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Published: 2008/02/24
by John Zinkand

Featured Column: To Tour or Not to Tour

“As he saw his life run away from him, thousands ran along, chanting words from a song!” – Phish

Having just finished a small run of shows with Umphrey’s McGee, my thoughts turned to touring. What makes a band worthy of “going on tour” with and seeing an entire tour or multiple shows over a week or two? The day before I saw Umphrey’s last week I saw the North Mississippi All-Stars. They put on a great show and I look forward to catching them the next time they swing through town, but they are not a band I would go on tour with. When I got back to Portland from San Francisco after seeing Umphrey’s Sunday night at the Fillmore, I saw Adrian Belew play live. The guy is just phenomenal. He’s played with legends like Frank Zappa and David Bowie and can really light up the stage with his guitar wizardry and unusual compositions. But I wouldn’t want to go on tour with Adrian Belew either.

But I would go on tour with Umphrey’s McGee. Lots of people tour with Widespread Panic and moe. And thousands have toured with String Cheese, Phish, and of course the Grateful Dead. Why do people want to tour with these bands and not with Ween, Garaj Mahal, or Wilco? There are many reasons.

First and foremost, I think the bands that people like to tour with have built up a strong word of mouth. It’s more fun to tour with a band that many other people are touring with to experience a close-knit musical community. Granted, Umphrey’s McGee is still at a pretty small level to be considered a band that people want to tour with, but that’s how it all starts. Touring bands have a small and fervent following that increase the fan base through word of mouth and music swapping. To be a band to tour with, you first must attract a rabid and loyal small fan base and develop it into something larger through relentless touring and powerful, consistent live shows. If the word of mouth is out there and new people come to see a show and it’s a low-energy and/or sloppy affair, the band in question hurts their chances at developing a fan base that tours with them. The live show needs to be consistently good enough to live up to the hype.

Another important part of being thought of as a band to tour with is a sound that is varied enough to hold the attention of the listener for many consecutive nights in a row. Ideally, this would entail enough songs to keep things interesting. A smaller band that only has 20 or 30 songs in its entire repertoire is going to have a difficult time keeping the attention of the listener over a multiple show run. If many songs are repeated 3 out of 4 shows in a row, folks probably will not be touring. And if even if a band has 100 songs in their playbook, it would be better if they were not all in the same genre or style. A band that has a lot of different dynamics in their songs is going to be more entertaining and tour worthy over a string of shows than a band that always plays bluegrass or hard rock at the same exact tempo and volume. Variety is the spice of life and also of live music.

Another important characteristic of a band that people want to go on tour with is developing a culture. No band can really start out with its own culture, but a band can develop one through talent, effort, marketing, and consistently strong live shows. Once enough people are attracted through the word of mouth of the rabid fan base, the culture usually develops. Fans can relate to one another that certain songs are songs to look forward to, for example. Or they can discuss how long it’s been since the band has played a particular song. The fans develop their own t-shirts and stickers and sell them to one another. The fans can hang out before and after the shows and party together. The band has an active blog or message board where fans can discuss the band, rumors, etc and build the spirit of comradery (together they can trash any trolls who might come in and make fun of their beloved band, for example). The band is often mentioned in the press as having a good live show and building a fan base. They are featured on websites like Phantasy Tour or setlist sites. When all of this starts to happen, a band is well on the way to becoming a band to tour with.

Most of the bands that have garnered a big enough fan base that tours with them usually perform a two set show. This goes hand in hand with having enough songs and a varied enough sound to keep it entertaining night after night. Playing two sets gives the band room enough to stretch out and explore different musical terrain and provide shows with different flavors. And what bands like Widespread Panic, moe., and String Cheese prove is that a band does not need a star or front man to be popular. Although the Grateful Dead had Jerry and Phish had Trey, many of the newer tour-friendly bands have no front man. While some people might argue differently, the band in question does not need to be made up of technical masters or folks that are pushing music in a brand new direction. As long as the band has a varied sound, enough songs, puts on a consistently strong live show, and can develop a culture, they can emerge as a band to tour with. I’m not saying that all bands should aspire to this aesthetic, however, just that it’s interesting that they all share common factors. Many of my favorite bands are bands I would not want to tour with, but I love seeing them a couple times per year when they come through town. Whether you are doing summer tour with your favorite band or catching one Victor Wooten show when he comes through town, the most important thing is to get out there and support live music any way you like it.

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