Michael Bates: Lessons From The Road

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By Michael Bates



Touring can be both exhausting and exhilarating, especially as a bandleader. The last few months have brought reminders of this as I was planning, booking and finally, actually touring with my quartet in support of my recent CD Clockwise on Dave Douglas' Greenleaf Music label. As part of this tour, Greenleaf asked me to post updates on their blog. One of those posts chronicled a trip from Amsterdam to Lyon that included a botched wake-up call, a three-hour sprint in a car to Brussels, train tickets from Brussels to Lyon, France that somehow needed to be picked up in France (don't ask) and many other now-hilarious trials of being a leader. After this post, I got an email from Dave asking me to do another post: "top ten little things that a scruffy tour manager/band leader/bassist/travel agent needs to know to lead a band around Europe." It made me think back to my first failed attempts at booking a tour and it gave me a bit of perspective. Maybe I could actually offer a few tips.

The evolution from my first nine-gig tour of Canada in the dead of winter to booking a tour that took the quartet through eight European countries in 15 days has been a gradual process. Mostly through making a lot mistakes, I'm slowly figuring out how to get things done. And while I never seem to run out of ways to give the band a good laugh with my sometimes ridiculous missteps, the upside of learning things the hard way is that you rarely make the same mistake twice. I did put together that list for bandleaders but please just take it for what it's worth because I'm certainly no authority. However, it may help save some headaches down the road...anyway, here is my non-exclusive, non-comprehensive list.

10: Make lists—lots of them. Include: projected incomes and expenses, a tour itinerary, budget, contacts, travel days with trip durations, addresses and travel documents. Make sure to carry hard copies with you and also email them to yourself.

9: Invest in a GPS and always add one or two hours to your travel time.

8: Get a contract and be clear with club owners and promoters about fees, gear, tech riders, meals, pickup and departure times and also be clear with your band about all of the above too.

7: Rest is a weapon/food is a weapon. A good night's sleep and eating properly will drastically increase your tolerance for any challenges you encounter and your ability to make sound decisions and choose your words properly.

6: Remember that your attitude will set the tone for the tour. Be flexible and approachable and be prepared to take a hit for the team. It shows that you have the band's best interests in mind...and every once in a while buy the band a nice meal. It goes a long way towards maintaining a great vibe.

5: Don't rely on clubs to promote the gigs/tour. Do some research and find the jazz writer in each city and personally reach out to them. Send out press releases to newspapers and magazines and post bulletins on Myspace, All About Jazz and every other resource you can find.

4: Community. Use your contacts. Friends in different cities make all the difference. I often think that without the Banff International Jazz Workshop, I would never have gotten any tour off the ground. If you don't know about this workshop, check it out.

3: Personal space. Respect it as much as possible. Generally, European clubs will supply accommodations so always get individual hotel rooms but do it even on days off. I know it's expensive but don't underestimate this. Also try to have the hotel within walking distance to the venue so everyone in the band can do what they want after the gig—remember, rest is weapon.

2: Book flights through a travel agent. It can save you HOURS—trust me. Travel agents can find tickets for the same price as most websites and often they can book flights that you can change for a fee. Sites like Expedia don't often allow this and that can lead to real consequences as tours can change.

1: Think big picture. Touring is an investment. Remember that everyone in this industry is somehow connected. I work on the premise of wanting to come back for the next 20 years. So make a good impression: Play your heart out, have good manners, thank the promoter, be kind, honest and patient, stand up for yourself when necessary but choose your battles.

Oh yes...and we all must remember #11: The music is why we all do this... can't forget that.


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