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Essay: Independent artists discuss booking shows & crushing blows

The streaming boom is a double-edged sword. “The rapid adoption of streaming platforms by consumers has generated engagement with music on a scale that we’ve never seen before,” stated David Bakula, SVP of Music Industry Insights, at the mid-year mark. Engagement with music manifests through concrete streaming numbers, social media followings and concert ticket sales. Nielsen reported a 17 percent decrease in physical album sales for the first half of the year, compared to the same six-month time period in 2016, while digital albums fell nearly 20 percent. Services like Spotify have come under fire for their disastrously-low payout to its creators, trickling down to songwriters in measly single-digit dollar amounts.

Earlier this year, B-Sides & Badlands investigated how streaming has cut tremendously into an artist’s ability to record music, often having to shill out the same standard fees to book recording spaces. While on-demand streams reached more than 184 billion streams, as of June 29, 2017, the return leaves independent musicians out in the cold. More than ever, touring and booking one-off shows to make ends meet is becoming increasingly-crucial to sustain a business model. We spoke with a slew of singers, songwriters and musicians about the strenuous work it takes to mount a tour, convince booking agents to hire them and essential steps to generating success. They also revealed, quite candidly, their worst experiences with balancing tour exhaustion and plaguing mental health issues.

Get the Ball Rolling

Blake Berglund should know more than anyone. The gallon-hatted troubadour began hitting the pavement in the late ’90s and has since mounted several headlining tours, from the intimate club circuit to more expansive amphitheatre-style venues. “I’m old school and hate writing emails as introductions to venues. I pick up the phone and call. Human connection is everything in my booking process,” he says, referencing the moment he “started to approach tour routing, venue contacting and opportunity hunting as an art in itself.” It’s about being direct, kind and humble ⎯⎯ and like solving a giant Tetris puzzle.

© Chris Graham Photo 2016

Berglund, who recently dropped his latest studio record, Realms, “an allegorical concept album about the breadth of human experience, the recognition of God and the awareness of one’s own power,” sketches a general outline of what independent musicians need to accomplish in terms of touring. “Tour-wise, I begin with a motive ⎯⎯ a ‘why’ and ‘where.’ It helps to centralize the efforts,” he notes. But when building one-off shows, he considers options that are “outside the box…I don’t like when artists do just house concerts. It weakens the importance of music venues in communities, but house concerts are an extremely effective way to introduce yourself into a new scene.”

Kylie Odetta shares much of the same experiences. The pop singer, whose momentum has snowballed the past several years from such viral hits as “High Dreamer,” offers detailed measures she takes to land gigs, including determining a feasible tour route, extensive research and formulating a snappy email proposal. “In this email you need to include  a short introduction, a link to your music and a live performance video, specific dates you’re looking to book, a pleasant close and a one sheet if you have one,” she writes, attaching an example:

Hey there! My name is Kylie Odetta, and I’m an independent artist from Greenville, SC looking to book shows for my fall tour. My music is jazzy and R&B. I play the piano solo but I can also play with a trio. I came across your venue and would love to set up a show if possible! Here’s a link to a live performance of mine [insert link] as well as a link to stream my music online [insert link]. Let me know what you think, and I look forward to hearing back from you! Thank you, and I hope you have a great day.

-Kylie Odetta, www.kylieodetta.com

Being honest and realistic about audience expectations is the next pressing matter. “It’s OK if you can’t” fill a venue, Odetta says. “Let [bookers] know that you’re a touring artist currently trying to grow your fan base, so if it’s a show where they need you to bring fans, go ahead and say that you’d love to partner with them and set up a show where you could open up for a local artist or just focus on playing venues that already have a built in crowd.”

As folk duo Magnolia Wind ⎯⎯ comprised of Nashville musicians Kristen Brassel Butler and Chris Butler ⎯⎯ have encountered on numerous occasions, “we may send out a 100 emails in a month and then only get a few responses back.” Their persistence often leads to breakthroughs. “The more we put ourselves out there (emailing, calling, talking with other artists), the more opportunities we’ll have to perform,” they say. “Right now in our careers, it’s about playing and reaching as many people as possible.”

Magnolia Wind

Once you’ve got a venue hooked (or at least mildly interested), it’s less about convincing them than the music speaking for itself ⎯⎯ and making sure the space is suited to your style. “If you play country music, you’re going to have a hard time convincing a jazz club to book you. I send venues a live performance video of myself which I find is something they really need to see to know what they’re booking,” Odetta argues, noting the importance of a well-designed website and live sample. A social media presence is crucial, too, but not necessarily a deal breaker. In her proverbial bargaining tool belt, Odetta makes sure to establish an in-person connection as soon as possible, demonstrating her drive and commitment to the performance. “I’ve done this when my friend was playing a gig that I was interested in playing, and I only went to attend and hang out. But she actually let me hop up and play a couple of songs during her set, and I got booked for a future show that same night,” she shares.

Bottom line is: “be kind,” she urges. “There is no better way to interact with people and book shows than being a genuinely friendly person. Nobody wants to feel like music is being shoved in their face or you’re lying about how massive your band is blowing up. Be honest, be kind, be good at what you do.”

Berglund also ascribes to the “professional persistence” school of thought, he says. The working parts, of “a hard working, competent publicity team,” for example, and monetary negotiations then come into play. “You can only demand as much in payment as their investment in you is worth. If there’s a set price for the room, it’s up to you to take it or leave it. America is different than Canada. Canadian venues generally pay touring acts more than American venues do.”

As he has seen countless times through the years, hard work will pay off more often than not. “If a venue sees that you are hustling and out on the road working, they generally make efforts to help everything to line up. Besides, they need acts coming through their venues that value the promotion of a show and do everything they can to drum up publicity and sales.” Too, he is always thinking 10 steps ahead. “Wouldn’t it be ideal if as indie artists we were so organized that we could have a full 30 date tour booked 90 days in advance and everything was set in stone? Ya right,” he says, with a chuckle.

His process begins with anchor dates, and then, he will “extend a few possibilities in the surrounding area that include more than just playing live,” he explains. Those prospects include such press opportunities as podcasts, radio interviews and music sessions. “I account for [those things] in the planning and evolution of a tour. I used to crush 15 consecutive dates before a day off came up, now we plan those days off in interesting areas and take in the sights and sounds of a new place.”

Big Little Lions

Days off also give him even more down time to plot potential new gigs. “I just walk into places that I want to play when we are out on the road, ask for a manager and try and line something up with a handshake,” he says.

When Magnolia Wind builds a string of dates, typically no longer than two weeks at a time, they nail down the “farthest location that we want to go,” cementing a pivot date smack dab in the middle of the run. That way, “you’ll have routing dates to and from,” they note. “Once we figure those two things out we just start emailing and calling venues.”

Helen Austin, of folk-pop duo Big Little Lions, expected to drop their third album in 2018, relays a “frustrating to amazingly-easy” booking experience. “The first tour we booked, I just took whatever I could find, so we ended up in some pretty dodgy venues,” she admits. “But after a while, some venues started to find us, and when those venues were folk clubs that actually paid real money, well, that made life a lot easier. If we have a couple a really good shows, then, it’s easier to book other shows around that knowing that we can cover expenses.”

Austin utilizes a personal database of venues, spanning both America and Canada, “to see what we can fit around those shows.” Also, sending out applications to folk clubs and festivals and booking house concerts prove to be essential to developing a live portfolio. “Booking the Mondays and Tuesdays is always the trickiest which is where house concerts are our friends. Now that we are building a reputation, it is getting easier to convince people to have a house concert on a less desirable day of the week.”

Conversely, heavy rock band Tempting Fate (Cory Beecher, Shane Beecher, Matt Campbell and Alex Rivas) have endured a dramatically contrasting experience. “[Booking shows] has kind of sucked. The music industry is sort of built on Catch 22s. No one wants to book you unless you’re somebody, and it’s hard to become somebody when places won’t book you,” they share.

Live Nation saw an 8-10 percent increase in total gross, attendance and number of shows for the first half of 2017. AEG Presents witnessed a meager four percent growth. The billion-dollar industry is not exclusive to superstar acts, either. In the face of streaming, which continues to chip away at album and single sales, independent artists are more reliant on selling out headlining shows and moving considerably more merchandise than ever.

Which begs the question…

Is Touring the End-All Be-All of a Career?

Harmful If Swallowed

“I don’t necessarily think an artist’s career will suffer if they aren’t booking shows,” says garage-pop singer Veronica Bianqui, who dropped her new funky, lo-fi “Victim” in September. Pop-punk outfit Harmful If Swallowed frontman Greg Martin disagrees. “An artist should always be performing and sharing and staying true to their art. How is anyone going to hear or see you if you’re not out pounding the pavement?” he demands. Bandmate Carlos Nieto III (bass player) chimes in, “If the artist is not playing on a regular basis, it would make things very difficult for the booking process.” Tempting Fate have found that to be true, too. “People want to see you play live…nowadays that’s pretty much the most important thing in an artist’s career,” they stress.

Of course, there is no right or wrong, black or white answer. “I think it’s subjective. My performance art explains the songs, because my art is real. I authentically write my material and live with it. I personally couldn’t live without performing. It is my purpose,” rock singer Eve Minor, who harkens to early Courtney Love, says, circling back to the importance of the music, first and foremost.

Berglund asserts that “no two careers are the same. I believe in touring as a part of my business model. I want to be in a really great band and touring makes that happen. It’s vital,” he says. On the other hand, if live performance is second string in an artist’s overall model and “can figure out an innovative way to get the word out, then all the power to you.” As he contends, “touring is only one piece of the puzzle.”

Genre often impacts how much weight an artist gives to booking shows. “It’s incredibly important [for us] to play because in the Americana genre the performance/song/brand is about the authenticity and sincerity, and performing live is a special, one time only experience that you can be vulnerable to your audience,” Magnolia Wind say. “It allows us to connect with people on a deeper level than a recording or an Instagram post could ever do. If we were to stop booking shows, I think it would greatly impact our career and even creativity.”

Eve Minor

Subsequently, a fan base can truly flourish. Helen Austin shares, “We are finding that touring builds a base in a way that only recording just can’t. You reach people you would otherwise not be able to reach, and they talk to their friends. That’s why we always try to put on the best show no matter where we are or how many people. People talk, and we want to be memorable.”

YouTube, Facebook Live, Periscope, Snapchat and StageIt have also presented alternative methods to the traditional live landscape, which can thus foster the ability to “make a living just posting videos” and develop “huge followings on social media” for artists that “have never played a show,” notes Kylie Odetta. “There are also artists that have a [small] following online but can sell out a 250 capacity venue because they keep up with their email list and have fans who always come out to see them. Punk/Rock bands, from friends I have and what I’ve gathered, thrive in booking shows and that is how they grow.”

When discussing how to best establish an identity in the live arena, the conversation inevitably shifts to personal health and how to balance your own needs with that of others’ and your career’s. You want to pay your dues, take your career to the next level and move from small club spaces to sweeping stadiums. But the cost can be a heavy price to pay to get there.

The Road’s Grueling Nature

Having headlined various U.K. and European tours, as part of The Blank Tapes and Jail Weddings, Veronica Bianqui christens the open road as rather “tiring and unhealthy,” she says. Make no mistake, she still loves her job, however. “I like that you have to carry forward no matter how tired, no matter what amazing experience you might have had in a town, you gotta hit the road. There’s something poetic about that.” 

Eve Minor, who has “never been consistently in one place my entire life,” finds the ravages of touring to feel “very natural” for her. On unforgettable tour stories, “Well, I think, first off, between signing pairs of panties and getting flashed at shows, I don’t think there’s ever been a dull moment. If you come out to a show, you’ll understand.”

From Blake Berglund’s seat, the road is as gritty, as life-affirming and “as gruelling as claimed,” he muses. “It’s taken a long time for me to learn how to properly submit. A commitment to a mobile lifestyle can be a dream come true if you let it. I subscribe to a cosmic belief system, so there is the simple idea that the Universe has single-handedly released many stresses that the road used to provide.” Understandably, there are some realities that just can not be avoided. “I’m Canadian, so my initiation into touring included -40 C (-40 F) temperatures, blowing snow, icy highways, sleep depravity, alcohol abuse, band fights. Sleeping in a van on the road is one thing; sleeping in the van on the road in such dangerous temperatures is a whole different game.”

Tempting Fate

Magnolia Wind, who have yet to book a full-blown major tour, endeavor to illustrate their normal routine when they do hit the road. “We wake up in a van, grab some fast food, drive ourselves to the next place and perform that night. Sacrificing comfort is worth playing music for people that care. Yes, traveling sucks, and there are a million annoying things that happen, but we get to see new places and meet some of the best people with each other.”

Odetta notes a contradictory experience, both “incredibly fun” but “incredibly draining.” “I have to be sure to take care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Otherwise, it’s so easy to just get to a point where I go through the motions and feel disconnected,” she describes, recounting some of her not-so glamorous tour moments. “I have had a car battery die before and barely made it to the show that night. I’ve forgotten equipment or been exhausted,” she states. But with all that said, she has “had way more inspiring experiences and happy moments than sad on tour,” the singer says. “The people you get to meet along the way make it so magical, and the places you get to see that you’d otherwise not have the chance to are awesome.”

Even playing shows “where there was literally nobody but the venue staff there” allowed her to exercise her freedom on the stage, somehow tapping into a primal energy just to get through. “It’s true that it can get really tiring just being on such a weird schedule and traveling so much. I prefer to go out for a week or two weeks and then come home, rather than stay out constantly.”

Fear of Not Being Heard & Pushing Forward

The big scary U is just the tip of the iceberg. Living the independent lifestyle comes with an abundance of other issues, from emotional obstacles and crippling depression to rocky fiscal dilemmas. “Being heard” is the toughest part of being independent, Harmful If Swallowed’s Greg Martin says. “If you sound like everyone else, you’ll just get lost in the system.” Carlos Nieto III adds, “We have always been a DIY band, and that’s has always been a part of our formula. We always find ways to reinvent ourselves. So, if I can give any advice, I say never stop creating, never give up, always keep pushing forward.” The band are currently promoting their Sleepless EP, brimming with muggy Green Day-styled rock.

Tempting Fate, hot off the release of Catharsis this summer, offers some sage words of advice, too, to squelching self-doubt. “It’s easy to believe in yourself when times are good, but it’s the bad times or the low points which really show what a person is made of. Being able to believe in yourself when times are tough takes a certain kind of strength.” But even the strong willed can break. Magnolia Wind reflect, “There was a night after a show. The performance went horribly, because we were exhausted, and we got really upset with each other about it. We had to have a come to Jesus meeting, because we’re both independently perfectionists, and our expectations for our music are set high.”

Kylie Odetta

Odetta recollects an eerily similar moment. “I was having a panic attack backstage. It was on my first month-long tour, and I felt so alone out here in this beautiful town by the ocean. I couldn’t breathe,” she says. “It was a humbling experience, and I don’t view it as the worst looking back now but at the time I felt so crushed by my own sadness. As artists, we experience deeply, and we dream so big, and we have to remember why we love what we do in the first place to combat the moments of questioning it all.”

Minor’s most trying incident actually occurred after a tour when her body was physically broken. “I must’ve launched myself into the drum set and messed up my foot some how. The worst moment was post tour realizing I broke it; I was walking and performing on it the whole time.”

As a result of physical, mental and emotional damage, creativity suffers. “You have to be business savvy, practice music, organize rehearsals, manage personalities, book shows, drive the van, solve problems, write the songs, learn graphic design. The job tasks are endless,” Veronica Bianqui lists, framing her exasperation from creative burnout. No matter how “badass and exciting” being an independent artist is, as Odetta puts it, “it takes a lot more than people realize sometimes. You are your own boss. You are able to make these decisions for yourself both creatively and business-wise, but sometimes that’s tough.”

One’s mental state will likely buckle…eventually. Berglund has often found himself losing “compassion or empathy with my touring partners, bandmates, sound techs, etc. Being a musician, at all levels, is a grind if you want to continue advancing, and you should never lose sight of the fact that the happier the ‘family’ is, the more the journey will be enjoyed by everyone involved and in turn, yield the best outcomes.”

Despite the negativity, which stress understandably exacerbates, he reminisces about the good parts. “Seeing my community rise on an international level and being accepted into other communities because of it” is the most satisfying part, he says. “I’ve made some incredible friends and industry contacts that are experiencing astronomical amounts of success. They almost all approach their careers with a community based mindset. That’s the fucking best.”

Touring can be uncertain, devastating even, damaging to your self-worth. But actively keeping yourself in check, building a loving and motivating support system and team, and knowing your limits will be crucial elements to where and how far you go in life. Stay grounded. Be kind. Never give up.

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Jason Scott

Editor-in-Chief of the Badlands, spinning those B-Sides. Love Parks & Rec. Addicted to high-priced coffee drinks, alt-country and synth-pop, and never know when to quit. Got a cat named Jake--and she doesn't like you very much.