Touring is a huge focal point of most musicians' careers for so many reasons. It's when you develop who you really are as a performer, see who your fans are (and ideally sow the seeds for a whole bunch of new ones), and gather the kind of life experience that'll make for better music-making in the future. But it requires a ton of work and stamina, not to mention financial commitment, so deciding when, where, and how to do it is not something you should figure out on the fly.
Ground Control Touring partner and agent John Chavez is partially responsible for the growth of names like Titus Andronicus, Vivian Girls, Fucked Up, Wavves, and many other seasoned artists, as well as more recent success stories such as Whitney, Show Me the Body, and Beach Fossils. Chavez’s experience in the area spans more than a decade; he knows how to find the sweet spot where a band can capitalize on buzz. We talked to him about the most effective way to hit the road for the first time.
Spotify for Artists: What are some ways of knowing how and where to book a successful tour?
John Chavez: Regardless of where a band is from, the stuff that we look for isn't terribly different than the stuff that we were looking for ten years ago—press online and those sorts of things. The difference is that we have a lot more detailed metrics to look at and see what makes sense. If you look at something like Spotify for Artists, you can see the band's top 50 markets—top 50 countries, top 50 cities, etc. With that information, we can look and say, "OK, you're a band from the UK, but it seems like 30 of your top 50 markets are in the U.S.; there might be something to latch onto here."
One thing that an international band coming to the U.S. has to deal with more now than ever is that the visa process. It can be tough for an international band to really demonstrate to the state department that what you're doing is of value, is unique, and that you deserve a visa for it. So if getting into the country is this tough, making the most of it while you’re here is even more crucial.
If a band already has a strong and growing fan base on streaming services, is touring even necessary?
There's no comparison for getting on the road and building an organic fan base. Spotify or another streaming service can be that black magic thing to make something go from Y to Z, but you’ve got to start at X. That's just playing shows, getting seen by people, playing with other bands, and making those friendships and connections. The streaming stuff can help take it to the next level super-quickly, but it's no guarantee that anything is going to be happening or maintaining long-term.
Do you feel like a young band should expect to take it on the chin on their first tour? What are some of the unrealistic expectations they might have?
I would never say that you should expect to take it on the chin, but it's important to be realistic when you're looking at the first time going out on the road and selling tickets to people. A lot of times there is that whole world of like [online] sensations that have a fan base before doing anything proactive to build it. A lot of those folks seem like they have a tough time on the road on their first time going out because touring is exhausting. It takes a lot. It takes 100% of your time for however long it is and you're not doing anything else during that time.
You're never going to go out and get rich on your first tour or even second tour. You're probably not going to go out and get rich on your tenth tour. But if you do things correctly and with purpose, then you can build it into something where you see significant livable income off touring. But you don't get good as a live band until you play live a bunch. There's no way to do that unless you go on the road.
Are there times of the year that you recommend purposely avoiding or targeting?
In general, there's the loose breakdown of the spring and the fall when colleges are in session. Those are historically considered the best time to tour the U.S., and the summer is the best time to tour Europe because of the rich history of festival culture.
That said, if you are a brand-new band and it's your first time on the road, touring in October will be really tough because… [it's] prime touring season in the U.S., [so] some markets that might historically have had one or two good shows a week, now might have one or two good shows a night.
So we usually recommend that bands build packages with their friends and go on the road together to cut back on expenses, whether it's sharing gear or a van—just trying to be responsible. But in general, [March] to June is prime U.S. touring time, and then Labor Day to Thanksgiving.
I also feel like a lot of people—and I still deal with this all the time—look at a calendar and don't necessarily take into account the fact that a 300-mile drive in April takes six hours and a 300-mile drive in December takes twelve. The weather becomes a factor, how expensive it is to get from place to place, and how many people are wanting to go out to shows. If there's a blizzard in Boston, people aren't showing up even if they bought tickets.
Young band X comes to you, and on paper they have all the right credentials. What do you think is the smartest scenario for them to go out for the first time?
First of all they [should] have some stuff going on online; they [need] the attention of an agency like ours and someone signed up to do it. What I would probably do to help break that band, especially in a market like New York that seems to have an infinite supply of people who go out to shows, would be have them come for a long weekend or maybe even a week and try to get them on as many different things as possible. I think that there's this romantic notion that "We're gonna do our one New York show; it's our debut show and like all 200 people who RSVP'ed on Facebook are gonna show up."
For a band of that size, the most important thing is to be seen by as many people as possible and not try to have the biggest number of people in one room as possible. Like if you can get seen by 500 people over three different shows versus 400 people at one show, then that's a win. New York has a ton of options for venues including a bunch where there is a crew of people who will come out for the venue primarily. But I would say that when you come in, make yourself available and meet as many different bands and musicians as possible; it's the most meaningful thing that a new band can do. Those connections are going to carry you through to the future.