Touring in Saskatchewan

by SaskMusic

August 7, 2009 in Touring

You’ve written the songs. You’ve recorded, mixed and mastered the album. You’ve practiced your instrument to death in your basement, and flipped through endless magazines thinking about how you want to look on stage. But how many people are hearing your music? How can you get MORE people to hear you without going too far from home?

ONE word defining how to get your music heard: "Tour!"

Every music industry veteran I’ve spoken to has uttered the "T" word when asked what it takes to break a new act. TOURING. Assuming your songs are good, and you’ve got some semblance of a good recording, the best way to build awareness of your act is to tour. And if you’re actually trying to make a living from your music, you’ve got to get on the road. At Canadian Music Week this year, several panelists mentioned that the biggest revenue-earner for musicians in this indie era is CD sales off-the-stage. So get out there and perform your pants off!!

TWO words explaining why you need to tour: "Awareness" and "Trial".

In classical marketing, the first thing a company does when they introduce a new product to consumers is build "awareness" of it. Think of a product you recently bought, whether it was a chocolate bar, hair gel, or laundry detergent. First, the company that made it had to let you know it existed. The next thing they did was convince you that you wanted to ‘try’ it – possibly by giving you a sample or by letting you see a sexy advertisement on TV or online.

In the indie music world, this "awareness & trying" of a new act is done through live shows. At a grassroots level – without a big company backing you and putting millions of dollars into your marketing (a la Britney or Mariah) – you’ve simply got to get out there and perform for as many people as possible. If people like you, they’ll tell their friends - and the wheels of
rock-stardom will be set in motion! So how can you start that touring machine in Saskatchewan?

I’ll share some ideas that recently worked for me as I completed my first tour of Saskatchewan. Although I’m originally from the province, I've spent the last eight years in Toronto and wanted to get back home to tour my new album. Having only a small Saskatchewan fanbase due to the small number of shows I'd played on the prairies, I had to get creative in how I approached setting up performances in this market. With some out-of-the-box-thinking in the self-booking process, for the five weeks I was in the province I was able to perform 20 shows (some big, some small), all across the region. I earned new fans, sold lots of CDs, and even started setting up a second leg of my tour for later this year. Within that time it was also possible to generate lots of newspaper and TV coverage to help build even more awareness.

THREE overall principles to touring in Saskatchewan:

1. Touring in Saskatchewan involves performing in both cities and smaller towns. And there are lots of them! People in smaller locations are ready and waiting for you to come and wow them! They love live shows and will support you. I had a great night in Smeaton, SK. The town has under 200 people. 75 people came to the show and 40 bought CDs. That type of audience response doesn’t happen all the time, but it goes to show that small town folks will support you if you make the effort to get to them.

2. Have some sort of local support/buy-in from the towns you want to go to. This will help spread the news of your show via word-of-mouth. Supplement this with newspaper publicity and postering. But word-of-mouth is key.

3. Plan in advance (as you would any tour). You need to start planning things about 3-5 months before you intend to be there. This allows for venue booking, advertising, word-of-mouth to spread, PR, and arranging beds with friends and family across the province!

FOUR ways to book shows:

1. Partner with other musicians and do shows in their towns. A show with two acts has excellent appeal. Two acts for the price of one is how the audience sees it! Perhaps you could reciprocate and host other musicians in your town to pay back the hosting favour. I was able to partner with several musicians for my tour – most of whom I contacted via the SaskMusic website from Toronto. With one artist - Leanne Hynd - I’ve been able to set up multiple co-concerts (as we’re calling them), and response has been really strong. I’ve offered performance invites back to her as well. Additionally, this has been a great way to make new musician-friends in the province.

2. Cold-call local arts councils or similar groups for bookings – do some homework and find out what it would take to have these types of groups book you in. Is there a standard fee they’re not willing to go above? Is there a genre they’re really looking for? Have certain acts worked for them in the past – acts you might be similar to?

3. Individually book shows on your own – in a few centres I took a bit of a calculated risk and just booked a venue, advertised, and waited to see what would happen. I only did this in centres where people already knew about me. Otherwise I always stuck to principle #2 above – having someone local who ‘bought-in’ to promoting the performance and spreading the word locally.

4. Offer your services up for free for a benefit show: but be careful how you do this and do it sparingly. In your quest to build awareness of yourself – like any popular product – you need to be willing to give a certain amount of your product away for free. Think of that snack sample you were given at Buffalo Days last year – the one you later went and bought more of. That’s how it works sometimes. But be careful. Don’t perform for free often. No no no. When you do, make sure there’s something in it for you: a large crowd, a good CD sales opportunity, or good press coverage. I will always make sure that I’m getting something of ‘value’ out of a freebie concert. I offered my show up to a few charitable groups, allowing them to take the proceeds from the door, and was happy with the opportunity to sell CDs. The groups committed to strong promotion/marketing of the event to get a large crowd out - so CD sales were likely going to be good. And my thinking was that if people liked the show, the word of mouth from a large crowd would be good as well.

Now, just a few thoughts about selling your CDs off the stage – since, after all, that’s a big income earner in the indie music business. First of all, mention your CD during your show! That seems terribly obvious, but you’d be amazed how many bands I saw at Canadian Music Week this year who didn’t mention their CD nor their website from the stage! I actually had to chase one Danish band down to ask them where I could buy their disc – I’m sure others didn’t go through that trouble and the band lost sales. You can mention your CD in a few ways. Introduce a song by saying, "This song is off my album, which I’m selling here tonight." Weave your CD into a story you tell between songs. If your production process was interesting, talk about that a little – people want to know things about the groups they see. It helps build a relationship. Hang a few posters at the door saying ‘CD available tonight’. Don’t be embarrassed to sell from the stage. I actually did forget to do it one night at the start of my tour and had the lowest sales of all my performances. I learned really quickly not to do that again!

In short, the Saskatchewan market is ready and waiting for you to tour. It’s a great way to build your performance chops and gain firsthand experience in promoting and marketing yourself. You’ll learn a lot by just doing it and you'll have a blast. So get out there and show the province what you’ve got.

By Jeff Straker for SaskMusic. Originally published Summer 2006.

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