Apr 6, 2014
TOURING IN THE USA - A master class about touring strategies by Nathan Carson (Nanotear Booking / Witch Mountain) at the 2013 edition of the Roadburn Festival ...
Roadburn festival is almost there again, so let’s refresh memory about one of the interesting and somehow not typical events that took place last year …Big festivals are not all alike. Some big festivals possess features able to distinguish them and make them special and thoroughly involving. For example, how many heavy music festivals do you know that can actively involve spectators and musicians by dealing with them basically au pair? Taking part, as a a fan, to a big metal/heavy music festival is always big physical effort as well as big fun, it is living for a few days in a completely different dimension and surrounded by people who are there for sharing a passion and an idea of life style. Generally the listeners listen, and chat and have beers and smoke, stroll around and have good time, and musicians play, get wild or stressed, meet fans, and chat and have beers and smoke, and, hopefully, have good time too.
But in some special cases the interaction between the festival and the public may become deeper, may raise to a higher level as well. This happens when people behind organizing committees think the public is worth being offered something extra, in addition to the canonical offerings, worth being involved in the activity on a higher level.
Why to involve?
Because the public to big festivals is mostly made by people moved by sheer passion in music, who follow the scene by regularly reading specialized blogs, webzines and magazines. Also innumerable members of the public in festivals devoted to underground heavy music are musicians as well, mostly living on a “normal” job and playing music as a diy activity.
How to involve?
For example, by organizing activities like series of seminars as well as master classes and the so-called “performance clinics”. No, I am not speaking about a medical congress or boring schooling, I am speaking about something surprising, and valuable, that happened last year, during the 2013 edition of the Roadburn Festival. The organization of these extra activities at the 2013 edition of the Roadburn Festival was made possible by special funding from local authorities and organizations.
Two of the master classes were devoted to music theory, techniques and very practical issues related to musical gear (guitars, drums, percussions) and were lead by doom legends Victor Griffin and Jeff Oly Olson and by Dream Death drummer Mike Smail. A third master class, the only one I attended, was quite particular as it was devoted to a very important issue involving many many people across the barricades at Roadburn. The topic of the seminar was about strategies for diy activity of (European) underground bands and focused onto successful touring in a rather tough part of the world, USA. Such particular, significant and very very practical master class was held by Nathan Carson, mastermind of US doom band Witch Mountain as well as owner and manager of the 10 years-old underground promotion and booking agency Nanotear Booking.
Nathan Carson’s master class was held in the Hall of Fame complex, a few minutes walk from the 013 venue, on Saturday April 20 th in early afternoon, between 1:30 and 2:30 pm. So quite “into” the festival. There were people attending the master class. There might have been even more in a miserable rainy day! But a glorious sunny weather was gracing Tilburg that day, and three super intense days of festival were probably inspiring a general and understandable sense of relax. But the master class was too interesting to be missed. So I went there, asked Nathan about the possibility of recording the talk, made a rough recording of the talk and took notes, while the Roadburn crew filmed the long talk. Then Nathan was so kind and patient to go through my rough transcription of the talk. I insisted for having this talk accessible because with his relaxed mood Nathan was able to convey much valuable information to the audience. What follows is not a scientific treatise and someone might find some of the indications as “obvious”.
But when speaking or dealing with diy underground bands and promoters one may realize that even “obvious” things (like, for example, being aware of one’s own scene or even more down-to earth, basic features) may not be that automatic or easy at all. I think Nathan’s talk below is not only pleasant but also instructive. So thanks to the Roadburn organization and to the local authorities who provided funding for this much appreciated bonus activity at the festival and thanks heaps to Nathan for being such a cool musician and professional guy and such a patient person …
TOURING IN THE USA - MASTER CLASS BY NATHAN CARSON
Link of the announcement of the Roadburn masterclass:
Text of the announcement:
“This year, Roadburn Festival is pleased to present master classes and performance clinics for the first time. It seems like a great opportunity to give those of you attending the festival, many of whom are in bands or enjoy playing music on your own, and some of the folks on the bill an opportunity to meet and learn from each other.
On Saturday, April 20th, Nanotear Booking‘s Nathan Carson will focus on what it takes to strategically tour in the US, and how to avoid the many pitfalls that can put tours in jeopardy (financial and otherwise). Questions from attendees will be welcomed.
Nathan Carson is a musician and booking agent from Portland, OR USA. A member of the international doom scene since the 90s, he taught himself to book DIY tours for his own band Witch Mountain, and soon after for his first official clients YOB. Nanotear Booking was founded in 2004 based on the success of those tours and Carson‘s growing network of connections, which he built first-hand on the road.
In 2013, Nanotear represents over twenty-five uncompromising artists, including Agalloch, Jarboe, Lene Lovich, Corrupted, YOB, and Witch Mountain. Riding the fine line between DIY ethics and sincere professionalism is what sets Nanotear apart from many other booking agencies. Artistic curation, fair deals, and humane practices are all a part of this successful formula.
Touring The US is available for Roadburn ticket holders (no additional fee) and will be held between 1:30 PM and 2:30 PM at the Hall of Fame in Tilburg, Holland.”
NATHAN CARSON’S SPEAKING …
NATHAN - The first thing I want to say is that everything I’m gonna talk about today is personal opinion based on my experience. Anything I say is not the only way to tour in the United States. There are as many strategies for bands as there are bands.
But I have come to learn a lot about touring just by doing it myself. And it’s something that a lot of booking agents don’t necessarily experience first hand. And so I taught myself how to book by booking tours for my own band. There is no school for booking tours and if there was, I wouldn’t trust it. You can really come from anywhere and ultimately be successful if you are are trying hard enough at what you are doing. If your motives are pure and your band is great, you can find success. But having said that, touring in the USA is really difficult. There is a lot less support for the arts, there’s no government grants for the Arts in the USA, aside from NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] and a few other things. It is culturally a lot different from what you’re used to here [in Europe] and it’s a huge country. Gas is expensive. There are thousands and thousands of bands. So there are a lot of challenges. Even for American bands, touring in US is difficult.
Today I want to answer any questions anybody has, but I also want to just relate a lot of strategies I have come up with to help make touring in the US more possible and more feasible.
But first, a little bit about my background... I grew up on a farm in Oregon in the woods. I couldn’t have been further removed from the music industry or the rock scene. It was not something that I was born into in any way. But I always loved music, and my parents were supportive, which was pretty invaluable to start with. My dad saw the Stooges, my mom had seen Jimi Hendrix. So there was no rebellion there.
I started playing in bands when I was 16 years old and there were times when I was playing in bars and sitting-on the curb waiting for the end of the show because I was not old enough to be in the bar yet.
In the earliest bands I was in, I wasn’t shy and most people just wanted to focus on the music. In order to get gigs, I would tend to be the guy who would take a cassette tape and walk up to a club and say, “Here is our tape, we wanna play a show”. Or I would get on the telephone and try to get us gigs.
You don’t get what you don’t ask for. That’s for sure. So you just can’t wait around for people to book your band. As much as it’s really fun to practice, fun to gig and record, there’s all this other business side to it that no one will do it for you until you’ve reached a certain level.
And then when a manager or an agent does step in offer to do it for you, you are paying them. It’s a service. It costs money. So the more you learn about this, the more you are in charge of your own business and destiny, the less you have to share the rewards with somebody else later on, and the more in control you are of your band. A lot of times bands do finally get successful, but they have no idea how their business is arranged. And we’ve all heard stories of bands getting ripped off by the managers and labels and agents. It is good that you care enough to be here to try to avoid those kind of problems.
Anyway, eventually I got really good at local bookings and even playing in regional towns in the same state that I lived in. And I started out by looking at the tour routings on booking agency websites in the late 90s of some of my favorite bands. I studied the routes; what clubs these bands were playing in, where they were going, what cities they would stop in, what cities they would avoid. So a lot of times, if you look at a map you might think, “Oh, you know, Olympia, Washington. I’ve heard of a lot of labels and famous bands from there. And it’s a college town, it must be a great place to play”. No! It is a pretty terrible place to play. There is little support there, nobody wants to pay money to see a show. Even though geographically it looks like a good idea, it’s not the best place to stop. No offense to Olympia. I like that town.
So studying where the other bands are playing, especially when the tours are routed by a professional agency, is a good strategy, I think, for understanding where you might want to go in the first place.
So I was studying these websites. There was a particular agency called the Billions Corporation that had a lot of bands I really liked in the 90s. They were booking for Nick Cave, and Neko Case, Man… or Astroman?, Six Finger Satellite, and the Jesus Lizard, …, just really a professional independent agency that I have a great deal of respect for to this day.
And eventually, I think I wrote them some e-mails and said, “Well, my band would like to play with one of your acts.” And pretty soon we got an offer to open up for a national act on a Wednesday night. Actually first we were offered a Monday ‘New Band Night” at this club, but I said “No, thank you”. Some bands are scared to say “no” to an offer or an opportunity, but I think that if you are reasonable, realistic and polite, sometimes saying “no” gets you a better offer later.
My band Witch Mountain was offered to play at Roadburn last year , and as much as we really really wanted to do it, it wasn’t the best timing for us. Our band has been on the rise recently and so we had to politely say, “no”. We came this year instead and I think it was a really good choice for us. I think patience can work for a lot of bands too. It’s a strategy.
Anyway so, I kept an eye on the Billion Corporation website and then eventually they advertised that they needed a web-master. I had some basic html skills. It was 1999 and I ended up getting the gig to be their web-master. And so for the next two years I was updating their website constantly, looking at these tour dates, looking at the names of clubs… And it was a lot of really good information that is out there. It is public knowledge. But it was my job to look at it every day all the time. And it just kind of got it into my mind so that when my band reached a level where we decided, “Hey, we are doing pretty well in our hometown. We are getting reviews in magazines outside town, so it is time to hit the road!” Luckily for us, in 2000 gas was still very affordable, renting a vehicle was, you know, not so difficult. Owning a vehicle was pretty practical. So we started to book tours.
And we were also fortunate that it was when Internet was also coming into play and so we were able to book our first tours over e-mail. I can’t even imagine how difficult it was for Black Flag doing it over the telephone in the early 80s. But, you know, bless them for blazing the trail that they did. Because in the United States there are definitely two very disparate music industries. There is the Live Nation/Clear Channel professional route that goes to arenas, theaters, major venues--the kind where a lot of money is generated, and only some of it goes to the artist and a lot of it goes to a lot of other people. A lot of the shows are sponsored by corporations that the band has no knowledge of and nothing to do with. And then there is the underground route that bands like Black Flag and the Minutemen helped create.
That’s really what I focus on--the professional diy underground. It’s full of people who really care about music enough to basically work for minimum wage in order to make good shows and music happen. Luckily for us, in every city there is at least one, if not three or four promoters or clubs that are really focused on trying to support great underground music. The difficulty for them is that there is not a lot of money to be made with that. So since there is not so much sponsorship or arts-funding or anything else, the bottom line is that everybody makes money based on how many people walk in the door and pay the ticket and, to a lesser degree, on how much they pay for alcohol. Because without alcohol sales there is basically no music scene in America. That’s what keeps it going and that’s why all-ages music is so rare in the US as well. Because without alcohol sales it’s hard for shows to work out.
I guess I’m switching tangents here a little bit but …
Like I said, ticket sales are the bottom line; it’s really really common for bands to dream about touring, and to think it’s this really sexy and exciting lifestyle. But really it is a great deal of work and it is something I only recommend undertaking if you are fabulously serious about your band. If you’re so committed and dedicated and you feel certain that you are with a group of people that all have the same goals, that you are going to be a band several years from now, and that what you are doing is on a similar level to the bands you like to go and see.
If the quality of your art is not on par with the other bands you go and see, then there is still some more work to be done. And if you can’t draw 50 people to a show in your hometown, it is maybe not time yet to go on to the next town.
So I really think it is important for bands to really have a strong line-up and common goals and a really good work ethic. And to figure out ways to get people excited about their music. Because if nobody cares at home, it is rare that people care elsewhere. There are times when bands are more popular outside of their hometown, but I’ve never seen it where nobody liked them at home but they’re loved everywhere else.
I think another thing that goes along with that is to be a good host to bands that travel to your town. That’s certainly something that I have done a lot for years is tried to help promote concerts for my favorite bands when they come to my town: let the stay at my house, and show them a good time. Because karmically, that does come back around, even if it is not from the same people.
I’ve let so many bands sleeping on my floor. When I’m sleeping on someone else’s floor in another city, I feel really grateful for it, even if it is not a direct exchange with that person. Energetically, throughout the universe, it’s coming back, and it is something I never take for granted. So I think being kind and putting out good energy and being professional is always gonna work in your favor.
On that same note… Making connections with bands from other places is one of the best entry points to touring. It is very rare that booking agencies will pick up your band just because they got a demo in the mail that they liked. There are thousands of labels and dozens of booking agencies. It is very hard to get representation, and agencies really only want to look at bands that have a really strong buzz going, and are getting really good press and have a whole package booked together. Usually agencies won’t even want to talk to a band that hasn’t already done (at least one) serious tour.
Now if you are a European band coming to the US, sometimes they will take more of a chance because they understand that it is really difficult to do a diy international tour. But they are still only going to look at you if you are getting a lot of reviews and generating a lot of buzz. Unfortunately there is no one sure-fire way to get people talking about your band around the world. The best advice I can say is just to be the best band that you can be.
The next thing that I would say is to make sure there is some sort of story or hook or element that gets people talking. I don’t know how many people here have heard of a band called Wolves In The Throne Room. How many of you have heard that they live on an organic farm? That’s a true story. And it’s something that hooks people in and makes them interested. I know that when WITTR were writing one of their first bios, they sent it to me and it sounded like any Norwegian black metal band: “Eldritch magic” and all this stuff. I said, “Look, the story is that you’re two brothers who live on a farm and play in this really great band”. And they re-wrote the biography and that story is pretty renowned worldwide. (BTW I’m not taking any credit for their success. They earned that on their own.This is just an example of a story/hook that worked).
If you can get people to boil down something interesting about your band in one sentence, that really goes a long way. But it is a hard thing to just craft, you know … I think basing it on the truth is good. Basing it on your music is really key. So, assuming that you are in a position of not having an agency and wanting to tour, then the show exchange is probably the next most viable route. And that means, as I said, hosting bands when they come to your town.
The very first time when Orange Goblin played in Portland, they played with us, Witch Mountain. The very first time Electric Wizard played in Portland they played with us. They slept on my floor, and we still know these people years later, when they’ve become a lot more famous and a lot more established. Those kinds of relationships go on a long way, especially when you are looking out for really good bands before anyone else cares.
I know that when someone’s helped me when I’m in a really early stage, I remember that later. It can be as simple as letting somebody stay in your home, or bringing them a bag of weed to their show or whatever it is that’s appropriate for that gig.
So, say you have been in correspondence with, or you’ve played shows with, or been a host to these other bands. Especially smaller bands. Yeah, if you’ve got an opening slot for High On Fire, that doesn’t mean that they’re gonna automatically play with you when you go to San Francisco. But a smaller band, there’s a much better chance that if you hit it off with them, they will want to return the favour. Or if they are not in a position to return the favour, or they’re gonna be away on tour, it’s at least a contact you have in that town.
It is so invaluable to say “Hey, you live in Oakland, California. We are trying to play on this date. Can you put us in touch with a good promoter? Can you tell us what clubs people like to go to? We have to be there on a Monday, is there a Metal Monday in Oakland?” Or, “You can’t play the show, but can you recommend some other bands that you like that might be into playing with us?”
So as much as possible having key people in any city you that wanna go to, that you can at least ask, and knowing what questions to ask, knowing which person to ask can really go a long way.
The danger of booking a diy tour like that, of course, is that you don’t have an agent overlooking the deals that you are getting, which puts you much more in a position of having to ask a lot of questions about the expenses at the club: How many bands are going to be on the bill? What time you need to be there? Whether there is going to be any hospitality, and so on. It’s definitely something that comes with trial and error.
In the USA hospitality is very very different than in Europe. Now that I have been on tour for two weeks in Europe, I can say that when we get to a venue there is bread and cheese and fruit and coffee waiting there for us. That doesn’t happen in the United States unless you are a really big band. You are pretty much on your own. You are lucky to get a meal or $10 to buy a meal if you know how to ask for that in the United States.
Certainly as an agent I make sure that every band I work with gets a meal or money to buy their own meal at every show. But a lot of bands don’t know to ask for it, and don’t get it.
There have been a lot of times when I’ve played a gig, even in my hometown, and I’m eating my dinner while one of the other bands is sitting there hungry and going, “How did you get that?” And I said, “I asked for it, and I have a contract in an e-mail and I brought it with me, and when the club said there was no meal for me, I produced the contract, and they handed me a meal ticket”.
So, again, I’m always being polite in these situations. I’m never demanding. I’m not a “prima donna”. I just know there is a certain basic amount of respect that I deserve as an artist and that my clients deserve, and so I advocate for that.
So I always think that being polite and firm is a good way to be. Because if you are too nice you’ll get taken advantage of, while if you are an asshole it will be the last time that you get that gig.
[Nathan checks notes on iphone]
Definitely you guys are used to paying a lot for gas over here, but the cost of gas has gone up a lot in the US and the drives in general are a lot longer. And so that’s another big challenge while touring in America: especially in the West and Midwest, the drives can be really long. Based on my experience, a lot of the drives here [in Europe] are a lot shorter than what we’re used to.
Like, an average day on tour in the US can easily be 6 hours on average. There are some agents that will send bands on twelve hour drives to a gig. I don’t personally do that unless the band asks me to. Like if they have a really limited time frame to work within. But I don’t think that’s humane, and I don’t think that it’s that safe usually. Eight or nine hours is the longest you want to go on any one day, but unfortunately it is a huge country where most of the good gigs are on the West Coast or on the East Coast and a couple of major cities in between.
QUESTION: If you want to drive shorter does it mean that you have to book some less good shows inbetween?
NATHAN – Yeah, I mean, … It is definitely true that you can’t have all good shows on tour in America. It is too big a country and there is a Monday every week. So it really depends on your routing. My strategy depends so much on where you are at and what day of the week is. There are some times where it is better to take a day off to just do a drive or maybe you can stop and go to a national park, or maybe you have friends that you can stay with some place. But also, as an agent, I try to keep an eye out for where there are Metal Mondays or Metal Thursdays, or Free Wednesday that pay out of the bar sales. And I try to look for those things.
But it’s a hard thing especially if you are coming from thousands of miles away to know where those things are. That’s why having an agent is a better scenario to be in.
Yes, there are definitely smaller towns that are maybe not as big of gigs, but if you can get gas in the tank and if you can get a meal, if you can get a place to stay, if you can make friends, sell merch, then it is not a bad show.
I do think that a lot of times there are small markets that are only good on weekends and sometimes you might be better off playing a Wednesday night in New York and a Friday night in, say Portland, Maine, or something like that, just because people in those towns… If it is a remote enough place, they’ll just be excited that there’s a show. But in general, if they are not used to going out to gigs, it’s not a really metropolitan area, the weekend is gonna be a lot more successful.
There are so many strategies involved. It’s a good question.
So catching the eye of a booking agency in the United States is a really good trick.
If you can avoid booking a diy tour in America I recommend it, unless you are really looking at it like a vacation. I mean, if everyone has saved a lot of money and it’s their dream and goal to tour the United States at any cost, then you can take your chances. But of course you don’t want to fly thousands of miles and go through this heartache and work and play for nobody, or play for terrible crowds or play shows where you are not getting paid. And a good agent will make sure that most of those things don’t happen.
An agent cannot force people to go to your show, but they can get you guarantees that at least you will get paid in any event. And there is no doubt that when a promoter offers a solid financial guarantee, they work harder at promoting the show because they stand to lose money if they fail.
So if you are on a really diy circuit playing in a house show, you are hoping for the best--but sometimes what happens is a hat gets passed around at the end of the night, and that’s the money that you’re getting. Whereas at a club that can sell alcohol that has made a financial guarantee with an agent, you’re gonna get paid and, if you have a contract that says that you are getting meals, then that’s gonna happen.
Like I said before, to find an agency though, usually you have to already have a pretty good degree of success in Europe to start with. And that’s certainly something that I and other agents really keep an eye on.
There are some agencies in the US I’ve seen that I think really just look at the numbers, and they treat it like horse-racing. They say, “Oh, this band is really big in Germany, so let’s get ‘em to the US, get as much money as we can for them and see how it goes”. And if it goes well, they’ll work with the band again. And if it doesn’t, that’s the last time they’ll talk to that band. It really bums me out when I see that happen.
You know, one of my favorite bands of all time is Candlemass. The last time they came to Portland, Oregon, they were put in one of the worst venues in town on a Thursday night for a really high ticket charge. And to me, that was an agent from LA that just wanted to capitalize on the name of Candlemass, make his money, and then quick working with them. And it made me sad because I knew that even on that same day of the week I could have put them in a different club for a lower dollar price and with better support, and had a lot more people come out to that show.
But I think that kind of artistic booking—it’s unfortunately rare because it is so much work to book tours. In order to have an agency that can exist and pay the bills, you have to work with a lot of bands, and it’s 50 hours a week of trying to satisfy all these different artists and being in touch with hundreds, if not thousands of different people all around the country. So it’s rare that agents can take a lot of really specialized time to make the show as perfect as it can be. But good agents will do their best.
With or without an agent, the more involved you are as an artist with your show, the better it will be. If you are willing to do some research, and e-mail people and ask questions and find out who the best local bands are that you could play with, and help make those arrangements… even if you are working with an agent it’s gonna make your show better.
Agents will often leave it up to the promoter to put support bands on your show. And sometimes that means you are playing with seven bands that sound like Meshuggah and, that’s a bummer. So the more involved you can be, the better off you are going to be.
And certainly on our tours in the USA, I try to vet every band that promoters suggest. And so I’ll go to a promoter and say, “Who do you think should be on this show?” He’ll list three or four bands, and I’ll go listen to these bands on Bandcamp or Facebook for a minute, and I can say “Yeah, those groups sound fine / these guys are fantastic / this band is somebody we don’t have anything to do with, please don’t have them on the show”. Even if it doesn’t affect the money that you make, it will affect your experience. And playing with bands you like or you respect, or at least the lesser of evils is going to work in your favour.
I started my booking agency at the end of 2003/beginning of 2004 based on the fact that my band Witch Mountain had been touring the USA and I was making connections. And then this little band called YOB from Eugene, Oregon, asked me for help with tours. So I started booking their US tours. And they did two in a row that were increasingly more successful. They were touring in the US and coming home with money.
Prior to that I hadn’t even really thought about the profitability of tours in the US because it just seemed so daunting. It seemed so expensive that, even breaking even, or if everybody spent a little bit of money, it still seemed justifiable. But the YOB tours started becoming successful and that’s when I started looking around and seeing that I knew a dozen other bands that were really great bands on labels people have heard of. Labels like Relapse, Alternative Tentacles, Kill Rock Stars… You know, labels that provided support to their artists. And so for the first 6 years, I would say, at Nanotear I required any bands that I worked with to be on one of these labels, because it seemed like a really crucial ingredient in a band having a successful tour.
But 3 or 4 years ago, as the music industry has changed, I threw that rule out the window. I really don’t care if a band is signed to a label anymore. But I do require that they have a publicist, because publicity has become a really essential key part of touring and releasing albums in the USA.
If you leave it up to the promoter in each town to get your photo in the paper or arrange for an interview, you are not gonna see anything happen. But if you have a really good publicist, you stand a much better chance of seeing your show listed or previewed in a weekly, seeing your photo in prinit, having blogs talking about you, and so on.
The good news is that publicity campaigns, even 6 or 7 years ago, were 3-5000 US$. And now it is 500 to 1000 US$ depending on whom you work with. So it has become lot more affordable.
Ideally you have a label or someone who wants to help with that expense. But even if you don’t, I really highly recommend it. Just make sure you have got a good publicist you trust, someone who works with other artists that you like that are appropriate.
The racket of publicity is that you have to pay for that campaign, but they don’t have to produce results. A publicist can send out a thousand e-mails and photos and press-kits, but if nobody wants to talk about your band, that is not necessarily the publicist’s fault. But good publicists choose their clients wisely, have good personal connections and will do their best to get people excited about you. And if you roll into a town you’ve never been seen before and your picture is in the paper, there will be more people at your show. So publicity has definitely taken a big step over having a label.
Visas in the USA are really expensive. Legally to tour the US as a European band you are supposed to purchase a visa. I think it roughly comes out about 1000 US$ per person. I don’t know many smaller international acts that actually purchase visas when they come over. I am not advocating for doing anything illegal, of course, but a lot of times what bands will do is fly over, try not to be 4 or 5 long-haired, bearded dudes in a pack holding guitars when you walk through customs, you know … If you can split up a little bit, or even take separate flights, that can work. America is not the strictest country in the world as far as artists coming in. I think Canada, UK and Switzerland are a little bit more on top of it. But it is still an issue, and there are bands that I know that got caught for visa violation. The penalty is 7 years of being banned from visiting the USA. And that can affect your career pretty significantly.
So the less gear or merchandise you are travelling with, the less you’ll be on their radar. It is not uncommon for people to travel with a guitar. But like I said, if it’s four guys with leather jackets and all of them have guitars, you start to look like you fit the profile.
Once you are in the USA, I think almost always the best case scenario for you is to tour with a US band that will provide equipment for you. It is definitely more common here in Europe, I think, to rent equipment, and it’s more common in the USA to borrow equipment.
Likewise we have noticed on this [current European] tour that local bands like to play on the same gear as the touring bands. And it is almost always the opposite scenario in the USA.
If you have a band touring from abroad, the local band, they already are there with their equipment. So that will be the gear that everyone will want to use--if you are sharing. At the same time it is not at all uncommon in the USA to have shows with 4 or 5 bands on the bill that each have ther own entire back line. And we are used to work really quickly to get all our gear on and off the stage in a hurry.
So gear sharing certainly can help streamline things but it is nowhere near as common [in the USA] as it seems to be over here [in Europe].
The vehicle is another big issue because it is expensive to rent a van in the USA. If you can get away with riding in a vehicle with a US band, that’s obviously gonna be to your advantage. If you have to get into a rental situation, if you rent a mini-van or a big car, that’s also significantly more affordable than a cargo van. Because unless your band is already at a fairly successful level, it is pretty impossible to break even having a rental cargo van drinking 100 US$ in gas per day, and feeding your band and crew, when the average guarantee for an unknown band in the USA is somewhere between 100 and 200 US$. Or less.
The more you can come up with a strategy to save money, the better off that you will be.
One of the things that we always say when we are out on the road is trying to figure out how to “tour smarter, not harder.” So minimizing expenses is one of those things.
A few things that have changed our lives in the last ten years or so is having cell phones on the road, having GPS units with us, and e-mail.
Being able to book a tour over e-mail is vastly easier and better than it was when people used telephones to book tours in the 80s.
When I started touring in the 90s, cell phones were really uncommon, and there were so many times when, say, it was time to leave for the show the next day, somebody was missing and we didn’t know where they were, or how to get hold of them.
You know, that is something that we thought we could live without, until we had it. And GPS is the same thing. I did many tours with maps and atlases. And the first tour we did with a GPS unit, we called it “The Unlost Tour”!
All of a sudden we were always headed in the right direction, and even when we took a wrong turn, it would recalculate and send us the right way. The stress level goes down so significantly when you don’t have a driver screaming at the navigator. You don’t have people late to shows, and so those are some basic tools that are really key.
Sleeping arrangements in the USA are also a different thing.
No clubs in the USA will get you a hotel or find you a place to crash. It is absolutely the norm that you either have a friend in that town [to stay with] or you are asking your fans to help you with a place to stay.
Luckily there are a lot of really kind people out there that love music and support it, and they’re the kind of people that will go out to a show on a week night, buy your record and offer you to come and stay at their house. That’s really a key thing to take advange of because hotels are another expense that add up really quickly, and if no club is paying for it, then you are paying for it.
So we always travel with sleeping bags and inflatable sleeping mats and whatever it takes to be comfortable in any scenario.
Of course there are certain questions you can ask to make sure you don’t end up in the worst place possible.
I like to ask if people have pets, or if they smoke in their home, if there is a safe place to park the vehicle… And politely asking these questions can help you avoid getting in some bad scenarios. We’ve also stayed in people’s houses where a lot of dogs were running around and cat litter all over the floor, people chainsmoking at us, and playing playstation until 5 in the morning and wanting to party with the band.
We’re not as young as we used to be, and when we get [where we are staying], we want to have one more beer with these nice people and get to bed because we have to get up early for a long drive the next day. That’s something to be braced for.
Eating in America is tricky too. So many of your drives are around these super highways where there is nothing but McDonalds and Starbucks along the way. Some people’s constitution can take that, but we’re from Portland, Oregon. We’re used to organic food, clean water, clean air, quality of life. Luckily we have toured around enough that we have a lot of favorite spots to eat. Even in the middle of nowhere we know that there are some decent places to go. When that fails there is an app called Yelp that we use a lot. Yelp is a phone app for a website where people rate hotels and rate eating establishments. You cannot trust it 100% but I find that if you can triangulate between Yelp, a local tip and your own instinct, we have found some incredibly great and affordably priced meals in the middle of nowhere. Some bands really don’t care. To them food is just fuel. They can live on hamburgers or whatever every single day. But to me, I think we wanna a healthy band. We don’t want people getting sick. You don’t want McDonald’s farts in your van--ever. Anything you can do to eat well and stay hydrated.
Water is one of the things you commonly get at these shows. One of the last things we do at the end of the night after every show is “Idiot-Check” to make sure that no gear has been left behind, and however many bottles of water are left in the green room, they go right out to the van. The next day while driving along, everybody stays hydrated, and that keeps people healthier for sure.
Oh yeah, and when you can’t find anything but fast food—go to supermarkets! Most cities have Whole Foods markets now with a really incredible deli. That’s a good option.
I guess the last thing on my list is just to watch it if you are crossing in and out of Canada with drugs or alcohol, knives or anything like that. That’s a no-no.
Anyway that’s kind of my own view.
I really wanna take questions to cover anything you guys are wondering about.
QUESTION – [sounding something like] Can you please give some more details about possible deals?
NATHAN – Well, ok, so, if you are a band that someone has heard of or is represented by an agent that people respect, a guarantee, you know, somewhere between 100 to 300 US$ is reasonable, depending on the day of the week and the scenario. There are a lot of factors involved.
More common than that are door deals which are on a percentage basis.
In the largest venues, usually a 60% gross door deal is the best you can find. In smaller clubs a lot of the times, in order to avoid the stress of having to deal with the guarantee, they’ll give you a better percentage. A pretty common deal that I’ve seen in the USA a lot is 80% of the door after maybe 150 US$ in expenses. They wanna cover the cost of the sound person and the door guy.
QUESTION : is there always a sound person or you can bring one?
NATHAN - There is always a sound person provided, unless you are in an incredibly diy scenario. If you are playing in a record store or in a house, sometimes you will be in charge of running your own P.A.
But there is pretty much always a grumpy, underpaid soundman at every club that you’ll go to. And the better clubs have less-grumpy and slightly better-paid soundmen.
But I know that I DJed in Oslo a couple of years ago, and there were 50 people at the show. And all the bands got paid, and the soundman’s wage for the day was 400 Euros. In USA for an average night, the soundman is getting 40 to 50 US$ unless they are a real hot shot, and then they can make 75-100 US$. So this is the person that has to be there when you load in and be there til the end of the night, and run sound for 4 or 5 bands for very little money. So definitely making friends with that person early on goes a long way. That’s something that I try to do as soon as I get to a venue. Put out really good vibes. Befriend the sound person. Let them know you are gonna be easy to work with. Give them an idea of what our input list is, share the few special requests that we have, and hope for the best. We have done that before and still had a particularly cranky guy. But I’m pretty good at winning them over eventually.
So, yeah, that being the case, the club always want to cover their sound [expense] and their door person, and maybe some minimal advertising expenses.
You know, at a small club, that really should be between 100 and 200 US$ in expenses. And usually they will be happy to give the bands most of the door money after those costs are covered. But it can mean that if you have ten people show up to a show, all the money on the door deal just goes to the club that covers those expenses, and the band is left with nothing.
So, again, that’s where attendance is key and that’s where not touring before you have a fan base is key. And that’s one of the biggest Catch-22s of touring: How do you build up a fan base without touring? How do you get a tour before you have a fan base?
And that’s really the alchemy of it, and that’s where I think a combination between having a lot of buzz and really great publicity works in your favour, along with being a really fucking good band with really nice, kind, reputable people in it.
I have seen two paths to success. There is luck and there is longevity. If you are lucky, that can happen at any day, at any time. Although I tend to see luck happen a lot more often in places like L.A., New York, Berlin, London. There are more nexuses and opportunities and people and networking happening in those places. So a lot of times I think you’ll see small bands, demo bands from these major markets that get huge buzz happening really quickly. Look at Uncle Acid. That happened pretty fast. But they’re from London, right? Or some places close to there.
Longevity is the other one and that’s certainly what our band [Witch Mountain] has banked on. You know, our band has been around for 15 years, and now we’re at Roadburn and on tour in Europe and getting really great press.
It was baby-steps along the way, but I wouldn’t trade it because we have earned everything that we’ve got. Most bands when they start, they are really excited. They are young and they are not thinking, “Where are we gonna be 15 years from now?” And it’s hard to think that far forward.
But if your goal is to be really honest and true to your band and true to your art, and to reach all the people that you can, then it is worth it in the long run. And you will get noticed eventually. I mean, cream rises to the top, but it doesn’t always rise quickly.
QUESTION : for your band is it more interesting financially to tour in Europe or to tour in USA? And are the flights not included?
NATHAN - Certainly the flights are the biggest expense. And we saved money through gigs in the USA in advance to help cover that. And some of it was loaned to us and is being repaid, luckily.
QUESTION: Do you get better pay in Europe or in USA?
NATHAN – Well, we have toured the USA more, so we have built ourselves up to a level where we are tending to get better guarantees than we used to. This being our first European tour, we are certainly getting better pay here than on our first US tour!
But on our fourth or fifth US tours I would say we are making more money in the USA and costs are lower there. I could imagine that by our second or third European tour there may not be any competition any more. Europe will win.
In fact an hour ago, somebody said to me, “We are having so much fun here in Europe, we don’t want to to tour in USA any more”. It is easy to understand why: the drives are shorter, fans are excited, and you walk into a room and they hand you a cup of coffee and some bread and cheese, and they say, “Oh yeah, your hot meal is gonna be ready in two hours, and here is your hotel key.” You know, that’s welcoming!
Artists, I think, automatically feel more supported here because I think art is culturally more valued in Europe than it is in the USA.
In the USA, they care more about basketball and they care more about video-games. And it is really this underground subculture that keeps us thriving. The population is big enough that that small percentage of young white dudes that give us their money is there.
QUESTION: [low volume – sounding something like] What do you think the adequate attitude of a band from Europe should be for approaching touring in USA?
NATHAN – I think that it is important to not approach anything with a sense of entitlement. Except for basic stuff: If you play, you deserve to get paid. If you play, you deserve to get fed and watered.
But I do see a really common problem as an agent: when I work with a European band that has had some success in Europe, they are really unprepared for the treatment they are going to have in the USA.
So assuming that you have had some success here [in Europe] you really have to reevaluate what your experience is gonna be in the USA.
And if it is so important for you to break into that market, you are going to have to make some sacrifices, at least for the first couple of tours. Then, hopefully it starts to seem a little bit more like Europe because bigger bands in the US, bands that can draw an average of 200 people or more, are gonna get treated a lot more like they would in Europe. The hospitably improves, hotels start becoming part of the equation, promoters start kissing your ass a lot more because they stand to make more money off of you.
QUESTION: [not a real question but a guy commenting about the experience of his band in USA and about not being disappointed in spite of discomfort]
NATHAN: Yeah, that’s smart. I think it is always good to reduce your expectations so you can be pleasantly surprised, rather than be disappointed.
QUESTION: What do you like more about touring in the US than Europe?
NATHAN – That’s a good question. [laughs] I mean, of course it is more exotic for us to be here [in Europe]. I mean I have toured the USA so many times. I’ve been to most of those places repeatedly. What I love about touring in the USA is getting to see friends that I don’t see very often, getting to see our fans that live far away from us. And, certainly on a regional level it is nice to be able to do some shows near our hometown—to be gone for a four-day weekend and then be home in my own bed again.
So there is a lot less stress involved in not having to fly, of being able to use your equipment… but of course this is me saying this as a US band.
QUESTION: so, for a band from Europe is still great to come to USA?
NATHAN – Yeah, I mean, I don’t mean to be discouraging, but yeah. It is a really difficult thing to do. That’s why I really suggest that you only do it if you really have to. If your band is already successful here [in Europe] and you know the USA is a huge untapped market, and you feel that there are a lot of peope writing you from the US, begging you to come…
But I am afraid that even a lot of US bands, they just feel this compulsion to tour. They think “Oh, there’s this tradition. I am in a band. I have to go on tour.”
No! You are allowed to play music for fun. You are allowed to just enjoy making art.
Unfortunately in the USA there are thousands and thousands and thousands of bands, and most of them are horrible, and they are clogging up the touring circuit like the arteries of a heart.
You know, as a really good band in the 60s or 70s, unless you were Pentagram and you really fucked it up somehow, you got a certain degree of success, and got signed to a label and got to tour, and got funding. Then Punk Rock happened, and all of a sudden everybody decided they could be in a band in the 80s, and it’s just gotten worse and worse and worse.
There are so many nights in any given town where there are ten different shows happening. Maybe the best show in town is 10 US$, but someone is doing a free house show down the block that has more people at it. A lot of times, people would rather go to a free show than a good show.
QUESTION: So, either you break up or you get better …?
NATHAN - Absolutely. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And you can’t argue with that.
The hope is certainly that your band is so great that someone in the US really wants to help you. If you are really in a position where you should be going over there, then someone else should be helping you to do it. And if you have to do everything completely under your own steam, no support anywhere, just take a vacation.
QUESTION: Do you sometimes tap into DIY resources as well?
NATHAN – Absolutely! Especially for certain bands I worked with.
I work with a band from Japan called Corrupted. They do not do interviews, they don’t take publicity photos. They turned down Southern Lord because they consider it a major label.
I was very fortunate to be an agent they are willing to work with. And that wasn’t until we met in person and I traveled with them for a few days and showed them how I operate. Because you can look at Nanotear Booking--25 artists, you know, a brand name that goes back almost 10 years. Or else you can look at me doing this out of my bedroom from my laptop--which is also the reality. So I really try to straddle the line by being diy because, hey, I did teach myself to do this. I am doing it myself on behalf of artists who I love and respect and who need help. I want them to be able to spend their time making art so I can take care of the business for them.
But at the same time I want to make sure it’s always a professional situation. But there are definitely times when I know that a Saturday night at a house party is going to be better for certain bands than at the dive bar in that same town.
Or … the Gilman Street Complex in Berkeley, California. You know, it’s one of the longest running warehouses on the West Coast, and I am really fortunate to be one of the only agents they are willing to work with. And some of my bands want to play in Gilman Steeet; it’s a different kind of show. There is just a different feeling a lot of people have about paying to go to a diy space as opposed to a club. So it depends on the artist, but I’m certainly willing to do that.
I wouldn’t prefer to book an entirely diy tour across the country because usually what happens is that you can’t even cover your gas. People in those scenarios usually are not promoting or advertising shows on a level where enough people are gonna come or pay a high enough ticket price to really cover those expenses.
But in certain scenarios DIY is the best.
[MODERATOR: Time is up]
We played [Roadburn] last night, I’m here today, and we are headed to the next gig in Brussels tonight. No rest for the wicked.
Thanks to you all for coming out early. I appreciate it. I hope you guys have good luck. And if anybody has any one-on-one questions, just grab me.
You have it really good over here. So I’ll probably be coming over to see you before you come to see me ;)
Talk by Nathan Carson
Intro and transcription by Marilena Moroni
Proof-reading of the talk text by Nathan Carson
Nathan Carson’s links:
Know Wave - Nanotear
Captured and transcribed by Marilena Moroni and patiently proof-read by Nathan Carson.