Underground musician RJD2 knows a thing or two about longevity, having been a professional artist for over a decade. Though he started out in hip-hop, RJ has since moved onto playing and touring with a full-fledged live band.

Naturally, he has picked up a bevy of knowledge along the way, which he shared with Pitchfork a few months ago for their year-end “Guest Lists of 2011” feature.

And it just now occurred to me that a lot of RJ’s tips (if not all of them) can apply to metal musicians.
So, without further ado…

 

RJD2’s Top 10 Ways to Not Completely Eat Shit on Tour

 

1.  Do NOT hire a tour manager.

This one comes with a big caveat:  Only self-tour manage if you have your shit together.

If you are decent at numbers, care about how things shake out at the end of the night, and are not intimidated by having some semblance of responsibility for your own career, you can totally do this yourself. It’s really not rocket science.  If you are the kind of person that likes being on time, and can book a flight to somewhere in the continental U.S. on your own, you will be very good at self-tour managing.  While it is work, so is touring.

This right here will save you 10-20% in commission, as well as the expense of an extra person. I have done this for many tours, even when I am responsible for a crew of five. If you choose your band members/merch person/driver wisely, you will avoid herding cats.

2.  Only hire a tour manager if…

…You are a.) bad with numbers, b.) determined to spend your mornings face down in a pile of cocaine infused puke, or c.) generally don’t like being responsible for yourself.

While I say this last part with some modicum of sarcasm, really, you’d be surprised. Some people just aren’t built like that. I have met a lot of musicians who would rather have a bad guy to take the blame than to be responsible for their own fuck-ups.

3.  Buy (don’t rent) the vehicle you tour in.

This may seem elementary, but some folks rent for years before taking the plunge. Live music isn’t going anywhere soon. Plus, if your band implodes, you have a head start on that fruit basket delivery service you’ve had your eye on.

4.  Make merch people actually want.

Posters are great, kids love ’em, and they are easy to store and transport. Find a local artist who can screen-print, get them to run off a small batch, and restock as needed.T-shirts are second-best in terms of something people always want.  It’s tempting to go for some cutesy merch that nobody else has, but a lot of them are duds.

So, unless you’re determined to roll out smorgasbord style, stick to the stuff that actually works.  One item does not fit all.  I know some artists who still can kill on CD’s.  Well, I can’t.  C’est la vie.

5.  If at all possible, hire folks with experience touring.

If you take a greenhorn, make absolutely sure you won’t be babysitting.

Take people you would want to be marooned on an island with, the kind of folks with interesting shit to talk about besides music.  I guaran-fucking-tee that you are not going to want to debate which Zeppelin album is definitively their best by Day 13 or Day 26.  East Coast Scrabble Champ 2007-2009?  Sign me up.  Opinionated, annoying music encyclopedia?  ‘Scuse me while I fucking choke myself to death.

While this won’t always affect your bottom line, successful touring is best thought of as buying a timeshare: it pays off incrementally over many years.  One three-week stint with a complete dickface can sour you to the whole idea.

6.  Get yourself a good booking agent.

This is frankly easier said than done, but still very much worth it.  My booking agent is arguably my most valuable business relationship, I definitely would not be where I am today without him.

A good agency can both save you and yield you considerable sums.

I often talk to artists who can’t find an agency to take them on, thus, I know this can be hard to source.  Nevertheless, get in where you fit in.  For what they do, the commission is without a doubt worth it.

7.  Pretend you joined the military.

This may sound like a joke but, honestly, two of the most important things one can possibly do is to a.) stay clean and b.) eat well.

You know how they tell you in the military not to touch your face for sanitary reasons?  It’s true.  If you love picking bogs, you better stop now, ’cause you are entering ground fucking zero for germs and shit.

For food, stock up on rations.  Peanut butter, dried fruits and nuts, and cereal are all your friends.  Pizza and Mickey D’s are not.  Cancelled shows due to health-related reasons are a surefire way to fuck your money up quick.

8.  Know what a properly functioning show looks like.

Don’t know?  Watch.

I have been telling myself this for years, so don’t take this as being rude — the most valuable thing you can do in most situations is shut the fuck up and listen.  Opening slot on a big tour for the Blah Blah’s? Sit back and absorb.

If you know what the contour of an evening looks like, you can identify when something is wrong. I have been in many situations where a show was a total clusterfuck, and if I didn’t step in and make things happen, (backline, soundcheck, set times, etc.) no one would have picked up the pieces on my behalf. Most nights, it’s clear what roles people play.

Other times, you exist in a responsibility vacuum.  This, again, is where tour managing yourself can be a big help; there are times where you won’t have time to get three parties to talk to each other, you just need to make shit happen, and happen now.

9.  Sell your own merch.

I guarantee this will double or triple your sales.  It just does.

10.  Don’t be an asswipe.

I’ve gotten gigs from promoters, kids, activity club directors, etc. just from them saying “Oh, we had him last year and he wasn’t difficult at all — not like Artist X was.  Jesus, that guy sucked!”

You can be supremely talented/popular and people will put up with your shit to book you.  In that case, you will be the 3% — but, sooner or later, you’ll become one of the rest of us 97%ers.  And when that happens, you don’t want to be that guy.

It’s really not hard, just pretend that you’re the same guy that was stacking boxes five years ago for $9/hour before you “hit the big time.”  You will have to revert to him sooner or later anyway, as we all do, so you might as well just be him all the time.

RJD2 at the Triple Rock Social Club in Minneapolis. (March 2010)