Tour Life: Woe or Whoa!

“Ain’t in it for my health…”  Levon Helm

BnB FallSince I’m becoming an agent, I decided to send myself on the road with a few bands.  I wanted to see how they earn their money.  I wanted to discover first-hand the joys of traveling with a rock band.   I wanted to see what hardships they might face.  I didn’t have the time, money or guts to try something like The Autumn Anxiety Tour: PASADENA and Bumpin Uglies going coast to coast.  Instead, I did some long weekends with The Wayfarer Experiment and Bond & Bentley and an extended run with Lovebettie and Triphazard on their Unsocial Network Tour.  Want the abridged version? Bands don’t make enough money.

Being in a band is expensive.  You invest in gear and pay to maintain it.  You have to pay for gas to get to and from the gig.  You can’t always count on the venue providing food and drinks as part of your compensation.  Before you can sell merchandise, you have to pay to produce it.  And from what I’m seeing out there, bands get $150-300 to play a show until they really start to draw a crowd.

The hours are lousy.  Accounting for driving and loading in/out, you might leave home at 5pm and get home at 5am.  Have you ever tried to find gas, food or lodging after 2am?  You might have luck in a city but be prepared to pay more.  Time management skills only go so far when so few factors are within your control.  You start and finish when the venue says so.

Shrimpboat band“Touring is for the young.  You can only sleep on floors for so long.  And you must have complete immersion to do it right.  You can’t have baggage or responsibilities calling from home.”  So says Loretta, who fronted and toured with several bands including Burning Bus, The Dive Bar Pretties and currently Shrimpboat.  “It’s a great life.  It’s a hard life.  You must be completely into it to survive.”

Are all tour stories filled with hard luck and few rewards?  Of course not.  Imagine the best concert you’ve ever seen.  Now imagine what it must have felt like for the band to make that connection with their audience.  Now realize it can be you: if you make good music and find the right crowd at the right time.  Ray Wroten, who fronts Bond & Bentley, has been touring 200+ nights a year for six years.  He loves what he does and has plenty of stories good and bad.2013-02-09 23.39.51

“Man, our tour last spring is a great example.  We had a send-off gig at home: great night.  The next two nights, bam, great bars, great audiences.  People into it, dancing, never seen or heard of us before.  Made a lot of connections, sold a pile of cd’s.  It’s crazy; we’re from Baltimore but we now have a huge fan base in Buffalo, NY.  Night four we play a place in Indy that we’d done well at before.  We had a couple friends there from a previous show.  And that’s who we played to.  Two people.  So you play what they want to hear and mostly treat it as a rehearsal.  But if you’re being paid as a percentage of the gross, you’re in financial trouble already and you’re four states from home.  The next night we played to a packed house, but we might as well have been a fucking juke box.  People sitting five feet away couldn’t give two shits about what we were doing.  We made $600 and felt lousy.  You just gotta shake it off, roll to the next show and pour your heart out again.  You never know when you’ll find that Buffalo.”

The Wayfarer Experiment

The Wayfarer Experiment

So, you want to rock and roll?  Good!  Work hard at your music.  Make it an art and a craft.  Believe in yourself and the power of music to make the world a better place.  We need you.  Not everyone can do what you do.

Let me offer a few pointers and answer some frequently asked questions.

1.  Pack a cooler and a set of “emergency” clothes.  If you get hungry, thirsty or sprayed with who knows what, you’re set.  Living on drive-thru and diner food will take its toll and costs double the price of groceries.  Make sure there’s water in that cooler.

2.  Learn how to read a map.  Don’t let those commercials fool you.  You DO NOT have cell service everywhere and if you think GPS always works, you are too dumb to tour.

3.  Promote your own shows!  Every place you play likely has a Facebook, Twitter, etc.  When you have the dates set, start sending them photos, videos and links to stuff you want them to see/know/share.  Make it easy for their audience to get to know you.  It’s your job.  The venue’s job is selling food and drinks.  Allow me to suggest a Gigspots profile and let us help you with promotion.

Uglies2Can I make money by touring?  Yes, but not as much as you think.  Merch is where most bands make a small profit.  The audience already has pictures and video on their smartphones.  Can you make them want a piece of you to take home?  It’s not the shirt, music or poster they want.  They want an artifact.  Don’t say, “We have cd’s for sale.”  Say, “Come meet us after the show by the merch table.”

Can I get laid by touring?  Maybe, but usually only if you can get laid back home.  You can get STD’s, arrested, beaten up and/or stalked very easily by the types of people who are still in bars at closing time.   You can also really piss off your band mates who are hungry, tired and ready to leave.  Better to focus on your job out there.

Why tour if it’s so hard with no guarantees?  News flash: life is hard and there are no guarantees.  But if music is your life, and you make it because you have to, then express yourself.  If you’re tired of playing the garage and you’ve tested the waters at open mics, band competitions, etc, then bring it to us.  If your music is genuine, your talent obvious and your heart open, you’ve got a shot.  Taking music or any art public is to write an open love-letter proposal to the world.  Touring is a blind date.  If you can handle love and love lost, you can handle it.

Young Lions

This blog was originally published 8/22/13 as last summer ended.  I promised to re-publish twelve of my favorite blogs in the first twelve nights of April to celebrate Gigspots’ anniversary.  Then The Districts and Toy Soldiers played The Chameleon Club Thursday 4/3 and blogging duties were shunned.  I’d have to say the “young lions” I named have done pretty well.

The Districts just finished a second national tour and released an ep with Fat Possum records.  They logged numerous appearances in RollingStone.com and will be touring the US and UK all summer.

Bumpin Uglies has toured the US twice, played scores of festivals, played a Rombello cruise and opened for some serious national acts.  This May they play The Fifth Annual California Roots Music and Arts Festival.  Maximum respect due, mon!

SEEDS finished their first studio album, Questioned By a Ghost, to many positive reviews including my own.  This band really rocks!  Then they sold out of it and all their t-shirts and other swag.  In short, people can’t get enough of this band and they now headline shows all over the region.

The Wayfarer Experiment continues to go through changes.  I saw a five-piece version open for Cabinet this fall.  I’ve seen Bjorn Jacobsen match licks and growls with some mighty players at open mics and jams across the state.  I’ve seen Bjorn and Robin Chambers draw a crowd away from other stages at festivals.  Bjorn, Robin, Nathan Arndt and Matthew King played a killer set at Lancaster Roots and Blues and then percussionist Matt quit the band.  Word around the campfire is that Bjorn and Robin just spent four days squirreled away with an unnamed producer and recorded the band’s fourth album.  Bjorn says it’s his masterpiece so I’m a bit freaked because the first three are damn fine works…………………………………….

I see a ton of bands and this summer has been filled with great music!  I haven’t forsaken my favorite bands of 2012: Kalob Griffin Band, Pasadena, Lovebettie, Sweet Leda, Toy Soldiers, The Slackwater News and Cabinet.  But you must be tired of hearing me praise them in every blog and all those bands have begun reaching national audiences.  August’s sign is Leo so let me spout about some of the young lions roaring on the scene right now.

The Wayfarer Experiment

The Wayfarer Experiment

I’m totally high on The Wayfarer Experiment.  This band has featured different players almost every time I’ve seen them (hence “experiment”) but the current lineup is a bonfire.  Matthew King on percussion and Nathan Arndt on guitar and xylophone have been playing together since middle school.  They are tight as tequila.  Robin Chambers on violin is some kind of gypsy/faerie madwoman and ohhh, look out for her sultry side.  Then there’s Bjorn Jacobsen.  He plays guitar, banjo, mandolin and harmonica.  He sings like a mix of Jim Morrison and Tom Waits.  They call their music “dark folk and gypsy blues” and you will get it.   I have all three of their albums and a ton of videos here.  They don’t have a website, Twitter, Instagram or any of those fancy promotional tools.  They just enchant you and haunt you.

Uglies2Bumpin Uglies plays “white-boy reggae” and hails from Annapolis, MD.  They play lots of songs about girls, weed and trying to make it as musicians as you might expect.  What you might not be ready for is how well they play, how sincere and clever the songs are, and how groovy their grooves are.  They will likely remind you of Sublime in the best ways.  Front-man, guitarist and principal writer Brandon Hardesty is a focused, talented guy and I predict big things for this crew.  I like EVERY song on their latest cd Ninjah: Reggae Assassins and they are touring nationally to support it.

SEEDS played one of the last shows at Tellus360 before renovations began.

SEEDS played one of the last shows at Tellus360 before renovations began.

SEEDS is a brand new band with their first album almost completed.  Their website just went live.  They are a rock band, no doubt, but their sound is definitely influenced by Wynton Huddle’s sitar training.  He’s a nut, too, so their songs are funny, tragic, scary, weird, sexy, you name it.  I’ve been a Wynton fan since he played high school talent shows and have followed him across several bands.  This lineup (with Hunter Root sharing guitar duties, Alex Aument smashing drums and Tyler Smith thumping bass) looks like a keeper.  Their tag line: “We’ll grow on you.”

The Districts crushed it to open the Marina Stage at XPoNential Music Fest 2013

The Districts crushed it to open the Marina Stage at XPoNential Music Fest 2013

Do I need to mention The Districts?  Hell yes, even if your room is wallpapered with their posters.  You rarely see a band find so much success so fast, especially when they just graduated high school in June! Their first two albums really rock in a real rock sort of way.   Think early Aerosmith or Black Crowes for the vibe if you’re my age; think Spoon or Cold War Kids if you’re under 30.  If you haven’t caught up with this band yet, crawl from under your rock and go see them.  It will be easy to find them.  They just opened the Marina Stage at XPoNential Music Festival (thanks WXPN!) then departed on a national tour.  They will be based in Philly next month as they all head off to Temple University.  We’ll see if textbooks or touring win out.

There is no reason you can’t find bands to love on your own.  I barely scratched the surface of all the fine young/new acts in central PA.  Tell me who you love and who needs to be on my short list to see!