Martin Atkins | Tour:Smart

ev_atkins_sm.jpgMySpace is a 15-mile long, 10-mile deep field of corn, and every stalk of corn is the same height, and that is your band, somewhere in the middle of that field. Unless you're out there doing something, no one's even going to your MySpace page.

 

 

 

 

All right, bands, are you ready? It's almost a new year, so here's an early resolution you can make: Invest in your band's success.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, to start, you should attend this free workshop led by musician, label owner, educator and author Martin Atkins. Following his years as a touring musician (Ministry, Killing Joke, Pigface), Atkins started a label (Invisible Records) and soon became the go-to guy for putting together package tours. That drive and innovation led him to teaching college and collecting his ideas—and those of many others—in the must-read guide book Tour:Smart.

In support of that book, Atkins has been going coast to coast, taking his workshop-in-a-tome to the masses by way of college campuses. In anticipation of his visit, Atkins spent a recent afternoon on the phone with me to answer questions, share knowledge and praise the exchange of ideas. He was as I expected from reading his book: Talkative, motivated, opinionated and uncensored.

ev_atkins.jpgWhat made you decide to write a book?

I started teaching accidentally five years ago. We're a few blocks south of Columbia College here in Chicago, a fairly prestigious arts and entrepreneurship school. I was putting a package tours together with 10,000 posters, 80,000 promotional postcards and 20,000 promotional CDs. I'm like, "Screw this. I'm going up to the school and I'm going to come back with ten interns." I did a presentation for faculty and they're like, "Yeah, fantastic, when can you start?" I'm like, "Start what? I can start taking interns now." They're like, "We need someone to teach this." I'm like, "OK..."—'cause we were already rehearsing for the tour; maybe I'll go along with this for a minute—"...when would the class start?" Thinking the class would start next year. They're like, "The class starts in three days." OK... But what I tell my kids is grab an opportunity like this, so I did; I made the class the tour.

I walked in to see what's the textbook; it was written in 1973. So I'm like, whatever I was going to talk about, now I'm like, "Pay fucking attention you fucking idiots. What are you doing? This is a huge education, 20 to 30 grand; if this was a car, you'd at least keep the tires updated." So then I started to bring in ideas and situations that happened that week or on tour, to start to make the class real. "Hey, let's look at the distances on this tour." "How would you deal with this?" "Look at these different strategies for contracts and riders and promotion that we've used." After a while, it became obvious that this was going to be a book. It was nearly finished after about 2.5 years. So then I reached out to a bunch of people that I knew and said, "Hey, would you write something about the outbreak of spinal meningitis on the tour?" Or, "Henry Rollins, what's the deal with the sex advisor from Time Out?" Or Cynthia Plaster Caster, world famous groupie. Agents, managers, down guys, venue owners, publicists. Strangely, for someone that owns a record label for 20 years, I realized I didn't know it all.

Why give away all your trade secrets?

The thing that excites me now is ideas. And good ideas beget good ideas. It's not like I don't think I had 25 good ideas and I'm done. Whenever I talk to a class or seminar, people in a club, whatever, I say let's have a look at what's happening this week in the music business, because it's changing every minute. Oh, Radiohead are giving away their CD for free; how are we going to react to that? I know a restaurant in Chicago that isn't doing very well, so what do they do? They upped their prices. They're going out of business in like nine days; just dumb. So how are you guys going to react to Radiohead giving away their music? Because if your CD was $10 and it still is $10, you're not reacting.

Think and react: you have to teach that. That's a more difficult problem. I don't think I have given away any secrets. You read through that book, you can't get from 0 to 90. You're looking at the extrapolated, dissected path of 12 years of packaged tour promotion. But I think that it will be great if a band read that book, understood it, did everything in it and succeeded. Fucking brilliant. I'm fucking starting a school. I've got plenty of stuff to do without worrying about that. I probably had 100 more ideas this morning, jacked up on coffee and running around. I'm not frightened; I don't need a safety net.

You spend a lot of the book on touring talking about merchandise; how important is a band t-shirt?

It's not necessarily a t-shirt; it's something: a pair of panties, a big piece of metal with the band's name welded on it. It's fucking something that's a physical object, a reminder of a very ethereal experience. A good show; it's like someone burned a stick of incense in a venue. Anybody that was at the show, the smell might linger on their clothes for two or three days but then they're washed and it's gone. Unless you've sold somebody a t-shirt, a screenprinted poster, an object that will sit on a shelf for a while. That has to do with reinforcing, strengthening an impression that somebody might have just as much as it has to do with funding the whole thing.

If a band says, our old t-shirts aren't selling, well then just fucking burn them all; why are you even carrying them? Turn them inside out and print something else on them. I have 150 t-shirt designs; some of them sell amazingly well, some of them don't. Some of them transcend the band, like "Eat shit you fucking redneck." People don't care that that's a Pigface shirt; they just want the shirt. "Drugs not hugs"; people just want that. For someone that doesn't care about the band to want that shirt, that's cool; they've become a walking billboard. But if the shirt is that cool, then how cool is that for someone that likes the band to have a shirt that's so cool that people who don't know about the band love it?

You need to have at least two t-shirt designs, because you want the question to be, "Which one of these t-shirts do you want?" Not "Do you want to buy a shirt?" The difference in that—two shirts a night, if you do 100 nights, that's 200 shirts. 200 shirts isn't going to change the world, but it's one of the bricks in the wall that will.

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Which do you think is more vital, a solid live show or a high-quality CD? Why?

It's all about live now. If you have a good live show, people will give you a space and support you ‘til you get it right in the studio. If you get it right in the studio and you can't get it right live, you're just lazy. If you don't have a good live show you're not practicing enough. Practice your craft. Be a good performer. I love lecturing these days; I'm funny. I've got students pissing their pants. But the first time I did spoken word onstage in a club in Atlanta, my knees were shaking. As Groucho Marx said, it's 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration. You've got to work at it; you work at something, you get better at it, unless you're a lazy idiot fuckhead. You've got to be good live. If you're good live, someone will see you and say, I heard your CD; it's shit. Let me take you in the studio and do something.

The book talks a lot about getting yourself on the road, yet there are so many bands who think they need a booking agent. What's your opinion on hiring an agent vs. doing it yourself?

You have to do it yourself. There's a whole thing in the book about the difference between doing it yourself and hoping an agent will do it for you. That's a life lesson: You can't hope that anybody will do it for you; you've got to do it yourself. If you want to play the right venue on the right night in Cleveland, for instance, you could do the research. Your band is hopefully unique in its circumstances, in its fan base; there's going to be the right venue and the wrong venue, the right ticket price and the wrong ticket price, the right band to play with and the wrong band to play with. The most important element for the agent is what they're getting paid; what's the commission? Those goals don't necessarily interface positively with your goals as a developing band. For instance, if there's a club that you should play because there's always 200 people on a Wednesday night and it's $2 to get in, maybe your agent or your manager or both of them get on the phone and they get you $500 guaranteed to play there, so you think, wow, they're brilliant. But you get to the show and there's only 50 people there instead of 200. It's usually $2 to get in, but because of your manager and your agent, it's $7.50 to get in, and everybody's like Fuck this, that's two beers! So then you don't get paid anyway because there's nobody there.

The most important thing for a band is to play to people. Once you play to people, you can get all their email addresses and double your audience next time; that's easy. It's a lot of work, but it's easy to do if you apply yourself. If you are booking with geographical knowledge, you'll gain relationships with other bands who are doing it themselves. So when you do sit down with an agent because you've got all these opportunities and you just can't do it [yourself] anymore, you'll have a very good idea of what's the most important thing you'll want in an agent, and you'll be able to spot the fucking idiot a mile away.

I have bands come up to me and say, "Do I need to tour?" Why do they think someone's going to find them and make them famous?

It's two guys in the basement on a cable TV show, and the record executive's limo breaks down outside and he finds them and signs them. Wayne's World; it's the fantasy. Bands continue to perpetuate the idea that it's all magical; it just happened. They don't want to demystify their success. They think that it magically happens to other bands, so if they say they really worked on it, somehow they're diminishing their achievement. The only way to affect any kind of politics in audience growth, in band growth, is to go out and do it, to look people in the eye, to touch them, to smell them, to be in the room with them and feel the chemistry. If that wasn't true, there isn't a single politician in the country that would leave their home. George Bush the political machine isn't a fucking MySpace page; it's a bunch of people going out on the road, touching people, moving them literally and figuratively to go out and vote, hanging pieces of paper on a door, putting things in front of people's faces.

MySpace is a 15-mile long, 10-mile deep field of corn, and every stalk of corn is the same height, and that is your band, somewhere in the middle of that field. Unless you're out there doing something, no one's even going to your MySpace page. The only way record stores will put up your posters is if you're touring. The only way you'll get attention on a radio station is if you're touring. It's a good way for other venues to pay attention to you. If you build something, you've got leverage. If you have an audience base of 10,000, you've got leverage to do other things with it. You can help other bands, you can help yourself. When you don't have an audience base, if it's just based on a YouTube video and something else, that can disappear very quickly.

How many bios start off with "Steve met Eric at school, and they wanted to play polkas, but nothing happened." I say that in the book somewhere: Unless two years before the band formed involves jail time or fucking Jerry Springer, leave it off. What the hell? A girl in class last week, we were talking about MySpace and I told them my endless field of corn story, and she was like, "Bands' new albums? I don't know if I'm going to take the two minutes to check it out." And I'm like, "What? Did everybody hear what she said? You don't know if you're going to take the two minutes to check out a new album?" People don't understand the time crunch that everybody's in. Bands like to think and hope that everything's as important to everybody as it is to them, but people don't have the time; no one has the time.

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