Published Jan 01, 2006So you're a band. You've written, rehearsed and recorded some music. You've built a fan base in your hometown that extends beyond your friends and family. Perhaps you've even caught the attention of local media. Now it's time to venture outside the homestead and see the world, or at least the region.
The first step, even before securing adequate funds and a functioning vehicle (one that preferably two of your band can drive), is research. Determining where,
when and with whom to play can be time-consuming, but it's only a few websites, message boards, emails, referrals and phone calls away.
Sites like Montreal Shows and Punk Ottawa offer contact information for local promoters, venues and bands, as well as message boards for any further queries (and free publicity once the tour is booked). Research ensures that you'll be playing the right venues (consider their size and location within the city), with the right bands (they need not be carbon copies of you, but some stylistic consistency is recommended), at the right time (attendance is always unpredictable, but choose your dates wisely when in Rome, don't play the day of the Pope's funeral). Note that bookers need to hear your music, so don't even approach them before you've burned some tunes onto CDs (which you'll need to sell at shows anyway) and uploaded them to your website or sites such as New Music Canada and My Space.
Like vacationing, playing is always more successful when you've got a local connection. Working with promoters and bands in each town, as opposed to dealing with venues directly, is always advisable, especially on your first couple of tours. Not only will you get a better draw, via their visibility and advance promotion, but they'll sidestep any disreputable or inappropriate venues. Not that there aren't shady promoters out there, but it should be easy to weed them out online, and a bad rep will likely do a promoter more damage than it will a venue.
Your payment will come in the form of a guarantee (a pre-determined amount of money), percentage of the door and/or percentage of bar sales, though the latter is somewhat rare. Professional promotors like Montreal-based Blue Skies Turn Black always work with contracts, whereas some promoters and venues make less formal arrangements. Remember that verbal contracts are binding, and as with tenants talking to bad landlords, it doesn't hurt to record that conversation. Either way, expect the deal to stick, so if you offer to play for beer or love or karma, that's what you'll get (and karma is debatable).
"Sometimes a band will agree to play with someone they really want to associate themselves with, saying, We don't care about the money,' and then they make all these demands the night of the show," says Blue Skies Turn Black's Meyer Billurcu. "Every dollar is accounted for in the contract. We can't make changes at the last minute because the band is suddenly unhappy."
An organised budget with adequate funds for gas, food and (if necessary) lodging is essential to surviving a tour. Emergency money is recommended in case of damaged gear or personnel, if you get stiffed or your cash gets stolen, or if you simply underestimate your expenses. If you end up broke and busking, you wouldn't be the first band to do so, but you may be digging yourself deeper into the hole because busking licenses are required in most Canadian cities.
Don't think that your work is over once your dates, stage-mates and venues are confirmed. Contacting press and radio in each town, as well as getting flyers passed out and posters put up, should be done at least two weeks prior to the gig, and this is particularly difficult if you don't have promoters helping you out. Again, employ all means of communication to get the word out, because there's no point in touring if your shows are no-shows.
Frequently Asked Questions
What's "pay to play"?
Pay-to-play is the norm for large venues, but Montreal is the only major Canadian city where small rooms (under 200 capacity) charge a rental fee, from $75 to $500. This must be taken into account when researching venues (it's possible to find freebies, even in Montreal) or, if you do choose such a space, when discussing expenses with your booker.
Why should I pay to apply for festivals?
Most music festivals have very specific application rules, including a processing fee (usually $20 to $40). It's easy to feel cheated if your band isn't chosen, but playing a festival guarantees some level of exposure and ample schmoozing opportunities, so it's probably worth the risk.
When should I hire a booking agent?
A booking agent will do his or her best to make the most lucrative deals, score the hottest tours and book the best venues for their bands. Glenn Vogelsang of S.L. Feldman & Associates, who represents Death From Above 1979 and Controller.Controller (among others), says that agents prefer to take on bands who've already booked their own tours. "It shows me they're hard working and they have good heads on their shoulders," he says. "Bands always think they need an agent early on when, most of the time, they don't. If they're good people and a good band that has their shit together, the rest of it usually takes care of itself."
What about playing in the States?
Technically, you need a birth certificate and/or passport, contracts, work permits filed by each "employer" (meaning booker), a P2 visa and an exchange visitor's authorisation from the American Federation of Musicians. Your employers should make these arrangements, but it's best to be educated about the process, the processing fees and the lengthy processing periods to properly plan your tour. Conversely, many bands simply enter the U.S. as tourists, but be prepared to explain the gear in your van or trunk. Boxes of merch (t-shirts, CDs) are the biggest red flag that you're no "tourist" if you're sneaking across. And don't bring drugs.
Tour the Internet
www.citygigs.com - Venues, bands and listings for Toronto and Vancouver.
www.indie-music-toronto.ca - Touring resources for Toronto and southern Ontario.
www.punkottawa.com - Venues, promoters, bands and message boards.
www.monctonlocals.com, www.cblocals.com - East coast touring resource sites.
www.indiemusic.ca - Links to indie bands across the country.
www.kickinthehead.com - Canadian music, videos, listings, classifieds, band and label contacts and other resources.
www.onlinegigs.com - Great DIY advice site by U.S. bands and music businesspeople.