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Q&A on DIY Touring

Q (asked by long-time G,NA supporter Zach): How has your perspective on touring changed over the past two decades?

A: "Touring" and I have been in a complicated, on-again/off-again relationship since 1999, when I booked my very first tour for my very first band in Wisconsin. I can still see the list of cities I wrote down when I was mapping out the tour. I thought I could book a full-US tour right out of the gates, and I remember cold-calling venues all over the country trying to find places to play. I ended up with, I think, three shows that were close enough together to justify making the drive. One of the shows on that tour was at the legendary Blind Pig in Ann Arbor, MI. Another show was in a restaurant that served boiled potatoes had dirt-and-feather bowling in a back room. 

I think that pretty much illustrates the two ends of the spectrum that is DIY touring.

I say “DIY touring,” specifically, because that’s the kind of touring with which I have the most experience. Other than the few summers I spent in a tour bus working on the Warped Tour, all of the touring I’ve done has been in a car or van, booked by myself, someone else on the tour, or a small-time booking agent, and without the backing of a record label. Most of the shows I’ve played have been small venues, dive bars, all-ages venues, living rooms, basements, restaurants, rec centers, VFW halls, churches, high school auditoriums, back yards, or other random locations where someone set up a PA system and gave the place a name. And I loved every single one of those shows. 

I was introduced to the DIY ethos in 1999 in Madison, WI, where I was living and playing in an "alt rock" band at the time, fresh out of high school and having only just discovered punk rock music. And no, I don’t mean the DIY Network television channel. (Side note: if you Google “DIY bands” today, you get a bunch of pictures of teenage girls making bracelets. So sad.) I'm talking about the punk philosophy and movement that changed my life forever -- but I’ll save that love story for another day.

One of the first things I learned about taking a DIY approach to music was the idea that I could book my own tours. Until then, I thought we had to wait for our Fairy Tourmother to bring a Magical Booking Agent and a Sparkling Tour Bus before we could ever tour the world -- or even our own state. The DIY philosophy taught me that I didn’t have to wait for someone else to do something for me. I could do it myself! This was still a groundbreaking concept in the music industry back then. Most of the bands I knew at that time were still trying to get record deals, booking agents, and radio hits rather than put out their own album, book their own tours, or distribute their own music.

After that first tour I booked in ‘99 -- and after discovering more about the punk culture, music, and philosophy -- I started a new band, in part so I could put into practice what I was learning from the punk scene in Madison, WI. (Shout-out to my #MadWizPunx family.) One of the first things I wanted to do was get my band on the road.

In 2002, I co-booked my very first US tour with another Madison band, and we hit the road for nearly a month. It was one of the most exciting times in my musical career. I fell in love with coffee on that tour, I got to drive through New Mexico at sunset on that tour (still one of my most spiritual experiences), and it was my first time seeing most of this ridiculously beautiful country that we live in. It was also my first time feeling the fear of running out of money on the road, sleeping on strangers’ couches and floors, and counting pennies to buy gas to get to the next town. It was both exhilarating and stressful as hell. It was the beginning of an intoxicating, dysfunctional love affair with “The Road.”

For the next two years, I basically booked shows non-stop for my band. I dropped out of college to work full-time on booking, promotion, songwriting, website and online marketing, merchandise, street teams, and whatever else I could do to keep the band on the road. Touring brought us an indie label, endorsement deals, connections all over the country, loyal fans, and the reputation of being one of the hardest-working bands in the Midwest. It was through touring that I eventually met Kevin Lyman, who eventually offered me a full-time job in Los Angeles, which eventually got me onto those aforementioned tour buses. My touring life did a 180 between 2003-2004. I didn't get back "in the van" until 2009.

After about five years in LA, and right about the time I had almost forgotten what it felt like to be a starving artist, I decided I was ready to get back to my roots. I booked a west coast tour and officially launched Gardening, Not Architecture as my full-time musical project. A year later, I put everything in storage and went on tour full-time. Thanks to the knowledge I gained from working on the “other side” of music all those years, booking tours this time around was much easier. The tours were solid, I knew how to market them properly, and I was touring in a compact car rather than caravaning with 2-3 bands in gas-guzzling vans. I was still sleeping on strangers’ couches, eating PB&Js, and barely paying my bills, but hey, it was easier... at first.

Then, just like any dysfunctional relationship, things started to fall apart. What was all rainbows and butterflies at first was starting to give way to the reality of the failing infrastructure within. To avoid facing reality about what wasn't working, I pushed myself even harder. In late 2010, arguably the year that my personal life started to take its turn for the worse, I attempted to do a 75-day US tour by myself in a beat-up Volvo I had purchased on Craigslist for $500. I blew through eight brand new tires, a fuel pump, axles, rods, brake pads, and countless other issues with the car, including getting stranded a couple of times, nearly dying in a blizzard, and more. And that was just the car. Nevermind the other issues I had to face while driving around the country alone. The insanity I was feeling inside was manifesting itself in my life in various ways -- but that tour was a real wake-up call to me. I could feel that I had drifted too far out to sea, and was losing sight of the shore.

After surviving that tour (which I can only attribute to a benevolent force in the universe, as that car should not have made it down the street much less around the United States), I knew I needed to re-evaluate my motives for insisting on pursuing the DIY touring and lifestyle. What was I trying to achieve -- or prove? Was it working? Was I even enjoying it anymore? I did one more tour in early 2011 -- the EIY Tour, which was a speaking and community workshop tour I did in promotion of the 2011 Warped Tour. After that, I took the rest of that year to refocus my efforts while living in Seattle. 

I didn’t stay off the road for long: I did three more self-booked G,NA tours in 2012 before finally hitting a wall and being forced to admit that it wasn’t working anymore. On top of my progressively weakening mental state, my worsening financial situation, and my overall loss of focus, touring had become more of a burden than a blessing. In the 10+ years since I had started touring, gas prices had quadrupled, the local music scenes had changed, venues were shutting down, the country had gone through a recession, and people weren’t coming out to see live music unless they were already fans of the band -- or if they were, they certainly weren’t buying CDs or merchandise like they used to. The new generation of kids weren’t involved in their local music communities, and therefore the punk philosophy and culture that had been handed down to me was no longer being handed down to anyone. Kids were finding music and “socializing” online instead of spending their weekends at the nearest all-ages venue. My generation, now getting into their 30s, was settling into grown-up jobs, getting married, having kids, and generally losing their desire to spend their weekends at the nearest dive bar or punk club listening to yet another band. 

Touring had become a chore, a necessary evil, a financial hole, a source of frustration, a confusing puzzle, and most of all: exhausting. I was tired.

The east coast tour I did in the fall of 2012 was the last tour I did. Today, when musicians talk to me about touring and ask me where to start, my short answer is, “Don’t.” It’s just not worth it anymore, other than the thrill of those first few times out on the road. It isn’t what it used to be, and anyone who thinks they just have to “get in the van” to find success needs to find the nearest time machine and go back to the early 90s, when that actually worked. The only way touring makes sense to me now is if it’s treated more like a road trip, funded by a savings account, with the goals of simply enjoying the countryside and visiting existing fans and friends in other cities.

DIY touring doesn’t make sense if a band is trying to make new fans or network with other bands in other cities. Those are no longer the fruits of DIY touring. The Internet is the new Open Road, and you can go a long way with it. Touring used to be the best way for unknown musicians to build a fanbase. Today, touring might be the worst way for musicians to do that. There’s no use fighting it or even being bummed about it. In fact, this new reality opens up a lot of possibilities for the future of live performance, and how that will play a part in the careers of unknown musicians like myself.

The question remains: Will I get in the van again? My answer is yes. Of course I will. Wanderlust is real, and it’s definitely in my blood. I’m just a whole lot more realistic about it these days. When I tour again, it won’t be because I’m trying to get famous, make money, or even necessarily make new fans. It will mostly be an excuse to travel with my friends, connect with my fans in-person, visit people I know in different cities, and see this beautiful country from the open road. And I’ll have a big pile of cash saved up before I even book the first show.

Thanks for the question, Zach!

Sarah Saturday