on stage)
Don’t fight on tour. Spending three, fifteen, or 30 days with the same four people will bring up some weird emotions - and it’s in everyone’s best interest to recognize that as a possibility before the pedal hits the metal.
While you’re out playing adrenaline fuelled shows, sleeping on floors, eating gas station apples, and settling on the same 25 driving tunes, conflict is bound to rear its ugly head.
Just remember the rule of five - if your bandmate can fix the problem in five minutes, let it out. If it would take 5 months or 5 years to fix, let it go. Keep your stage energy on point and avoid cancelling dates due to a nuclear meltdown or an avoidable feud.
13. Bring a jerrycan
A jerrycan is a compact container that can store litres of fuel. As previously mentioned, staying on top of van maintenance is important, but the jerrycan is key. The Canadian shield, the Arizona desert, and your country’s favorite badlands are the worst places to be stranded. And, if it isn’t an issue with your alternator or your van overheating, you might break rule 12 in the heat of the moment. Avoid missing a gig in Los Angeles because you’re stuck on the side of the highway outside of Modesto.
The goal of every tour is to get to the gig and put on a good show. With high hopes for your adventure, don’t forget that touring is ultimately for the love of the music. Play for fun, play for new friends, and play the best you can. Whether it’s your first tour or your 50th, these rules for touring are fundamental - add your own as you gain experience along the way. With a small budget, a mini-van, and a thirty-minute setlist, the road is your only limit.
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