How to Book Your Own Independent Tour [mini course]
Planning a tour at any level is stressful work, and the bigger an artist you are, the more work that’s ahead of you. There are many questions that you must ask yourself before booking begins. What venues are you planning to play? How do you negotiate with venues? Who do you need on your tour team? What are your logistics? What do you have to budget for? Let’s break down the tour needs of an independent artist. Keep in mind that the most important part of booking a tour is to address it systematically.
When should you go on tour?
An artist should only go on tour once they have achieved success in their hometown. If you haven’t figured out how to get full audiences to your local shows, then you are not yet ready to tour. You need to have a fan base in order to mount a tour properly, otherwise you will be spinning your wheels. If you are serious about making music your profession, you need to acknowledge that you’re playing the long game.
Give Yourself Enough Time To Plan
There are so many moving parts to organizing and executing a successful tour that you should give yourself at least five or six months to plan and strategize. Tour routing, booking, and negotiations for multiple venue stops will easily take two to three months to hammer out the details. As a rule of thumb, all venue dates should be confirmed two months before your first tour date in order to give you enough time to promote the tour effectively.
No tour route will ever be 100% perfect because you have to work within the availability of each venue’s schedule. This means that there will be some backtracking and some days off. The goal is to keep the backtracking and downtime to a minimum.
First, map out the cities that you want to visit on Google Maps. The easiest way to determine which cities to visit is from analyzing your fanbase data. Which cities give you the most audio and video streams? Which areas interact most with your social media? Where are you getting merchandise orders from?
Ideally, each tour stop should be no more than six to eight hours from the next stop. This cuts down on travel expenses as well as being cooped up in a vehicle with your team or band for extended lengths of time. (This is obviously easier in metropolitan areas.)
Also, schedule approximately one hour of stops for every four hours of driving. This will give you a chance to take driving breaks, schedule meetings, and conduct interviews with local connections.
Open a shared calendar in Google Calendar or iCal and share it with everyone on the tour. Put in "held dates" with city names. When you get a "hold" at a venue, change the color of the "held date" and title it the city WITH the venue name. When you get a "confirmation," change that color again and title it the city with the venue. In the notes of that event, list all details: booking agent’s name, email, number, "day of" contact, venue address, time of show, set length, load in time, door time, set times (for all acts), compensation, and hospitality.
Based on venue availability, the cities that you visit might change, so be sure to keep an updated calendar.
Once you have an idea of which cities you want to visit, you need to find the venues that are conducive to your sound and audience draw.
What kind of artist are you?
You can choose anything from art galleries, parks, and cultural centers to concert halls, fraternities, and festivals.
If you haven’t been to a specific city yet or don’t have the data to prove a fanbase there, it’s going to be difficult to convince a booking agent to give you a night, but it’s not impossible.
Yelp and Indie on the Move are two great resources for finding the venues that are right for you.
Yelp allows you to see audience reviews for both the venue and the type of shows the venue books. Spending some time reading Yelp reviews can give you valuable insight and suggestions for where to perform in a city.
Indie on the Move is a newer platform that is specifically for artists and bands who are looking to book their own tours. They provide a great list of venues, contact information, and artist reviews of the venues.
Reaching Out to Venues
Most booking agents work via email, but some work only over the phone, so remember this and don’t be afraid of making phone calls.
When emailing a booking agent, keep it short and sweet. You don’t need to include your full bio in the initial email. The subject line in your email should be the date and all the artists on the bill. (Example: “March 20th - The Red Planets and Psycho Richardson”).
Be sure to look at the venue’s online calendar page to see if the date you want is open BEFORE contacting the booking agent. If you ask for a date that is already booked or ask for a night on which the venue hosts a weekly event, it will look like you did not do your research and do not care about the venue.
Keep your first email between six and ten sentences in length, and attach links to your Instagram and to a live performance video of you.
Include if you have any history in the area and how you’re planning to promote the show to your fanbase. Also include the amount of people you plan to draw to the venue because this is the piece of information the booking agent cares about the most. 50+ is the magic number if you’re an independent artist who is playing a city for the first time.
As a rule of thumb, if you can’t draw enough people to fill a venue, then book a smaller venue. It is far more effective (and gives you more credibility) to get 100 people in a room built for 50 as opposed to getting 200 people in a room built for 500. Everyone wants to be at the show that’s full, even if the venue is small. Perception is everything - always make sure the room is packed.
If you are going on tour solo, then consider if you want to include local artists on your tour stops or artists that can join you for multiple shows on different parts of your tour. Example, you might have one opener in Boston, NYC, and Philadelphia, and then another opener in Seattle and Portland.
Most venues that book original music will offer a percentage from ticket sales, usually calculated after the venue’s expenses. Percentages can range from 70% to 100% for 21+ shows, 70% to 85% for 18+ shows, and 50% to 70% for all-ages shows.
If you are playing a city for the first time, you won’t have much negotiating power since you don’t have a proven draw in that location, so expect deals on the lower end of these ranges.
If, however, you are a known artist and have a proven draw, you can command a much higher percentage. (Notice how an artist can get 100% on a 21+ show. This is because if the artist can sell out a show, the venue can make a healthy profit from alcohol and food sales, and so the booking agent doesn’t have to worry about making money only from ticket sales).
Additionally, plan to set the ticket price within the same price range as the other shows on the venue’s calendar. If the venue’s average ticket price is $30, don’t try to set your ticket price at $10.
For more info on the types of deals you can make with venues, click here.
Confirmation and Advancement
Once you have settled the details of a show, you should send a confirmation email that lists all of the necessary details. This list of details is known as an advance, and the advance acts like a contract.
Most venues with capacities under 500 don't typically work with contracts - especially when booking directly with the artist.
Just send them an email that looks something like this. Fill in all the information that you are certain of (what had been discussed in previous correspondence) and highlight the areas they need to fill in.
Attach a stage plot/tech rider and a promo photo with this email. Note that the artist’s promo bio is included at the end.
Advance Tickets Link:
On Sale Date:
Tickets available at the box office?
Box office phone #:
Box office hours:
Box office location:
Guest List #:
Number traveling in band/crew:
Load in Time:
Sound Check Time:
Advance with: (Name) Phone: Email:
Venue Day of Contact Phone #:
Sound Tech Contact #/email:
Artist Day of Contact Phone #:
Load in directions:
As the tour begins and progresses, make sure you advance each show one week before its scheduled date. What does it mean to advance the show? It means calling or emailing your point of contact as a final confirmation that everything listed above is in order. You cannot assume that everything is going according to plan. Instead, you must assume that NOTHING is going according to plan until you confirm the advance.
The only people you should bring on the road are those who are absolutely necessary and irreplaceable in making the tour operate at a profit. This means you may or may not have the luxury of bringing a tour manager, sound tech, lighting tech, photographer, and merchandise manager.
The makeup of your tour team depends on the length of the tour, forecasted ticket and merchandise sales, and the available room in the tour vehicle. Choose carefully. A team member’s tasks still have to be accomplished whether or not they can join the tour, and so for each team member left at home there will be more work for the team members to complete on tour.
Logistics and Lodging
Once the tour is completely routed, confirmed, and you know how many people are on your tour team, you can finally begin to figure out logistics and lodging.
For most tours you’ll be traveling on the road, whether that means car, van, or bus. Unless you have a sudden date and location change, are traveling overseas, or are spending someone else’s money, chances are you won’t be flying.
As for lodgings, hotels are always an option, they will definitely eat into your tour profits, especially on your early tours. If possible, try to see if you have any friends or fans who would be willing to let you spend the night after a tour stop. Other good options include AirBnb and CouchSurfing. Make sure to estimate your travel times, distances, and gas mileage of your tour vehicle.
If you are going great distances with a large amount of band gear or audio-visual equipment, it may save you money to rent that gear and equipment in each city instead of incurring the cost of towing or shipping it across the country. To see if this option is right for you, compare the costs between towing the equipment with your tour vehicle, shipping the equipment with a professional service, and contacting audio-visual production houses along your tour route for equipment price quotes.
After all the details are figured out, you can begin to calculate how much money you need to put into the tour before your first tour stop.
This figure includes ads, merchandise, promotions, gas, lodging, food per diem, and petty cash. This amount needs to be recouped in order to break even.
Then you need to calculate how much of each tour stop’s profits need to be spent to keep the tour going. This figure includes the nightly payment for your DJ/band, tour crew, vehicle maintenance, and possible record label cut.
Only after these expenses have been paid will you be looking at tour profit and your own personal payment. But wait, there’s more! For the income you earn on the road, you will need to pay taxes to the federal (and sometimes local and state) government. Have your W9 ready to go! You can click here to download a W9 form.
Tour Essentials Checklist
Spray Starch (Removes wrinkles from clothing without needing a clothing iron.)
Vitamins C and E Supplements (Keep your immune system strong on the road!)
Feminine Products (If applicable)
Condoms and Any Other Forms of Sexual Protection
Laundry Detergent and Quarters for Laundromats
Rubbing Alcohol (To Clean Microphones)
Snacks for the road (Keep it healthy! Dried fruits, nuts, zero-salt trail mix, etc)
Below are some helpful resources that can assist you with tasks as varied as processing credit cards, figuring out your work visas for touring overseas, and finding a place to sleep. Explore and enjoy!
GeniusScan – A PDF scanner app
Square – Accepts credit card payments
Waze GPS - GPS App
Master Tour is the premier software solution for tour management and logistics. With Master Tour, you can organize your itinerary, travel, production, accounting and more in one application. Work on or offline and share critical information with your crew in real-time. Master Tour will help keep your entire organization in sync.
Cudasign app – E-sign electronic documents
Foursquare – Find local businesses and attractions
Yelp – Find businesses and venues with reviews everywhere
AirBnB - Find affordable rooms on the road
CouchSurfing - Find affordable lodgings and meet new people
Hotels.com - Find deals on hotel rooms
Global Access – Visa and Immigration: Global Access Immigration Services, Inc. has been providing worldwide entertainment visa services, consulate assistance and coordination for the Live Touring Industry for travel both inside and outside the United States.
Tour Supply Tour Supply Inc is THE One Stop Shop for Touring Professionals Worldwide.
Cube Passes – Laminates, wristbands, luggage tags
Dropbox – Cloud-based file storage and management