“Instant cool points at the expense of a soul which was being crushed by sitting alone in the fucking Island Bar in Birmingham drinking £3 stubby bottles of Becks while some moron plays some shite version of a Paulo Nutini song…”
Most of these are pretty self-explanatory, but it took me many attempts at touring (plus numerous weekenders here and there) to work them out. The first time was in July 2007 when I decided to head out around the UK to play songs for people. It was an unmitigated disaster. I spent most nights playing to indifferent audiences in bars or open-mics, and then sleeping in Youth Hostels alone till I could travel to the next city on the megabus. To say it was soul destroying would be ideal, except for an excellent gig in Liverpool with Alun Parry that made it all worth it.
It wasn’t till over a year later, in the September of 2008 that I tried again. This time I took three months to plan a two week set of dates with a great folk-singer called Al Baker from Manchester. My brother also came along for the ride and to add mandolin to my songs. This took us from the North East of Scotland, all the way down to Brighton with a good number of perfect gigs in between (but also a couple poorer ones).
Heading out with my brother and Al taught me the importance of company in these journeys, and so the next few times I went out, it was always with another act. Roscoe Vacant (Scotland’s greatest contemporary songwriter) joined me on my most successful tour, ie, we didn’t lose money, in March of 2009, and then I hit the road with Adam Boucher and his band a year later in March of 2010. It wasn’t a great success, for a number of reasons (not following the tips below being one).
Luckily I went out with Adam Boucher again, with both of us playing solo, in February of this year and it was a much better experience. Nothing like splitting the surplus cash at the end of the tour when you go your separate ways!
So, in no particular order, here are my ten tips for getting around the UK to play music to folk, and not killing your love of doing it in the process.
Plan Your Route
One of the headaches when you are trying to plan a series of dates is the eventuality that you are going to have a massively long drive between two gigs. The geography of the UK is such that you can easily plan it out to have a maximum of two hours drive between gigs, and if you book early enough then gigs can usually be shifted around to accommodate this. It might take a bit more work than just accepting the first gigs that get offered for the sake of going on tour (OMGZLOLZ TOURING etc), but it will pay off in the long run. Advantages include less cost of traveling, more time spent in gig towns with friends, and of course, a longer lie in after the gig!
Unless you have a large disposable income (or a very forgiving wife), you are going to need some cash to get on the road. There isn’t a one size fits all rule for money for gigs when touring as an unsigned act. The major rule that I would always use (reinforced by one gig in London on the Adam Boucher gig) is to avoid the payment schemes along the lines of “you get £1 per head after the first 20 folk to see you”. Ok, it’s fine if you can pull 40 folk through the door to earn a couple of tenners, but it’s a large risk.
On the band tour with Adam, we had a fair number through the door,but the person marking the heads through the door split the total between myself and Adam, halving the probability of paying out. The bar made a killing though, more so as they didn’t need to pay out.
I’ve heard of some solo acoustic-artists-who-used-to-be-in-hardcore-bands ™ using a payment scheme along the lines of asking for the cost of their train ticket to the gig plus £20 as a minimum. Most of the times, I’ll make the promoter aware of the amount of cash I’m looking for (usually enough to cover the petrol) and make up the difference by selling my CD, and around 80% of the time, this works. Of course, if you need to find a place to stay, and are not having food provided, then it’s OK to up the amount of cash you are looking for!
If time equals money, then days off equals a waste of time. Unless you have friends of family to visit, feed you, and give you a bed, nearby the gigs that sandwich your free time, it’s absolutely more useful to play a shit gig with the prospect of selling a few CDs, perhaps an open mic or someone’s front room. Of course, then you no longer have a day off, so everyone wins!
I could eat steak every night, with a nice pepper sauce, and perhaps a fine red wine to wash it down. However, on tour this might only occur with a) a very generous promoter, or b) cash. Normally my diet on tour consists of filled rolls from village shops (service stations are too expensive, and there’s always a village shop nearby), or what ever the promoter can provide.
My favourite tour meal belongs to Hornby, just off the M6, where the guy who usually does my gigs there makes an awesome vegan chilli, followed by olives placed around the gig in little bowls. Sublime.
It has also proved useful in the past to pack a carrier bag of instant noodles, breakfast cereal and instant coffee for those times when cash is running low and the next gig is an unknown.
Away From The M6
This ties to the previous discussion of food and how I’ve found that some of the best places to play are the ones that are slightly harder to get to. By all means book shows along the backbone of Britain for ease of driving and cheaper petrol, but this means missing out on the thousands of small villages and towns where the local pub can be the gig.
Perhaps seven out of ten times I chose to play in a small village, the show has been brilliant, well paid, great atmosphere and motivation to keep going. I’m looking at you Milnsbridge, Hornby, and Trefforest. These gigs are usually harder to find but they are out there, it just sometimes means making an actual phone call to a Real Ale pub rather than a mass MySpace/Facebook message to a pay-to-play promoter in a big city.
80% Promoters, 20% Bookers
A promoter is a person who puts together a gig and promotes it, puts the word about and get’s folk through the door. A booker books bands for a gig.
Unless you are desperate to play in a town for a large number of people who genuinely want to see you play, a promoter is always preferable (in fact, even in this case, a promoter is preferable!).
Promoters sometimes work with bookers in that the venues they use may piggy-back on a regular live night, but with the promoter taking time to get the word out. I’ve played many times on these types of arrangements and if the promoter does their job, it feels like your own gig even when it’s the weekly Acoustic Night in a Student pub.
No Gig Is Too Small, But Some Are ‘Way’ Too Big
Chances are if you are reading this and looking to tour, you’re in the same boat as me. I’d rather play a small venue to a small number of people than play a massive (e.g. 300 capactiy) venue to a small number of people. I guess this comes down to being a bit picky with the gigs that are on offer. Crap gigs are really bad for motivation, and so its best to reduce the chances of this happening.
Why Do You Really Want To Play In Birmingham*?
Open up any music magazine and look at the adverts for UK tours that are being promoted, nearly all of them will have a Birmingham date listed. There are lots of places to play in Birmingham, and everyone has heard of Birmingham. Yeah, so it must be a good place to play, right? Well, that depends. If you have ‘fans’ or friends in Birmingham who will come out and watch you play, then yeah, other wise, why do you want to play in Birmingham?
First time I went out around the UK, I played mainly the big cities thinking that the attraction of a traveling musician would be enough to bring people out of their houses. It also meant I could list a whole bunch of cities on my tour route that folk knew about, “yeah, I’m hitting London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle”. Instant cool points at the expense of a soul which was being crushed by sitting alone in the fucking Island Bar in Birmingham drinking £3 stubby bottles of Becks while some moron plays some shite version of a Paulo Nutini song to welcome a hen party that has just arrived.
I didn’t return to the Birmingham area until a promoter called James got in touch about a series of charity gigs he was putting on in the nearby market town of Wednesbury. He re-instated my faith with that part of the country by putting together a good bill of acts, good drinks prices, friendly atmosphere and generally a good gig. This has given me a good reason to re-add that part of the country to my list of places to play
*I’m purely using Birmingham as an example these days.
Return The Favours
A lot of the gigs that I play around the country are put on by other people who play the same music. I’m being a bit of a hypocrite in adding this tip as I’ve not been able to return the favour these last two years as I would have liked. Basically, if someone goes out of their way to put together a show for you, always consider doing the same for them. Although, if the show they put on is shit, and they are the reason it’s shit, best scrub their name from your address book. Best for everyone.
Goes without saying.
Dave Hughes wrote this article. When he’s not writing articles for Moon & Back Music (which is rarely, as this is his first) he’s making music, either on his own or with The Renegade Folk Punk Band. You can check out his music on his website or over at Bandcamp. You should do. It’s great!