Category: Touring

Things will always go Wrong

Its pretty much a guarantee when one is touring that sooner or later things will not go well. It could be a timing issue such as a blown tire enroute, a missed plane connection, or even a venue scheduling issue where in one only gets 25% of the time normally needed for load in and sound check. It might be that a series of thunderstorms comes through, and leaves the venue, as well as any backup venue without power. It could be a medical issue such as having a speaker bin land on ones foot, slicing ones hand open on a par can, pain meds from a pulled tooth causing a majorly fuzzy brain, or perhaps last nights corn dog was on the roller grill for 20 hours instead of two. It could be a mental issue too… a close relative or touring member passes away or is serioulsy injured. A engagement breaks up, or someones marriage falls on hard times, or even the reverse… someone on tour gets engaged, and now their head is only half in the game.

Most any of the above factors, situational, medical, or emotional will interfere with even the most dedicated musicians ability to perform at some point. Thus, knowing such can/will happen, a contingency plan is in order… Obviously, one can’t formulate a plan for every possible situation, but most certainly having a few paths laid out ahead of time can make a crazy time a whole lot less stressful at a minimum, and in a lot of cases will avoid the really bad situation of having to cancel a show entirely.

Granted, some of these issues should seemingly fall into the domain of the road manager… and a top notch road manager is worth multiples of their weight in gold. On the other hand, few bands can afford a good road manager, much less a top notch one, and some end up recruiting a band members relatives, or groupies who have never done such before, and others skip the role entirely and sort of wing the whole deal. Ultimately though, no matter how good the road manager is, there can be situations where multiple things go wrong at once, and the workload is far more than even the best road manager can handle, or even delegate. This is where the whole group needs to come together as a team, rather than sitting back and saying, “not my problem, I’m just here to make music”.

Over the next few posts I’m going to present a few game plans and such which have saved me, and the groups I’ve been with over the years a whole multitude of headaches, and even saved a few shows from cancellation. For many, such may seem like a whole lot of overkill… and if nothing goes wrong, they would be correct. On the other hand, nearly all of these can be done well before going on tour, and at little to no cost. In other words, this is a case where the bass player can put in a nominal time investment upfront, and when everything is going wrong, and folks are going crazy, the bass player can uphold the long standing stereotype that bass players never get rattled. 🙂

There is no Reason You Cannot Do This…. T shirts

Martin Atkins stated “There is no Reason You Cannot Do This” in reference to on demand posters and tshirts. He was not referring to on-demand like in cafe press, but more so, actually screen printing while on tour. As a fellow who consulted on massive screen printing operations such as used for tshirts sold in dept stores, I can think of tons of reasons why not to even think of screen printing on tour. By the same token… why not rethink the norms, and with some planning, give it a shot. It has the potential to really boost promotion, and also maximize revenue through merch sales.

Reasons why not to do so

  • its messy and can be a bear to clean up
  • screens are easily damaged
  • multicolor printing requires precise registration and equipment
  • transporting ink across state lines can be a challenge
  • do you want hazmat in your bus or van
  • flash dryers require 240V
  • conveyor ovens are huge, many require 480V 3 phase
  • quality may suffer without process control
  • finished good racks are huge
  • raw materials + finished goods take up valuable space
  • labor is always a concern

And while the above are very legit reasons why not to do so… I have to remember that a band doesnt need to produce a multiple color glow in the dark tshirt with puff or high density rubber ink at high volume, nor do they need to do design change overs in 10 minutes. Low volume tshirts are a different animal than high volume shirts with specialty inks, and most of the other issues can be worked around.

Whats super cool, is lots of folks are already doing this, and there is a wealth on info online, albeit nothing beats experience. Some great forums to get rolling are http://www.gigposters.com/forums/ and http://www.t-shirtforums.com/

I also found this cool link on building a four color press… its no high speed robotic job, but for making a few hundred prints, it sure looks like it could do a great job.

Beyond the labor and overhead savings, on demand also provides for a high degree of customization, and specialty merch, far beyond tshirts.

Bandize, ERP for Musicians

In the corporate world, enterprise resource planning (ERP) is a big deal, and when it works, its amazing how it can save time, and wring out costs. In the music world, I’ve often looked for a parallel for the touring group. Something simple enough that a group getting started could use a module or 2, and as they progress, go for a full blown implementation, without having to start all over again.

Far too many young groups, wing it… probably because the tour manager is just as inexperienced as the band is. And yes, every tour manager has been at that point, even grey beard codgers. It takes some time to get your stride. Granted, in my day a massive day timer and a ledger pretty much had all the pieces, but it also meant making gobs of copies at Kinkos, and if there should be a change… yikes. Todays tools make life easier, whether it be Excel, Outlook, & Visio, Quick Books, or likely some other combination, provided one can tweak things to talk to one another as needed. Bearing in mind, there isnt a nice canned social management app prime for integration that works worth a hoot, much less one set up for bands…

That was, until I saw Bandize, to say nothing about the additional modules and ERP capability. Talk about a tool I wish I had twenty some years ago, and it has multi functionality, for those of us who run multiple groups and live on the road. I dont anymore; too old, but man, that would have been such a time and aggravation saver. Some of the functions include: Show/Tour Planning, Accounting, Contacts, Merch, ToDo, Social Sync, Asset Management, Calender, and Messaging/Collaboration.. and it all runs online with a browser interface.

Granted, I have not played with this, and until one does, and ideally with live data, its pretty much impossible to tell how good or bad something is. Otoh being that the guys who put this together have all these modules up and running, it appears they did some pretty serious market research and testing along the way. Hehe, any bands need an old grey beard for a bargain to put this through the paces for them? LOL

That being said, like all things, there are pros and cons. The days of old with paper and such were a pain, and if the ledger got torched, or an assistant flew out with the contacts book a day early, one was in a major jamb. With this being a new deal, just coming out of beta, there obviously is a bit of concern. Ie, will it scale, what happens if it usage sky rockets, what about service outages, or other bugs, what if they dont make it through next year… etc.

And of course, another biggie is multi… and I must admit the pricing is a bit scarey. Ie, I believe you get what you pay for, and the very low price is more than a bit concerning. For a new band, and an inexperienced manager, a low price is a good idea… For a guy charging $$$$ per day like I did years ago, it makes me go hmmm. Sure, this is not SAP, but it provides value to a tour manager not unlike the value SAP provides to a F1000 corp. On the other hand, generic business tools like basecamp are only a tad more than bandize so maybe not. Sometimes age and experience creates less than helpful expectations, esp concerning new product pricing.

And lastly, while its an amazing integrated tool, off line backup of data in a non-proprietary format, as well as 3 ring paper binders are a must, especially for the newbie. Old codgers know this… lightning will occur at the way wrong time, a major isp where your concert is will die, your laptop will be stolen, your binders get introduced to a couple beers etc. Backups and multiple ways of dealing with key data are a must, just as they always were.

No matter what, for the young band starting out, this software appears like it will save untold amounts of aggravation and headaches. For the inexperienced tour manager, I think it will be a major life saver, and at $15/month, even if one just uses a couple modules, well worth giving it a shot even for local shows.

Gaffers Tape & Duct Tape

When starting out, every one uses duct tape, its cheap and readily available. I remember years ago, going through miles of the stuff… However, its not without peril. Duct tape, over time, or after after 1000+ folks have trampled on it, or PAR cans have boiled it,  of any such combo makes for a nasty mess of adhesive residue.

Its nothing that some terry cloth and Bug and Tar Remover cant deal with, short of PAR can heating… but it is an extra hassle. Its also a good thing to sched periodic cleaning of cables and stage gear if you do use duct tape… or eventually, the folks will be having birds when their hands get covered with goo during set up and tear down.

Also, some versions of duct tape can be pretty reflective which may or may not be annoying. Lastly, some brands tear sideways, backwords, and upside down… pretty much anything but straight.

Gaffer tape, otoh is super cool… its a lot easier to tear straight, has better strength & temperature specs, is almost always mat (not reflective), and doesnt leave a residue mess (well, dont leave it on forever LOL) However, its substantially more costly. Permacell 665 is the standard, albeit corporate changes have tweeked the name and such over the years, but it is the “right stuff”.

Some less common uses include…

Transit case marking, rather than stencils, ie if you move, or are a sideman, you dont want stenciled labels, you want something that can be changed somewhat at ease. Granted, if you are in a big enough league to afford case wraps, thats even better, but for most, gaffers tape works wonders.

Shoe traction can be improved, especially if wardroad consultants come up with a cool image they went to present. Far too often said image is not practical for choreography, as the shoes are for show, not for movement and as a result may be like walking on ice. Gaffer tape, or duct tape can work amazingly well in this regard.

First aid… but not right over the injury, but as a durable cover over traditional first aid bandages and the like. (sure… most just grab a towel and duct tape, but its safer to use sterile first aid approaches, and then duct tape).

Fire, A Very Present Danger

Fire signoffs in some venues can be a pain, especially if one is not prepared ahead of time. The thing is, the danger is very real. Case in point, the Nightclub fire in RI back in 2003.

http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/Northeast/02/21/deadly.nightclub.fire/

Ninety-six people died Thursday in a fast-moving fire at a Rhode Island nightclub, Gov. Don Carcieri said Friday afternoon, adding that only a handful of the bodies have been identified.

Over the years, I’ve seen a ton of potential fires, but fortunately never has anything get beyond something which a small extinguisher couldnt deal with. It can be pretty obvious things, like a drape that got too close to lighting gear, and didnt have enough fireproofing, or odd deals, where a speaker cable gets shredded when a drunk gets into the wrong place at the wrong time.

The thing is, with signoffs, most of the time, unless the stage gear is brand new, and you have recent traceability, its going to mean a personal sign off… and then, if something happens, well you know who gets to go to jail. Whats worse, is one can think one did all the right things, and still find themselves in a jam. The only real way to know, at least with some confidence is to run your own tests…

Fortunately, FDNY has published a study guide for Certificate of Fitness for flameproofing materials used for artistic enhancement in public buildings, and they include a field flame test.

Field Flame Test

Three sample strips, at least 1 1/2 inches wide by 4 inches long, must be tested individually in a safe and draft free location. The material must be suspended with the long axis vertical (ideally the sample strip should be suspended using a steel tongs). Then the flame from a common wooden match must be applied to the center of the bottom edge of the sample strip for 12 seconds. The effect of the flame on the sample strip must be carefully observed and recorded. In order to pass the field flame test, the material must meet the following criteria:

  • The flame must not spread rapidly over the entire sample
  • The sample must not continue to burn for more than 2 seconds after the match has been removed.
  • Flaming materials must not break or drip from the sample and continue to burn when they reach the floor.

Granted, for many, at least those starting out, fire sign offs are going to seem way out there… the thing is, the club fire in Warwick, RI was a small venue, it likely did not have signoffs, other than permits for pyro etc. Fire is no respector of size, nor venue, and if by chance, something shorts out, a beer goes flying into the wrong thing, someone falls, etc… you dont want your stage backdrops or other material bursting into flame, and potentially killing people.

This is especially the case for new bands, where perhaps they made their own props, from who knows what material, and whether it was fire proof or not…. Or maybe, they had one of the guys run stuff through the laundry at home, and thus rendered any fireproofing worthless. Its no time to find out you have a problem, when there is a 4ft flame behind the drummer. Test, and if it fails, reapply fireproofing and get it right. This is no place for games.

Dont tick off the Union Guy

For those who have been there done that, they personally know the horror stories of paying a union guy $250 for electrical connections, or a few hundred for loadin/loadout. For others, such seems an overblown fantasy story. Well, for some venues, it is very real… and what you dont want to do, is tick off the union guy.

Often times, there are the sale of the earth types, they can see through BS 100 miles away. While they may be powerless to do much about it, by title, or regs… getting one on your side, can make impossible situations incredibly easy, as they know the workarounds. As such, dont go crabbing to them about what you are paying, dont hinder their work, dont crab about how long it takes etc.

Here are a few examples, where being cool paid off…

I was on a massive setup, and the electrical inspector was being a royal pain and then some. Apparently someone had cut a few too many corners recently, and some bad stuff happened, so he was going to make sure every i was dotted, and t crossed even if it didnt make any sense. Having befriended the union crew a couple hours earlier, an old guy pulled me aside, and threw out a few pointers as to exactly what was needed, and how to get the inspector to sign off and be happy about things. What could have been a disastrous delay, turned into a few creative tweeks, and we had our signoff. The $250 connect charge was well worth it.

In another case… some food for the union crew paid huge dividends. Other outfits had the traditional toss and throw… our gear was handled quickly, but with a whole lot more care. I imagine the other guy ripping on the union for overcharging was not received too well.

Another time out, the union guy noticed one of our panels had gotten more than its fair share of road rage. Had he not caught that, and likely the electrical inspector would not have noticed, being focused primarilily on minutia, we could have run into some major headaches down the road. A set of helpful eyes, especially not involved with the same gear day after day can catch things ones own crew might miss.

Ultimately, in many union venues, there really is no choice. Its a cost of doing business… thus one can either be a jerk and potentially reap some negative consequences, or be a decent fellow, or even go above and beyond a bit and good things can happen. Its no guarantee of course, but why start out the day with a negative vibe. Even if things go as normal, its a whole lot nicer for everyone, to be cool, rather than to come across as a jerk from hour zero.

Watch the Weight

After reading Martin Atkin’s book, entitled Tour Smart, a lot of things came to mind, and as such, I’ll be periodically posting tourtips. These are things I picked up the hard way, both as a touring musician, but also a engineer involved with industrial tradeshows. The number of parallels between the two of them are amazingly close, albeit tradeshow wise, we had a ton more funding than I ever did as a musician. Otoh, the headaches are very much the same.

Tourtip #1 Be careful of weight distribution, total weight, and physical size

Its a real temptation to try and make things simple, by using oversize storage and transit containers, ie custom made Anvil cases. Ie, rather than having to deal with tons of crates, if one has just a few… its easier to manage and faster… hopefully.

Well, we had the proverbial coffin box, which held microphone stands and booms, and another case for base plates. Having the base plate box detoured to a undisclosed location one night, we had the brilliant idea to repack them as one… all in the coffin box. Well, that made what was normally a 200lb box, into a 400 pounder, or at least it felt that way. Sure, it had wheels, but it still required lifting over different surfaces, and we didnt have a hydraulic lift gate. As long as we could manuever a ramp, no problem, but it doesnt always work out that well. So… one night, we were short on load out crew, and we had this 400 pound crate… and managed to loose it while loading. Pretty amazing damage what a case like that can do in such a short period.

Another issue is weight distribution… sure, you have the load out check sheet, but when its raining & dark, the telescopic loading bay lights are out, and the loading curtains are leaking, speed is key. The last thing you need is weight distributed up high in the truck, add in high winds… and it can be interesting. I still remember fighting it for hours, and my buddy behind told me later, I thought sure, you were going to roll… If it means getting things in order for load out back on the stage, take the time to do it. The checklist is not just to make sure everything is in the truck, but that weight distribution is also considered (or in some cases, that it all fits). The same applies to a trailer… and I should have learned that back in high school, when our trailer went over a cliff. Sure, the welds were bad, but had it been loaded properly, its unlikely it would have separated like it did.

Physical size can also come back to bite… Its no fun playing a small venue, only to find out you have to unload the cases outside, as they wont fit through the door. Or worse, getting charged huge oversize fees when you get to the airport. Granted, if one stays with Anvil, or most other pro cases, most of the sales guys will call you out on this… but if you DIY to save money, this is something one must definitely consider.

Cursory review of Tour Smart

I received Martin Atkin’s Tour Smart earlier this week, and have been digging through it. Talk about digging up memories 🙂 For that purpose along, its a cool read, but alas, there is much more.

For someone who has been there, and done that… well, it pretty much tells you all the things you should have known before you went out on the road. I wish he had written it 30 years ago, it would have saved me a lot of headaches. Alas, such headaches are the sort of things that do stay with you…

As an old codger, I can see youngsters reading this and going, man, thats too much work, too much to worry about, I just wanna play. Well, guess what, touring is work, and if you dont have your ducks in a row, you might not be able to play, or most likely wont last very long.

For those in a successful enough band, who is starting to get serious, this book is a life saver. Do follow his recommendations, and the ones you think are not important, at least consider what headaches you open yourself up too, should you choose to ignore them. It can be a brutal world out there.

For those in a small band, just starting out, there are things of value, but many will seem overkill… ie if you send out riders to a small local club, request dressing rooms catering, equipment, etc #1, they wont read it, and #2, they will likely laugh at you. The book in that regard is not for the newbie… but things like SOP’s for accounting, loadin, loadout, contracts, & basic band management transcend all venues and lifecycles, as does promotion & other areas, albeit they are less generic.

For the Christian Musician… well, the language is a bit coarse, but dont let that be a discouragement. You may think you are immune to sex, drugs, alcohol, fatique, breakdowns, fans, merchandising, member relationships, and getting ripped off etc… but this is the real world, the real mission field. You are not immune, you need to be wise as a serpent, and gentle as a dove, this book can help a ton in the wisdom arena, and knowledge of the potential evils out there is a must.

For the female musician… well, this book is very much male oriented, and as such could be a turn off. Otoh, just as with the Christian musician, there are many things you can run with, albeit you might need to apply them a bit differently.

Become a booking agent for $100 and a week???

I’m skeptical, booking agents are the life blood of a tour. A bad or disorganized booking agent can and often does spell disaster. However, if such skills are not one of the band members, and one doesn’t have a known name or track record, a major disconnect exists. Prime booking agents are not gong to be interested, and diy in this arena, unless somewhat focused and skilled is not likely to be too successful. Thus, I think Derek Sivers is correct, there is a place for the semi-expert, for the band ill equipped to diy, and yet not in the league to work with the big boys.

The problem is… being a booking agent, is not just the knowledge gained from reading 3 books, but the drive, and also the salesmanship to make it happen, and sales is really a big part of the game. Yet, one also has to look at expectations. At $20/hour, the expectations are pretty low. Ie Derek suggests marketing as the following.

The pitch is a humble one: “I’m only doing what you could do yourself, if you felt like taking the 100 hours to learn how. But if you don’t, I’ll be glad to tell you what to do, or do it for you.”

From that vantage point, ie the 100 hour investment, which provides for teaching the basics, or handling the most basic aspects does make sense, and for many struggling artists, is likely well worth the $20/hour.

The end result… I went ahead and have the 3 books ordered up on inter-library loan. At $20/hour, its not really worth my time, as a primary activity. As fill work between projects, and as a way to re-orient myself into todays music business, the 100 hours invested, its well worth giving it a go, even if the financial rewards are not so great. After putting in the time, I may just need to go some of my old friends in the business, and see what shakes out. I’m sure they end up turning down thousands of requests every year, if not more. It might be a unique niche. I do wonder how it can scale, but better to jump in lo-fi and see what works before putting too much effort into perfecting something without any recent live experience.

It will be interesting.

Live performance is more than perfect technique

In my early days, I focused on technique almost to the exclusion of everything else. Technical perfection was my goal…. not the groups musicality, not showmanship, not the total effect on the audience, but my personal skill. Man, was I wrong….

Granted, being a tech head, lights and pyro were interesting too, and yes I did play around with them quite a bit… but personally, there was this disconnect. I could tell when the groups gelled, and when they didnt, but couldnt identify why. I could tell when we had a real showman as a leader, but failed to jump into the ballgame personally. I could tell when the audience was engaged and part of the total event, but couldnt put 2+2 together to see what the reason was.

As I grew technically, I interacted more and more with other musicians, heard more live shows, both as audience and behind the scenes… and I started to pick up on things, and lots of light bulbs came on. I think Amy Wolter said it best when she stated as concerns the audience, They don’t want to leave and be saying, “Did you see the guitar player stand in one spot all night so he could play every note perfectly?”

And I was the guy… the bass player who stood in one spot all night so he could play every note perfectly. I wish I had read that when I was a youngster! Far too many years passed before the light bulbs came on.

Some bits I learned over the years..

  • The total deal is what counts, perfect musicianship does not make up for shortcomings in other areas. (The reverse is true… a good show, with great audience engagement does make up for a ton of technical errors… but only to a point of course)
  • Attire does make a difference, and yes, I do remember having Lawrence Welk set of clothes for some jazz gigs, and some other flashy attire depending upon the style of music I was playing. Looking back, its funny… but it was appropriate for the time.
  • Stage presence is key, and that entails a ton of things, how one physically reacts with the audience, the other band members, and even gear can be a prop at times.
  • Consistency is key…. ie dont be a bump on a log for entire sets, and for only 1 tune jump into the fray, it looks fake.
  • Choreography is cool… it provides a base, a set of SOP’s, and with it, more creativity and spontaneity is possible, and it keeps botched attempts at engagement from appearing staged and fake.
  • Always plan for the unexpected… jam your hand, or slice your thumb during load in is going to make technical artistry difficult or even impossible. Even being sicker than a dog can mess up the best laid plans. Practice a fallback simple routine and a show can work really well despite adversity. When musicality drops, use other areas to boost the shows appeal.
  • Learn from others, as a bass player for hire, I experienced a multitude of approaches musically, but also in the showmanship domain. Cross fertilization plays major dividends.
  • Dont limit yourself to expectations… exceed them, and blow a few minds. Its perfectly cool to freak folks out to keep em on their toes. Probably not going as far as Gene Simmon’s, esp in a country or Gospel band… but playing and showmanship to expectations often leads to a pretty dull audience experience. Exceed them, it does work wonders.