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Real talk about touring Canada from independent Canadian musicians

November 20, 2015

Pro tips on playing shows, getting sleep, driving forever, and more, from the people who live it.

Canada is big. Like, it’s really, really huge. Because of that, booking a tour and traipsing all across this far-reaching, melting pot of cultures and climates that is this country can be an absolute whirlwind. It can be amazing, soul-crushing, aggravating, confusing, beautiful and disastrous – often all in the same tour. For musicians, touring Canada is a process – there is a perpetual learning curve, and no matter how many times you cross from one ocean to another, you’ll learn something new.

Because it’s the season where bands are gearing up to get that one last good tour in before the absurd cold and treacherous ice hit, we’ve compiled a list of six undeniable truths about touring the great white north, and we got some of Canada’s best independent musicians to explain them to you.

The Journey is Half the Fun

Nick Schofield (Saxsyndrum, Year of Glad, Camp Fortune)

“Be as excited for the whole trip as you are are for the shows. If you have an amazing day of taking in scenic views, going for walks, chatting with randoms, and listening to refreshing music, your gig is gonna be so charged with good vibes from all the overflowing positive energy. Bring your pillow so your sleep is slightly deeper, because it’s generally fleeting and often interrupted on the road. Lastly, stretch whenever possible, pee even when you don’t think you need to, laugh lots, and drive safe. You’ll be fine!”

If You’re in the Front Seat, You Have a Duty to Fulfill

Ohara Hale (Ohara, Nancy Pants) [Photo: Lenny Wu]

“If you’re lucky enough to be sitting in the backseat then don’t you worry, just keep reading your book, listening to your podcasts, and getting your sweet beauty sleep. However, if you happen to be the driver or the driver’s ‘assistant’ then this small plot of information is for you.

Here are some things you can do to keep the drive interesting and fun! Look at the beautiful clouds. Look at the beautiful cars in front of you. Look at the beautiful scenery in your peripheral view. Talk for 17 hours straight about beautiful things. Sing beautiful songs for 17 hours straight. Rap beautifully for 17 hours straight. Talk/sing/rap/hum (in any order or at the same time) beautifully for 11 hours, and gently scream in a beautiful manner for six hours. Tell the same beautiful story again and again but out of order each time. Tell the same beautiful story again and again but in different voices (bonus if you can master your accents!). Tell the same beautiful story again and again but with the voices of different cartoon characters underwater.

That’s about it! Enjoy your beautiful adventure you beautiful driver and ‘assistant driver,’ and sweet dreams you backseat snoozers you!”

Respect the Place you Crash, and the People Who Let You Crash

Kayla Stevens (Vulva Culture, Crossed Wires)

“I can’t understate the importance of leaving the place you lay your head for the night better or at least as good as you once found it. Having a home where I often put up touring bands, the state a person leaves a room really also leaves an impression. While on tour last year with my band Vulva Culture a common gift we would leave to our host for each night would be toilet paper or a nicely cooked meal for everyone. Being on tour can be a very self indulgent thing—be nice to the people that help you along your way!”

You Will Get to Know Your Bandmates and Touring Mates Really Well, So Be Nice!

Klarka Weinwurm

“You will get to know your band better than your own mother. On most nights you’ll be sharing a floor so bring a good mat and a pillow and ear plugs! Nothing like a room full of snoring drunkards. Make sure that if you’re travelling with another band you dig their music, ‘cause you’ll be hearing it over and over. It’s a glorious thing playing every night, sharing your stuff. Your band will get real tight. Most importantly, make connections with local bands and guests because they are the ones who will make the next tour even better.”

You’re There to Have Fun and Make Friends, Not Be An Asshole

Penelope Stevens (Motherhood, Shifty Bits Cult)

“I kind of think of touring as a bit of a pioneer mission. I mean, you’re essentially trying to divide and conquer, right? So it’s important not to colonize and hegemonize in the process.

Don’t be Columbus.

Don’t think you can walk into another city and have them fawn over your more ‘civilized practices.’

As we see in Canadian history, that shit is messy and creates bad blood – audiences are not heathens that need to be converted. Being culturally sensitive while touring is the most important way to tour successfully, regardless of how ‘cacophonous,’ ‘angular,’ or ‘insert other buzz word here’ your music may be.

I live in Fredericton, New Brunswick, which has a small but incredibly mighty, sometimes poisonously self-devoted music scene. We take care of our own, because who else will? Bands that are successful in building a following in Fredericton usually have a few common threads which can be articulated into three pieces of advice:

1. Respect our scene. Don’t talk shit about the local openers, even if they are brutal. Ask questions about what’s happening here, and who you should listen to from the area. Take a genuine interest in the community.

2. Come to the after-party. Even if it’s sketchy and you slept in a car last night, come party. Accept our generosity, build relationships, and get in on a few inside jokes for the next time you come through.

3. Be sincere people, and let it show through your music. Audiences know how to smell bullshit or if you’re trying too hard to be cool. Don’t ever ever fake it.

The cities that we have a following in are the ones where we’ve made a concerted effort to follow these three pieces of advice, but above all, be respectful. You can’t force your way into people’s hearts, you’ve got to be invited – and that takes mutual respect.

Sometimes, You Just Have to Take a Leap of Faith

Tim Crabtree (Paper Beat Scissors)

“For my money, the best way to tour is just to get out there and do it. If it’s your first time, just look on the internet, see where folks who are playing similar music (at a similar level) to you are playing, look up the venue’s websites, find a contact email, and send them something. Even better, if you have friends in touring bands, ask them if they can recommend places to play, or promoters that might book them in different cities.

Don’t worry about playing the most prestigious venues and getting a show every night the first time out. Get working on it three or four months in advance and send some emails out. When you’re writing your pitch, keep it brief, ask about a specific date and give them a link to some of your music – even better, a video. Think about the person on the other end: they’re probably getting dozens, if not hundreds, of emails like this a day, likely reading it on their phone, so keep it brief. It’s your music that’s ultimately gonna convince them – sure give them a bit of background, like where you’re from, and if a friend recommended you get in touch with them but maybe point them to a website with your bio and any press you might have instead of telling them your life story in the email.

Touring is probably gonna cost you money first time out, so be prepared to spend a little, but know that getting out there at all will help you to build an audience and get contacts for the next time. Sure, you might only play to five people some nights, but maybe one of them knows a more appropriate venue for you next time, or maybe someone in the local band really likes what you do and wants to set up a house show for you on the way back through.

Coming from the UK, I’m amazed at how tiny Canada is: yes, Northern Ontario on the Greyhound is enough to sap anyone’s will to live, but whenever I’m travelling through the major cities, if I meet a musician, it almost always seems that we have common friends and acquaintances. The more you get out there, the more people you meet, the more you cut down the degrees of separation.

Also – take my advice with a pinch of salt – everyone who’s doing this has had their own experience going down this road, and has their own wisdom – keep your ears open, but don’t take everything you hear as gospel, trust your own experience. Most musicians I know had a lot of help from their peers when they were coming up, and are often more than happy to pay it back. Don’t be afraid to ask.”

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