Hit the road jack, and don’t you look back no more, no more
When I was 21, I started working with an up and coming singer-songwriter from Amsterdam as an assistant artist manager. After a month or two of working together I got an amazing idea. I had no plans that summer, we hadn’t gotten any festival bookings in yet and we both loved to travel. So why not go back to my home country, the United States of America? The songwriter was quite enthusiastic, her work was definitely influenced by the States and she had several friends who lived there as well. I checked it with my boss who gave me the go-ahead, if financially viable, and off I went.
The plan was hatched and I started to get to work. First of all, we needed to figure out how to get around. Would we fly to all the shows? Or would we drive everywhere? Speaking of which, where did we want to play? The United States is huge and playing all major cities or states could take months. There was a definite and necessary urge for a set framework.
In the end, we decided to anchor the tour around three cities. Los Angeles, New York City, and the state of Indiana. Los Angeles and New York were important cities for us since a lot of the US music industry is centered around here, and we needed these cultural hotspots to give the tour some credibility, not only to our peers but also to the higher powers deciding over tour grants and subsidies. But then you’re probably wondering, why in God’s name would you go to Indiana? It’s in the Midwest, a conservative, low-culture redneck and hillbilly part of the United States. What could a progressive singer-songwriter from Amsterdam possibly do there? This would have a very practical reason: It was the area I have roots in and had the strongest connections, so it would be easier to set up several house shows, and most importantly, it would be easier for us to get some wheels for the road ahead of us.
By now we had a plan. We would start in Los Angeles and stay there for a couple of days. We wanted to do several shows, try to do some networking, meet new musicians and relevant industry insiders, and of course see some of the sights. After L.A. we would go to Chicago and from there we’d go to my family two hours away. Here the hard part of the tour would start, and we would be playing almost all of the remaining shows within two weeks. Finally, we would end in New York, and from there the artist would fly back to Europe.
Now that we had a framework, it was time to fill in the details. How many flights were needed, how would we be getting around, and would it all be realistic?
First of all we had to plan logistics. Going to the United States isn’t an easy task, but try driving 7000 miles in three weeks while playing shows along the way. So we figured we would need a flight to get into the country, L.A. specifically. We decided that the easiest (and quickest + cheapest!) way was to fly to the Midwest from L.A. and borrow a car there. Borrowing a car for a two-week tour spanning more than ten states is of course a big favor to ask, but be creative. I once rented a car really cheaply from an airport for a tour, even though we lived in the same country as that airport rental. It was the cheapest but not the most obvious option.
That pretty much wrapped up all of our logistics. Of course, along the way we ran into many more problems – empty tires, expensive parking garages, burning smells from the car – but the plan was set.
And then of course one of the biggest struggles with booking any tour abroad, is money $$$. We needed to make an overview of the money coming in, a projection of the expected income, and of course we needed to make an overview of all set costs and expected costs, and we needed to reserve some money for unforeseen circumstances (the car breaking down, guitars breaking down, people breaking down). Of course, on a tour like this is was going to mainly cost us money. The artist did not have enough profile in the United States yet to warrant big fees, and seeing I was booking this tour as a fresh 21-year-old, my bargaining powers were limited. So we knew we couldn’t earn back the money with the guarantees from the shows. Luckily, we both lived in the Netherlands, and there was a solution:
The only way this tour would be possible was with help from the Dutch government. Fonds Podium Kunsten (FPK), an amazing organisation dedicated to funding and supporting (Dutch) performance arts have a special grant for touring musicians, officially titled:
So with the help of the FPK we were able to set up a financial balance that didn’t end up being three or four digits in the red. There is a list of criteria for support from the FPK, of course, but it’s not super convoluted.
One way we saved on costs was by eliminiating hotels and Airbnbs. We decided we would make this a truly rock ‘n’ roll tour by sleeping on couches, floors, in studios, sheds and any other places friends had available on the way. This wasn’t always the most comfortable solution, of course, but it was a whole lot of fun. Combining house shows with these sleepovers was a match made in heaven, as these shows tended to be very relaxing and easy-going. Of course, it might not always be possible to stay on a friend’s couch so always make sure to double check beforehand. If all else fails, you can always check Couch Surfing. I’ve never used it myself but musicians I know have always been positive about it.
The worst-case scenario is checking the cheapest Airbnbs, hotels, motels or hostels. Make sure to take this along in the cost overview ahead of time. Definitely check local hostels/motels and hotels, Airbnb is not always the cheapest option anymore.
And then of course there was the actual daunting task of booking this tour. Now, the thing is that I had booked several shows in my time (including for my own band back in the day) so I had some idea of how to do this. But cold calling a bunch of venues more than 3000 km seemed a little daunting. Nevertheless, I got to work.
I created a giant excel sheet and started googling music venues in all major cities. I wanted to anchor all smaller shows around these bigger L.A and New York shows. This was fairly easy since New York, L.A. and Toronto have several bigger venues that are also quite well known. But then came the real challenge, finding music venues in the smaller cities along the way. I ended up simply searching for ‘music venue’, ‘live music bar’ etc. on Google Maps. And it worked! I started collecting a list of every city and its venues, and once I had around 100 venues I decided I had collected enough.
That’s when the real work started. For some I could easily find contact information, but for most I had to either do an internet detective search or ask them. So I decided to do just that, using Google Talk – remember, this was in 2016 – I simply called most of the venues. The great thing was that you could call landlines in the USA for free with Google Talk. So I ended up talking to loads of people and pitching the project. Combining this with lots and lots of emails (don’t forget the callbacks!) resulted in an actual tour coming together.
Of course booking a tour is one thing, but going on a tour and managing everything on the road is a whole different endeavor. It takes you from behind the desk and basically pushes you into a burning house with a bucket of water. Flexibility and adaptiveness are key, but I will be dedicating another blog post to actually going on tour and what to look out for.
For now, this was the story of how I managed to book a US tour when I was just 21. The tour ended up being great and a memory I will always cherish, with a lot of amazing experiences and people along the way. Did it change the artist’s career? I personally don’t think so, but it was a great lesson for everyone involved and the artist did gain fans and loads of experience and stories. Miles on the road are always good to get.