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DIY Travelogue: On The Road with Kristen Ford
Hello! My name is Kristen Ford and I play indie rock, both solo and with my band. I’m based in Boston, but over the past three years I’ve been playing over 100 shows a year all over the country. This spring I gave up the keys to my apartment, asked for a leave from my job and booked a two-month international tour on my own.
The first step to booking a tour is the routing. Routing is such a subtle art – the night of the week you play a market, the miles out of the way you might have to drive, the unexpected expenses you might incur (such as tolls – hello NYC!), a hot meal or a place to sleep should all factor into the routing.
I try to book shows no more than eight hours apart, with the average driving time around three hours. I draft up a booking request – short and simple: include what kind of music, the website, your game plan to make the show a success and leave your contact info. Ask for a range of dates (2-5) that could work. Avoid playing spots where you’ll only earn money after paying the sound guy and door guy (unless you can draw 200 people). The best spots pay out a guarantee, or have a built-in crowd, or will pay you a percentage of bar sales or at least give you a meal, some drinks and allow you to collect tips.
My favorite booking resource is a website called www.indieonthemove.com. Use Facebook – ask your out-of-town friends where they like to perform or see shows. Reach out to your touring musician friends; they might not mind sharing contacts if you ask nicely.
I would also encourage you to not book any days off. I did 28 shows in 30 days; it was tiring but every day I was selling CDs and earning money. On days off you still have to eat, sleep and get to the next gig – in other words, you’re losing money.
Booking the Euro leg was more difficult – this was my first time playing abroad, but my 8th full-scale tour in the States. I reached out to everyone I knew who had toured abroad – many of whom provided me with venues or promoter info. I reached out to my friends who lived in Europe – where can a girl play out there? Finally I turned to Google. “Berlin folk venue” “Berlin original live music” “Berlin Rock Club” – you get the idea. Google Translate is also a powerful tool. I went to websites in several languages and emailed a translated booking request in the recipient’s native tongue.
MANAGING THE TOUR
Before leaving I compile a “tour bible.” This contains info such as load in time, set time, length, PA information, compensation, contact person, addresses and phone numbers. I also add in driving times – departure time for the next day, and time zone changes. It’s amazing how much happier the band is going into a show where we know we’ll all be getting fed and two free drinks, versus starving on the highway and heading into the unknown.
It’s hard to keep up with deadlines, advancing shows, and interviews with press and radio. Local bands sometimes bail or don’t promote the show. It’s key to reach out to the other bands, the club and your fans at least two weeks, a week, and a day before each HUGE event. Easier said than done when every day on tour feels like a big adventure. New friends, new clubs, new fans, a new city to explore – who cares about your Nashville show in two weeks? The tour manager does. And you are the tour manager. Now hydrate and get some sleep.
Getting enough rest can be a challenge when the conditions vary so widely. A hardwood floor, a loveseat at a smoky party, a plush guest bed, a screaming toddler in the morning, an early drive, a delightful brunch after sleeping in…it really runs the gamut.
I’d encourage anyone on the road to bring a cooler and go to the grocery store – fast food is crap and it’s expensive. I swear by my instant coffee and a reusable mug, and every gas station has free hot water. Also bring some whiskey if you like to drink. Not every club will give you free drinks and running up a bar tab every night will kill your budget for sure! So will a D.U.I., which could ruin the whole damn year. So find a D.D. or wait till you’re parked to party.
Merchandise is key! Keep your table well lit and well stocked. I usually sweep the audience with CDs and EPs in hand as soon as my set is finished. From the audiences’ perspective, they may have enjoyed your music, but they don’t know how much the CDs cost or where to purchase them; they are engaged in conversation, so whatever the reason, go out there and sell sell sell. It’s your job. I also got Square, an immensely helpful credit card reader. You should, too.
In Europe I only brought 25 CDs and quickly sold them out. I also had to modify my show to a backpack-friendly acoustic guitar and tambourine setup. My solo show is all about funny banter and audience participation. Getting in front of a non-English speaking audience was scary and a huge challenge, but through it all the Germans and the Spanish were supportive and enthusiastic.
WHAT I LEARNED
The further out you book the tour, the less other acts have asked for the same date, the longer you have to confirm all the details, line up press and local musical support, and so on. If you were hoping to do a European tour and start a year out, you can make sure you have enough guarantees to cover your way before you even purchase the ticket. Also my European “tour” was much smaller than planned – mainly because I waited until two months prior to get working.
Knowing people is key…
I reached out an Irish pub in Karlsruhe (Germany) – twice. No response. A friend of my brother worked part time there and promised me a show; he called the owners to let them know I’d be coming and then I showed up a few days later on a packed, rowdy Saturday night. I had a great time.
Technology is awesome…
My iPhone was in constant use in the States: GPS, checking email, taking credit cards, phone calls, adding new friends and bands to my Facebook and Twitter accounts immediately. I did not spring for the international phone plan, but I wish I had. Lacking a GPS in Berlin, lacking a phone to confirm details with a venue, lacking the means to take credit card payments – all these things hurt me in Europe. Also some online tools such as Spotify don’t work well or at all abroad.
Do your research…
Booking a tour at the tail end of winter? Risky. Luckily I faced no huge weather problems, but there could have been. In Nashville, I had a day off and expected to play an open mic. Who knew that Music City books open mics weeks in advance? I played a free show in Germany and was too nervous to ask what the payment policy was. A few nights later when I played again, the bartender gave me a fedora and I made 10 times as much.
To conclude: I think international touring is for everyone. Get yourself some merchandise, a website and polish up your live show. Make a route and then plan to go there a year, six months, even three months later. Get your vehicle checked out before you leave and get ready to have a kick ass time. It could be St Joseph, Missouri or Barcelona that’s your favorite – or it could just be the journey itself. Don’t forget to smile and enjoy every minute.
Feel free to reach out if you have any questions, or want to share a show somewhere in the world. You can hear me at www.kristenfordmusic.com and reach me at kristenfordmusic at yahoo.com. Thanks to Performer for letting me tell my story, and Prost!
KRISTEN FORD 2013 TOUR DATES