The Conversation: North Texas Bands on Tour!
|Time to load up the van and hit the road, bros.|
Well, probably not that part about making money. Not early on in a band's career, at least.
In fact, going on tour kind of sucks. You drive all day, eat a steady diet of gas station food, play the same songs a zillion times (often for an empty room) and you don't even get paid enough to get a hotel room, which means you're sleeping in the van -- if you're lucky enough to have one.
It takes its toll on you pretty quickly. Just look at what happened to that Kings Of Leon guy.
All that said, the most important thing a band can do, besides creating music, is performing it live. Bands can sell their music on the web, but the live show is something that the Internet has yet to replace.
Still, it seems like a disappointingly low number of North Texas bands are actually getting out there on tour. Sure, there are a good handful of local bands on the road, but many acts have been sucked into the North Texas touring cycle, and seem content about it.
After the jump, Pete and I talk about why more bands aren't taking their live show out on the road.
Daniel: The idea of a small, independent artist or band hitting the road seems both fun and daunting at the same time. In your hometown, you've built up your draw, you can make money, and your expenses are minimal, but the opposite is true when a band decides to hit the road for the first time. You can travel for hours, throw hundreds of dollars into the gas tank, and get to a venue where you'll play for 10 people, a couple of free beers (if you're lucky), and at the end of the night you won't get paid.
Thing is, touring is one of the most important things you can do as a band. We talked a few weeks ago about how bands from the North Texas music community can get trapped in the cycle of only playing Dallas, Denton, and Fort Worth. And it seems that a lot of bands are falling into that rut.
Does it seem like fewer area bands are making efforts to develop a regional following in places like Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and other surrounding cities?
Pete: I don't know if the current state of affairs finds fewer area bands touring than before. But I think that, historically, one major thing that has dragged some great Dallas bands down is the fact that, almost as a rule, area bands don't bands don't really tour.
There are exceptions, of course -- from Fungi Girls to The O's, from True Widow to Fox & The Bird, from Sarah Jaffe to Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights, there exists a wide range of area bands currently touring when and where they can. And there are a lot of bands that historically haven't toured that are really trying to do so now, among them Ishi and El Cento. So, hey, maybe it's the opposite. Maybe more area bands are touring than ever before.
Obviously, this is a good thing -- at least from where I'm sitting. It's probably not wholly, one-hundred-percent impossible to become super famous without ever leaving the Metroplex, but it sure as hell ain't very likely either.
Listen: I understand why bands don't tour. I really do. Families. Day jobs. Lack of funds. All of the above. I get it. I sympathize with those concerns. But it's something that needs to be done if you want to be successful outside of the region. Even with the Internet shrinking the whole world down to the size of your computer monitor, this remains mostly true.
I also think you could argue that it's actually a positive thing, long-term, to go on a really shitty tour in which you play in front of only a handful of people each night and you lose a ton of money over the course of the whole thing. Problem is, no one ever wants to take eight steps back just for the chance to maybe take nine non-guaranteed steps forward.
But you need to take your lumps and you need to prepare your mindset for that happening. Unless you're Neon Indian and you're riding a huge wave of buzz and your second-ever show is at a festival in Colorado where Passion Pit, Phoenix, Chromeo and others are playing, you're probably not going to be selling out shows everywhere you go on your first tour.
Truth is, most people you'll be playing for won't ever have heard of you before, let alone heard your music. It's a risk, but a necessary one. And it's a snowball thing. Maybe next time you come through that town -- on your second, only slightly less unsuccessful tour -- a couple of people come back out to see you. And maybe they bring their friends this time. You have to build a crowd in each city -- just as you first did here.
It's how the Old 97's did it. They earned a big following in Chicago.
It's how Dawes and Lucero do it. In addition to their own home towns, they know they can also depend on big crowds here.
You've done the touring thing yourself, haven't you? How many times did Radiant tour when the band was at its most active? Did you return to the same cities ever? Did you see improvements? Was it as terrible as everyone who hasn't yet done it makes it out to be in their minds?
Daniel: Yes, we were a part of the regional touring grind for several years. For the most part, we just did four-day-weekend trips. We always tried to make return trips to the cities we played -- sometimes we saw improvement, other times it was awful. In Lawrence, Kansas, we played at this venue called The Bottleneck over and over again. But the most we ever drew there was 20 people. They paid us in beer, which is great, but it doesn't pay for a hotel room or gas, so after a while we just stopped going there.
On the other hand, we did see vast improvements in cities like Tulsa, OKC, Norman, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Little Rock, and for some weird reason, Grand Rapids, Michigan. The headway we made was the result of many return visits, but the biggest key was finding good local bands with a big draw in each city.
There was a time that we played for five people in Tulsa. We played our guts out. One of the five people was a member of a popular local band, and he invited us to open for them the next time we were in town. A month later, we were playing in front of 300 people.
Similarly, if you can land a support slot on one of those bills, you can go from playing in front of five people to 300, and if you're good, you can swipe some of their fans. You will be expected to return the favor, though, the next time that band is in North Texas.
But, to get to that point you have to take your lumps, which, in the long run, is a good thing. Matt Pence of Centro-Matic, a band synonymous with low- to mid-level touring, once told me that a string of bad shows can destroy a band.
When you're out there on the road, playing for nobody, on a steady diet of bar and gas station food, you really find out what your band is made of. When you start seeing improvements in other cities, you know that what you have is worth investing in. If not, you might just want to call it quits.
It's interesting that a lot of the bands you mentioned do tour, but their focus isn't just on the region. The O's are probably just as big, if not bigger, in France as they are here -- they were even given a key to one city, they told me. As for Sarah Jaffe, while I don't know how her Oklahoma draw is, I know she's had some success in both the Northeast and Northwest coasts. Leg Sweeper recently made a Northeast run, too.
The old-school model says build a following in your region as a foundation and then branch out. But nowadays, does it seem like local bands are skipping the regional grind and going straight for the East Coast, and the West Coast?
Pete: Yeah, I think it's interesting how so few area bands ever even get to Houston, let alone Little Rock or Norman or Oklahoma City. Everyone seems content to play Austin and have that notch on their belt. I wonder how much of that stems from the three-city model we have here with Dallas, Denton, Fort Worth and all points in between. Probably a lot.
I think that one important thing for bands to remember when they tour is that it's really no different than the first time they play a show outside of their inner circle. I've spoken to musicians that have gotten their panties in a bunch because, after establishing themselves in, say, Fort Worth, they come on over to play Dallas and don't draw as well here.
But shouldn't that be expected? That you have to build your fan base everywhere you go, and that very little that happens in one city effects another?
Maybe area bands are spoiled by the fact that there are so many different places -- if only slightly different -- to play in North Texas alone?
Daniel: I think you're right on that point. There are so many places to play here, and it's spread out just enough to establish a separate fanbase in each Dallas, Fort Worth, and Denton. But staying on that cycle here in North Texas is the quickest way to burn out your hometown fans, and eventually your band.
That's why I said earlier that touring is one of the most important things you can do as a band. You have to expose your music to more people in more places. The most effective way to do that (sorry, Internet) is still the live show.
It's hard work -- probably more taxing than most jobs -- and the odds of reaching any kind of financial payoff is ridiculously low, but the only way for a band to reach a decent level of success is to get out on the road.
So, if you're in a band that plays DFW three times a month or more, it might be time to plan a tour.
Pete: OK, then. I call shotgun!