Every comic who has ever seen one of the countless tour documentaries has had the thought of gathering a few friends together and hitting the road. But it’s not nearly that simple. Here’s a few tips on how to do it – and when not to.
1) Successful tours have concepts that appeal to a specific audience. Just cobbling a few random comedians together doesn’t make a tour. A tour needs to equal more than the sum of its parts. And finding a random commonality doesn’t make that happen. “Five guys named Mike!” That’s great, but who is going to go see that, people named Mike? Tours based on a shared perspective can work well (Hipsters? Dads? Conservatives?), as do tours designed for a specific professional audience (like teachers or lawyers). Name the tour accordingly – clever is less important than obvious.
2) Touring can be grueling. Make sure the people you’re touring with are easygoing on the road, and all have similar work ethics. No one person should be carrying the tour, everyone should work together on travel arrangements and booking.
3) Outline everyone’s job and pay structure ahead of time; you need to be prepared for every eventuality. What happens if a venue stiffs you? If you lose money on a particular date? Be prepared.
4) Once you have the plan of who is on the tour, you need a killer EPK (Electronic Press Kit). Make it easy for a venue to know why they’re booking you. Videos, bios, quotes about you, tour logos, etc. Make it look as professional as you can.
5) Map out your route. Set your ego aside and be smart about what cities or towns are a fit – and skip the rest. The more populated the metro area, the easier it will be to find a venue. And consider travel cost – are the cities near each other? Do you have friends there that can save you money on a hotel? Start with the optimum route; you can always change it on the fly. Plan at least two months out, preferably 4-6. More venues will have their calendars open, and you’ll have time to promote. And leave time on your schedule for press.
6) Start selling your show. The two ways to tour are in existing comedy venues and in independent venues (like rock clubs or bars). I prefer the rock club route because I know I can sell tickets (and you can usually get 100% of the door at a rock club, especially for an early show or an off-night. Some comedians prefer existing comedy venues as there’s less risk and a built-in audience (albeit less reward). Most tours are a combination of the two. Yelp lists all the venues in a given city – start calling.
7) If it’s a comedy club, ask for the booker. If it’s a venue that features music, ask for the music booker. If it’s a bar, as for the owner (and if they’re unavailable, the manager). It’s also a good idea to just call and find out what that person’s name is without identifying yourself, and then call back the next day asking to speak directly to them. You’ll sound more like you know what you’re doing.
8) As venues say yes, ALWAYS sign a contract. It could be simple, a one page agreement that’s not even legally perfect. It just has to be specific enough that they know what the terms are and they can’t change them last second. It will rarely be needed. But the one time you run into a problem, you’ll be glad you have it. And having a contract template and a W9 ready on your computer will save you a lot of time.
9) Now that it’s booked, time to sell tickets. While there are all sorts of ways to put butts in seats, here’s a few that I recommend.
a. Press. It is so important that you try to schedule press. I’ll write another, more detailed post re: best practices, but pitch your tour to the local paper, radio station, and TV station. Never be afraid to ask for coverage. Have a press release ready (and don’t be shy about sending that great EPK we talked about).
b. Affinity groups. Here’s where your tour’s theme comes in handy. Is it a show about legalizing pot? Then reach out to NORML. A show of older men? Reach out to the local Elks lodge. Etc, etc, etc. There’s TONS of local organizations and national organizations with local chapters in any city. Find the ones you appeal to.
c. Have a local opener in each city. It’s a great way to meet comics in that scene while also filling seats. Sometimes no one will come see them, and sometimes they’ll be a huge asset in spreading the word. No matter how much or how little they help, it’s still great comedy karma.
10) Sponsorship is the hardest part of a tour. It could pay for the whole thing, or even just make life easier. Landing a sponsor is extremely difficult but can be done with lead time and an impressive pitch. You’ll need to put together a deck outlining exactly what the sponsor gets for their money. Are you asking for product, for money, or both? How many people do you anticipate coming to each show? What are those demographics, and what cities and venues is the tour taking place in? Answer every question they might have before they ask it – and be aware that most companies commit their sponsorship budgets 6-18 months in advance.