Figuring It Out: Touring In The States

Figuring It Out: Touring In The States

Ad Hoc was founded on the ideal of building the world you want to see using the resources at your disposal, and beyond showcasing great music, we want to help musicians and music lovers figure out how to do things themselves. To kick off the first installment of our new "how to" column, "Figuring It Out," we asked NYC-based promoter and "music export" expert Charlotte Von Kotze to give us some advice for non-American bands looking to tour the States without burning through their savings. Charlotte came to New York from her native Paris to work as a project manager at the French Music Export Agency, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing French artists to the states, and currently works at the music marketing agency Giant Step while curating shows under the moniker Duchess of Broken English. 

What are some common problems that non-American bands come up against when trying to tour the US?

Geographically speaking, lots of bands have to consider that North America is vast, with a lot of mileage from city to city. Consequently, the costs for hotels, transportation, food, and equipment are usually high. In the States, extra benefits, such as meals or accommodations, are usually not provided, and unless your band is large enough to get decent guarantees, payment will often depend on the amount of money venues pull from the door. In Europe, big and small acts alike usually get meals every night, and even if a hotel is not provided, getting a place to crash is usually considered part of the package. 

As far as equipment is concerned, most foreign bands have to take flights and won’t be able to afford to bring all their equipment. Unless the venue has the right backline, bands will either buy new gear overseas (often guitars) or borrow it from other bands and have to adapt themselves quickly to the new instruments.

Culturally speaking, musical tastes can vary from country to country and city to city, so if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, it can be hard to find shows that will connect you with the right audience. In a city like New York, where the music market is so dense and the competition so strong, it won’t be uncommon for bands to see their shows cancelled last-minute if the venue finds a better deal or bigger band. 

Can most musicians get away with using a tourist visa, or do they need to apply for a work visa? 

Acquiring a work visa is a pain for most musicians. Due to high costs (usually around $3,000) and the lengthiness of the application process, a lot of foreign bands are tempted to avoid applying for them and decide to travel with a tourist visa, which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend either. Especially since 9/11, more and more USCIS border agents are trained to identify groups of people standing in line together and carrying luggage looking like instruments. Unless you meet very nice custom agents, you could be sent back home right away, or even banned from the US for a couple of months. If you have some savings and can anticipate your tour at least three months to six months in advance, I would recommend applying for a category O or P artist visa (more information here). But the downside of this procedure is the time-frame. The US government has to make sure that the bands are who they say they are, so musicians have to get letters of recommendation from recognized music industry professionals and show that they have international press reflecting their importance on the music scene. 

How do you avoid losing money in the States if you're not sure what kind of draw you have? 

When your build your first tour, make sure you are not too ambitious. It’s better to start playing in small venues, where there is less pressure and you can give yourself the time to be discovered by fans. Don’t move up in capacity until you are sure that you can fill out the venues you have been playing. I recommend a great website called indieonthemove.org, which provides a detailed list of venues and contacts. Always ask about money before confirming any gig, and once you have caught the attention of a promoter, try to at least have percentage guaranteed.

Are there any resources that bands outside the US can resort to for offsetting touring costs and getting visa issues sorted?

For visa matters, I would recommend seeing if your home country has a music export office and/or cultural office, which tend to be located in the embassies. Several European, Asian, African, and South American countries, not to mention Canada, have these great state-run resources, and can get immigration issues sorted quickly and relatively cheaply. Most of them offer grants and can connect you with a network of professionals in the States. Other solutions include American consulting agencies such as TamizdatApap, or Dart. Dart, which is based in Austin, has a full team of music professionals and lawyers ready to give you a hand with common visa issues and help you book tours and figure out accomodations. They also usually book SXSW shows, which can help you get your foot in the door at that the festival.

Touring expenses usually include food, sleeping arrangements, gas, and equipment costs. Instead of only considering expenses, think about revenue you can pull in with merch. This includes the sale of albums, exclusive, tour-only recordings, DVDs, and T shirts.  You can also keep costs low by condensing your tour schedule-- especially in the East Coast, where cities are close to each other-- and sharing equipment with other bands. 

How can you book a tour in the States if you don’t know anybody here?

It’s key for a band to find reliable agents, venues, and promoters who can help them and coordinate tours with radio and press. Of course, finding an American record label to put out your music can solve a lot of these problems. However, I can’t stress the importance of developing relationships with other bands enough. You can do this easily through Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, but another trick is to simply go out to see established American bands when they play your home country. Why not try to play with them, share your audience with them? They will appreciate any help you can give them-- such as sharing your equipment, or putting them up-- and they will remember you and return the favor when you tour the states. You will be in a better position to open for American bands in the US and get some decent visibility from their audience and professional network. There are tons of examples of bands that have benefited from collaborations of this kind, like Sun Araw and the French artist High Wolf, or Built to Spill and the Swiss band Disco Doom. That’s also the concept I’m trying to explore with my own shows as The Duchess of Brooklyn English, where I put together line-ups consisting of two foreign bands and one local band in order to foster collaborations between them, not to mention musical and cultural diversity. 

Which US festivals are good for foreign bands looking for exposure?

Of course, you have the big ones like SXSW, in Austin, where you’ll meet tons of music people from all over the world and be able to connect with new bands. These festivals encourage international line-ups, but you’ll ften have to pay for your application, and won’t necessarily get paid or accommodated. 

Generally speaking, if a foreign band is getting some attention from medium-to-large-size festivals, I recommend playing a date only if that means getting your flight covered. Sometimes, festivals like Austin Psych Fest will look for smaller, international bands and be able to cover travel costs. They may not offer guarantees, but getting your flight covered will obviously save you a lot of money, 

Do have any special advice for artists who make music for more niche, experimental audiences, where the guarantees tend to not be very high, and crowds are small and self-selecting? 

The experimental audience is a picky crowd, which makes things interesting but also challenging. Since your audience at home may be very different from the American experimental audience, I would focus on collaborating with a band from over here. Do your homework and spend some hours on blogs and social media looking up venues, pre-exiting bills, and bands that match your music. Do your homework regarding grants. If your country doesn’t have a music export office, they will definitely have an embassy in the States with a cultural office. Get in touch with them, as the grants they offer will probably be a much safer bet than non-existent guarantees or door money. 

Finally, I would recommend getting in touch with smaller festivals like Neon Marshmallow, or festivals booked by magazines. I’m thinking of North Side Festival (L Magazine), CMJ (College Music Journal), and especially Culture Collide (Filter Magazine), which encourages border-defying collaborations and aims to introduce rad new foreign bands to the U.S. You can also try getting booked at some local festivals, which cater to niche markets and tend to get serious attention from the media and booking agencies-- Cropped Out Festival, in Louisville, KY, for example.

Finally, before touring the States, you could also target the Canadian market. Festivals like M for Montreal, Pop Montreal, Mutek, and NXNE offer networking platforms in collaboration with American festivals like as SXSW.  If you look at the line-ups of American festivals, you’ll realize how stateside promoters will book bands they probably discovered the year before at a Canadian festival. 

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