You’ve probably never heard of Frog Holler. So why would you give up your evening and $7 to go see them? That’s a question that Lane Campbell, an independent tour manager, wants to answer for you. Or at least get you asking…
Unlike a professional tour manager, Campbell does not actually travel with the band, but he sets up the shows, arranges promotions, and helps with the travel plans. He does this in his spare time. From home. With a full-time job.
Glorious Noise wanted to demystify the whole idea of booking a tour for a fairly unknown band. Turns out it sounds like a shitload of work. But it’s not impossible. So if there’s a band that you love and you want them to come to your town, maybe you should help them set up a tour. Or at least offer them your floor to crash on.
GLONO: Have you arranged tours for other bands before this one?
Campbell: Yes, I’ve done this several times now. The most notable band would probably be the Possibilities, a (now) power-pop band from Athens, GA. I fell in love with this band back in the summer of ’95 while living in Minneapolis. At the time, they were a bunch of kids doing alt-country, but they were good. They opened for the Dashboard Saviors at the Uptown, and I remember bassist Bob Spires sporting a “Bob” t-shirt that I found hilarious. Over the next few years, this band began to enter near-mythical status for me, as I tried in vain, numerous times, to find a record of theirs, trying to go through Peter Jesperson, among others. Peter had been hosting his own radio show in Minneapolis, called “Shakin’ Street” (after the MC5 song), and he played the Possibilities a few times on his show. It wasn’t until a couple years later that an Internet contact got me copies of their self-released cassettes, and not until ’99 that their first proper record was released . . . bringing us to the summer of 2002, when I hooked up with the band to help put together some Midwest shows for them. Long story short—7 years later, I found myself ensconced in this band’s world, and I felt like a kid. A happy one.
My first experience was with a band called Roadside Attraction, from outside LA. At the time, I had no clue. None. I was calling clubs in the yellow pages, didn’t know about drink tickets, and was just clueless. Pieced together a little something for them, and they appreciated it, but mainly it was a learning experience. I’ve remained good friends with them, had some visits back and forth between LA and Chicago, and it really spurred my interest and confidence in doing this.
Typically, the tours I’ve put together are about 5-8 shows, mainly in the “big markets,” meaning either larger cities like Chicago and Minneapolis, or college towns like Columbus and Champaign. Sometimes, I’ll help bands with a show or two. It’s something I’ve been doing now for about three years, on and off.
GLONO: Why did you choose Frog Holler?
Campbell: Frog Holler was referred to me by a friend here in Chicago who’s always wanted to see them play here in town. The band’s from rural Pennsylvania and prior to this tour, had never come anywhere close to Chicago, and this friend of mine had been bugging them about it for awhile now. When they said they’d need help, he recommended them to me, and it all went from there.
Before this, I knew very little about the band—a friend of mine had put a song of theirs called “Stray” (from 2001’s Idiots) on a mix CD for me, and I loved it, but for whatever reason, I never pursued their records. Over the last few months, I’ve become a big fan.
GLONO: How do you know what venues are cool?
Campbell: It’s relatively easy to track down the “cool” venues in the major cities. One glance at a venue’s website pretty much lets you know if it’s a club worth pursuing—if they’ve got Ted Leo, the Shins, and Damien Jurado all playing over the course of a few days, you know it’s worth a few dozen phone calls to the club to put a band in their room.
I’m fortunate to have several friends in music, either performers or “business-side people” who’ve recommended some great clubs that I may not have heard about otherwise. For instance, there’s this great club down in St. Louis called Frederick’s Music Lounge, a tiny club, holds maybe 100-plus, and it’s run by this eccentric character named Fred Friction. Fred plays some music on his own (best known for his spoon playing, he used to join Uncle Tupelo when they’d do in-studio performances back in the early 90s), and does everything he can to help bands. He has his own radio show in town, puts you in contact with the right press, and is very fair about setting up the right date and treating bands like professionals. Outside of the music world, I think this is a club that could easily fly under the radar; however, luckily, some friends steered me his way and it’s been a blessing.
GLONO: What do you do to promote the shows?
Campbell: Promoting shows is one of the biggest challenges in putting together a successful tour. Generally, the bands that I have worked with are not touring regulars, and it’s been pretty common that the tours I’ve booked have been first visits for these bands to the majority of cities on the itinerary. Additionally, distribution’s a major issue for these bands, and it’s often next-to-impossible to find their records outside the local indie, consignment-friendly record shop three blocks from where they went to grammar school, so the challenge is big—interest people in paying money to see a band they’ve never heard of. It’s tough.
The no-brainers are press and plaster. All press outlets are contacted, given CDs and press kits in the hopes they’ll do a story on the band. Cross your fingers. The record stores get plastered with posters announcing the show. Other things that can be done include setting up record in-stores or in-studio performances at radio stations. If the show is local, I do my best to interest all my friends in the show, which may include email blasts, CD giveaways, and, occasionally, hyperbolic rants comparing the band to “the Who in their prime.” Anything to create interest. If radio play can be had, that’s a bonus as well, usually on community or college radio.
GLONO: How important is the internet in this whole process?
Campbell: The internet has made the world a much smaller place, and it’s a great, and essential, resource for booking and promotion. Many clubs focus on email as the primary contact method. Of course, the drawback is that email is a lot easier to ignore, and there’s the uncertainty associated with an email you may think is floating. With most bands having their own websites, and MP3s, it’s pretty easy to contact a lot of clubs at once to pursue gigs. However, this is only one resource, and full reliance on it would be deadly.
GLONO: Does the band get a guarantee at these shows or a percentage of the door, or what?
Campbell: It really depends on the club, as well as the band, of course. I would say that in general, most clubs offer a percentage of the door because the shows I have dealt with typically involve bands with uncertain drawing potential. Some clubs do offer guarantees to “national touring bands,” and it’s generally a couple hundred dollars. Often, clubs will offer a guarantee versus the door, meaning the band is guaranteed a certain amount, and if the money taken at the door exceeds a certain level, the band then gets an additional cut.
Almost unanimously, clubs offer some type of drink and/or food allotment. Beers are so integral to the rock and roll experience that no self-respecting club would ever fail to offer a band some drink tickets.
GLONO: Who picks opening bands?
Campbell: This is typically handled by the club, although, oftentimes, the band I am booking becomes the opening act. The goal is to match styles, to an extent, to build upon potentially similar fanbases. Sometimes, it becomes a 10-band bill in the hopes that each band will draw 6 people and it’ll be worthwhile to the club. Occasionally, mini-tours will be arranged on a package deal, where two relatively unknown bands will tour together, sharing costs and splitting the take, but more commonly, on this level, the band will be added to a bill.
GLONO: Where does the band sleep?
Campbell: Floors and couches. I’ve had several bands stay at my place. It’s cheap, it’s fun, it’s easy. Crashing on the floor is the way of life for most of these guys.
GLONO: Are the people at the venues who book bands cool for the most part or assholes? Any horror stories?
Campbell: I’d like to say that they’re all professionals, but that’d be a lie. There are a handful of clubs that are great-they shoot straight, help you out, return calls, etc., but by and large, it’s a headache. Out of 100 calls placed to clubs for a band that’s not on their priority list, you can expect 0 returned calls.
I’ve had a few bad/humorous experiences. One time, a band I was working with asked me to set up an in-store for them, and it became Spinal Tap Revisited. The record store, since closed, had absolutely no foot traffic, and the only people there were a friend and I and a couple of kids playing with jacks.
Perhaps the worst experience I had was actually band-related. I put together a show for a guy who plays in a pretty high-profile act. I spent a lot of time trying to make the show successful. I secured the gig, made all the necessary contacts, and even made some progress toward getting some decent promotional tools in place, including an in-studio performance and a couple of writers interested in doing a preview. Well, this band, once the guarantee from the club was secured, did absolutely nothing to cooperate with me on promoting the show. They ignored repeated requests for posters, blew off the in-studio, and never followed up with the press contacts. It was a nightmare, they would not return my calls. About 30 people showed up for the show and I haven’t dealt with them again.
As far as clubs go, no horrible experiences, other than the expected unanswered calls and emails, the shifting around of shows which can often screw up a tour, and the general meandering that goes on when a club is dealing with a band they are worried will be playing to an empty hall.
GLONO: Can a band make any money touring at this level? Or is it pretty much seen as getting the word out?
Campbell: I’d say it’s difficult the first time around to make any money. If a band has to rent a truck and/or equipment, pay for gas, occasional lodging, food, booze, and other expenses associated with the tour, it’s unlikely they’ll recoup those costs. The idea is to build an audience in each of several towns, put on great shows, impress the clubs, so that next time, the band is getting guarantees and better draws, and eventually, day jobs become afterthoughts and the band can live off its earnings. Several road-weary bands have traveled this path to some success, bands like Slobberbone, who have toured their asses off to the point where they can now draw 200-300 people in each of about 7 or 8 cities and do okay for themselves. It takes time, but it can be done.
GLONO: Do you have a day job? How much of your time does this take up? Is it worth it?
Campbell: Yes, I do, I work as a consultant. Fortunately, it’s pretty flexible, I can come and go as I please, work my own schedule, which allows me some time during the day, when talent buyers for clubs are in their offices, to work on the tours. It’s very time-consuming, and with a less flexible job, it’d be next-to-impossible.
Hell yeah it’s worth it.
Frog Holler is currently on tour. They’re playing the Hideout in Chicago on Friday, November 7, and Frederick’s in St. Louis on Saturday, November 8. They’ve got a bunch of MP3s available on their site, and you can buy their cds online or at shows.