Here's another excerpt from my upcoming book.... another tour story!
The times I booked a tour when what I really wanted was to book a vacation
2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012
My first touring shows were with Red Pony Clock. I started small, joining on for a few shows up in Santa Cruz and San Francisco. I turned down a 2006 summer tour because I was still at my day job and didn't really have the vacation time to get away. In 2007, it was all fair game. I had fallen in love in February and then been dumped unceremoniously in April on the sidewalk outside the Third Street Promenade Hooters in Santa Monica. My bosses had given me a stern talking-to in January and warned me that if I didn't step it up, I'd be fired. My emotional life was a mess, so my living situation became a mess. My roommate and I began having major conflicts. (It's okay, she's still one of my best friends) By May, I just didn't give a shit about anything anymore.
Gabe Saucedo, the songwriting genius behind the explosion of pop that is Red Pony Clock, told us that he was planning a summer tour. It was a long one; I'm pretty sure it was at least a 6 week tour. I agreed to do it. I told my bosses I was quitting my job to go on tour. (Also: not a good idea) The emotional state that I was in affected me pretty heavily. A 6 week tour was the perfect thing for me. It was exactly what I needed: a total and complete escape from everything in my life. I moved out of my apartment. I sent my dog to live with my parents. I put my stuff in storage and I got out of town. I had no plans for when I came back. I made up my mind to deal with it all once I got back.
That tour was an incredible experience. It was also pretty brutal, but not really until the very end. Six weeks is a long time to spend in a van with ten people. This particular tour was also very easy for me, because I wasn't in charge of booking the tour. Gabe was. I wasn't in charge of paying for gas. We were not getting paid, but basically, all I had to do for this tour was show up and play my instrument decently. The arrangement was that Gabe took care of all the bookings and financial stuff, and we were all responsible for our own food and other money. I did a lot of fun things. I shopped a lot. I splurged in Seattle and went up the Space Needle. I discovered how much alone time I truly need (a lot) and as such, spent a lot of time wandering around and exploring the places we played. It was great.
But it wasn't a vacation. Touring is exhausting even under the best of circumstances, and much of that tour was under the best of circumstances. It wasn't until I started booking my own tours that I realized the exact distinction between a tour and a vacation. My 2008 solo tour was full of enormous, poorly planned drives and empty rooms. Every tour got better and better, but even the best of tours is still not a vacation. There are four parts to booking a tour, and all of them are demanding.
Logistics: You have to make sure that it will pencil out in a physical sense. If you are playing in New York City on Sunday, it's highly likely that you will be able to play in Omaha on Monday if you are driving. You make choices where to play. Showing up in a town where you no know one on a Monday is usually a bad idea. Playing shows in a major market (LA, NYC, Chicago, SF) without having your ducks in a row is a bad idea. Playing a venue for the first time is Russian roulette. (It's not “like” Russian roulette, it simply is) Do they have clean bathrooms? Is there actually someone there to run sound or are you going to have to spend an hour figuring out a shitty board? Will the creepy guy at the bar slip drugs in your drink? Will the local band be cool, or full of assholes? Will the door man bounce before the end of your set and pocket all the money for the show?
Booking: You have to send out 172,389,347 emails to venues, bands, and friends of friends of friends of friends. You will then receive 4 emails back. Then you have to nail down dates, which is difficult because it never, ever works out in sequential order. You will book your show on May 25 before you book your show on May 10. You will have a show cancel while you're on the road and scramble to figure something out. And you have to keep all your agreements and details in a place where you can easily find them. Don't forget negotiating payment, if there is any!
Promotion: Now you have to get people to come to your shows. Easier said than done, especially if you're playing for the first time in a new city or you are new to touring. You have to get in contact with everyone from the major alternative weeklies to the Abilene Penny Saver. Then you have to convince a poorly paid, overworked journalist who spends most of their days struggling to sell ads to keep their paper alive, that your music is important and that they should write about you. If they agree to write about you, you have to follow up with them. You may have to do an interview while in your car at 9am, two hours into a 13-hour drive and running on three hours of sleep. You will have to update your social media and your blog on your phone, on a friend's phone, on a stranger's phone or iPad. You'll have to spend at least an hour a day, in between the driving and the actual playing (which we haven't even gone into yet) just telling people that you are coming to their town. Then you get to see who shows up.
Execution: The fun part! Now you actually have to go out into the world and DO this. Wake up at 6am, grab a banana and an energy bar from a gas station, and drive 10 hours to your next show. After listening to every podcast you own, and nine of your favorite records, you will follow your GPS to the venue. It will take you to the wrong place, so you'll have to figure it out. After parking illegally and unloading your gear in a rush, you'll be in the bar by 8pm. Then you can change your clothes and sit in a poorly lit bar with no wifi for three hours. You'll play a modest 20 minute set to the local band and their friends (if you're lucky) or the bartender (if you're unlucky) and try to sell enough things to pay for your gas the next day. After you collect your $35 from the door, you will load out and go hang out with your friends until 3am. You'll sleep on a wooden floor in someone's living room. Then you will get up and do some variation of this, every day, for however long you're on tour.
Tour is a form of zen unlike any other. But it's not a vacation. I used touring as a way to justify my desire to travel when I had no money. I wanted to travel, I wanted to see my friends, and I wanted to play music, so I went on tour. I worked extra hours leading up to tour (so I'd have money for tour) and went straight back to work immediately after tour (so I'd have money to eat when I got home) and in between, I'd tour. My touring schedule in 2011 wore me out so badly, that by the beginning of the Red Pony Clock tour in October, I could barely make it through a set. I slept in the van in El Paso for hours because I was simply too tired to sit upright in a bar. While that was one of the most emotionally intense tours I've been on (for all of us), it was still really, really fun. But it's not a vacation.
Extensive touring is not for everyone. The great news is, there's a lot of things you can do for your band besides tour. If you really want to tour, you can also put together smaller tours that are closer together. East Coast bands can do a lot with this, as can Midwest bands. California bands can play two weeks of shows alone in our state. If you don't want to tour, it's okay: you should only tour if you really, really, really, really, really want to. Touring shares a lot of the same DNA as a vacation: it's an escape, an opportunity to see new things, and best of all, it's a great way to meet new people. I met many of my best friends on tour. It's a cousin of a vacation, but it's not a vacation. The biggest mistake I've made in the past few years is touring too much. I toured so much, and got so burnt out, that I ended up sidetracking myself so much more than if I'd just taken a break and played locally for a while. Truthfully, I'm dreading touring in 2014. I'm working on getting myself psyched up about it, and I'm sure that once I'm on the road again, I'll feel differently, but the consequences of those two years have had lasting impacts on me.
It's often hard for musicians to take a break, in the same way that it's difficult for people who are business owners or freelancers to take a break. When you have no clear separation between where your work begins and ends, it's harder to force one. But just do it! If you're tired, burnt out, and feeling frustrated and your friend says she can get you a cheap ticket to Peru, TAKE IT! If your boyfriend/girlfriend offers to get you a hotel room for the weekend in a small town an hour away, say yes! Vacations always end up being such a rich source of creative inspiration for me. So take that road trip with your friends. Go see your family for a reason other than a holiday or previous obligation. Day trips can work well, too. One of my favorite things to do is to explore the beach towns in Southern California. None of them are more than two hours away from me. I've taken many afternoons to go check out a place I've never seen. Your work will still be there when you get back. This last paragraph is way more for me than it is for you. I'm obsessed with my work. Right now, I'm on a plane from San Diego to Washington Dulles, running on five hours of sleep two days before Thanksgiving. I'm writing this book for myself, too. I plan on re-reading this paragraph when I'm stressed out about all the things I have to do. People always tell me, “it's so important to take a break!” so I'm just going to keep repeating it until it rings true for me. Signed, a sincere workaholic.