After an amazing conference, I shared my story (and music video) with the folks at CD Baby, and they featured my experiences (and music video!) on their blog. You can read the article here:
I have never owned a car, and I intend to hold out for as long as I can without one. But I'm a musician who needs to travel the country performing... Enter Megabus.
I started using Megabus in 2006 as a cheap and convenient way to travel between Chicago and Columbus (I went to undergrad at Denison University). I remember moving to Boston in 2010 and realizing I could still take Megabus all the way home to Chicago! In the summer of 2011 I did a week-long sight-seeing adventure, played a couple informal shows and visited friends. That first trip was a fun one, and it paved the way for my #MegabusTour later.
Now I have done three full-fledged tours using Megabus (and occasionally Southwest Airlines), and I'm so happy to be doing it this way. Here's how I've done it so far.
Round 1: Boston -> NYC -> Cleveland [flight] -> Granville [drive] -> Chicago -> Boston [flight]
My first full-fledged, week-long solo tour was February 2016. This is "February Break" for Boston schools, and so right after Valentine's Day (and the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival), I hopped on a bus to NYC. It was a Monday, and winter, and I went to play a house concert in Flatbush. It snowed in NYC. Not sure which was the factor, but one of these or more meant very low attendance (Scroll down to the end of this entry for "lessons learned"). Still, it was so great to catch up with the friends who did come, and it was good practice for the rest of the week's shows.
The next day I flew to Cleveland, to play a show at my favorite little coffee shop/bar/listening acoustic room in Cleveland, the Barking Spider. Jenna, who runs the place, is the sweetest person in the state, and she did a great job making the band feel welcome (and by "the band" I mean "me"). I connected with old friends from college, made some new friends, and enjoyed a tasty Edmund Fitzgerald from the Great Lakes Brewing Co. (Update: I'm extra glad I got this show in... They're closing since Jenna's having a baby!).
Wednesday I headed to Denison, my alma mater, the "anchor leg" of the tour. I did a recording session while I was there (you can hear me sing and fiddle a number on the Denison University Bluegrass Album), played for and chatted with students in the Bluegrass Ensemble and Composer's Workshop classes, did a full show at the on-campus coffee house, the Bandersnatch, and then the next day performed for the math department, doing a solo rendition of a song I wrote called "Wondrous Numbers." It's a celebration of the Collatz Conjecture, my favorite unsolved math problem that any fourth grader can understand (for a great video explaining it, click here). It's also a love song, so at some point it might end up on an album. Whatever else, having a math-related song means I can tour math departments as a guest speaker there too (another project in the works).
Thursday was a travel day. There are only a few bus times on the Columbus-Chicago route, so I couldn't play a show that night, but that was just fine by me! I ate a massive amount of Adriatico's Pizza (their Buckeye Huge is the best in Columbus, IMO), and had plenty to share with some new friends on the bus. (They ended up coming to my show in Chicago the next night!).
Friday morning I did a workshop at my former high school, playing for and improvising with the student orchestras (yes, my high school was big enough to have two orchestras). That night I played a show at Filament Theatre, a community theater space on the north side of Chicago, and I played a solid evening of music to an enthusiastic crowd, surrounded by staging for whatever show was happening at the time (cheap way to have a great live show backline!). After a weekend with family, I flew home in time to teach class Monday morning. Big shout-outs to Southwest Airlines for all the flight portions of this, and to my Cleveland hosts for the ride down through Ohio.
Round 2: Boston -> NYC -> Philly -> Baltimore -> DC -> Pittsburgh -> Philly -> Boston
"April Break" made for more pleasurable climate while traveling. By now my gear was getting bulkier, and I've stretched the restrictions to the limit. "One carryon" became "laptop and fiddle." "One checked bag" became "if I strap these two together, they still technically meet the size and weight restrictions." Uncertain of my standing on each leg of travel, I decided to try it anyway. It worked, for one reason or another, and aside from some back pain (turns out carrying four bags around all day is hard) it all went according to plan.
This tour started with a Saturday night show in NYC, at the lower east side rock club Pianos. Talk about a change of pace from last tour's start! Big crowd, big sound, big fun. I didn't make much money—New York is a sinkhole for cash, and I don't understand how anybody lives there—but I had a ball (and did at least cover the bus ticket, which was $1). But aha! The next day I taught a workshop for kids, and that brought in a little dough, and was also very satisfying. If you can teach workshops or masterclasses or clinics in between your shows, you'll always have a gig.
Monday I traveled to Philly, not for a show, but to lay the ground work for my return there later in the weekend. I networked and jammed at a few spots, and met some incredible musicians, who I still keep in touch with months later, and maybe someday a collaboration will form... In the mean time, the bus ticket was $1, and I learned all about hoagies (aka ate them).
Tuesday I bussed to Baltimore, then hitched a ride to the University of Maryland. I did a three day residency as a guest artist in the dance department, playing for technique classes, improvising for a contact jam, teaching student musicians about dance accompaniment, talking shop with the other accompanists, and exploring composition and live scoring with a choreography class. All of these were so much fun! Then Thursday night I played a small venue in DC called Treehouse Lounge. Oddly enough, all the bands on the bill were from out of town... hmm... More "lessons learned" below. Still, great show and enthusiastic crowd.
Friday I headed out from DC to Pittsburgh, where I visited a friend from grad school, connected with other friends from undergrad, made new friends, and played another house show. This one, despite the weekend-iness, was not well advertised ("I've never hosted before"), and so it was very small. In retrospect, that was a lot of bus time for very few audience members, but I learned something new (again, synthesis of all these nuggets down below).
Saturday I made my triumphant return back to Philly and played two sets at Fergie's, a rowdy Irish pub with an upstairs stage. The room was small but packed with friends from all different scenes: high school friends transplanted to PA, college friends, grad school friends, friends of friends, total strangers. A full room means a happy performer, and I took their positive energy and gave it right back. This is the best kind of feedback loop for a live show!
Sunday afternoon, after sleeping off the hangover from the night before (you can bet my hosts and I partied in celebration), I found my way home. Philly to Boston direct is a very crowded bus, so I found this leg the most difficult, but when I got home I slept like a rock. It was worth it!
Round 3: Boston -> NYC -> Philly -> DC -> Raleigh -> Boston [flight]
This tour didn't happen during a school break, but I made it work anyway (I missed a week of teaching). Can't do that more than once a semester, so next year I'll be cutting back on teaching to be able to do this more. This time the reason for turing was IBMA's "World of Bluegrass" festival. I bought my "first timer discount" pass to the convention (which started on a Tuesday), and planned a route to get down there that would hit major cities on the weekend leading up to it. I wasn't able to secure any "anchor gigs" at universities or institutions along the way, but I did still cover my travel getting to IBMA, and make new friends/fans along the way. All good!
Friday night I played a hip new venue in Brooklyn called C'mon Everybody. Small space, great sound, great staff, great vibe, and great tacos next door. Similar turnout to my last NYC show, but more self-directed (that Pianos set had a full room, but mostly because of the other act on the bill). I'll probably play here again... it's very nice!
Saturday I headed to Philly for my second show. This one was at a small club called Milkboy South Street (not the other Milkboy, which is a medium-sized venue, but it's satellite offshoot on Philly's touristy main drag). I ended up playing to a crowded room here too, but not for people who came to see me: there was a surprise birthday party and a bunch of ruckus! Fun road challenge: can you win over an audience that didn't come to see you? Answer: yes. (And silver lining: the other band on the bill was way cool!)
Sunday I headed to DC, for my third attempt at a house show. This one was far more successful than the other two, and I have several theories for why, but they all boil down to: lead time, and an organizer with a big mailing list (of sorts). Many thanks to Chelsea Brown, who hosted the show (as well as got me the first UMD visit that facilitated the second tour!). One great friend and collaborator can make a world of difference at a stop on the tour. Monday was an off day (see how I learned from the first tour), so I did laundry, visited my cousin, met with a potential venue for the next time around, and watched the Presidential debate (and shouted at the TV a bunch).
Tuesday I hit the road again and Megabus'ed my way to Durham, NC. The "World of Bluegrass" is in Raleigh, but Durham's only short drive away, and so a friend came and scooped me up. I waited for her at the Electric Violin Shop, which was a delight (and check out their website!). The rest of the week is a blur: festival nights jamming with strangers and old friends in hotel rooms until 4, 5, or 6 am, crazy trips to Waffle House in the wee hours, sleeping on couches and spare beds and floors and convention center benches (that'd be post-Waffle House, of course), and a tremendous sense of camaraderie throughout. I flew back to Boston on Sunday, weary but blissful. I have to figure out a way to get back there next year!
Lessons Learned So Far
After all these adventures, I'm amazed by how much I still don't know about touring. But I have picked up these bits of wisdom, which might be useful to you if you're also a musician interested in striking out on the road:
- If doing a Megabus Tour, Set Your Dates, Plan Your Route And Reach Out Early. For each of these I had a limited time window to tour, so the transportation fell into place: I booked the cheapest bus tickets I could, then figured out where to play (which doesn't always work: A couple dates were duds because I couldn't any shows lined up). Not every tour works using the "tickets first, venues second" approach (most do it the opposite, in fact), but In any tour there will be a steady grind of emails and phone calls trying to fill out the rest of the week (read on for more on that).
- Have An "Anchor Gig" If You Want To Make A Profit. Round 3 was a net loss (financially), but I knew that going in. The shows were the side dish, the convention the main event. Still, the other two tours were profitable because I started out with a guaranteed paying gig. Universities and schools in general are great for this (but book wayyy in advance!).
- House Concerts Are Great Fun, But Vary Wildly. Depending on what your music is, you might want to consider house concerts instead of club dates. They're intimate, fun, and the crowd is really listening. But this all depends on who's running it! Are they experienced at organizing shows (whether at their space or elsewhere)? Do they have a dedicated mailing list of their own, who regularly attends their events? If the answer is yes, you should probably do the house concert. If it's their first one ever, or if they're slow to respond to communication, or if they're disorganized, maybe keep looking at club dates. Note: Acoustic vs. Electric isn't an issue most times... I always was able to borrow a mic stand and an amp or PA speaker everywhere I went with enough planning. But if you can play unplugged, that's one less puzzle piece to worry about.
- Club Dates In New States: Connect With Local Bands. If you're new to a city or region, why not share a bill with a band in the area that has a similar sound? Note: "has a similar sound" doesn't mean "plays the same instruments." Think more about the type of crowd you're trying to attract. Which bands in town draw that kind of crowd? A promoter is more likely to book you if you're sharing
- It's All Tax Deductible (But Keep Your Overhead Low). Save every receipt from your trip. Anything you bought anywhere counts. That said, I just switched accountants this year and made an interesting discovery: "per diem rates" are the deduction you can take for a trip out of town (overnight). Every city has a different rate—e.g. I could claim a bigger deduction in NYC than in Albany (for more detailed tax info, click here). What does this mean? If you spend less on food, lodging, etc. than the per diem rate, you're able to spend less than you deduct (a net win!). Connect with friends, couch surf, and buy food from the grocery store instead of eating out. Drink less (even if it's provided by the venue for free... you'll get the munchies and spend more).
- Follow Up with Talent Buyers/Promoters... A Lot. For every show, you'll need to go back and forth with the person in charge of booking you there. This could be ten emails per venue, plus some phone calls, and maybe even Facebook messages (had to do that a couple times in the case of a non-responsive talent buyer!). Organizing a tour only works if you set aside the time, daily, to book shows and get organized.
Next year I'll be doing more of the same: expect an April tour (during April Break week), possibly a February adventure or possibly not (that might be time I set aside to work on my debut solo album!), and more traveling come September (I'm quitting my weekly job commitments in order to do lots more touring!). If you have advice that isn't listed here and you think should, send me a message on the Contact Page and I'll update this blog entry. I hope this inspires you to get creative about your travels!
"This work was accompanied by Rob Flax on the violin, and his presence on the stage, beyond tangibly featuring the talent, enforces a social sophistication within these character interactions."
Starting this year, I will be regularly posting my monthly newsletters as a "news" feature (makes sense, right). You can get them sent right to your inbox by signing up on my "Contact" page.
This month I'm playing a number of home-cooked shows, some of which are "official", some of which are not: an "official" show in collaboration with Make Music Boston, an "unofficial" house party with Ardigan, and a "secret" show at a pop-up speakeasy. Plus I'll be traveling home to Chicago to see family and I might do a house concert or other "unofficial" show while I'm in town.
House concerts are one of my favorite ways to perform, as I get to engage with an audience on a personal level not possible from the stage. Both have their place. As the weather heats up, let's head indoors together, and celebrate summer with music.
This Sunday, Ardigan will be performing in Somerville's Union Square as part of Som|Dog's 2014 Spring Fling event! All day you can find activities and fun related to this greater Boston canine organization, plus there's going to be a beer garden! The flyer to your left (which, if you click on, will take you to their Facebook event page) says tickets to the beer garden are limited, so you might want to buy those in advance.
Let's recap: Lots of friendly dogs + beer garden + Ardigan live from 12 to 2 pm = you should be there!
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