"So what did you guys do different?"
"I don't know, really. I feel like we did pretty much all the same stuff [bands are supposed to do]."
I'm talking with Rolfe Briney IV, lead guitarist for Birmingham, AL, garage rockers Freaky Deakys. He and Trevor Dane, the group's lead singer and other guitarist, recently returned home from a brief yet busy tour that found them playing 12 shows over 10 days. After talking about the crazy things that happen on tour, there was one thing that totally shocked me: they made a sizable profit.
This seems even more shocking. Why? Well, lots of bands come home from tours feeling defeated – even if they had fun, the trek was some sort of financial disaster. Though they've spent many a long weekend playing out of town, Freaky Deakys came back from their first extended jaunt with cash because they were smart, frugal, and doing the sort of practical things that bands should be doing – the things that you're hopefully learning from the articles you read on Sonicbids.
That said, here's some reliable touring science from Freaky Deakys. You can thank 'em by picking up their rather excellent debut album.
1. Get cool (or at least some sort of) merch
"Don't go out on tour without merch," says Dane. "Just don't do it."
This should go without saying, but you should always tour with stuff to sell, the goal being that you'll make essential money in addition to (or in spite of) what you make from the door or a guarantee. And they sold a lot of it.
"We had cool, strong merchandise," continues Briney. "Maybe people were just attracted to the way it looked. It was bright and colorful, too."
Indeed. Freaky Deakys went out with their debut album – its vibrant design came courtesy of their label, Step Pepper Records, whose strong aesthetic sense benefits all their releases – as well as T-shirts and posters designed by master screen printer Patrick Mayton. Of course, putting on a great show will really motivate your audience. That it looks cool is a bonus.
2. Book to your destination
"Wanna play Chicago?" asks Dane. "Book to it."
On tour, it's easy to get excited about playing big cities, only to be let down by a mediocre turnout. (In the Freakys' case, this happened in New Orleans.) Still, it's a gig – and the crowd could be there for you next time – but this is the gamble you'll face when you're playing a metropolis lousy with entertainment options. So while it'll still be a thrill to play that big city, you don't wanna bank your whole tour on it. So make sure to play some of the smaller stops along the way – the places that get passed over for the big cities.
Dane offers an example: "You might have a badass show in Valdosta, GA. There's like 60 kids, and [you] have a $100 guarantee, and you sell $100 in merch, and you kinda zigzag your way up to Atlanta where [you] don't make as much due to saturation.
"When you're on the road, you wanna play as much as possible. So you wanna hit those tiny stops," Dane continues. "Those are the places that are gonna be your money makers. $100 here, $200 there, $60 in merch, and $100 at the door."
"Especially if you're not driving huge distances," adds Briney. "If you make enough money to cover gas for a few days in one stop, then that's good."
3. Double up on shows
"Any chance to get your music out there and play," says Dane. "That's what you're there for."
As I previously mentioned, Freaky Deakys played 12 shows over 10 days. The two shows they doubled up on were at record stores. Where some bands are loathe to play anything other than their scheduled show, the Freakys seized on every opportunity to get in front of an audience. These shows didn't pay, but they were great opportunities to sell merch and try to get bodies out to a show – if not the one they had that evening, then possibly the next.
But be forewarned: "Now, a lot places are cool with that sort of thing, [but] in bigger cities, they get upset with that sort of thing," says Dane.
The reasoning for this is simple: they don't want you to cannibalize your scheduled gig that they've (hopefully) been promoting. So make an effort to find out if the venue is cool with you doubling up. Be subtle about it, and if you can do it, then do it. Or to keep things interesting, play an acoustic set or practice a cover or two – something that will differentiate your special appearance from your proper show. Whatever you do, just keep it brief – you don't wanna give the entire game away.
4. Make friends in your scene
"Networking and having friends in the scene [helps]," explains Dane. "You gotta make friends. If you put on a good show and are a nice person, then, you know."
Networking sounds gross but – guess what – you're already doing it. Every fan you make, every band you play with, every record store that sells your stuff, every friend in college in a far-flung town is someone who can help you get a cool show and/or hopefully help get bodies to the gig. And it shouldn't stop after the show ends.
"Follow up," advises Dane. "People knew we were going on tour, so it was like, 'Come out and see us!' Revisit [those towns] in a month or two. Every show you play will get bigger 'cause you're meeting new people."
5. Don't be afraid to haggle with the venues
"We were just trying to play," says Briney about the Freaky Deakys' recent tour. "To do it really right, you should try to get guarantees."
True that! Until you can prove your worth to the venue, you may find yourself at a disadvantage – but that doesn't mean you should be taken advantage of.
"You always gotta be on your toes with door guys and the bar," he continues. "Be aware of what's going on. And you gotta haggle a little bit. If you're not guaranteed anything, then you gotta haggle. Go, 'We came out here, we brought people, the people are buying drinks.' They wanna give you 50 bucks, then talk to 'em. Ask for $100."
6. Spend wisely
"One thing I decided to do before we left – that I'm not sure everyone does, but turned out to be really effective – was to keep books for everything," says Briney. "I kept a notebook where I would write down all the money we spent on gas and all the money we got paid [from venues] and what we made in merch. I had a chart with all that written down on it. It helped us keep track [of everything] really well."
Indeed, this is a simple thing, and something that, no doubt, helped the band make more frugal decisions on the road. (And no, Rolfe, not everyone does that.)
But even if your band isn't keeping detailed books, chances are you have a band fund that helps cover all sorts of band-related expenses. And though Dane, a veteran of many tours, recommends setting aside some personal funds for your adventures on the road, he's hardly stingy about it.
"The band fund is for the band," he says. "If you need strings, we'll get strings. The van is gonna need gas. If you're broke and you need food, then we'll buy you a meal, but if you're just trying to get drinks at the bar all night, then no – you don't get to do that. Because that's how you blow your wad."
And, indeed, they did not. That sense of responsibility – already a rarity among rock bands, and not something you'd expect from this wild and wooly crew – was present when the band arrived back home with a sizable profit.
"I thought the coolest part about it was that we were able to pay the label, Step Pepper, back for their expenses on the CDs," says Briney. "That was worth it for me. And then we were able to split up the rest of the money."
Now the Freaky Deakys are stoked on their next journey, which will hopefully be coming to a town near you. They can hardly wait. "It's a way to travel," says Briney. "You're a stranger in a strange land. That aspect of it is really appealing."
"It's like a fucking drug," adds Dane. "It's something you really get into. I like all the little things about it. How you pack your van , how you do your money, different people you meet. It becomes a community you meet. You figure out a way to make it work."
And you can bet they will.
James P. Fahy is a writer, musician (Teen Getaway), radio show host (Blood on the Knobs airs every Tuesday on Substrate Radio), occasional publicist, full-time dad, and music business person who's worked with the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, Communicating Vessels, Naxos, and Redeye Distribution. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama.