Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Anatomy of a Concert Tour

When I start circulating propaganda about an upcoming tour, people often ask me how I organized it.  Here's an attempt at a real answer to that question, about the tour that's coming right up!

Next week I fly to Copenhagen to begin a five-week tour of various parts of northwestern Europe -- Denmark, England, Scotland, and Ireland.  At right about this stage of embarking on a tour, I often find myself frenetically thinking about how I might successfully encourage people to spread the word about gigs I may be doing in a town where they know people.

So, to get the bald tour promotion out of the way, details are up at davidrovics.com/tour, including spiffy graphics for most of the gigs that are nice to download and share on most any platform, and Facebook Event pages for most of them as well, if you do that sort of thing!  There are no marketing agencies working on promoting these gigs, if anybody's going to show up to most of them, it's probably going to be because they heard about it from you.

OK, on to the central theme here. 

When I start spreading around graphics like the one with the list of gigs on it, many people ask similar questions in the comments sections.  Most frequent among them are things like, "how did all of these gigs come together?" 

I often respond to such questions with an offer to send anyone interested a copy of a booklet I wrote that's partially about how to organize tours the way I learned to do it.  As to any specific answer to the questions, I tend to be evasive and say little.  

To the first follow-up question, "was this all booked by an agency?", the answer is always a simple "no."  But as to how it was actually done, the root of my evasiveness is just that even a fairly cursory explanation is a bit complex and time-consuming.

Then today, while pushing a stroller with my youngest child in it, in a bit of a mental haze due to the heat wave, it occurred to me that actually answering that question could be at least mildly interesting, if only to the dedicated music and social movement geeks out there (of which I am one).

So today I will venture to give a serious answer to the question, "how did you book this tour."  I'll go into as much detail as seems relevant to answer the question thoroughly, and if we get so deep into the weeds that my explanations get boring, my apologies.

The simple beginning to answering the question is I booked the tour by announcing on social media, to my email list, and in messages to various individuals that I'm planning to do this tour, and then I waited to see who responded with any interest in hosting an event of some kind.  Then I corresponded with these folks who responded, and over the course of a few months, voila.

But especially for people from the US, the question behind how I booked a tour like this really begins with how does an artist from the US ever start making all these contacts on the other side of the Atlantic in the first place.  

I'm pretty sure the answer to this question is going to vary a lot for different artists who do this sort of thing.  Or maybe not, I haven't done any surveys.  For me, it began at the end of the 1990's.

The last couple years of the 1990's involved a confluence of factors that seemed to come together at the same time, which sort of conspired to launch my career in Europe, such as it is.  I have no idea of the order of importance of these factors, but what happened then was I was in a relationship with an anti-nuclear organizer from Hamburg, the free MP3 was becoming a widespread phenomenon online, and the global justice movement was truly a global movement, so being already plugged into the movement in North America meant that I was already aware of parallel sorts of activities going on constantly all over Europe, and which networks and organizations were involved with making things happen.

So in terms of this upcoming tour, which is taking place in several of the main countries in Europe where I tour regularly, which are all countries in northern Europe where the English language is very dominant, it begins in Denmark, and then goes on to England, Scotland, and Ireland.  

I was ostensibly based out of Hamburg as a taciturn musician in his early thirties, circa 1999-2000.  I had more gigs around the US than I had time to do, even touring almost nonstop, between the leftwing college circuit gigs (a network now virtually nonexistent) and the global justice movement (also not happening these days).  But for personal reasons I wanted to spend time in Hamburg.  

This coincided with getting an email from a guy in Randers, Denmark, who was hosting a very illegal website called the Progressive Music Archive, and had discovered my music online.  Michael was also very involved with the Danish left, in particular a group called Red Youth, and he asked me if I wanted to do a tour of Red Youth chapters in Denmark.  Being a short drive from the Danish border at the time, of course I said yes.

My first gig at Ungdomshuset was a year or two after my first tour of Denmark, I think in 2002.  That's where the first gig on this upcoming tour is happening, on Wednesday evening.  For readers from the United States of Amnesia, I think it's particularly relevant to get into the weeds a little here about Ungdomshuset.  

For those who are interested, I've written a fair bunch about the place over the years, there's lots of further reading available.  But basically Ungdomshuset means "the House of Youth."  Originally it was a five-story squatted building in the Norrebro neighborhood of Copenhagen.  First squatted during the big wave of the autonomous movement in northern Europe in 1982, until it was destroyed by the authorities in a very dramatic series of events that took place in early 2007.  What followed was over a year of regular protests and riots, until the authorities ultimately gave people a new building, as everyone was demanding, in what became an increasingly popular movement as it went on.  The new building is in a different part of town, but the whole vibe is very much in keeping with the old building, aside from some cultural changes along the way.

From my personal vantage point it seems particularly notable that over the years, although the old Ungdomshuset was destroyed, the new one didn't open until quite a while afterwards, and the overwhelming majority of the people running the place at any given time are under the age of thirty, many much younger than that, I have consistently, easily been able to stay in touch with Ungdomshuset organizers over the years.  Sometimes if I don't know who to contact at a given time, just by emailing their booking @ Ungdomshuset email address.

I don't know, but I imagine some people who are reading this are wondering why I even find this to be notable, while others are probably as impressed as I am, because this degree of consistency over the course of two decades seems almost inconceivable.

The next gig is in Aarhus, the second-biggest city in Denmark, on the west end of the country, the beautiful peninsula of Jutland.  The first gig I ever did in Denmark was at a little communist book store in the center of Aarhus.  Many other gigs in Aarhus in recent years have happened by the train tracks, but this time it's on the docks with the sailboats, a gig organized by a couple of radical sailors I met at a gig in Aarhus a long time ago. 

After that we go back to Copenhagen, where organizers with Friends of the Earth (called "NOAH" in Danish) are putting an event on at Folkets Hus, in Norrebro.  There are many places called "folkets hus" in Scandinavia.  It means "house of the people."  Sometimes a Folkets Hus can be a very conventional, modern building owned by a municipality with lots of different spaces for the public to use for putting on events of whatever sort.  Other times it's a Folkets Hus like the one in Norrebro, which has a distinctly alternative vibe, but it serves the same kind of purpose, as a big community space for organizations or networks wanting a space to use.  I was first in touch with NOAH organizers in Copenhagen years ago, and since they had me sing at their offices back then, there have been other occasions.

Perhaps it's worth noting at this point, for those among us who may live in places where this concept seems unusual, that lots of groups involved with different sorts of organizing, whether or not they're involved with running a venue, often put on events involving music and other forms of culture, because they understand that this is a good tool in the toolbox for building a network or a social movement, and keeping up the morale of those involved.

The next event, next weekend, is an acoustic music festival in the city of Roskilde, on the same island that Copenhagen is on.  Someone in Roskilde I met many years ago when he was a student organizer suggested me to the festival organizers, and then they wrote me.  This was several months ago, and it's also the original reason that what was originally going to be a four-week tour of England, Scotland, and Ireland, became a five-week tour beginning with Denmark.  The other gigs in Denmark came together after I mentioned to folks that I was going to be playing at the festival in Roskilde.

And on Monday, May 29th, one last gig in Denmark, again in Copenhagen, on the sidewalk in front of the very centrally-located anarchist book store on Halmtorvet that sits conveniently right next to Copenhagen's bar for fans of the leftwing Hamburg soccer team, St Pauli.  These fine upstanding anarchists are also folks I've known for many years now, and decided to put on this event involving me and another performer because a request for money for putting on just such events had just been approved.  I'm not sure from which government entity or nonprofit organization, but overall funding for the arts in Europe is 100 times what it is in the US, and this fact lets itself be known in many different ways. 

June 1st, and the first gig in England on the tour, organized by the good people of the Islington Folk Club.  It was one of the last great folk clubs in London that had a regular venue to use which could pack in a good crowd, but they lost the use of that venue, and I haven't seen the one they're using this time yet.  The last one they were using was tiny, but this is another one.  The struggle of the Islington Folk Club to keep going is a real illustration of the ongoing housing crisis in London.

June 2nd, the Engels in Eastbourne conference down on the coast, a rare instance these days of an academic conference with a musical component.  This sort of thing used to be very common, especially back in the days of college organizations having funding all over the US to do with what they wanted, which ended around twenty years ago.  Now I've lost track of how I originally met the college professor who is the reason I'm playing at this conference, but it was a while ago now.

Next stop, Glastonwick.  Intentionally named to confuse people and make them think of the gigantic Glastonbury festival which also takes place in southern England, but quite a ways to the west of Southwick, the town where Attila the Stockbroker, aka John Baine, lives with his wife Robina.  Glastonwick is attended in the low hundreds, rather than the hundreds of thousands, and is thus a wonderfully human-scale little family camping-on-the-farm kind of scene, but with lots of punk rock, folk punk, and real ale. 

Attila was largely my introduction to England, Scotland, and Wales.  We did over a dozen tours together in those and various other lands, even in the US, back in the days when there were college gigs, but most of our tours were on that island shared by England, Scotland, and Wales.  John and I became acquainted because a guy named Pete Crook, who was a fan of both of us, sent each of us the other's CD.  John listened to the CD he was sent, and promptly sent me an email and asked me if I wanted to do a tour with him.

All of the best tour organizers I've personally known thus far have been musicians, and John is chief among them.  He also organizes a great festival, with an exceptional roster of acts who people who listen to me on Spotify would tend to like.  

The festival is always a particular treat for me because along with various locals, it tends to bring together people from all over Britain who are big fans of Attila, many of whom I would have first met at a gig somewhere over twenty years ago.

Another of those great musician-organizers that I knew well was Anne Feeney of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  My old friend and touring partner very unfortunately died after contracting Covid-19 just before the vaccines became available.  Hardcore Anne Feeney fans will be aware that she left behind a Swedish husband, a brilliant artist named Julie.  She also left her guitar at Julie's place.  Last time I was in Sweden, I brought the guitar to Copenhagen.  On this tour, I'll do all the gigs with Anne's guitar, and in the process, transport it back to the US, where it can be united with Anne's daughter, Amy, who is, perhaps not entirely accidentally, a singer/songwriter like her mother was. 

June 6th, Birmingham, and an event just being thrown together in recent days, by folks involved with a network called Palestine Action, which has been laying siege to the arms factories that supply the Israeli war machine all over England and Scotland for almost three years now, to great effect.  Two of Elbit Systems' eight factories have permanently closed, due to being thoroughly smashed up by sledgehammer-wielding trespassers, who the crown's courts keep on refusing to convict, interestingly enough.  One of the folks involved with these fine activities is organizing this fundraiser.  I've been in touch with a lot of Palestine Action folks since a couple of them came to one of my little shows last summer, and I wrote a song about their brilliant sledgehammer-based campaign.

June 8th, back in London, at the venerable London Action Resource Center, a space I've played in many times, and one that has lasted through decades of gentrification in the area, somehow or other.  The organizer is a photojournalist I first met around 2002, who was in crutches at the time I met him in a squatted wine bar, from a protest-related injury.  Guy Smallman has not only taken a hell of a lot of great photos in London, Afghanistan, and many other places, but he's organized a lot of memorable gigs over the past two decades as well.  This one will also feature Robb Johnson, one of the best songwriters on the planet. 

Next stop, up north in Wakefield.  The Red Shed used to fit in in the neighborhood where it's located, but now it looks like a weird little house surrounded by a massive mall, reminiscent of a scene out of the Pixar movie, Up.  I first played in the Red Shed many years ago, introduced to the place by Attila.  One gig there was especially memorable, because Attila and I had come in separate cars, and when he showed up, he was completely covered in mud from head to toe, having otherwise survived unscathed when a small tornado ripped up the main stage at the Bearded Theory festival, where he had been playing not long before.

Middlesbrough also up in the north of England, a show in a theater that is used by folks in the community there, who have hosted me, as well as Attila and other performers we both know, many times.  Whether we met through Attila's circles, or perhaps because of Andy Kershaw's radio show, I don't know.  For a short time I was played regularly on BBC Radio 3, and a significant chunk of any following I have in range of BBC Radio 3 is due to that.

Tours rarely make a whole lot of geographical sense, just going from south to north or whatever, they tend to involve a lot of zigzagging, despite the best of original intentions.  But the next section does make sense, if you look at a map.  We go to Edinburgh, then take a ferry to Ireland to do a bunch of gigs there, then we take a ferry back to Scotland, and play in Glasgow, before heading south from there.

Both the gigs in Scotland are organized by folks who I've only been in touch with in recent times, who are connected with syndicalist circles. 

In Ireland, a very rare instance of one individual promoter discovering my music online and deciding he wanted to organize six gigs -- three concerts for children and three for grownups -- in multiple towns between and including Dublin and Belfast.  

For whatever combination of reasons, probably very much including my relatively tiny following in the world, and the various kinds of trouble associating with a fringe leftist like me can involve, it's unusual for anyone who promotes events on a semi-professional basis to want to bother with an artist like me.  So hopefully folks turn out to these gigs and Simon wants to do it again! 

After the ferry back to Scotland and a show at the Red and Black Reading Room in Glasgow, a long drive southward, where the last gig on the tour will be on the Left Field stage of the aforementioned Glastonbury Festival.

There are actually a lot of ways a lot of performers end up getting booked at the Glastonbury festival.  When you mention you're playing at Glastonbury, people often react with surprise, or they're impressed.  Over a hundred thousand people attend that festival, after all.  But what a lot of people might not have noticed, or never knew in the first place if they haven't been to it, is there are a lot of small stages in addition to the gigantic ones.  There are a lot of stages you can get a gig on that are basically just a way to get into the festival for free.  I played a couple times at the Psychedelic Trance stage.  One of the gigs started at 2 am.  It paid a hundred pounds.  

Playing a few songs at the somewhat larger Left Field stage is kind of a similar gig, but with a bigger crowd that's less likely to be tripping on MDMA during the show.

Billy Bragg hosts the stage, and he's involved with hiring all the acts, I think.  That's true of me, in any case.  I saw Billy last summer at the much smaller Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival, where he was headlining, and he invited me to sing a few songs on the Left Field stage this summer.  I first met Billy when he borrowed my guitar to sing a couple songs in the midst of a police riot in Miami, Florida in 2003, a memorable occasion. 

It was Billy's invitation last July to play at the Left Field stage this June that got me started on booking this tour, which I started booking in earnest last January, when I knew I'd be playing at Glastonbury.  Everything else came together between then and last week, and some things may still be added, very last-minute.  Most tours I do start with either an "anchor" gig like that, or they're booked to lead up to a protest I'm playing at that I want to recruit people to go to beforehand.

Other gigs that are outside of the time frame of these five weeks I've been turning down, in Denmark and England.  I mention this just to illustrate what it's like putting out the word that I'm coming to a country in northern Europe, as opposed to making the same sort of effort these days to tour in some part of the US other than California.  Like I'm hoping to go to the midwest in October, but so far I've only got one confirmed gig in Detroit, nothing else...

I suppose I never spelled it out, but for those interested in the weeds here, sometimes the folks who ask how I organize these tours also wonder where I stay.  The answer about 90% of the time is with friends who have guest rooms available.  As to how I get around, on this tour and most others these days, I fly across the water, and then rent a car.

Anyway, that either gives you the basic idea of how this tour came together, or you're asleep by now, in which case hopefully my shows are more engaging than this blog post was.  Hope to see you on the road and in the streets!

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