Get touring facts and tips from those who had to learn the hard way
A text comes in that a friend and fellow DJ is stuck in a city where they just played. It’s been an extra 6 days. The promoter got the plane ticket there for them to play but didn’t come through for a ticket home. It’s the second time this month I’ve heard firsthand of this happening. When an artist starts traveling to different countries to play, things change because releasing music to the world is very different than traveling the world. My best touring advice came from Darin Epsilon so naturally when I got the inkling to write this article, he was the first person I messaged for back up. Maybe you’ll read through these and scoff, thinking you’d never let it happen to you, but sometimes our heart shades our better judgment and you never know what can happen.
One of the first international gigs I had ever booked was in NYC. I stopped hearing from the bar about a week before leaving and called and left a couple messages. Social media wasn’t what it was today in 2008ish so it wasn’t abnormal to have a few days between responses. My friend and I drove the 8 hours to NYC anyway. The website still said our names. What’s the worst that could happen? We have a great weekend in the Big Apple.
The venue address leads us to Chinatown in front of a set of stairs, leading down, behind metal gates and chains and bars and locks everywhere. The bar had shut its doors the week before. No notice to even the employees, we were told from a neighboring store clerk. At that moment we had to suck it up, look at the big picture and accept that our dreams of performing in NYC were on pause for now. I sadly updated MySpace. My gut had told me something was fishy the whole week prior but I wanted to BELIEVE. I wanted to believe that touring was possible. That it wasn’t as hard as it looked and that anyone could do it.
There comes a time when most artists want to cross borders and play to a new crowd. It’s natural. Personally, I have taken more chances than I am proud to admit, just for the chance to travel and play somewhere new. But every time I plan my next destination, my suitcase is full of residual experience from trips gone by and it’s not about remembering sunscreen, it’s about not losing my mind when unexpected things happen.
A few years ago, Bonnie Rabson hopped a plane to London. She had connected with a producer online and agreed to work on an album with him. He bought her plane ticket and offered food and accommodation. No one was making any money, as it was a collaborative effort. But Bonnie only had a one-way ticket. And her bank account didn’t suggest she could survive in London for the month she claimed to be staying. The officials had her pegged for meeting a guy online and flying there to move in with him… Not uncommon, right?
Bonnie found herself in jail because, to officials, her story didn’t line up, she didn’t have enough money to support herself and she had no return ticket home. Customs made sure she had a ticket home but not before she spent two days in a holding cell. Again the same thing, a new artist, eager for experience and to try something next level but her inexperience got the best of things. For months after, Bonnie fought a creative block and found it hard to get excited about making new music because of what she went through. These examples I just gave are tame examples of what really happens out there sometimes. Things get serious when visas and proper paperwork get involved, when money gets involved. This is where Darin’s valuable input comes in. He got back to me right away about the subject because he has “been there, done that” way more times than many.
“I began as a shy 17 year old kid in the suburbs of Chicago with zero contacts in the industry. It was only through many long years of hard work and networking that I finally began seeing results and played my first international shows. Today I’ve managed to build my way up to a consistent tour schedule and have headlined in over a dozen countries on every continent (excluding Antarctica of course!)” reminisces Darin.
But he hasn’t always been traveling with ease.
I pressed him a bit further for a real story of a tour mishap because well, we look up to Darin, follow him and love seeing his posters of where he will be next. He has a reputation of being a great guy, professional, businesslike and a completely solid performer. This is exactly what he told me,
“Many years ago I was booked to open for Judge Jules at the Empire Ballroom in Edmonton, Canada. I arrived at the border without a proper work visa and was sent home by the border patrol agents without hesitation. How and why did I allow this to happen you ask? Well, this was early on in my career and the promoter had convinced me that I could enter the country as a tourist. Basically it was an easy way for him to cut on costs and time. (NOTE: US citizens are no longer required to have a work visa to perform a DJ set in Canada, but back then it required loads of paperwork, money, and patience.)
Little did I know that the border agents were prepared to grill me with a hundred questions, including why I was only in the country for one day and how did I know this person if I lived in California? To keep a long story short, they were able to quickly uncover my true reason for traveling to Canada and promptly sent me on a plane back to the US.
On another occasion, I didn’t have a work visa for two gigs in Colombia and the border agent actually had a copy of the flyer on her phone!! She stared at me and asked, “Are you this person?” while pointing at my picture. You just never know what can happen once you step outside your home.,” – Darin Epsilon
Darin is so right; you never know what can happen when you leave your home. For the sake of simplicity in this article, let’s focus on the general well being and safety of touring artists. It’s incredible to have a great party but the events leading up to and after can affect the entire future of an artist. The flip side though, it’s in how the artist handles it as well. By being prepared and with experience, you start getting the hang of airport line-ups and having all the right papers and answers ready.
“It’s always a hard lesson learned in situations like these, but I always try and remain as optimistic as possible. Every setback only makes you stronger and failure is the greatest teacher. Experience has taught me that failure is inevitable and we have to mentally prepare ourselves if we are to survive this industry. I’ve seen DJ’s on every level, even the really famous ones; have to deal with shortcomings from time to time.” – Darin Epsilon
Fact: Our lives are in your hands.
When we artists travel, we put our lives in your hands. Well, technically the promoter’s hands. We put ourselves in places we can only know through looking at Google maps. We try and fit in, but can’t help but stick out. Google translate can only do so much. Promoters, we need you.
“Two years ago I was booked in a country which I had never performed before. I felt like I was living the dream and my music was finally getting out there and being heard.
Well, it turns out the organizers didn’t begin promoting my event until the week of, even though we had confirmed the show over a month ago. The flyer looked terrible and to make matters worse, it was an outdoor party and the sudden rainfall forced us to make a last minute venue change. Well, you can pretty much guess how that one went.” – Darin Epsilon
Artists, your best safeguard against distasteful promoter situations is DO YOUR RESEARCH. Reach out to people in the city you’re to visit and ask them about the promoter and their reputation. Don’t be shy and ask people you trust. When a promoter has a less than glowing reputation, the people you trust will tell you. You’re not engaging in gossip, you’re asking for a reference.
Look things up for yourself. You’re the one who has to live in a different country or place with this person as your contact. What does their social media say? What do the photos say? How are people reacting to the events this promoter is putting on? What’s their promotion strategy? Do you want your name involved?
“What I’ve learned is that there’s no way you can control everything that happens to you, but being prepared and doing your homework can really go a long way. Others have said this before and I’ll repeat it here:
“Failing to prepare is preparing to fail” – Darin Epsilon
Fact: The proper venue plays a big factor on the success of the event.
Yes, you may get booked to play an intimate party and this can be intriguing, like back in the day when underground was underground but sometimes if you go so far underground, no one can find you. Landing a gig at a reputable venue with a proper sound system takes away so much pressure. Even if the promoter is nowhere to be found, you know you can find the venue and it has everything you need to play.
Nothing is more stressful than getting lost on the way to a gig that’s in a random spot. When cabbies don’t know what you’re talking about and your data doesn’t work on your phone… After if happened once, I made the rule that I get a ride to and from the gig. You’re supposed to be focusing on your impending gig, not navigating a foreign landscape looking for the blue light on the north side beside the green awning across from the park bench.
Fact: A back-up plan doesn’t mean you don’t have faith, it means you’re smart.
In hindsight, Bonnie Rabson now laughs off her experience and recently said, “I should have trusted my gut when his credit card declined for the round trip, so that’s why we only got a one way.” Bonnie has gone on, and continues to grow as a successful vocalist but better believe she has a different approach in how she does things nowadays!
Embracing a life of touring means you embrace the uncertainty of some things. You embrace the culture shock each time you step off the plane. You embrace the jetlag because it’s for a great cause. You embrace working with others so everyone comes out on top. You embrace putting yourself out there in front of strangers and taking chances in order to do so. But it only takes a few times for things to go awry before you start making a mental checklist of things you’ll do ‘next time’. Some things can’t be changed about traveling and that’s the beauty of it but there are things we can do to make the process less painful if things do go wrong.
True story: I expected to have a substantial deposit before leaving on one of my adventures. It didn’t come but I boarded the plane anyway. I got into the foreign country with no issue but then had no money to support myself. I’m only human. Match this stress with lack of sleep, going through culture shock and being miles and miles away from home. Even my bankcard didn’t work, to access the balance I had. I’d tried to get the proper currency a few days before I left. It was unique and it would have taken two weeks to get it. I left Canada, relying on the banking system I knew and when I found myself far away from home, instead of being able to enjoy the new sites, I was bouncing from busy banks trying to convert the money I had, calling long distance about where my deposit was and relied on friends to float my boat.
It’s one thing to have things go wrong but it’s another to know you did it to yourself. And this, I had done. I took on more than I could commit to at that moment in time, because I wanted to follow my heart instead of my mind. By the time my deposit went in, I figured out that I could Western Union myself money from my bank account and pick it up in local currency. My lack of a Plan B consumed my time and enjoyment.
At the end of the day, we all hope for amazing promoters to make our time in their city easy and enjoyable but the fact is, we are still independent artists who have to take care of ourselves while we are away. If I would have been honest with myself and prepared better, I could have saved myself a lot of frustration.
Fact: Touring is one of the most life-enriching experiences
“I can count at least two or three times when I was seriously ready to throw in the towel, but little did I know that some of the greatest moments in my career were just around the corner. These opportunities would have never materialized if I didn’t use my pain and frustration to push me in the right direction, or if I hadn’t made the decision to wait it out a little longer. Always remember when one door closes, another one opens.” – Darin Epsilon
When you step out of the studio and start stepping onto stages in a far away lands, it’s like all your wildest dreams are being realized. Bringing your music to new ears is a gift bestowed upon any of us lucky enough to play. The people you meet, the food you eat, the things you see and do – over and above the gig itself – each experience makes us more profound, inspired and worldly. We understand different cultures and see our differences as strengths as we remain unified in our love of music.
Touring is always going to have its complications but these shouldn’t deter us from doing it.
It’s good to step out of our comfort zone and grow. Luckily, many have blazed the trail before us, and act as mentors to newbs like me. I guess somewhere along the way I stopped leaving things to chance. I know, as my journey in music continues, there will always be things beyond my control. Robert Mason says that there’s a moment in each adventure that I look at him with a panicked look in my eye that says, “What have I gotten us into?” Secretly, that’s probably what I live for, like a kind of sadistic high from taking a big leap into the unknown.
If you’re new to touring or want to be, I won’t claim to be an expert. I’m like a toddler learning to walk and we all learned to walk at a different pace. The chances I’ve taken may not work for everyone and they sure haven’t always worked for me. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, bringing your music to new places and new ears is an exciting privilege. But even though our heart might want us to do wild things, we have to be smart about it so we can keep touring for years to come.
But what about the promoters out there, how do they feel? What do they have to say? Ahhhh, well, that’s for next time… Until then, here are some great tips from Darin to keep you on the road to taking flight.
Darin Epsilon’s Top Touring Tips
• Before accepting any gig, take some time to really find out who the person is that’s inviting you. Is the promoter or club well known in your genre? Do they have a good reputation? Have you spoken to other artists that were previously booked that can vouch for them? Can they pay the fee upfront or at least the deposit?
• While some countries are quite relaxed at the border, others may grill you with questions. You’re always expected to have the proper documents and/or visas when touring. Proceed with extreme caution, or the same thing that happened to me could happen to you. Never EVER lie to a border patrol agent because they will always find out the truth! Believe it or not, they will actually go so far as to Google you and scrub your website and social media for information. The last thing you want is to be banned from entering the country or continent again.
• Set realistic goals for yourself and listen to your inner voice. Are you feeling ready to step out there and perform? Do you actually have a following in the country you’re being invited to play? Have you ever interacted with anyone in the region that expressed excitement in seeing you perform? Did other artists in your genre have good experiences there? If the answer to any of these is “no” then you have some serious questions to ask.
• Don’t set the bar too low for yourself. You are a valuable human being! Sure, we could all use a gig from time to time, but how much are you actually gaining by taking this trip? Would you be better off staying home and working in the studio? It may look like fun and games for your audience, but are you being compensated fairly for the additional amount of time and effort that is required to prepare for a performance? Keep in mind that you’ll need to spend countless hours digging for music to play, plus there’s the travel time to and from the airport, and then the actual flight itself.
• Read this book How To Be Your Own Booking Agent by Jeri Goldstein if you want to learn everything there is to know about the business. It will even provide tips on how to prepare a solid press kit, which is essential for every touring artist.
Listen to Darin Epsilon’s latest episode of Perspectives!
Tune in: Perspectives
Have you had any rough touring “learning experiences”? What tips would you add to the list? Please share & comment below: