The cheap road to touringPublished 7:01pm Sunday, October 20, 2013
Moments after a panel told Joshua Whalen how tough it is to make money as a musician, the Austin singer-songwriter was fired up to get back to work on his first album.
Whalen was one of a handful of musicians who attended the Caravan du Nord workshop Oct. 11 at Riverland Community College before the concert featuring Charlie Parr, The Cactus Blossoms and Full Circle at the Paramount Theater.
During the panel, The Cactus Blossoms’ Page Burkum and Jack Torrey pointed out it’s very difficult to make a living as an independent musician and travel to shows, especially with high gas prices.
“The state of things is discouraging you from being a musician,” Torrey said.
That however, wasn’t causing Whalen to rethink continuing as a musician.
“You can’t really say ‘Aw well, music isn’t a very lucrative business right now, so I’ll go be a lawyer,’” Whalen said. “It’s one of those things where you are a musician. You love it, and you need to do it.”
Torrey and the panel weren’t aiming to discourage musicians; he was aiming to arm them with tools to be successful. The Minnesota Music Coalition and 89.3 The Current have partnered for the last three years on the Caravan du Nord project to bring artists like Parr and The Cactus Blossoms to outstate Minnesota, but also to promote and support independent musicians.
Because of today’s challenges, Ellen Stanley, the executive director of the MMC and a performer under the moniker Mother Banjo, said independent musicians need to be strategic, expanding their circles slowly rather than reaching too big too soon.
“Don’t jump too far too fast,” she said. “Nothing will slow you down like getting into debt.”
For a panel focusing on booking and touring on a budget, Torrey summed up the current state of affairs for musicians: “You have to be more clever now,” he said.
For Wendy Larson, who’s been playing for decades in Austin in a family band and in Full Circle, relying on friends and family is a key.
In fact, the entire panel urged musicians to focus on making connections. Sara Horishnyk, the drummer for Bethany Larson and the Bees Knees and the operator of Xylo Entertainment, recommended musicians make connections with booking agents at clubs, bars and anywhere else to get a foot in the door.
Horishnyk got her first gig with a jazz group she was playing with at the time, and it was secured largely through knowing someone who books gigs.
The Cactus Blossom’s Page Burkum said opening for other musicians is a wise move when getting started, because you don’t have to draw a large crowd. Torrey agreed.
“If you think you’re going to load up a bunch of dates on a map, no one knows who you are; no one’s going to be at them the first time,” Torrey said.
Partnerships with other bands can be a key, as The Cactus Blossoms know other bands in Brooklyn and Portland, and both helped the Blossoms book and draw crowds to shows on the coasts.
“We had a great show where we normally wouldn’t have,” Torrey said. The Blossoms returned the favor in the Twin Cities.
Stanley remembers one of her first shows being the Mean Sisters Variety Show, where she was sandwiched between a string quartet and a drag queen. She was playing country tunes on a banjo. However, Dessa and P.O.S. were on the bill, and both have become bigger area artists now. Such variety shows and open mic events are a great way to connect with other musicians.
“Those are great ways to get to know people,” Stanley said.
Music isn’t an easy gig, as most of the panelists have part-time jobs, but Burkum and Torrey have “scraped by” playing music and odd jobs.
Stanley said it’s important for musicians to save money in order to make money. The panelists recommended musicians travel wisely and cheaply, mainly by avoiding hotels and takeout.
Burkum suggested people buy groceries instead of buying fast food, adding people should “live life somewhat normally” when touring or traveling for shows. Torrey recommended people use a cookstove, a cooler and an RV or vehicle they can sleep in. Camping can be more affordable.
“That’s the same way you travel cheap anytime, except you’re going to a gig instead of to visit family,” said Torrey, who added it’s wise to know which states sell cheaper cigarettes if you’re a smoker.
The Cactus Blossoms travel in a handicapped van because two people can sleep in it, they can stand up in it and have a standup bass in it. While he admitted it isn’t a “dream machine,” it gets the job done affordably.
Stanley urged the musicians to restock on merchandise. If a band doesn’t have CDs or merchandise, it’s a lost opportunity.
Stanley said it’s important for musicians for promote themselves and their shows.
“Never assume anyone knows who you are, so really work to bring out your fans,” Stanley said.
Paramount Theater Executive Director Jennie Knoebel said she’s less likely to ask a band back if the members don’t help promote the show.
“It’s a losing situation for all of us if that ends up happening,” Knoebel said.
Like Whalen, Bridget Cruse left the workshop ready to get back to work. Cruse, a folk-pop musician from Mason City, Iowa, was told about the Caravan du Nord workshop by a friend from Austin. She took notes throughout the talk and was happy she attended.
“I thought it was very helpful,” she said.
Cruse recently recorded her second album, “Revolution,” and is planning to move to Minneapolis.
After attending the workshop, Cruse said she plans to finish her website and begin pushing her music harder than she has before. Since she does a lot of her own booking and promotion, she said advice about press kits and cold calls was very helpful.
“I think it’s an awesome thing,” she said. “I’m thankful that people of their caliber are willing to help us small people out.”
Whalen has been doing all his own booking, too, and he said it’s good to know that it’s important to meet the bartender or different people to get his foot in the door.
“It’s a tough game,” he said.
Whalen was glad to see the panel members coming in happy and smiling, so it looked like they were eager to support the local musicians.
“They were friendly; they were really enjoying themselves, and that’s engaging,” Whalen said.