Features June 15, 2016

Touring the US: How to avoid the pitfalls and make the most out of your budget

Former Editor

This article is presented by The Appointment Group (TAG), an award-winning global, independent travel and event management company.

 

The United States of America, the world’s largest music market, is simultaneously one of the hardest territories to crack and the most rewarding.

Expanding internationally is key to the growth and development of Australian artists, and the US – with its leading share of the entertainment dollar – is seen as a crucial launch pad for artists chasing global ubiquity. 

The US market generated $7 billion of the globe’s $15 billion in recorded music revenues last year. In 2016, 50 Australian artists trekked to Austin, Texas for one of the world’s largest music showcases, the annual South by Southwest festival Australia’s biggest investment yet in the conference saw local acts including DZ Deathrays, Stonefield and Wolfmother compete for 2,000 spots to perform in 100 venues over SXSW’s five nights in March. From only five artists in 2002 to the 47 that performed in 2015 and the 50 that featured this year, Australian artists are hungrier than ever to break America, and its industry is just as forthcoming to accommodate them.

2015’s undeniable US breakout artist Courtney Barnett was last March awarded SXSW’s Developing Act Grulke Prize, an accolade previously won by The Flaming Lips and Blur’s Damon Albarn. Before that, she made her US television debut on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. She’s since performed on Ellen, Stephen Colbert and taken home a Grammy nomination on the way.


Courtney Barnett at SXSW 2015

Her success in the US has been eclipsed locally. Barnett took out four of her eight ARIA Award nominations last year for debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, and last month was named Songwriter of the Year at the APRA Awards.

Global exports like Barnett, GLAAD Media Award winner Troye Sivan, Grammy nominees Sia and Tame Impala, and Taylor Swift’s global tour support act Vance Joy are just recent US success stories; each proving Australia’s artists are met with fervour in the globe’s leading territory.

When the stakes are higher than ever, it pays to heed advice from those in the know. On behalf of local artists, TMN chats to a range of music industry players to find out their top tips, what market idiosyncrasies work to your advantage and which don’t, and why you might need a new game plan if you’re looking to perform at SXSW.

Among those imparting crucial guidance are: export body Sounds Australia, the launch-pad behind some of our biggest acts, Rob Potts, one of Australia’s leading concert promoters who also serves on the US Country Music Association (CMA) Board; SXSW representative Phil Tripp, who each year lights the way for local artists navigating America’s most progressive music city and The Rubens’ Tour Manager Clint Stagoll.

 

Esti Zilber
Sounds Australia

Use digital analytics to create a strategy, and create it far in advance

It’s vast and sprawling. US bands can spend a year just touring their own country. You want to be looking at how you want to tackle such a vast area. Do you want to just do East Coast, West Coast? Where are your fans? It takes a lot of prep in terms of knowing first and foremost where in the US you want to be landing. There’s no point going to the East Coast of the country when everyone who wants to hear you is on the West Coast.

If you can see in your analytics that there are places sprinkled throughout the States that are showing strong interest, you could certainly look at building a tour around the different events and festivals happening in their summer period.

Strategise and think carefully about SXSW

[SXSW] is certainly not something we would be championing for a small band starting out. It’s so competitive. You’re competing with over 2,000 other bands so if you don’t already have noise going on there, it’s very hard to get any coverage.

Throwing all your money into a really competitive showcase event in the hope that you will break through, is probably not the best way to start your US activity; you definitely want to already have made some noise there.

Having said that, industry will come from all over into Austin for that conference; so you can certainly build a tour around an event like SXSW. 

Rufus at Coachella 2016

VISAs: Dot your I’s and cross your T’s

You do not want to get stopped at that border. You need the correct Visa. We offer advice on Visas at arms distance because we’re not immigration lawyers and it really is so important. The advice that we do give, is to talk to a professional about the kind of advice.

You do not want to be on the wrong side of Homeland Security. Do your homework about your Visas. Yes, that can be an expensive exercise, but nowhere the toll it would take on your band if it was excluded from entering the US due to an incorrect Visa.

Below are three types of US Visas applicable for Australian artists:

A P1/P2 (P1 = performer, P2 = support staff, ie sound engineer) Visa will cover multiple entries into the USA for a specified date range (the length of a tour) – they are expensive, complicated and generally require a sponsor in the USA.

An O1/O2 (O1 = performer, O2 = support staff, ie sound engineer) Visa will cover multiple entries into the USA for one to three years; these are generally given to more established artists. Again, they are expensive, complicated and generally require a sponsor in the USA.

An ESTA is for people entering the USA that are having business meetings or just there for leisure. There is a grey area concerning using an ESTA for showcasing – they are definitely not appropriate for touring. Both SXSW and CMJ provide immigration letters for use when entering the USA on an ESTA for their official showcases – but essentially an artist can be (and regularly have) refused entry to the country on an ESTA due to various reasons including eligibility and extra showcases.

Flume
Source: Facebook

 

Rob Potts
Rob Potts Entertainment Edge

Get some runs on the board at home first

It’s the toughest live market in the world and if you can’t get it going in your home market, then the Americans won’t take you seriously. This is exemplified right now by Sheppard (Bombs Away debuted at #31 on the Billboard 200 last year). Have a big arse hit at home and you can take on the world!!

Sheppard at 98PXY Summer Jam 2015 in New York

Avoid common pitfalls

The biggest ones are not having enough money, resources and a network of contacts to survive long enough to be noticed.

The US market is huge and to break through you need to be on radio whether that is college, satellite, major network, country or any other format. So to have a shot you need to be able to survive long enough to establish a radio audience.

 

Phil Tripp
SXSW Australia, New Zealand & Hawaii Representative/ex-US tour manager

Do your homework

Have the most up-to-date info on your place in the local market in terms of success in touring and sales of recordings. Freshen up your bio and photos as well as website and have continuously updated presences of Facebook, Instagram, Sonicbids, Google and other social media.

Utilise music industry bodies

Liaise with the wonderful evangelists at SoundsAustralia who not only run a series of major showcases overseas in the Aussie BBQ and other brands, but also are the first step in gauging overseas markets, festivals, conventions and music events.

Do it by the book

If you are planning to play SXSW, CMJ, Folk Alliance or other American festivals, make sure you have multi-entry visa approval for the US and don’t rely on ESTA clearance for only unpaid shows. Use a US immigration agent and beware of local folk who tell you that you can sneak in under the radar. At least two of our hot SXSW acts of recent years have managers and band members that have earned 10-year bans on coming in to America. 

DZ Deathrays at SXSW 2016
Photo: Roger Ho

Better the devil you know

Artists often do not know when their bandmates have had arrests or convictions for what may seem to be minor offences like participating in a logging protest, arrest of which may be deemed a near terrorist act according to Homeland Security.  

Finding out a band member may have a minor drug charge in the past just as you are ready to apply for a visa for that critical tour support may mean losing that member and having to hire and rehearse an expensive replacement.

Get covered

An odd tip but crucial. Make sure you have the best travel insurance for the countries you are planning to visit. I have an annual policy which is better than a one off and just as an example, in February, I dropped dead in Honolulu Airport, was revived and luckily survived. But the hospital bill for five days was US$400,000 which was fortunately totally covered.

Know your worth

In telling your story, never say anything you can’t live up to in your history, nor anything you can’t live down in your journey.

Take anything you want or ask more.

 

Clint Stagoll
Tour Manager for The Rubens

Conduct a background check

Gather as much information on all of the venues that you can before contacting anyone. The USA seems to have a lot of different people in many roles with a lot of conflicting information. Best to do your own research as much as possible. Plot your timings using Google Maps and pad out a bit allowing for traffic. 

Be thorough in your advancing of information regarding your band.

 

Shane Barr
The Appointment Group (TAG) 

The market works in the artist’s favour

As a global travel management provider (UK, US, Asia, Australia), we deal directly with the band management. When they book the travel they give us the route they’re going to do and then they sell those cities off to the promoters; they’re responsible for that. 

In Australia, promoters tend to buy the whole country. Over there bands would sell a city to a promoter, not the whole country. So a promoter would pay for that gig only and then the band would tour themselves and sell off each city to the highest bidding promoter. 

Using a travel services agency won’t break your budget

It’s known in all the different markets that we operate in that we have a relationship with the biggest acts in the world, so it’s natural for new artists to think we don’t cater for the budgets they have. But it’s not about having the biggest budget, it’s about being able to manage your spend as a band and make sure that you’re getting the maximum bang out of what you can spend. It’s about you telling us what your budget is and us working around that to get you the best deals, the best accommodation and flights that we can. Consolidation of travel leads to maximising tour budgets and concessions from travel suppliers who all have loyalty reward schemes that TAG can help advise on.

 

 

This article is presented by The Appointment Group (TAG). TAG is an award-winning global, independent travel and event management company dedicated to clients around the clock from offices in London, Manchester, New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Nashville, Melbourne, Sydney and Singapore. 

 

Main Image: Vance Joy on tour with Taylor Swift in Sydney & during his Fire & The Flood tour of the US and Canada

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