A while back, I went out to see a hard-working Schwilly Family Band at a venue near my house.
They dazzled the crowd with grace and charisma in a way I hadn’t seen before.
They get booked a lot, playing about 300 shows a year.
They had one of the most diverse and interesting merch setups I’ve seen in a long time. ALL homemade stuff. Even the CDs.
They were truly impressive in every way, so I figured they must be making some pretty decent money.
As it turned out, they were still struggling to make ends meet and to make sure they had enough gas to make it to the next city.
It only took a short conversation in front of their awesome merch table to get to the bottom of it.
They had implemented the genius idea of DIYing their merch. Really beautiful and creative stuff. And a GREAT way to save on costs.
But then they undid their efforts by WAY underpricing their stuff.
Here’s the deal:
DON’T try to be the “Walmart” of music. They have to move a LOT of volume to make up for their small profit margins. And you’re not ever going to move that kind of volume.
You make premium art, which should be reflected in your pricing.
If you have the time and creativity to make your own merch (or anything else related to your business), that’s great! Use that as an opportunity to lower your costs… NOT your prices.
Otherwise you’re just undercutting other musicians, undervaluing your own work, and reducing the perceived value of music in general.
And worst of all… you’re being your own slave labor!
Put a value on your time. Account for that in your pricing, and pay yourself for your work.
I promise that REAL fans will be happy to pay what your stuff is worth. And those who aren’t, must not be that into you. So there’s no reason to cater to them.
It kind of reminds me of an unsubscribe message I got recently: “Thanks, but I’m trying to save money”.
I didn’t bother to respond to her, since she has opted out of receiving my free advice.
But I’ll happily give that advice to you…
“Saving Money” and “Making Money” are two VERY different goals. But it’s a LOT easier to save money when you’re making money (as opposed to saving it as a way of avoiding spending it).
As Adam Carolla (an actual rich guy who started out poor) says:
“Focus on making dollars, not saving pennies.”
When I was working for “The Man” just to make ends meet and living from paycheck to paycheck, my savings account was full of dust.
But now that I MAKE money and pay myself first by funneling 10% into a secret savings account before I even touch it, I have enough in there to cover a few months worth of expenses if anything goes wrong.
If you want to learn REAL business skills (which are often at odds with conventional wisdom), that’s exactly what I teach in the Musicpreneur Apprentice Program.
If you want to start MAKING money so that you can start SAVING money, the best thing you can do for yourself is invest in an education that will teach you how.
“Hey, Man. It’s a touch loud in the house. Can I trade you some amp volume for monitor gain?”
“But my amp’s only on, like, two!”
Have you been part of a conversation like this? I have. It rarely ends well, because somebody is always frustrated or disappointed at the end. Oftentimes, there are at least two somebodies: The audio human and the amplifier user.
The sticking point in the debate is an idea that “low knob position = acceptable volume.” Unfortunately, this notion is anything but watertight. The reality is that acceptable volume = acceptable volume, with the position of any relevant control being nearly immaterial.
To put it another way, the position of the knob is the cause, and the resulting audio output is the effect. In the end, the effect is what matters. If the effect is causing a problem for the band, then the “state” of the cause isn’t a valid argument that the overall result is okay.
Nobody has ever fought a speeding ticket by claiming that the car’s accelerator was only a third of the way down.
The same reasoning also applies when the disagreement ventures into drive percentages. Somebody might say, “I’m only using about 10% of the amp, and for it to sound right I need at least 40%.” That’s fair enough in some respects, but it points to an issue of bringing an artillery piece to a neighborhood cap-gun game. If the amplifier doesn’t sound good until most people think it’s too loud to sound good, then the amplifier doesn’t actually sound good.
It’s the wrong tool. And the wrong tool at the right price, or with the right look, or with the right capabilities for some other job is still the wrong tool.
If two is too loud for the band, then two is too loud. If you’re finding yourself in this kind of situation, it may be time to do some horse-trading. Find yourself a rig that’s just a little too hot for the band when it’s wound up all the way, and you’ll have lots more room to actually use the front-panel settings for creative control.
You might even end up with something easier to carry, as a bonus. (Maybe.)
Over the years that I’ve worked with you, many things have become apparent. One of those concepts is that, quite often, you need me to make some sort of change in the middle of a show. Often, that change is necessary to make your life on stage more comfortable, such that you can create the best possible experience for your audience.
At times, it may have been hard to get that change made for you. Such difficulties commonly arise due to communication problems. As such, I am writing this letter to help you transmit your needs and wants to the audio humans you will inevitably encounter.
First and foremost: Please use your words.
I understand that there is a stubborn stigma attached to “talking through” an issue in the middle of a show. However, any aesthetic problems this can cause are quite minor, especially when you consider that not getting a need met may cause real problems with your performance.
When it comes to a complex topic, especially in a pressure situation, the ability of spoken language to convey nuance and relay information unambiguously is a huge bit of leverage. By speaking over the PA, you can make it very clear, say, that “I think my vocal is starting to feed back in the highs.” There’s actually a lot of information in that sentence, yet it comes across quickly and elegantly when turned into speech.
On the flipside, I’m not sure how that concept would be effectively transmitted by way of hand signals – unless there was a lot of rehearsal time with the engineer involved.
Also, concerts are full of distractions to the eye. A sound operator may have their visual attention elsewhere, while still devoting their ears to the music. As such, addressing them over the PA is generally a sure method for getting their full attentiveness returned to you.
My second point is in regards to visual signals: Think big, think simply, and think patiently.
When you don’t have the opportunity to verbalize a request, visual communication is a necessity. However, as I’ve alluded to already, it has limitations. You have to restrict yourself to basic concepts that have a small number of interpretations, and require no rehearsal to understand.
(Many years ago, I had a musician attempt to take me through a large number of hand signs that would convey things like “The stage-left guitar needs more midrange in the monitors” and “Less reverb on my vocals for this next tune.” I can’t say that it worked out very well.)
Simplicity and “largeness” go together. Remember that the audio engineer may be quite a distance from you, causing detailed motions to become lost. Ad-hoc sign language at shows must be “big” so that it can be seen, and only so many ideas should be signaled in a short period of time.
I highly recommend the approach of “Who, What Instrument, Where, and Up/Down.” For instance: Point at the guitar player, mime the guitar playing, point at your monitor, and then make an up or down motion until the guitar level is where you want it. It’s compact, relatively unambiguous, and the involved motions are easy to see.
As to patience, please do remember that it takes time to interpret your signals, figure out how to get you what you want, and then start to make it all happen. Several seconds may have to elapse before you hear any change, and some “iteration” may have to take place before you’ve gotten exactly what you want. This is simply an inherent hazard of doing things on the fly, but when taken in stride it’s not too hard to handle.
Hopefully this all makes sense. Effective communication is important for a good show, and a little bit of forethought about how to go about it can make a huge difference.
Thank you for taking these thoughts into consideration.
Truer words have never been spoken. That is why I’m using this quote from an interview, I recently watched, as the title of this article. The quote is from my good friend Nate Compton, front man of ELISIUM, a national touring indie band. In the interview, which you can watch below, Nate talks about his experience traveling the country playing music and tries to answer a question he is asked a great deal. How do you know it’s the right time to quit your job and go on tour? This very question is one that I have wrestled with many times and am wrestling now as I write this post.
But, who am I?
My name is Greg Barrett. I play drums for a regional touring act on the verge of going national. For the past three years my band has been the proverbial weekend road warrior. I also do session work for a local recording studio from time to time. I’ve worked my entire life to get to the point where I’m currently at musically, and I honestly believe that I was put on this earth for the purpose of playing music. It was obvious from the time I was three that I would be following this path and chasing the dream.
And, just like my buddy Nate was a few short years ago, I’m standing on the edge of the cliff trying to decide whether or not to jump? Should I quit my job, to do what I love, or continue to work full time. Should you? Nate did, and believe me it’s a hard but fulfilling road. But don’t take my word for it, after reading this article, watch his interview.
First off, let’s cut to the chase and determine if you/your band is ready to take to the roads. Have you established yourself in your home market? Are you getting good enough guarantees and positive feedback in your home market to warrant branching out into new radius based test markets? Assuming you already have merchandise, are you moving it well at your live shows? Is everyone in your crew on the same page? Is your branding on point?
Branding? What’s that? We’re a band, not a business… WRONG!!!
The list could go on and on and on, but all of them are legitimate questions that need to be addressed. All good topics to revisit in later articles, especially branding. We’ll cover the first few for now.
Welcome my friends to indie touring!
Is everyone in your team on the same page? They had better be if you’re planning to spend days, weeks, or months at a time in a smelly, cramped, van. You will all be running on minimal sleep and a diet of who knows where the next meal is coming from. Hotel rooms will be a rarely afforded luxury, so you’ll be mostly sleeping in the van, and showering at truck stops and gyms. The gym option is a great choice! Let’s face it, who couldn’t use some exercise? Just make sure to join a national chain. Needless to say, the last thing you want is to be out midway through a tour, 900 miles from home and a member decide the road isn’t for him/her. Everyone in that van should have the same drive, determination, and work ethic. Everyone should have a designated job to do and be pulling their weight. You are about to leave the happy-go-lucky and comfortable world of music as a hobby and enter the realm of full time, always on call, real deal music is my JOB. Is everyone willing and able to completely uproot from normal life, sell off most everything not needed to be as debt free as possible and not get paid often? You had best be finding out! Unless of course you are loaded to the gills and able to just finance or bank roll a tour, a bus, or accommodate your crew every night with lodging, food, and pay. Or, you already have major label backing and enough leverage in your deal that they provide for all of it. Even most of the signed bands out there are lucky to be provided with a 15 passenger van and trailer.
Lets focus on your home and radius markets.
Your home market is your first anchor. Assuming that you’ve established a healthy following already in your hometown, you should be drawing sizable crowds, getting reasonably good venue guarantees, and be moving merch well. These two latter points will be key to survival in new markets where you will be working to replicate that hometown market all over again. This never stops. Each time you win a large following, that market becomes an anchor. You should be working to establish these anchors roughly 3 to 5 hours apart for weekend strings and as far out as 9 plus hours for tours. Guarantees in new test markets will, in all likelihood, be minimal at best if any at all. There will be a lot of times starting out when fuel and food between stops is a luxury only afforded by your merch sales. That’s where those anchors come into play. Routing more than a couple test market stops between your “meat and potato” anchor stops WILL break the budget. So will running out of merch… DON’T DO THAT!
Survival on tour is all about budgeting and being prepared for whatever gets thrown at you. You can never count 100% on getting paid your full guarantee or being paid at all for every date booked, even with signed contracts. This is especially true when you’re working new rooms and contacts. Any tour that ends up breaking even should be considered a success. If you do turn a profit after all the expenses, then that’s a huge success! The real objective is to get your name out there in new markets and build that following.
The whole landscape of the music business is shifting and constantly changing. A recent topic of debate among many of my peers has been, is touring profitable anymore? I have many friends on both sides of that fence. Some who got in the game when venue pay and general attendance were high, which allowed them to generate large enough national followings to still warrant hefty guarantees, are now in the catch 22 of “always on tour”. They simply can’t afford to not be on tour full time now. On the other side, with guarantees way lower, it may be more profitable to tap into other revenue streams, than to try to stay out on the road all the time. The bottom line is, touring is still the most effective means of developing a strong following. People still love to see a killer live show and actually meet the artists.
Don’t let me discourage you, but be aware of what you are about to do. Making the jump from hobby to career is no smooth path. It’s a lot of work. Touring can actually be fun, rewarding, and give you a whole new perspective on life. It will broaden your horizons, make you laugh, cry, and open your eyes to that big world outside of your box. Nothing beats the feeling of knowing you left every ounce of yourself that you had to give on that stage night after night.
Is there ever going to be a “right time”? Probably not…
But, as my friend Wade Sutton from Rocket to the Stars says, “Sometimes you jump. Sometimes you get pushed. Either way, you’re going to learn to fly.”
Alright, there’s my two cents, now watch Nate’s interview, and go start planning that maiden tour!
Greg Barrett is the drummer for the indie rock band Seasons of Me, session musician for The Sound Asylum Recording & Mastering Studio, and follower/student of trends and marketing strategies in the new music industry. You can read his bio on his artist page at the Saluda Cymbals web site and check out his band at their official site using the links below.