Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How Often Should You Gig In Your Own Backyard?

How many people showed up to see Bon Jovi at the ACC in Toronto on Feburary 14th and 15th? Probably around 20,000 people each night, I'd guess. Nice! (And if you were there on the 15th, hopefully you got to see Toronto's own Frankie Whyte And The Dead Idols open the show!) If they played again in March how many people do you suppose would show up? Probably about the same amount I bet.


What if they played the ACC once a month for the next two years straight? How many people would be in attendance in April of 2012? Twenty thousand? I don't think so. Too much of a good thing is simply too much. So if a band like Bon Jovi--who've sold over 120 million records--has a limit to how often they can play in any given locale, how often should you be playing in your home town for maximum impact?

Waaaayyyyy back in the day, I was in a band called PAIN from 1993 and 1997 to be exact. We made a ton of mistakes, believe me, but one thing we did effectively and strategically was choose which shows we would play and which we would not and how often we'd play in our backyard.

We would only play about three or four times per year and every time we did, it was an event. We'd put anywhere between 200 and 400+ people in a room because everyone who wanted to come out and see us knew they'd have to wait three or four months before we'd play again. If you play every week or two or even every month, you run the risk of shrinking the perceived size of your buzz. If everytime you perform live, there's only fifty people in the room, it looks small-time and it doesn't do much for your image or the overall vibe in the venue you're playing.

I know and understand that one of the main reasons most of us get into a band in the first place is to get up on stage and perform for an audience, but if you're looking to do this as a career, you always have to think in terms of strategic business decisions. If you really want to satisfy that uncontrollable urge to bring the rock to the kids, plan a tour and bring your music to brand new audiences in other cities within your province or state or out of your country altogether.

No one I know understood this better than Ember Swift. She hit a point early in her career when she realized that expanding her audience was essential, so she packed up and hit the road. To date, she has literally thousands of gigs under her belt (in several countries around the world), ten album releases, over 50,000 record sales and has sustained a 15 year career as an independent artist and label owner. Bravo!

The good news is; if she can do it, so can you. So sit down with your band mates and figure out a plan that makes sense for you. There's no 'right' answer, so you have to figure this out for yourself, but just don't put your band on rinse and repeat in your home town scene.


  1. Dr. Sean, you are obviously an experienced musician and businessman when it comes to the music field, and while it's true that some artists like Ember Swift (I've seen her live and she's terrific) have had success with indie touring, I think you are leaving out some important details that a young band reading your blog could benefit from.

    I have been there myself, and also have MANY friends who have done the kind of touring you're talking about, and success in that endeavor is the exception to the rule. It's usually simply a waste of time and money.

    So for the benefit of your readers, I'm going to play the pessimistic grouch and lay out the downside (and then a way it can be bypassed).

    First, before you head out on tour, you're gonna need money. You have to get to the shows, you have to stay somewhere and you have to promote the shows before you get there. The amount is going to vary, but just off the top of my head, you'll need to spend about $250 a show: think of posters, newspaper ads; $100 in gas to get there and back; about $75 a night for a hotel room if you don't have any friends you can crash with; a few hundred to make merch so you can sell something and make some money back; trailer rental to get all your gear there; etc...

    If you're an indie band with $1000 (enough to put together a 4 or 5 show tour in Ontario), it may be worth having a nice long sit-down about how to spend that money. Is going on a 5 show tour better than hiring a publicist to promote your local show (maybe getting you a performance slot on a local TV show where you can reach lots of people)? This answer will obviously be different for different bands, but every band should consider it. Going out on tour may not be the best way to gain new fans.

    Second, booking a tour and getting gigs in places where no one has heard of you is exceedingly difficult. One way to bypass this is to go out on tour with either a band that has toured these places before, or being the opener for a local band on their show in their city. Both of these solutions require good connections and luck, and you won't get far without them. What's my point? Simply that "networking" (to use a completely repulsive corporate buzzword) is something you need to do before touring. Going out to other band's shows, talking to the bands, trying to meet people. These things are far more important than people realize, and no matter how good you are or how killer your songs are, you will get NOWHERE without connections like this.

    Finally, while your point about over-playing a certain area (ie your home town) is well taken, I think it's a bit of a myth. If you're going to be in a successful band, I think it should be the kind of band that people want to see every week. You should be the kind of group that your fans can't go a week without seeing. That is a VERY tough trick to pull off. You have to rotate your set every week, you have to have an excellent stage show (whatever that means to you and your fans) - you have to generally be very entertaining.

    I've found one good way to do this is to play lots of covers. Get an idea of what your fan base would be interested in hearing and then learn it. Are you a metal band? Then maybe learn the entire Number Of The Beast album and tell all your fans that you'll be playing it in it's entirety for ONE WEEK ONLY. This is a way to make regular shows into unique experiences.

    Maybe if you're drawing 50 people a week, every week, you can get some small sponsors interested in donating some product (tshirts, DVDs, discount cards) to your show and you can give them away as prizes.

    And ask yourself this: If you can't get people excited enough about your band to come see you regularly, do you really have what it takes to make a career and a living out of music?

    And if you're the only one in the band thinking like this, do you really wanna hitch your wagon to the rest of your band mates and take them out on an ill-fated tour?

  2. Hey Andrew, thanks for taking the time to read and adding these points. You’re absolutely right that touring is an expensive endeavor and one that won’t necessarily bring back any kind of immediate return. I think you could also say that about any activity a band engages in. I’d say even recording a record is a go-nowhere proposition for most bands because most bands I know don’t even come close to recouping the money spent on producers and studio time. In my personal experience, the only bands I know who’ve actually turned a profit from their music are the ones who have toured, ie. Ember Swift, Creepshow and Hail The Villain. I think it’s important to be taking big actions like touring and recording music in order to bring attention to yourself and to let everyone know that you’re serious and you believe in it enough to put your own money in. These types of actions put you out there and they attract the attention of professionals who can help you and will be more willing to because they know you’re not joking around.
    I agree with you 100% on your point about networking ; “no matter how good you are or how killer your songs are, you’ll get nowhere without connections.” I also believe the reverse is true; no matter how much and how effectively you network, if you’re not good, it will get you nowhere. So I think that being completely awesome at what you do should be the very first order of business for any band/artist. I wouldn’t recommend that new bands jump out on the road right off the hop. Take time to establish yourself in your home town. Play as often as possible and play anywhere that’ll have you. This will help you develop a chemistry with your band mates and a live show that kills! But once you’re at that level, I really believe that eventually you’ll burn out if you don’t hit the road or look into other creative ways of getting noticed. And again, you made a great point about hiring a publicist to help put together a killer local showcase or helping you get a TV spot.
    I know it’s hard for a band to know what to do to get somewhere in an effective manner, believe me. And of all the successes I’ve witnessed, each one has taken a different path and that doesn’t make things any less confusing. Lol
    The cover idea you mentioned really grabbed my attention too. Although, one of the first questions that came to mind was that it would be a ton of work to learn an album like Number Of The Beast from front to back ,so how many bands would be willing to take their focus off of original material to put that kind of effort into covers? I think you may be on to something with this idea, but I think it’s a lot of work for only a week’s worth of gigs.