When bands hit the stage, from arenas to clubs to damp corners in basements, they stare their audience in the face and throw it down. It wasn't until Edison scratched some sounds on a record that there was any other way to spread music beyond a musician's front porch besides hitting the road and playing live. Even with ProTools and iPods, live music remains the great equalizer.
But it's hard to survive the road. "If a band wants to become well known in the States - and they aren't part of some trend - they need to get out and play 250 shows a year," says Tim Whalen, frontman for local funk heroes Phat Phunktion. "There's no shortcut."
Some musicians remain content playing locally, having some fun, drinking a few free beers and sleeping in their own bed every night. But there is no greater testing ground than a new stage in a new town with a new crowd that paid real money to be entertained. Madison bands that accept the challenge, leaving the security of their day-jobs and the comfort of a crowd full of friends, have found success by keeping a few simple things in mind.
Attitude is key
Harmonious Wail have been touring their Gypsy swing nationally and internationally for years. Nothing keeps them back - not illness, not exhaustion and, as singer and percussionist Maggie Delaney-Potthoff explains, not a death-defying car crash.
"We pulled off an evening concert after having had a serious highway crash that morning in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We performed with fingertips still bleeding, shards of glass still surfacing in my hair. We borrowed a bass and my percussion instruments. I was still in a state of shock, and there wasn't enough blush in the world to put color on my face. I had to choke back the tears while singing 'No Mama, You Can't Go,' only thinking of my sons. But we were harmonious and pulled it off."
"The gift of playing music is healing - it's the stuff of life," adds mandolinist Sims Delaney-Potthoff. "The most therapeutic thing we could do was play music."
When a band hits the road, chaos becomes a major factor. While it may not be possible to keep the van out of harm's way, it may be possible to control how it affects the performance. A positive attitude can help a band walk on stage after an accident and play like their lives depend on it.
Value the fringe benefits, because the pay sucks
Knuckel Drager have been pummeling this town with their Hawaiian metal sound for over a decade. After playing a few gigs in St. Louis, they caught the eye of Exene Cervenka, the voice behind the influential underground punk band X. She booked the band of masked miscreants for her wedding, and they served up their signature flaming organ and layers of guitar.
When Cervenka needed to find both an opening act and a backing band for a national tour, she asked Knuckel Drager to fill both roles. Drummer Tony Bitner (Ruffie Coloda), bassist Bill Borowski (Korloin) and guitarist Kurt Johnson (Major Rager) performed as the Original Sinners.
"My favorite moment was the encore break at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco," Johnson recalls. "They have an open-air, outdoor smoking area that's still inside the club, as do many bars in California. It's right behind the stage. So when the Original Sinners went offstage to wait for an encore call, we went into the outside area.
"It was a nice night, the stars were out, and the others lit up quick cigarettes. As we could hear the crowd cheering for an encore from inside the club through the wall, I realized no one was out in the smoking area except us. We were just out under the stars sharing a quiet moment with the dull roar of the crowd going inside. It was a very cool, surreal moment for me."
A sense of humor is required
Screamin' Cyn Cyn & the Pons bend the boundaries of gender and musicality with thrashing riffs and hilarious lyrics. But in towns like Elyria, Ohio, their cross-dressing antics can be a bit problematic. That's where a sense of humor comes in.
"We played an all-ages club with a five-band bill, including a Christian math-rock band who arranged their CDs at their merch table in the shape of a cross," recalls Cyn. "The Christian math-rock band was the best band on the bill - which is telling you more about the other bands than them - but they asked us to cover up the phallus of the blowup doll who was modeling our T-shirt."
Another absurd experience came at a coffeeshop in New Paltz, N.Y. "The acid-casualty owner of the coffeehouse we played at asked us not to play louder than people were talking in the room, thus forcing us to play without microphones and with brushes instead of drumsticks."
Promote at all times
In over a decade of touring with their infectious power-punk tunes, Sunspot have found that the best way to attract an audience in a new town is to work hard promoting before they even show up.
"If you don't have an audience in a different town before coming there, the chances of developing one just by playing live aren't that great," says bassist Mike Huberty. "So finding alternative ways to attract people to your music before you get there becomes the most important thing."
Sunspot have taken this ideal as far south as Austin. When they decided to head to the South by Southwest music festival this year, they didn't have a single booked gig.
"We ended up playing five shows in the three days we were there, and that was all from being proactive," Huberty says.
"As soon as we pulled the trigger, we contacted everyone we know in Austin to try to find a show to play," says drummer Wendy Lynn Staats.
"Wendy and I walked down 6th Street to the different clubs there," says Huberty. "We said 'If you have any cancellations' and gave them press kits and a CD."
"We woke up on Saturday morning at 11 and got a message, 'There's an opening at 12, you want to play?'" Staats continues. "I woke up the guys. We rolled up the sleeping bags, got in the van, still smelly from the day before, and played."
"It was just having the faith to get in the car and get out there," guitarist Ben Jaeger says.
Maintain realistic expectations
The Gusto's intense rock lunacy and underground appeal have allowed them to be successful on the road by playing in nontraditional venues for nontraditional fans. By keeping their expectations in check, they've had the time of their lives.
"Never get discouraged," drummer Andy Roemer says. "All the prep before a tour is extremely hard. You need to line up merchandise, get a van, and the hardest part of all - the booking. DIY booking, when you are going to a town that you have never been to and no one knows who you are, is next to impossible. Booking DIY tours is like having a second job you don't get paid for or see any results from for three months."
The Gusto found that unconventional venues can provide an audience, as well as a source of cash and beer that are badly needed while on tour.
"The best shows we have ever played have been in basements," says lead guitarist Patt Fink.
"Basement shows are the best way for a band that is just starting out to get street cred," says lead singer and guitarist Jake Boyardi. "Also, these days most bars and clubs don't give the bands all-they-can-drink deals, which sucks. This is something you don't have to worry about at a basement show as long as there's a barrel. Hey, we're a Wisconsin band."
Plan on going broke
There are other keys to surviving the road.
"Have a spare tire and eat healthy food," says Phat Phunktion's Whalen.
"Plan on going broke," says the Gusto's Boyardi. "Plan on the van breaking down. Plan on having the best time of your life."
Boyardi adds a word of warning to all those misguided fools who find musicians attractive: "The moral of the story is don't date musicians."
Harmonious Wail's Sims Delaney-Potthoff puts a more positive spin on touring.
"Be thankful for the opportunity to share your music with other people, see other places, and experience other cultures," he says. "It's simply a gift to be able to play music."