"Making it" in the music business means something different than it used to. The concept of reaching for the stars has become counterbalanced by the notion of striving to make a living by touring smartly and economically. Many artists no longer tour to promote an album, they record music to promote a tour. While it is easy for GRAMMY-winning superstars such as Paul McCartney and U2 to book concerts around the globe at will, indie artists seeking to break through have to be more fiscally mindful.
"When I was starting out, gas was 21 cents a gallon, motel rooms were $19.95 a night and truck rentals were 25 bucks a week," recalls Twisted Sister guitarist and manager Jay Jay French. "You could make $150 a night playing in bars. Your overhead was so low that $900 a week gave you plenty of money to survive, rehearse and make demos while you were dreaming of becoming a rock star. These days, you have to pay $150 to start in some bars. Gas is $5 a gallon, motels are $100 a night and truck rentals are $500 a week."
The first step to becoming a successful live act is to cultivate a loyal local following. Steve Karas, co-founder of multiservice company SKH Music, recommends focusing first on markets close to home and playing repeatedly in cycles of every 8–12 weeks to grow a fan base.
"By keeping those markets in proximity to one another, you create an environment where those markets overlap one another, giving fans an opportunity to go to show A or show B, which are in proximity to their homes," says Karas.
Strong local acts also have a better chance of opening for a national headliner passing through town. Singer/songwriter Mike Ruocco, a former member of rock bands SR-71 and Cinder Road, visits the Pollstar website five times a day to scout for potential opening slots for national acts doing local shows. He has also been speaking with a similar genre artist about doing an acoustic tour.
"It's easier to do [an acoustic tour] because you can play these 150 to 300 seat rooms or coffeehouses as a solo artist, and people can come out there inexpensively, listen to some quality music and you can get some organic fans," says Ruocco. "It's certainly not glamorous, but if you're a lifer like me and your only alternative to tour is going in your own car with a guitar player and a box full of CDs and T-shirts and playing coffeehouses, then that's what you do."
When Cinder Road opened for Daughtry in 2007, they played for free on the first leg but sold 100 CDs per night. "Then on the second leg of the tour we moved from being the opening band to the direct support band and got 250 bucks a night," adds Ruocco. "But playing for 1,500 to 2,000 people a night is what mattered."
Genre-bending singer/songwriter Erin Barra has put plenty of effort into touring, often doing both radio and in-store performances on the day of a show. It helps that MMD, Blackheart Records' third-party distribution and marketing company, distributes her music.
"If a venue or a promoter knows that there's some amount of manpower behind you, they're a little bit more willing to go out on a limb," says Barra. "Although there are bottom lines to meet, venues and promoters are always looking for something up-and-coming that they can affiliate themselves with and grow with."
Barra stresses the importance of planning and goals. She has a special EPK available privately on her website and makes sure all photographic and video materials are of good quality. Wise economic choices are made in areas such as advertising and publicity.
"I've had a publicist for the past year and a half, and some really amazing things have come out of it," says Barra. "I've run Facebook ads that have been highly effective. You can put resources into different avenues, but if you don't do it correctly then it's a waste of money."
Veteran British rock band Marillion signed a five-album deal with EMI Music in the early '80s, and have since made albums themselves and licensed them via labels such as Castle Records. A fan-funded tour in 1997 was a revelation that prompted the fan-funded album Anoraknophobia in 2001. Through generating a fan database and shipping CDs for those endeavors, the group has grown a cottage industry of live albums and videos, fan conventions, and booking and selling tickets to many of their own gigs.
"The best piece of advice I can offer a young band is use your fans, especially if they have talents there," says Marillion keyboardist Mark Kelly. "They are going to want to do stuff for you, [whether it's] someone who's got a particular talent for taking photographs or shooting video."
Ellen Stanley, director of publicity and promotions for Red House Records and a musician under the name Mother Banjo, says that music conferences such as Folk Alliance and South by Southwest are particularly helpful for meeting musicians from across the country.
"Doing tours with them can be really helpful," says Stanley. "That's a great way of getting new fans and is often a more economical way of touring. Or you could trade those contacts. Josh Ritter got his start that way. He would open for the Frames in Ireland, and they weren't big in the U.S. at that time. They helped each other out in the early days."
Stanley adds that many major folk festivals have songwriting contests where finalists can mingle with other performers and winners often get a festival spot the following year. Musicians can audition for National Association for Campus Activities and possibly land lucrative college gigs through which club dates can be booked in between. Ruocco notes that some major rock festivals offer a battle of the bands to find a local opening act.
"The most important thing is to have a really good product," says Barra. "You can try to advertise, promote and shove things down people's throats all day and night, but if you're not doing something that is truly unique and actually of quality, then it's a moot point to begin with."
(Bryan Reesman is a New York-based freelance writer.)