Indie Touring Strategy: Getting Out on the Road

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Megan Slankard
Megan Slankard is building her fan base on a three-month coast to coast solo tour. (Photo: Justin Oliphant)
What are the realities of touring for an independent artist today? How do you set up your gigs? Does touring make financial sense? What should you hope to gain from going on any tour? These are just some of the questions you might – and should – be asking yourself if you plan to take your show on the road.

Megan Slankard is traveling through rural Wisconsin, where cell coverage can be spotty, as a part of a three-month, 75-date tour to promote her latest album, A Token of the Wreckage. After numerous tries to connect, I’ve finally gotten her on the phone, so I can ask her and her agent (San Francisco-based KC Turner) some of these questions to better understand the role of touring for a successful independent artist.

"I’m very excited to be out playing the songs from my new album all across the country," says Megan. "I decided I would tour as a solo act, in part, because it’s expensive to go out on a national tour with a full band. Touring on my own, I can play just about anywhere, clubs, coffee houses and house concerts."

Token Cover
A Token of the Wreckage is Megan's fourth album release.
Megan epitomizes the DIY artist, writing all her own material, releasing her albums independently (check out her artist page on CD Baby), self-managing herself, and up until recently booking all her own gigs. As a result of doing much of her own bookings over the years, Megan is recognized by many clubs bookers across the country, so when she invited KC Turner to take over booking her current coast-to-coast tour, he agreed, knowing that her existing relationships with talent buyers at the clubs she had already appeared at would help make the transition easier. For Megan, finding the right person she could trust with her booking was a key. "KC has been outstanding to work with in every respect. Having him handle my booking has helped ease my workload, allowing me to concentrate more on the music."

The tour kicked off with a sold-out album release party at San Francisco’s storied Bottom of the Hill club on March 5th. Playing in her hometown, Slankard debuted the songs from her new album backed by her band, easily selling out the 325-person venue. Since then, she’s been on the road in her Nissan Sentra working her way gradually eastward through Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois, up to Minnesota and on to New York. After her gigs there, she’ll eventually head down the eastern seaboard through the Carolinas to Florida before working her way back, where she will conclude the tour on June 18 with a full band show at Café du Nord in San Francisco.

Megan talked about the new fans she is making, both at clubs and at the house concerts that help fill her open dates and offer a more intimate environment than the clubs. "At a house concert, you definitely get to see and feel the response to every song," she said. "I love that intimacy, it’s a lot like playing for friends, so different from a club gig, since you know everyone there has come just to hear the music." The current ratio of house concerts to club dates on her tour is about five club dates for every house concert.

KC Turner expands on this, explaining, "An artist can make connections to people at a house concert that may be tough to do in a club setting. The audience normally ranges in size from 30-75 persons per night. Every one seated is really there – in the moment. As a result, the artist will many times be able to sell more CDs in that setting than at a club. I’ve put together house concerts for a number of artists including Matt Nathanson, Bob Schneider, Ben Kweller, and many others." Demand for these intimate musical evenings continues to grow to the point that he started the KC Turner House Concert Series and now he books many of them in and around the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond.

What about life on the road? It can be rough, and cold, but Megan stays in touch with her family, friends and Turner by cell phone, email, and iChat on her laptop. KC points out that not every indie artist has the drive and determination that Megan does. "It takes a tremendous amount of dedication to grab your guitar and a few changes of clothes, get in your, car and criss-cross the nation playing a blend of headline and support dates, with a few house concerts mixed in. But it’s a solid strategy that is paying off for Megan, as she introduces her new album to more and more fans. We’ve been able to book nearly every night, a tribute to the fact that Megan is becoming better known and her own willingness to tour full-time in support of this record." Turner noted that this one-woman, three-month tour makes sense economically, too, as committing to tour with a band requires a lot more income or investment to cover the proportionally higher expenses.

Putting together the tour, Turner and Slankard faced a few challenges. Turner recalled, "Megan had been booked for some time as a featured artist at the April 1, 2011 Notes & Words Benefit Concert in Oakland, CA." That show was a high profile gig, hosted by San Francisco radio station KFOG, at the 2,000-seat Fox Theater to raise funds for Children’s Hospital in Oakland. At the show, best selling authors such as Michael Lewis, Kelly Corrigan, and Beth Lissick, mixed their spoken word performances with sets by Megan Slankard, The Family Crest, and HYIM.

Megan Slankard
Photo: Matthew Washburn
"As we routed Megan’s tour, we kept this gig in mind, and as it happened, Megan played the night before in Chicago, got on a plane to San Francisco the next morning, arriving the afternoon of the gig. She played a great set, and then flew back for her next show in Illinois," Turner said. "Taking the time off from the tour made sense due to the exposure such a high profile show presented, not to mention the fact that the show generated money for a worthwhile cause that Megan supports."

While Megan continues to build her fan base, Turner has been making new connections, continuing to expand the opportunities for Megan to build her audience. "I’m pitching Megan for a few festivals here in San Francisco. We’re also putting the finishing touches on a shorter West Coast tour for summer. Ultimately, touring non-stop is what it takes to really build up an artist’s fan base."

So while the career of Megan Slankard continues to build momentum, the lessons learned regarding the role of touring are evident. She and her agent, KC Turner, are committed to keeping Megan in front of the microphone as many nights as possible, introducing her music and latest album to new audiences everywhere. Basic economics make national touring with a full band impractical right now, so continuing to play clubs, coffee houses and the occasional house concert makes sense today. As part of her longer-term strategy, Megan was quick to add that this three-month tour is also a building block to achieve one of her bigger goals – building a large enough fan base so that touring with her band will be feasible.

However, for larger shows that will generate adequate revenue, such as the March 5th tour kick off gig and the current tour’s final June 18th show, both in her hometown of San Francisco, the full band will join Megan on stage. She also has an 8-minute music video for the title track on the new album directed by Matthew Ward that is creating further buzz, continuing the upward career trend for this very DIY artist.

Meanwhile, while KC is busy filling up the summer and fall with more gigs, Megan is likely storing up a wealth of vignettes, characters, and sweeping panoramas that may ultimately find their way into new songs as she continues her trek across the expanses of America building career. With her drive and determination, along with the support of her agent, KC Turner, Megan Slankard’s career arc seems to be rising steadily and on her own terms, a very notable accomplishment for any artist today.

Story Links
Megan Slankard’s website
Megan performing at a house concert
KC Turner’s agency site
High Note Live – a web site dedicated to helping create more and better house concerts and connecting artists and those wishing to host a house concert
Indie on the Move – another useful resource for bands wanting to take the DIY touring approach

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