Part Two: Is Touring Really Necessary in 2008?
Posted by Justin Boland on Feb 13, 2008 | 21 comments
Here’s a refrain I’ve heard several thousand times since I started researching this series: “Nothing beats a live show for connecting to the audience—you have to actually be there with them, sweating and rocking out, to get anyone’s attention.”
Yeah, bullshit. I would wager that 99% of the artists I buy tickets to see live, I’ve never seen live before. For instance, Tinariwen, the desert nomad Afroblues-rock band from Mali, have been on constant rotation for about 2 years straight, and I never saw them perform until December of last year. On the other hand, if I had seen Ghostface Killah perform live before, I sure as hell never would have paid out $25 to watch him do karaoke versions of his own material, berate the crowd, and occasionaly step out in front of his 20+ hypeman entourage to rap a damn verse.
I would wager that 99% of the music I listen to, I discovered because a friend of mine had to tell me about this new album. Don’t worry—this is not another article about social networking, word-of-mouth, or viral marketing. I just want to point out that doing shows and touring has less to do with reaching new listeners than most people think. Believe me, I just did quite a number of shows in towns where nobody had ever heard of me—not surprisingly, nobody showed up. Before you sell tickets, you need to get people listening to your music and curious to know more about you.
So here’s a much more valuable and realistic question: how do artists get your attention like that in the first place?
The Core Elements
1. Great Music
2. Easily Accessable
3. Prolific Output
4. Evangelist Fans
5. Low Overhead
That’s it. I could have put the “secret formula” at the end of the post, but there it is. Feel free to stop reading.
1. Great Music. I’m never going to stop repeating this: most of you make mediocre music and that’s your main problem. Not your MySpace strategy, not your website layout, not your SEO score, not your mailing list, not your lack of sponsorships and placement on iTunes. Seek objective feedback from as many people as possible—be as honest with yourself as you possibly can.
2. Easily Accessable. I am an outspoken and habitual advocate of giving music away for free. I believe the benefits exponentially outweigh the potential loss of revenue. Of course, in 2008, pretty much everything is “easily accessable”—from software to albums to movies. I often have new artists ask me: “If everything is going to get pirated anyway, why should we give our music away?”
My simple answer: because right now, nobody cares about you enough to pirate your music. You’re not on filesharing networks and you’re not listed on torrent sites, because nobody has heard of you, and unless you start putting your music out there yourself, that won’t be changing this year.
3. Prolific Output. This is definitely a topic for an entire article, and that article will definitely happen. I’ve already had a few interesting email exchanges with musicians (and listeners) who disagree with me on the importance of making lots of music. I’ll explain my bulletproof, single-sentence logic a couple paragraphs from now.
4. Evangelist Fans. No faking the funk on this one. Your music either authentically moves people or you’re making interchangeable background noise crap. I feel very fortunate to have the fans I do—World-Around Records has “street teams” in several cities and we’ve never organized any of them.
5. Low Overhead. Ah, yes…the money. Remember, the single most reliable method for increasing profits is reducing overhead. No matter what business you’re in. All the changes and upheavals that the music industry has seen in the past decade are going to accelerate in the future. You need to keep your operation flexible in order to experiment with new approaches and adapt to new trends.
The creation of music is a production chain—and the more points on that chain you can control, or better yet own, the lower your costs will be. David Byrne recently dropped a much-discussed manifesto on the new music business for Wired magazine, and a number of artists questioned his claim that the costs of recording were approaching zero. You can find the discussion over on Byrne’s website—it’s worth chewing over no matter what genre you’re working in.
Remember Pareto’s Law…and remember The Mantra: Engage in no expansion until you have eliminated all the mistakes from your current operation.
Now here’s the synthesis. Consider an artist like C-Rayz Walz, who made his first impression on the world with a truly remarkable song: Great Voices, a 10 minute long tribute to dozens of rappers, with constantly shifting beats and vocal styles. Sure, it was just an imitation track—but it was so energetic and polished that people had to pass it on.
If anything beats “being there” in front of people, it’s a truly remarkable song. I believe that a great mp3 beats the greatest live show you’ll ever play, in terms of reach, longevity and impact. Hip Hop is full of artists who made a name for themselves off a single great concept, and failed to deliver anything worthwhile for the rest of their career. They might not be breaking new artistic ground, but what they are doing is making money off music.
Don’t underestimate the importance of the single. This is a major reason why I advocate “Prolific Output”—you never know what’s going to catch with people. Bruce Warila has written some excellent and visionary material about the song-testing algorithms of Hit Song Science, but the fact remains that random chance is the primary cause of more or less everything in this Universe. Music is no different. Speaking from personal experience, I never would have thought that a sloppy joke instructional song about anal sex would have taken off—but it sure as hell did, and now I’ve got a very promising side gig as Humpasaur Jones.
You can devote years of work to your masterpiece, but that doesn’t mean people are going to like it. You could just as easily make a few goofy “throwaway” tracks that everyone but you falls in love with. The more music you produce, the greater your chances for reaching new audience. If anyone seriously disagrees with that formula, I would love to know why.
Best of all, it’s easy to produce. As music genres go, it’s impossible to beat hip hop for “Low Overhead.” Beats can be created on easily stolen software and you only need an improvised vocal booth to record lyrics—get some decent levels, do minimal mixing, treat the finished product with some VST mastering software, and boom: you’ve got a new asset for your portfolio. Purely “electronic” music is easier still: that’s how Richard James, popularly known as Aphex Twin, became so prolific in the late 90s that he was signed to over a dozen different labels, all under different names, all constantly releasing new material.
…wait a second…
I’m sure a few people will raise the question: doesn’t your list of 5 ingredients contradict itself? Can you maintain a prolific output and still have the quality control to be making great music?
Yes, you can. Most of the effort and work involved with the production chain isn’t from making music—it’s from making mistakes. Once you get your studio signal chain set up properly, you don’t need to change the settings and recording becomes a smoother process. Once you realize that you actually need to practice your material before you record it, you’ll be wasting less time on doing shitty takes, over and over. Once you get a visceral sense of the elements a song needs to be “finished,” even your casual experiments will sound more polished and album-ready.
Experience is the only qualification that matters. Don’t worry about making mistakes—plan on making mistakes, lots of them, constantly. If you don’t get them out of the way now, they’ll show up and cause more damage down the line.
Me, I happen to like doing live shows. I’m pretty much a fan of my fans. So up next, I want to keep walking on both sides of the fence, focusing on innovative approaches to doing shows and planning tours, all from the perspective of a grumpy and jaded dude who would rather be having sex than working out budgets and contacting venues.
For now, I’m curious: am I off base with this article? It was through examining my own relationships with the music I love that I came to realize live shows have nothing to do with it. I can think of exactly one exception: I saw Brother Ali play live before I’d heard of him, and he put on the most remarkable empty-house set I’ve seen, before or since. He absolutely earned the respect of everyone in the room and if memory serves, he sold a copy of his CD to everyone there.
How much does a live show matter to you? Have you seen most of your favorite artists play live? Are you in the habit of regularly going out to see bands you’ve never heard of before? Let a mammal know. As always, thanks for reading.
1 John Irvine says...
I just love you.
Posted at 3:33 p.m. on February 13, 2008
You can devote years of work to your masterpiece, but that doesn't mean people are going to like it. You could just as easily make a few goofy â€œthrowawayâ€ tracks that everyone but you falls in love with.
Interesting point. I remember reading about the Dudley Perkins song "Flowers" after it's large-scale release on PB Wolf's Jukebox 45s; apparently, it was recorded as somewhat of a joke, and it was first released in 1997 on a split 7" as a B-side to a more serious cut. According to Wolf, "Flowers" turned out being a bigger success than the legit cut, and since then Dudley Perkins has gone on to release three fairly successful albums.
Just goes to show, you never can tell.
Posted at 3:38 p.m. on February 13, 2008
3 jeff says...
Interesting read. I have always wondered how that "get your name out by touring thing" worked. People always said it,but it smelled like bullshit.
I guess it may work if you know someone who is known and they let you open. You mentioned MF doom, lets just say hes hitting the road, by all means opening for him may get you a few fans. But touring on your own when no one knows you means no ones showing up. Music isnt like comedy, where people go just to see whoever is performing.
Touring to make money once you are established is a great idea im sure, but to get your name out I see no point as well. Good read man, keep up the good work.
Posted at 3:42 p.m. on February 13, 2008
Jeff, that's exactly where I'm headed in the third part: trying to lay out a template for deciding if shows are worth it, where to play, and how to maximize every single gig you do.
Early on, I embraced the "all gigs are good gigs" philosophy of paying dues, but it doesn't take long to realize that's just fucking dumb.
Working smarter and working less are my major goals for 2008.
Posted at 4:12 p.m. on February 13, 2008
5 IJ Bassik says...
I would very much agree with the article. The funniest question is "If the music gets pirated anyways, why should it be given away freely?"
That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. I mean, logic says, you're not going to make money anyways, so why should you waste your time trying to make it?
And all else falls in line, if the music is good, you'll get sought out more and if you're making "prolific" [amounts of] music, then you can sell them other music or whatever...
Anyways, here's a great idea I have for getting a feel for the "need" to tour:
One of my friends made an account on there, then sent out a bulletin allowing people to go onto eventful (I do think "fans" need to sign up as well, not a painful process) and they can send requests for you to come to their town. If you get enough interest, you can make a commitment to reach out to your fans with a live show.
This could in a way redefine touring. You wouldn't need to commit to a multi-month "tour". You could go to a particular place over the weekend, or two weeks; fitting in small (or empty) shows here 'n there to keep yourself entertained and possibly pick up a few new fans.
Certainly touring doesn't seem to be a logical method for building a fan base. I never toured, but when we played local shows, hardly anyone new ever showed up. It was almost always the same 20-40 "evangelical" fans.
Posted at 4:42 p.m. on February 13, 2008
6 jeff says...
You seem to be on the right path with passing out music and getting your name out there. A good move to decide where to play shows might be down the road when you have more product for sale, such as a cd or merch that you send out, you may be able to see where a lot of it is sold to. You may be huge in Arkansas because half of what you sell gets shipped out there, now you know try to go to Arkansas and theres a chance you can get a packed house. (which from what i hear may be the only reason you should ever go there.)
Its very hard doing what youre trying to do, because the whole system is designed for you to work for free and im glad you refuse to do that.
Posted at 5:08 p.m. on February 13, 2008
I have been guilty of overemphasizing singles over albums, and not talking enough about process.
"Engage in no expansion until you have eliminated all the mistakes from your current operation." This is an appropriate quote for my next thought.
For artist expansion probably means pursuing a bigger audience. Pursuing a bigger audience in the world we operate in means rapid sharing (or the evangelizing) of a great song.
Your sloppy joke instructional song about anal sex was probably shared (I have not heard it) due to concept not the quality of the production (perhaps a combination of both)?
Back to the process - I agree make a lot of songs. That is the top of your funnel.
Test them out live - look for fan reaction. Now we are moving down the funnel.
Ask 200 fans/friends for anonymous feedback - take a survey. Now moving further down the funnel.
Try Hit Song Science - Your songs are continuing down your funnel.
Get professional feedback - The funnel continues.
Get professional help to improve your best shots - the bottom of the funnel.
Cut them loose for the world.
Repeat process (steps can be rearranged). Repopulate the top of your funnel.
Random chance meets process...
Posted at 5:12 p.m. on February 13, 2008
Being one of those who strongly believes in live shows to expand your fan base I had to read this post several times. And really think about it. If you are playing live for your current fans you can do that in the comfort of your own home through services such as camstreams.com. So then the benefit to playing live is really only to earn a living which you can't do without enough fans.
I can't wait to see what more you have to say about this subject as I will be thinking about it myself a bit more.
Posted at 6:15 p.m. on February 13, 2008
10 david says...
I don't enjoy myself in a crowd at live shows. I walked out of a mars volta show last month, not because of the music. They're clearly one of the greatest bands i know of. But the whole scene was not mine. I barely enjoyed a tool show, and i left the white stripes show as soon as nick cave finished his opening set. Although id say the white stripes are a sub-par, and somewhat banal example.
Robert Fripp basically sits behind his setup these days, most of the audience doesn't see him. I read him lamenting that he's not connecting with fans anymore because of it, and i realised i dont give a fuck. I listen to music, i don't focus on the people who make it.
Who gives a fuck if 37 cuts his hair or shaves, or doesn't or where the dirty bastard lives?. As long as algorythms and hump jones interest me, i'll listen. If one day it doesn't, ill put something else on, and be damn sure to not complain.
I also disagree on the subject of caring about fans reactions. I dont' even want to type this, but it completes the thought. Focus needs to be on making music yr content with. Most of the world will never hear the music i make, because it's for me. If anyone likes it, that doesn't really matter to me. 98% of humans don't even know how to listen properly. Dig?
Posted at 1:15 a.m. on February 14, 2008
In answering the question, "Is Touring Really Necessary (in 2008)?" you seem to only answer in terms of "do you need to tour to build your audience... and in that respect I agree with what you've written.
But, from my understanding, the real money for artists who have audiences (short of uber-celebrity musicians, who make "real money" just by rolling over in bed), increasingly, seems to be through touring. With music sales dropping and people getting more and more of their music for free, the leading thinking seems to be that CDs, mp3s, etc are essentially what you use to make your audience, and the live shows are how you get your audience to really pay you.
So, to say "I don't need to tour to get famous" (though as another poster mentioned, opening for a more popular act could be a potentially large boon) seems to be missing the point, no?
Posted at 2:35 a.m. on February 14, 2008
This is an excellent and courageous post, bro. I say this because it just hit me that I don't feel much like consulting an artist on how gigs are gonna make them next to nothing after I've just consulted them on how CD's are gonna make them next to nothing.
One thing I do not get involved in is booking or arranging gigs for clients. Promotion for the gig/tour I will gladly help with but thats where it ends. gigs, tours etc. have nearly finished me but it did help me to realise I wasn't that great and it turned out to be an excellent decision to focus more on music services.
Gigs are obviously something you make money off once you start to break.
but yknow. It's really coming down to what the new methodology for "breaking" an act is. It's hard to tell people its not gonna take 3 months it's gonna take 3 years.
Posted at 11:07 a.m. on February 14, 2008
I think playing live has been essential in developing a better understanding of what people do and dont like (including myself) about my music. Not that it always matters to the creative end, on the business end, that is valuable information. From what I have seen, touring is a long-term commitment, the first time is going to be a lot of empty gigs (depending on who you tour with) and the next time MIGHT be better.
So what if instead of playing empty shows with a 10 dollar cover for bands no one has ever heard of, you tour and play nothing but house shows and other strange gigs. Take a road trip (tour) and map out every open mic / house show / art gallery / other alternative venue. If there is a donation bucket you might even make some money. If its a free show that already has a scene built around it you might just make some fans and/or business contacts. This is how it works in the folk scene, and often the punk scene, and i dont think that hip hop is really that different. That just means you need to be able to consider the tour an expense (road trip) and be prepared to cover it before you leave.
I think its completely absurd to expect anyone to spend money on something they have never heard of, and that pretty much is the angle i work from.
Posted at 9:30 p.m. on February 15, 2008
15 consumerx says...
Definitely an interesting post. I think Werner accurately points out that it addresses the question of whether touring helps to build an audience more than say the broader question of whether touring or playing live is a good thing.
Like DMLH, I have found that that much of the music written and performed by several of the bands I've played in has benefited greatly from being played out. I didn't consider them to be jam bands, but we definitely used to get loose with the songs and throw in little spur of the moment riffs and bridges, which, depending in part on the audience reaction, we sometimes decided should be a permanent part of the song.
Perhaps I am more live-oriented than most, but I feel any good performer can make a stronger impact on a potential new fan in a live format.
Posted at 10:50 p.m. on February 18, 2008
i would have to disagree somewhat w/ one point you made in this article, and that's the statement that "it's easy to produce." obviously the tools and the knowledge are more readily obtainable now for more musicians than ever before, but at the same time, it STILL REQUIRES years of patience and experience and mistakes to LEARN THE TOOLS enough to make decent sounding recordings (oftentimes even the best productions/songs can be ruined by shabby mixing and mastering). maybe it's just the producer and engineer bias of me speaking here, but i can say w/ utter certainty that it takes a lot of time and work and dedication to make professional sounding tunes. "treat the finished product with some VST mastering software, and boom" isn't always as easy as it sounds, which is why most rappers i know simply rely upon someone else to do it for them. i guess the main gist of what i'm saying is that a proper grounding in the fundamentals of the recording process should be primary to any endevaor involving true DIY music. but then again, maybe i'm just jaded from spending so many long nights carefully mixing and editing tracks as the only producer and engineer on my label while everyone else basically leaves me with their recorded verses to go off and have lives. who knows
Posted at 4:10 a.m. on February 27, 2008
It takes far less work to produce and digitally distribute a track than it does to book, organize, and execute a tour.
That was my main point. I'm also a big advocate of CUSTOM SETTINGS and TEMPLATES to automate as much of the production process as possible.
Posted at 12:32 p.m. on February 27, 2008
true that. in the context of the whole shebang as far as touring goes and making an act work successfully, i've seen people pull hair out literally over the stress that's involved w/ that. but re-reading what i post the other day, i can't help but think it might be useful to explore the possibility of doing a better analysis of my own working habits. my original comment was perhaps out of the "c'mon bro make me a beat on fruity loops so i can rap over it, it's not hard bro" spite i've self-conditioned myself to harbor.
Posted at 11:59 p.m. on February 27, 2008
19 ovlet says...
I believe that a great mp3 beats the greatest live show you'll ever play, in terms of reach, longevity and impact.
well mebbes for the first two, but i cant believe you'd compare the experience of seeing an awesome band live with sitting in front of your pc or with your ipod and listening to it.
I also don't get your point, your argument shifts. First you say that 99% of the bands you have seen you have NEVER seen live before. Then you say that playing live isn't a good way to reach new people. . .
Also, you forgot about the way that support acts become headliners etc. You go to see a band you like, you hear the support, you like them or not.
I dont think you really have any understanding as to how the music industry works.
Posted at 1:52 p.m. on February 29, 2008
21 Delphi says...
Outstanding material...I would like to see you apply this same level of re-thinking to other parts of the industry! Publishing, liscensing, agents, etc. Keep going, you got a great brain for this.
Posted at 10:27 p.m. on March 16, 2008