Bands find the highway is not quite carefree
Touring groups can get little pay, cool reactions, have car trouble
Melanie Krahmer and Rich Libutti of the Albany rock band Sirsy have their share of horror stories from the road.
Take the duo’s most recent tour of the Southeast in February, with a stop at a North Carolina club they’d never played before. The show was booked through the venue’s booking agent, and the band signed a contract specifying pay and hotel accommodations.
But things began unravelling about three weeks before the show. First, the booking agent wouldn’t return Krahmer’s calls to confirm the hotel reservation and other details in the contract. She called the club owner directly and found out the booking agent had been fired, and was now in jail. After striking a separate deal with the club owner, Krahmer received a call from the booking agent a few days before leaving for the tour confirming the original contract. But when the band arrived for the show, the hotel room hadn’t been paid for, and the booking agent was nowhere to be found.
The room cost $150, and the desk clerk asked if Krahmer wanted it on her credit card. “I said, ‘Ah, no. We can’t afford that.’ So now, we don’t have a hotel room. We show up to the show, the booking agent never shows up, never pays us. Then we find out — he tracks us down, he gives us a check. It’s a bad check; the check bounces when we try to cash it.”
Stories like this can be enough to discourage musicians just starting to tour outside their hometowns. Even without the pitfalls, setting up a tour or even a handful of shows a few hours away from home can be a daunting task, involving hours of planning; coordination with venues, agents and other bands; and persistence.
Ballston musician Matthew Loiacono, who is now working on getting his solo project on the road, said that touring was a gradual process for his band The Kamikaze Hearts. Since forming in 2000, the band has toured throughout the Northeast and in Chicago, Indianapolis and Nashville.
“We played around Albany for a couple of years, then we started to take little drives out to Utica, and playing New York [City] within a couple of years,” Loiacono said.
“The best way to go about it is to find a place that is within an hour or two [of home]. We went out there [to New York City], we played one show at a coffee shop. The next time we were back there, everybody knew all the songs. It gives you a confidence you don’t get from playing at home all the time.”
Short road trips to smaller venues is the best route to start building an audience, he said.
“You’ve got to start out small,” Loiacono said. “These days, it’s really difficult to start out playing the really great venues; you have to start out playing the not-so-desirable shows at first. If your music is worth it and you do the right work, you’ll eventually climb the ladder.”
But landing a gig when you’re virtually unknown can be tricky. Kevin McKrell, who leads Irish folk group The McKrells, got his start touring in the 1980s with the band Donnybrook Fair, which also featured local musician Jeff Strange. The group began immediately playing shows in East Durham, the “capital of Irish music in the States,” according to McKrell. Eventually, through playing hotels, the group landed a two-week gig at The Irish Village in Chicago, which has since closed.
“We did a two-week stint for basically nothing; they paid us more out of spite than anything else,” McKrell said during a recent interview in Saratoga Springs. “We did the gig, and did it very well. From that, they said, ‘You guys are OK.’ You know, he doesn’t want to tell you you’re good.”
Despite the cold response from the club, the group managed to land shows in St. Paul, Minn.; St. Louis, Mo.; and Des Moines, Iowa, through the gig. According to McKrell, persistence and confidence were keys to landing the shows.
“Patience is a big thing, also knowing what you’re doing, feeling really good about what you’re doing,” he said. “Right or wrong, we felt that we could pit our music against anyone on the planet, at a festival, onstage, anywhere.”
When you’re trying to land a gig, making a good impression with the venue manager or booking agent is important. Having a professional press kit and Web site are good starts. It’s also important to try for venues that match the style of music you are playing, which requires some research.
“I like to see something somewhat professional, which always helps,” said Devon Murray, who has booked shows for Northern Lights in Clifton Park, Revolution Hall in Troy and currently works for Step Up Presents, one of the region’s high profile booking agencies. “Also, just good music, something that fits and makes a lot of sense [with the club]. Somebody that has a lot of fans, a lot of passion and brings a good crowd out, it just makes for a good show.”
Sirsy’s fans were a big help in getting them shows in new markets. According to Krahmer, having out-of-town fans lobbying for a band at a venue can make a big impression, more so than just the band calling up. In Sirsy’s case, the fans were introduced to the band through shows it played in its current markets.
“Sometimes I’d send them actual press kits, and they’d go into the bar and say, ‘Hey, I’m a fan of this band and I really want to see them, and I’ll bring all my friends,’ ” Krahmer said.
“And that makes a big impression on a club because it’s not just the band or the band’s booking agent saying, ‘Book this band, they’re really good.’ When it’s fans coming in requesting the band, that speaks volumes.”
Musicians and booking agents all agree that making friends with bands in outside markets can also help land opening slots on out-of-town bills.
“There’s nothing that can come from being in a competitive market; it doesn’t make sense,” Krahmer said. “So that would be a big, big piece of advice: Find bands that, you like their music and you think they’re cool, and try to put a show together where you’re going to offer them a crowd to play in front of in your town, and then ask them to do the same as a trade. That’s generally the best way to break into a new town, I think.”
Networking with other bands can also provide a place to stay after the show, eliminating the need for hotel expenses.
“If you can develop a nice rapport with an out-of-town band that’s similar [to your music], there are many, many benefits from that, one being you can share crash spaces and couches,” Loiacono said.
Getting shows booked is only the first step to a successful tour. Life on the road can oftentimes make or break a band, so it helps to be prepared for nearly anything.
Amsterdam musician Alex Torres has been touring nationally and internationally for almost 30 years as the leader and bassist of his 12-piece Latin jazz orchestra. Although he calls touring “very rewarding,” he doesn’t recommend it for every band.
“There’s that old Spanish saying, you don’t know somebody until you sleep with them or they live in your house, one or the other,” Torres said. “When you’re on the road, sometimes . . . things happen, so other people’s personalities take over. . . . You’re going to start getting hairline fractures eventually, and hopefully you got a good welding kit to take care of that.”
Torres has found that being well-organized is key to dealing with problems — personal or mechanical — on the road.
“We’ve got to be like — never mind being musicians, man; when you’re on the road, you have to be a magician,” Torres said. “Gear breaks. Now when I talk about gear — cars break, transportation breaks, airlines get grounded, storms come in. You name it, it will go wrong. You have to be resourceful.”
With the economy in recession and gas prices fluctuating, money is always a concern on the road. The members of Sirsy, who make their living solely through the band, have kept their ticket and CD prices at the same rate to combat economic woes, but often still find themselves barely making ends meet.
Last fall, when gas prices spiked to over $4 a gallon in many places around the country, the band ended up taking a hit on their Midwest tour, a market that is still relatively new to them.
“The Midwest, it’s kind of like we’re still taking some losses just to get that exposure, but it’s starting to come around for us,” Libutti said. “But when the gas price doubled, I mean that pretty much comes right off the top.”
“Yeah, we came home from that, and neither of us could afford to pay our rents; we were eating ramen for months and months after that one,” Krahmer added.
Torres always carries extra money with him on tour for emergencies.
“Of course, somebody’s going to tell me, ‘Yeah, but if I don’t have gigs, how am I gonna have money?’ ” Torres said.
“Well, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do or find it before you go on the road. My grandfather used to say, ‘A man is not a man if he leaves the house without a dollar in his pocket.’ And that’s, you know, at least it’s good for a two-second phone call. It’ll help.”
McKrell, now 54, has been playing music since age 20, and has supplementing his income with everything from roofing to bartending to waiting on tables.
“If you want to make a little bit of money in folk music, you have to have a lot of money,” McKrell said.
“Really, it’s a silly way to make a living,” he continued. “I make my living as a musician and a painter, they’re both silly ways to make a living. It’s a silly business. Many times I wish I woke up in the morning and went to a job. Yeah, it’s great [being a musician], but it’s also a little precarious because of the business.”