Four guys crammed in a smelly van.
Driving three days straight from Indianapolis to San Diego to make the next show. Surviving on tuna straight from a can, and cold, instant oatmeal right out of the packets.
This is #tourlife. Romantic to some, horrific to others.
Conventional music business advice preaches the discipline of “paying your dues” on the road.
With the right attitude, there is nothing more adventurous and independent then spending your days criss-crossing the country, meeting people and sharing experiences along the way.
But what if there were a better way?
A HIT SONG FROM LEFT FIELD
What happens when a new hit song comes out of nowhere? A song moving up the charts can quickly snatch an artist out of obscurity and thrust into the spotlight.
This artist spent her days schlepping from writing session to writing session. Most sessions focused on writing songs for a current pop star’s next album – at least that’s what her publisher told her.
One day she wrote a song with a new producer. Her manager liked it. Her publisher liked it. Unfortunately, no one working with established artists showed any interest in the song.
FIRST A SONGWRITER, NOW A HIT ARTIST
This artist had a small, development deal with a record label and they decided to release the song as her single.
The song quickly gained traction at radio and was added to streaming playlists all over the world.
Before she knew it, she had a top-10 song at radio. The invitations came flying in. “Can you come perform at our radio show?” “Here is an offer to perform at this brand launch event.” “So and so wants you to open for her on her next arena tour.”
What happened? Why was she getting interest and fame without “paying her dues” on the road? The music business is fickle. Some people will tell artists that they are expected to “build a fanbase” on the road. What they really want from artists is hit songs.
Reality is much different. Sure, there are examples of bands spending years on the road before landing their first hit single. Maroon 5 for example. Don’t completely ignore the kernel of truth hidden in the advice to tour clubs at the beginning.
When an artist comes out of nowhere with a hit song at radio they can sometimes have a difficult time sustaining success. The ones that do continue successfully usually have a foundation of fans to build on, or find ways to genuinely and quickly connect with their new-found fans.
Back to the original intent of this article. Generally speaking, artists who focus on songwriting and matching their music to a market will find a quicker path to success.
I can only speak from my own observations, but I’ve seen both sides of the coin many, many times.
SONGWRITING BEATS TOURING CLUBS
Why did this (fictional) obscure songwriter jump ahead of the (fictional) band who spent thousands of hours perfecting their craft on the road?
What does scale mean? It means that a hit song has the potential to reach millions of people in a short amount of time. Between radio, YouTube, streaming services and internet radio – a hit song can scale around the globe in record time.
In economics that is considered “creating value.” Artists “capture value” (i.e. get paid) by touring and making appearances in support of their hit single.
A hit song creates vastly more value than thousands of club performances in a much shorter amount of time.
Touring in clubs without a supporting single only gives an artist the opportunity to reach 100 people a night. Maybe a few more counting those reached by the few social media posts from the audience.
Don’t forget, touring as an unknown, brand-new artist is EXPENSIVE! Have you ever done it? I have. Be prepared to live frugally and beg your family for loans. I didn’t love being in that position.
These days recording is inexpensive. Many popular tracks come from a one-person production. Check out the resources page for recommended recording/programming software.
STUDIO PERFORMANCE BEATS LIVE PERFORMANCE
Have you ever seen Sia perform live? Sia is a successful songwriter who ‘accidentally’ found success as an artist by featuring as a vocalist on songs she wrote for other artists.
And she even actively avoids performing as an artist.
Sia is a great example of an artist focused on perfecting songwriting and studio performance. She became an amazing songwriter and singer. Because of this focus, success as an artist is a byproduct.
Spend your days writing songs and recording them. Over and over again.
Have you ever heard a stale recording? I have. It isn’t nice to listen to. Learning to deliver passion in a studio vocal is a specialized skill that take hours of focused practice.
Singing for live is different for singing in the studio. Vocalists can only learn the difference for themselves by experimentation.
Over time, this practice will get you much closer to your desired outcome.
IS IT EVER BETTER TO START WITH TOURING CLUBS?
What about bands that make a comfortable living playing to a niche audience? Is this possible? Of course!
Your favorite throw-back group or jam band didn’t start with a hit single. They started by performing at thousands of clubs and music festivals. Slowly building an audience over years and decades.
After a significant amount of time, they’ve come to represent a lifestyle artist. (see my article about building a festival around a lifestyle).
This path is certainly an option for some, but it’s definitely not the quickest or shortest path to success.
Of course at some point you have to get out of the studio and on the road. When is the right time to do that? The answer is different for every artist.
There inevitably comes the time when artists need to tour clubs. Here are a few rules of thumb.
WHEN IS IT IMPORTANT TO TOUR CLUBS?
1. When you have a single in the marketplace
2. When you have exhausted big opening-slot options
3. Between studio sessions
4. After you’ve recorded your first EP/album, before its release
Finding a balance between writing, recording and performing is crucial. Once an artist has a few songs live for fans to hear, they should spend at least some time performing live.
Fans want to connect with their favorite artists and other fans.
Creating amazing songs that resonate with many people will have the most dramatic impact on an artist’s career path.
Don’t lose focus.