Five Things I Learnt From Two Months On Tour
Three months ago almost to the day I arrived in Oxford carrying nothing but a bass guitar, an amp and a nervous knot in my stomach. It was a sunny August morning and I was on my way to my first practice with a band I’ve admired for a long time, Spring Offensive (if you don’t believe that last statement scroll back to February this year and you’ll find a feature I wrote on the band for Fresh On The Net). Until a month before that first practice I’d never played bass before, guitar was my instrument of choice and I’d pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I would probably never play in a band again. Flashback to that first rehearsals and, quite apart from the anxiety of making a good impression in front of my new bandmates, two months on tour in Europe loomed ahead, thirty-two shows, five countries, seven-thousand miles. It was an incredible situation to find myself in, with weeks separating me from something I’ve dreamed about since I was fourteen.
Today I find myself sat in a record store come coffee shop in Cowley, Oxford and it’s all over. A tour that felt as though it would never end (no bad thing) finished last week in Mainz, Germany. It’s tempting to tell you all about it right now. Every single detail. Every disaster, every triumph, every surreal experience but in all honesty that’d probably be more entertaining for me than for you. Every anecdote would inevitably end with the online equivalent of that awkward silence followed by the phrase…I guess you had to be there.
So I thought instead I’d talk about the things people don’t tell you about touring, the unglamorous, gritty facts. If you’re planning a tour, whether it’s a small UK jaunt or mammoth European stint, below are five things it’d be easy to forget, small things that become immensely important when you’re up against a hectic tour schedule.
Wi-Fi is a precious commodity – It may not feel like it at times but real life doesn’t stop whilst you’re on the road. Sure, tour schedules make it feel like you never stop, waking up early for another long drive straight into sound-check, unloading from a venue at one a.m before falling into bed for a few hours of sweet sleep. But despite all this there’ll be emails to respond to, interviews and sessions to organise, routes to plan, events to plug and social media to keep on top of. Whether you’re in Europe or staying within the UK, doing all this can drain your mobile phone data in a day and leave you with bills that cancel out the money made from a gig. After a while you realise that free internet is a blessing.
Ask for any Wi-Fi login details when you’re booking any show so that you don’t need to spend precious time chasing the venue when you should be sound-checking.
Details, Details, Details – I realise that I’m starting to sound like a middle aged control freak with anxiety issues but you’d be amazed at the difference the small details can make. First and foremost, parking. Is there any at the venue? If not where is the closest free (and safe) parking and how far is it from the venue? If it’s too far away to load in from, can the van stay outside the venue for loading then be moved? There’s nothing worse than turning up on time then finding you can’t park there and wasting an hour desperately searching for a place wide enough (and tall enough) to accommodate a van.
If the promoter doesn’t give you enough detail, do your research. Failure to plan is…well you know the rest.
Look after your body – The worst thing about being on tour is without a doubt being ill. You may be a health freak at home, a three-meals-a-day, regular exercise, early night, sensible drinker kind of person but routine is impossible on the road. Every night is a late night, every morning is an early start, meals are irregular in both quality, quantity and time, drinks are free and oh so tempting and exercise is the twice-daily loading in or out. After a few weeks you all inevitably become drained, sleep deprived…ill. Three meals a day of bread and cheese won’t give you all the nutrients you need.
Before you leave stock up on paracetamol, ibuprofen, aspirin, plasters, blister patches, rehydration salts, decongestants, everything you could conceivably need. Most importantly, don’t forget supplements like Vitamin C tablets to give your immune system that boost.
Merchandise is key – You might be a small band preparing for your first jaunt around Europe, playing every night to audiences for whom you’re just a band that’s been brave enough to cross the channel. But even if you’ve never released a thing, never sold a t-shirt, once tour begins it’s merchandise that’ll make the difference between losing money and making a profit. Once you factor in meals, petrol and insurance the fees you earn will probably just about cover your costs. Even new bands can make great money out of merchandise on tour, if only for the fact that it might be the only opportunity for anyone to buy a t-shirt or CD. It’s surprising how often people will buy stuff just so they can show off if you ever get big enough to brag about.
Make an investment in some merchandise before your tour. If nothing else, tote bags are cheap to produce and you don’t have to worry about size selections.
There’s no such thing as time off – A touring schedule can be intense, all early starts and late nights so when you have a few hours to yourself it can be tempting to take some well earned time off. But if you can drag yourself away from an afternoon nap or lazy coffee in a cafe then use the opportunity to go the extra mile with promotion or band work. If you want to make sure there’s a healthy crowd then find out where the nearest University is, ask a student when the next break is and where it’ll be busy then do some guerilla busking, give out flyers and tell people about the show. It can be a great way to introduce people to the band and get extra bodies down to the gig. If there’s no university then why not use the time to work on songs. Chances are that after a few weeks of constant gigging you’ll know your set inside out and be able to spot where the weaknesses are.
The tour will be over before you know it so use every moment to do something productive. There’ll be time for sleep when you’re dead, or home whichever comes first.
All too soon the tour will come to an end and you’ll find yourself, like me, staring wistfully out of the window of some cafe or office wishing you could do it all again but with all the little bits of wisdom you picked up on the way. Maybe you’ll end up writing a nonsensical, quite probably pretentious and patronising article with tips on touring etiquette and planning. Or maybe you’ll do the sensible thing and go home to bed.