In 2014, I played 76 shows. That number astounds me, because before this past year, I'd spent most of my time in small towns, doing mostly the same activities every weekend (drinking cheap beer and "hanging out") with the same small group of friends. I was comfortable, and for the most part happy, but restless. I kept adding names of places to the list of dream-destinations I kept at the back of my journal. I pinned a map of the world above my desk.
When I graduated college and got a full-time job, I was able to acquire a small savings for the first time, and this made my itch to travel an actual possibility. While saving up money, I put my self-conscious home-recorded songs on bandcamp under the name I'd jokingly typed under the "Artist" headline in iTunes: "free cake for every creature". Once my songs were on the internet, I faced a dilemma: I wanted people to hear my music, yet I (thought I) lived far away from an established "scene", and more so, I was shy and self-effacing. I quickly learned that the internet was my best friend.
I created a tumblr, a platform I'd fumbled through before by aimlessly re-blogging pretty pictures and following strangers who quoted from books I liked. Now that I was an "Artist", I could hopefully post some original content about my happenings. One of the first blogs I followed was QUARTERBACKS, both because I liked the band and also because I thought I could learn about other bands though their posts. I was right- through Dean's blog, my understanding of DIY east-coast artists germinated, then grew into a full-fledged vocabulary.
By reading about and following bands, I learned about the phenomenon of "going on tour", and thought, "how cool! To get to travel around with your friends, explore new places, and play music every night!" I knew off-the-bat that I wanted to "go on tour", too.
I told my ex-boyfriend that I wanted to tour, and he emphatically responded, "you should!" He sent me a book made by a small record label in New Zealand, A Low Hum, called, "D.I.Y. Guide To Touring The World". I read and re-read its section on touring the United States, the largest section in the book. It's main advice was to be persistent, read message boards, and email venues. It didn't sound too hard to me.
Of course, it was very hard. Especially as someone who didn't know at all what they were doing, didn't have any connections, and lived a pretty to-themselves kind of life. I sent out a LOT of emails to venues inquiring about shows, and also to musicians I admired, my questions about what they do and how they do it sandwiched between too much gushing over their songs. I'm a little embarrassed by these emails, but feeling embarrassed, and then moving past it, is just part of the difficulty of putting yourself out there.
Often I didn't get email responses back. But sometimes I did, and these emails we invaluable in how much they encouraged me. I sent my songs to Sam Cook-Parrot from the band Radiator Hospital, and was amazed that he not only responded, but commented on individual songs. I also sent them to Jeff Bolt from "Stupid Bag Records", and he said "keep doing what you're doing, you're good at it!" It was the first time anyone used the word "good" in reference to my songs. Dean even reached out to me after I "liked" one of his posts, and we formed a friendship. After posting my songs on his blog, other people started to know about me, and a few reached out, including Steph from "Adult Mom", who asked me to be on her compilation "Boy Tears", and whose music quickly became some of my favorite.
Meanwhile, I reevaluated my initial judgement that there was "nothing" going on in my town, thanks to initiating conversations with people about music and learning that many of my co- workers at the vegan cafe/ health food store I worked at were musicians themselves. I sent them my music and they were encouraging, asking when they'd be able to see me play. I hadn't even thought about this obvious first step I needed to take before trying to plan a tour.
At the time, I was vaguely aware of a few houses in town that would host shows, but didn't know who was responsible for booking them, and was nervous to play in a place unfamiliar to me. I decided that I'd just host my first show in my own dingy 6-ft-tall-ceilinged basement. I'd hosted shows for friends' bands in my old house, and enjoyed experiencing music in such an informal setting.
I asked a couple friends to accompany me on bass and drums. I asked Dean to play a QUARTERBACKS set, as well as another local band. I texted everyone I knew a week in advance, and, since it was a small town, word spread. The night of the show, I made cookies and strung heart lights in my basement. Slowly but surely, people filtered in, my co-workers, friends who were now seniors and juniors at the college I'd just graduated from, and even friends from out of town. Right before my set, I stood in the backyard by myself and paced back and forth wondering what the heck I was doing, and why I was putting myself in such a vulnerable position. When I explained this feeling later to one of my musician co-workers, he said he knew what I meant, but that "we perform because we have to."
We all have things inside that we need to get out. Singing in front of my friends and strangers that night exchanged some of the fear and anxiety I'd known existed in me with a feeling of confidence that I'd initially needed to feign while on "stage" in front of everyone. It left me eager to play another show.
Other people who hosted house shows started asking me to play, and I readily agreed. My performances weren't great- I'd forget to tune my guitar, my fingers would fumble between chords, and I'd sort of scream instead of sing because I often couldn't hear my soft vocals over the imperfect PA in a room full of my buzzed peers. But I felt myself getting better, my nerves quieting slightly with each subsequent show, my voice getting louder. Colin and Francis started playing with me consistently, and we grew together as a band.
Unexpectedly, through playing shows I started to make a lot of friends. Playing shows is kind of like going to a party, except often for me, especially if I was playing with a band I admired, I liked everyone at the party and actually wanted to talk to them. I found myself actively engaging in conversations with strangers about the music they played, or music we liked, and taking down their phone numbers to continue the conversation later- and this is the crux of how to plan a own tour on your own, the only way, really: by knowing people. By caring about local music, getting involved, going to shows, booking them, playing them, and talking and being nice to people because they are humans, not because you want to use them for a connection.
Through my newfound friends, booking our first tour wasn't too difficult, after all. I set the dates for mid-March, since that's when Francis's spring break from college was, and got to emailing people about helping us with shows. Although, I was nervous to send out these emails because I was afraid I was imposing. I ended a few emails with things like, "Sorry for bugging you!" and my stomach would tighten when I pressed "send". Luckily, while booking the tour, I came across a post on the digest Brain Pickings that highlighted passages from Amanda Palmer's (the lead singer of the Dresden Dolls) book The Art of Asking. In her book, she states that when we deny asking others for help with our artistic work, "it comes back to that same old issue: we just can't see what we do as important enough to merit the help, the love." I sat a little taller in my seat when I read that. I knew I needed to have more confidence. When I named my first collection of songs "shitty beginnings", some part of me must have believed they weren't total garbage, or why else would I have put them on the internet? So why was I downplaying my music, and assuming people wouldn't want to help me out?
Keeping my chin up and staying persistent in my emailing, I managed to find seven shows in seven days, with only an hour or two between drives. I was thrilled! I made a list of snacks to bring, created a long playlist to listen to during the car rides, and packed my favorite two outfits to rotate. In high spirits, Francis, Colin and I headed out to our first stop of tour: David Blaine's The Steakhouse in Brooklyn, NY.
At the show, we were met by a few friends and found comfort in their presence. We played well, met new friends, saw great bands, and felt generally good overall. When the show ended, we said our goodbyes and happily rolled out our sleeping bags.
While trying to sleep that night, I was confronted with what seemed an hours-long shouting- match about vitamins (?) from people in the next room, as well as a very drunk man left over from the show stumbling around and falling a few feet away from us. I learned my first lesson that, while tour is gratifying and exciting, there are lows as well, and it isn't as glamorous as peoples' tumblr posts and disposable pictures make it look. That being said, I had a great week overall. We met some awesome weirdos, ate tasty food (sometimes for free), and learned about other bands and touring opportunities.
When I got home, I felt energized and propelled by the momentum of our experience. I almost immediately got to work on another tour, this time in June, with the goal in mind of stopping at The Atlanta Zine Fest. On the way down, I planned on playing in cities I'd never been to before, such as Arlington, Greenville, and Knoxville. In this tour-planning process, I had to go beyond the contacts I already had. I reached out to fellow musicians, asking if they knew anyone in these cities from their past tours. When I still couldn't find a lead, I turned back to the internet, exploring resources such as message boards, dodiy.com, and The DIT Phonebook. I also looked on bandcamp, searching under the name of the city I wanted to play in to try and find a local band to help me out. Again, often my emails and efforts were met without response. But eventually, after sending out probably a hundred emails, people started getting back to me, and I was able to book thirteen shows.
It's important to know that shows booked through using online resources are wildcards. Luckily, more often than not on the June tour, I was surprised by the kindness of total strangers in
helping us out- setting up a great show for us, giving us a place to sleep, feeding us, giving us the low-down on their towns. I met many selfless people who were passionate about DIY music and enthused about enriching their local scene. Their energy kept me positive and convinced me that what I was doing was important.
Sometimes, though, our shows flopped. We walked into the "The Mag Bar" in Louisville, KY, only to be met by perturbed glances from leather-clad biker men who were trying to enjoy their game of trivia. As we walked to ask the bartender where we were supposed to play, one man sneered at me "Jersey girl, huh?" while smiling meanly, referencing the license plate of my car, which was parked right in front of the bar. The bartender looked bored and said, "I didn't realize there was a show happening tonight." When I said, "Uhm, there is." He said, "Well, when there is, they're kept in the back room", and pointed his finger to the back of the bar. We shuffled past the trivia-goers with our heads down. When we got to the back room, most of the space was taken up by a stained pool table. We looked at each other and left the bar.
I wish I could say that was the last scary-bar experience I had, but there were a few others, like when we went on tour again in August and played in a bar in Denver to only Francis's brother in the audience. Or when we played at "Burt's Tiki Bar" in Albuquerque and the guy who booked the show wouldn't respond to our text messages and didn't even show up. As well as these shows, there were shows we booked that fell through, or shows we played that were thrown more as an excuse for friends to get together and drink rather than anyone actually caring about the music. While these shows weren't perfect, I really can't say they were "bad". Sure, they weren't financially successful and didn't give us any more acclaim or broaden our fan base. More unfortunately, there was a general lack of care from the people who put together the show, making me less invested in it as a performer. But ultimately, I planned these tours in order to get to play music, travel, and hang out with my friends. And, even at the shitty shows, I got to do that, making them successes.
I am by no means an expert on DIY tour-booking. Most of the knowledge I've gained about booking shows was through the hands-on act of trying to book shows, talking to people and sending out emails. The more I've done it, the easier it's become, as with anything. And I'm so glad I decided to try booking my own shows instead of waiting around to maybe get "big" enough for someone to offer to do it for me, or paying someone to do it (& possibly mismanage it). Even though booking my own shows set me up for possible discomfort, it also set me up for exuberance, and gave me memories to call on if feeling encumbered by the day-to-day.