On Touring

Posted by Bart J Helms
December 20th, 2011

Not long ago now we finished our longest tour to date. Nine days, eight shows. We swung through Michigan, drove out to Kansas and Nebraska, and returned via Indianapolis. If the others are like me, then we caught a giddy second wind towards the end and the last few days felt like we’d only just left. It was a success by our own standards, but we also know it hasn’t made us pros overnight. In fact one of the reasons I can’t wait to do it again is so we can apply the lessons we learned.

This has been one of the bigger differences between End Times and the other bands I’ve been in. If we’re doing the same things we did last month, we feel unsatisfied. We make as many mistakes as anyone, but within a day we’re saying to each other “next time, lets try it this way.” We’re always asking “what’s next?” even in the face of failure.

A few days after returning I listened to Merlin Mann’s 2009 presentation “With All Due Respect to the Seduction Community” for what must have been the fifth time. The presentation is about creative projects and the barriers that stand in the way of starting a new one. I highly recommended it for anyone who’s been meaning to get to work on a project, whether it’s an album, a novel, software, or some fantastic experiment in knitting. The last few times I listened to it, I heard it in relation to songwriting and it was helpful. But this time – because of where my mind already was – I heard it in relation to touring and tour-planning. Read that way, it sends a very clear message to every band out there.

You have what you need to book a tour right now.

It might be a 30 date cross-country tour. Or maybe a 75 date European affair. But more likely it will be two or three days through towns within a five hour drive from your home. The length doesn’t actually matter because at some point you will have to go “from zero to something,” as Mann describes it. Psychologically, it’s the hardest step to take, but what most don’t realize is that it’s identical to every other step you’ll take on your way.

There will always be a gap between what you’ve done and what you need to do next.

The difference between the people struggling to start and the people at the level the non-starters aspire to is that the pros have accepted that they’re forever blindly taking steps into the beyond, that they’ll never know everything. They’ve accepted that they’re going to suck sometimes.

Sometimes projects fail. Some novels will never be published. Some tours lose money. But a pro doesn’t let that get in the way. Success isn’t doing it right once on accident; success is trying again and again and again. To keep moving forward, you’re always going to have to take steps you’ve never taken before. Going to from zero to something feels like a huge undertaking, like an act of creation fundamentally different from anything else you’ll do, but ultimately it’s no different in nature than going from that something to a bigger, better something.

In the accompanying blog post, Mann lists some of the fears that keep him from starting.

I think all of these can apply to a band who wants to hit the road but hasn’t yet. I know I’ve felt each of these while doing End Times’ booking. I wish there was a simple solution to dealing with these fears, but the list includes some legitimate concerns. The issue is that if you want to get started, you have to let go. You have to be ok with sweeping the project under the rug at the end.

This is an exciting time in music because we the artists have the power to make things happen. But it means continuously dealing with subjects with which you have no experience or expertise. You can read all the new music blogs’ advice on touring, but you won’t book one until you accept that failure is a possible consequence. Not having enough information about a venue, a city, a scene – that’s a part of touring. Just like forgetting your sleeping bag or not bringing enough socks. You will never have everything you want before it’s time to take the next step.

So if I have any advice, it’s to focus on one thing at a time. Do your research, but not too much at once. Target one city and learn about each venue there. Or scope out one band you’re envious of and study the route they take through your region. The point is to keep things incremental. It’s possible you could bribe your way onto a side-side-side-stage at SWSW, but if you don’t know what to do after that, you’re still stuck where you were. You don’t need to book a show 18 hours away when you’ve never played one two hours away. You don’t need to book a weeklong tour over spring break when you’ve never played two out of town shows back-to-back. Find the smallest thing that you’ve never done before and do that.

You have what you need.

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