Originally published on Babetalk
Part 4: The Trenches
I wasted a golden opportunity on the first trip I took through the trenches. I was 21 at the time and my band was getting show offers all over the east coast. The strange thing was we didn’t have much of a following. As I’ve learned over the years, this is not uncommon for bands that are very personable. Local bands that gig regularly end up playing with touring bands from all over the country but most of the time those bands never introduce themselves to one another. Seriously, the venue before a show looks like a middle school dance – the touring bands on one side and the locals on the other. We always made an effort to meet everyone and that was repaid when we needed shows out of state.
The reason I wasted this opportunity was that I toured way too early. Maybe 10-15 years ago touring was a good way to make new fans, but these days any touring band will tell you that each show is a crapshoot where half the time you end up playing to an empty venue. The time and money spent touring before you have a following would be better spent creating solid content (music, videos, etc) or just following Warped Tour for a few weeks and passing out demos. Back when I received all those show offers, I should have spent more time in the trenches before trying to experience tour life, or as I call it, Rock Star Fantasy Camp.
The trenches are exactly what they sound like – a miserable, uncomfortable period of time where you grind, grind, and grind some more. This is the period when the band honeymoon is over. Your look-in audience is depleted, your scene no longer views you as the exciting new band, and your social media presence has hit a plateau. You could put out more music or make an elaborate video, but the demand for new content isn’t really there and there’s nothing worse than sinking a grand into a music video that tops out at 800 views. Now is the time when you have to work your ass off to expose your music to new people while trying not to shoot yourself in the foot by doing something stupid like direct messaging hundreds of people on facebook who are fans of a similar band. The purpose of this stage is to gain as much exposure as you can, even if it does not result in direct ticket sales or fan interaction. We will focus on turning casual fans into dedicated fans later.
While you are in the trenches, you should be doing the following things simultaneously:
- Play every show you can get your hands on, without putting too many “dummy miles” on the band. This is the time where you want to play every show you can, but within reason. Don’t travel too far if there’s a chance it will put a strain on the band relationships or finances. These are “dummy miles” and they can break your band up or cause you to burn out. If you are still having trouble booking gigs, keep going to local shows and meet people. Friend them on Facebook (do NOT invite them to like your band page) and make sure the occupation on your profile is “plays (instrument) at (band link)” and ONLY that. Make your profile picture one of you playing live and make your cover photo a flyer or promo picture from an upcoming event or release. Your personal page is the hub that connects the real live interactions you have with peers in the scene with introducing them to your band page. No one wants to be sold to. They want to find it on their own. Just make sure it’s easy for them to find. This also shows that the band is your top priority, which lends credibility to your band.
- Get your name out there. I do not mean this figuratively. Literally do things that put the name of your band out into the world. Even if there’s a low success rate, hand out download cards or demos with your band name anywhere that music in your genre is being played. Always have them on you. I’ve had many people tell me they threw two or three download cards of mine away, but then saw my band listed on a facebook show event, recognized the name, and finally checked it out.
- Create your tight 30. Until about two years ago, every time one of my bands played a local show we would discuss which songs we wanted to play and change up the set list frequently. To me, this is another example of Rock Star Fantasy Camp. It is very fun and exciting to have a large repertoire of songs to choose from as if the audience is going to appreciate the diversity of your set. But the truth is you’re not famous yet, and they’re not going to care. Most shows you play (excluding album releases) will consist mostly of audience members who have no idea who you are. Also, the number of shows your band needs to play before you sound as good on stage as you do in your head is staggering. Repetition is the key to doing something great. I think Lil Wayne said that. Spend this time playing the best 30-minute set of songs you can. Note: that does not mean to play 30 minutes of music. Unless it is an audience of screaming fans who know all the words, no one wants you up there for longer than 30 minutes. Pick about 21 minutes of music, maybe six of your “best at first listen” original songs and one cover. Learn multiple covers that you can play well and choose one based on the audience. This will not only give you the best chance of converting show goers who came for another band, but it will also prepare you for touring.
- Help touring bands. Okay, so this one is tough because there are a lot of asshole bands out there who will treat you like shit even after you booked them a show in your area. There are also a lot of selfish bands out there who will ask you to book a show on a date that fits in their tour schedule and then get pissed when only five people come out to a bar in a bad neighborhood at midnight on a Tuesday. The last thing you want to do is burn a bridge because you tried to help someone. That being said, bands who act like that do not tend to succeed. Sure, some of them do – but that’s the exception, not the rule. In my personal experience, I would say that 75% of bands are comprised of selfish assholes. However, the 25% who are not have been very good about recognizing and repaying the favor, which really makes it all worth it from both a personal and professional standpoint.
- Check your ego. The more time and effort you put into the trenches may make you feel like you deserve recognition, special treatment, etc. But the sad truth is you must constantly re-earn respect with everyone you meet and everywhere you go in this business. It’s also important to remember that many musicians and people who choose to spend their time in a music scene tend to be sensitive and shy, and this can manifest itself in a way that makes them appear standoffish. I’ve lost count of how many times I thought someone in the crowd hated me or hated my band until they came up to buy merch or pay a compliment. Sometimes people have their guard up, so try to be the one who breaks the ice. Also, remember how I said many bands are full of assholes? You know who has to deal with these people at their most stressed and entitled? The employees at the venue. For those who aren’t in bands, it is basically a trope at this point that sound engineers, bookers, door guys, and promoters treat smaller bands like shit – and not passively either. I’m talking about actively making rude statements, treating band members like morons, and acting like they are generally inconvenienced by the fact that bands are even playing. At one point I remember thinking to myself, “They treat us like we walked in here and spit in their faces.” That’s when it hit me – most bands probably do some equivalent of face-spitting, so this makes the venue employees put their guard up. If their experience is anything like mine, then 75% of the time bands come in, insult them, make demands, and try to scam extra money. So when a nice, honest band walks in the doors, the venue can’t tell the difference and treats you as a threat. However, if you respond to their rudeness with patience and politeness, the venue staff’s attitude will likely change. Go the extra mile and you’ll find that many people at shows aren’t being aggressive – they just have their guard up.
Good luck with this stage (it sucks), but it’s well worth it in the end. Many bands will try to skip this step and go right into touring. This may work out briefly, but the financial and physical toll of touring, especially when the shows are poorly attended, will likely kill your band before the tours build up a solid fan base. Crawl before you walk.
That said, there are two types of tours that you should consider. First, do weekend tours when you can afford them. This enables you to focus on a single location. Personally, I have found a lot of success in connecting with a local in-genre band in another state, and booking a show with them at a venue for a Saturday night. Next, we travel to stay with that band on Friday and have a small party/house show, which builds hype for the show the next day and makes a strong connection with the people we meet. The following day, we hit up a mall or populated area near the venue and promote the show all day.
The second type of touring should be a 7-10 day tour reasonably close to your home state. This tour will lose money and it may not generate a lot of new fans (just like any tour before having a major fan base), but it will generate an idea about your band. The idea is that you are to be seen as a “touring band,” which places you in a more exclusive tier of band. Just doing one or two small tours gives the online community the idea that you are more than just a local band. The way to get this idea out there is to create a Facebook event that includes dates and locations of each show on the tour. Next, invite everyone on your friends list and everyone who likes the band page. Blast this event on Facebook group pages as well. Send out an email blast to anyone who sent his or her email to your Bandcamp page. Basically, let everyone know even if they don’t live anywhere near the tour route. It’s not important that this gets people out to the shows – it’s important that it gets them to see you in the same light as other small to mid-level bands who go out on the road. There are thousands of local bands in any given genre, but there are only hundreds who are active locally. There are only dozens of “touring” bands. Get the reputation of a touring band and you will stand out.
Once you have amassed a reasonable amount of attention, you can crawl out of the trenches and focus on the next important part…
Continue Reading: From Garage to Tour: A Fan-Building Strategy for the Rest of Us (Part 5)
P.S. Eric wrote this article, but Ryan posted it. Clearly, Eric’s not trying hard enough.