Tour Smart: Martin Atkins on Building a Fan Base and Packing the Venue

More than three decades after joining Johnny Rotten's post-Sex Pistols group, Public Image Ltd, drummer Martin Atkins rebrands himself as a pedagogue for performers.


According to the gospel of Martin Atkins, there’s only one commandment emerging musicians should live by: Treat your art like a business.

A former drummer who’s been in or worked with genre-defining industrial groups including Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Killing Joke, and his own band, Pigface, Atkins has weathered the music business long enough to know that creating good songs isn’t enough. Turning his attention from melting fans faces to blowing new artists’ minds with the real dirt on making it in music, Atkins’ 2007 book, Tour:Smart: And Break the Band is a veritable bible for touring artists that covers everything from allocating enough promotional time for a tour to selecting an opening act.

Since the release of Tour:Smart, Atkins has become the go-to guru on touring advice, artist entrepreneurship, and management. This June, Atkins will release his third book, Band:Smart: And Succeed On Your Own Terms, a primer on the logistical steps musicians can take to establish their brand before they’re big enough to tour.

Get In Media: What goes into thinking of your band as a company?

Martin Atkins: It starts with the interview process…there’s nothing wrong with deciding what your goals are and then setting out to find people who can help you with those goals. Do you want the best keyboard player on the planet or do you want an OK keyboard player who can print T-shirts? Do you want the best bass player on the planet or do you want a bass player who also has a van? There are six and seven year old kids on YouTube better than you will ever be at any instrument you choose to play, so if that’s the only thing you think is important, you’re wrong and somebody else is better than you anyway.

GIM: You’ve advised bands to make their shows into events, not just concerts. Why is that important?

MA: Some bands think that if they have some good songs and their guitar player is fantastic, that everything will be OK. But if there isn’t a theme for the show, if a band is playing the same songs over and over again, if they haven’t thought about the audience’s comfort so you’ve chosen a venue that’s too big, it’s just an anti-vibe. If the toilets are horrible, if the security are nasty, if there isn’t any parking, if the PA sucks, if the tickets are expensive, if the drinks are expensive, all of these things are reasons that your fans will or will not have a good time. When you look at the show overall, from arrival to departure as an event, you’ll create more value for your audience and make them want to come back to see you again.

GIM: With an increasing demand on bands or artists giving away music for free, where is the money for artists now?

MA: You have to have three albums and a fourth album ready to go and an all-acoustic country and western version of your album for free download. That’s just the way it is these days. If you’re lucky enough to have rabid fans, they want something else immediately. They’re not going to wait 18 months for you to choose the right studio, get the right bass sound, and spend all that time on the details we used to spend our lives fretting about. You need to be prolific; you need to have a machine that generates content.

Look at Taylor Swift. She did a deal with Target and with Walgreens. Target’s album had six extra songs and they weren’t crappy throwaway songs. They can’t be, because then the Target customers would feel ripped off. They have to be good songs, and that’s the world we live in.

GIM: What do artists need to know about in terms of distributing their music?

MA: If a band wants to, they can get in a vehicle just like I did with my first book and do three or four events in a day. Meet people, win over people, make friends and fans and places you can go back to through the world. It takes years. There is money out there. I think the most precious thing is not money. The most precious thing is a fan base. If you can create a fan base that will work for you for the next 20 years, what’s the value of that? There are web sites that will help you calculate the value of one thousand true fans over a 20-year period buying two releases, a T-shirt, and going to one concert a year. It’s a lot of money. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for anybody or any business to work hard for several years and to give away stuff to get to a point where you have a fan base. It’s true for a restaurant. It’s true for a pizza parlor. It’s true for a band.

GIM: What goes into developing “rabid fans?”

MA: You look and you see what your fans are into. If oh my goodness, every one of your fans is into Curious George then you create a Curious George tribute or a Star Wars tribute, a football team tribute, or whatever. You tie in songs and you create a themed event. You send your fans things that they seem to be interested in. You do what works and you track it and you say, “Whoa. That was really good. It was a lot of work, but we really got a great benefit from it. Everyone seemed to enjoy it.” So you schedule one of those for next year. You just keep doing more.

There’s this word “authentic” and it just means be who you are. Everybody’s different. Some people in bands weld or give tattooing or fish or like to travel or do crazy artwork. Find out who you are, use social media to explain and amplify that and your music, and package it all together. I don’t think anybody’s just interested in music these days. It’s music and the story. It’s music and who made it.

“If you put 100 people in a 1,200-capacity venue, it’s not a riot. That’s a funeral.”
GIM: With everything going digital, how has that affected touring and live shows?

MA: Touring has been changed by social media. It makes it a little bit easier. You still have to do it, because if you’re not touring then the other 5,000 bands who are get more social media traction. I’m sure there are lazy people who think they can stay home because they’ve got a YouTube account and Facebook and Pinterest, but you’ve got to be out there generating content.

You start in your hometown and you slowly start to work farther and farther afield. Bands who try and tour all of North America at once are insane. You have to do it gradually, brick by brick. You slowly build your following using strategies like putting up some free music, putting up a free Neil Young song on his birthday, piggybacking on other things like doing a dubstep edit of a Charlie Sheen speech—whatever it is that speaks to you.

If you’re in Miami and all of your fans are in Cleveland, that’s where you go. You have to get to Cleveland to strengthen that bond and start to repeat that success on the route from Miami to Cleveland. You keep looking at your data. The internet and all of these tools can help you make the right decisions.

GIM: How can bands create a geographically strategic tour?

MA: You have to be honest with yourself. If you’re based in Chicago and you’ve got fans in Boston and Washington, D.C., you need to head east. If you have good reason, then you need to find a show in Cleveland. And if you don’t have any fans at all in Cleveland, then you can find a band to open for. Just do anything other than standing on stage and hoping that someone’s going to show up, because they won’t.

GIM: What’s the biggest mistake you see new artists making when touring?

MA: Just being too ambitious. You’ve got to take risks, but you don’t take risks playing venues that are too big or touring in a manner that’s too expensive and luxurious. Managers and agents will fill your heads with all of this: “Wow, we’ve got an offer from this 1,200-capacity venue!” People in the band know, “Well, wait a minute, the last time we played Pittsburgh, there was 100 people there.” What has happened in the last year that [gets] 1,100 more people? Nothing. So they’re going to be playing to 50 people in a 1,200-capacity venue. So even though the agent and the manager are trying to say, “It’s $5,000, we should do the date,” when nobody shows up, they’re not getting paid and then they’re going to have a horrible show. That show might be the reason the bass player leaves the band. You just have to make smart decisions all the time. If in doubt, dial it back one or two notches. What’s the worst that can happen? The venue sells out? Then go back again.

GIM: If you do have 100 fans in Cleveland and you get booked for a 1,200-person venue, does it hurt a band to play a 1,200-person venue versus playing a smaller club?

MA: If you put 100 people in a 1,200-capacity venue, it’s not a riot. That’s a funeral. So you just take those 100 people and put them in a 50-capacity tiny bar. It will be a riot and people will remember it, and then you get to play the 300-capacity venue. You can always go up from 50. You can never recover from 100 people in a 1,200-capacity venue. Even the 100 people who love you will start to question whether they like you or not and why.

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GIM: You also spoke on a Kickstarter 101 panel at the South By Southwest music festival. What do artists need to know if they go the Kickstarter route?

MA: An unsuccessful Kickstarter, just like a successful one, stays on the Kickstarter site for the rest of all time. If you fail, that’s what you’re telling your fans. You just need to aim low. If you need $10,000 for an album but you don’t have very many fans, consider just trying to raise $600 for one song. You can always do another $600 Kickstarter for another song. The important thing is not to fail so you can keep building just like Amanda Palmer did. She raised $1.2 million. It was her fourth Kickstarter. We hadn’t heard about the other ones, but if you look her up on her Kickstarter account, you’ll see these four other campaigns she did.

You have to get out there, give away free music in exchange for email addresses, and build up your fan base. It’s your fan base that you’ll be relying on to fund your Kickstarter. You have to have the mindset that you’re not just asking for money. You need to have a transaction. So $15 gets you the new album. $20 gets you a T-shirt. $100 gets you a place at the table for a celebratory pasta and wine launch meal because every song on the album is about pasta or Italy or wine—something themed. There’s a band where you can tattoo the drummer for $1,000.

Once again there’s that word “authentic.” It needs to be authentic for your band and your brand. Maybe people can play on the album or play on stage with you or you make them a sweater. Jenny Owens Young, who I invited to be on my panel, will scream your name five times into a field and video herself doing that for $60. Use your imagination. Use your Kickstarter campaign to underline who you are.

Band:Smart is currently available for pre-order. Click here to download a free copy of Martin’s second book.

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