The Nuts and Bolts of Touring for a Living
by Barton McLean: The McLean Mix
Published in JOURNAL SEAMUS, Vol. 20, #1, Fall, 2008.
In our 30 -plus years of touring as The McLean Mix electroacoustic/media duo, performing full time since 1983 (with myself and my wifePriscilla), we have been asked on numerous occasions how we manage to sustain a full time existence as touring artists year after year with no other significant income. This article is an attempt to share some past, present and future perspectives of what it means to tour for a living in a challenging and evolving field such as ours, in the hope that these observations, which are sometimes personal and at other times fairly general, might be of some help to others contemplating similar ventures.
Gaining a Foothold
Many experienced readers will find these initial comments obvious, but I include them only with the desire to be as complete as possible. And so, the first activities of the composer/performer just starting out might better be focused, not on performances or gigs, but rather on building the foundation that will eventually bear the fruit of a career. In our world, this means the acquisition of CHOPS, namely along three areas; technical skills, creative skills, and an awareness and curiosity and a love and sense of excitement of what is going on around us in our field. Of these three, the last is the most important, as it leads to the acquisition of the other two.
Curiously, the acquisition of technical skills seems to be the one area most stressed in our educational system, often to the detriment of the other two. In my observation, the most successful touring artists have come from a creative background where one is nourished in the literature and develops a perspective of how to handle structure, time, and materials. These artists have then learned the technology later, or at least concurrently. Technology constantly changes. I remember those early classes in the 60s where some colleagues ran around with computer punch cards, needing a stack of them just to produce one sine wave. We wisely passed on learning that technology, but embraced many others along the way, trying to decide which would bear long term fruit and which were dead ends. Our technological currency has varied greatly over the years. On one hand we pioneered large scale digital sequencing, producing on CRI the first album in the USA using this new process in 1972 with the Synthi 100 ("Dance of Dawn" and "Spirals"), and also were among the first to compose and have appear on a CD works with sampling (Folkways album "Computer Music from the Outside In" in 1981). On the other hand, some concerts have used decidedly low end technology, such as our piano and tape concerts of the late '70, or our wilderness concert in the late '80. Our new concert in the 2007-8 season, called "Natural Energy," will utilize my "Composers Playpen" software, produced by me in a MAX/MSP environment, with live performance on various instruments and voice and video.
While technology continually changes, one's artistic centerdness remains relatively constant, and must be well under way before the technology is allowed to ply its seduction on the creatively inexperienced. To use the latest technology as an end in itself is not the way to go if one wishes to sustain a tour year after year.
Once the initial training is accomplished, the next crucial step is to ask "what is unique about what I do? Why Am I creating these works? What personal voice am I projecting? What point of view am I presenting? What audiences am I trying to reach?" If one cannot answer these questions, then perhaps a sustained touring avenue is not in the cards, since these questions are the defining ones, not only from the viewpoint of the artist, but for the audiences that will experience one's work. It is extremely important to know your potential audiences. Our personal focus in terms of audience has been the single important objective element in our ability to keep this up, year after year. This means diversity and flexibility of programming, publicity which focuses on audience desires and needs, and artistic content which focuses beyond just our own narrow electroacoustic community. Like many of our colleagues, our early work was centered in this area (and still is, as one of a number of audiences). For us, it took the shock of leaving the university environment in order to understand that there was another audience out there--in fact, there were several of them.
Establishing early relationships
The friends and contacts one makes during the formative educational years often turn out to be one's most valuable and first entries into the touring world. In addition, joining organizations such as SEAMUS and SCI (which has a vibrant student membership), is helpful. The American Music Center and the American Composers Forum are more concerned with the professional artist and with providing compensation, but are not as slanted toward technology and the arts (neither is SCI for that matter). But the point is that becoming a member of a peer organization or two will be helpful in many ways. Similarly, becoming familiar with local venues and presenting one's work to them is a good start.
But perhaps the most useful way to enlarge contacts and develop relationships is -- to be useful. To volunteer services to an organization where one is working with peers and potential sponsors will propel one to the head of the line rather quickly. In our own case, our first intensive experience along this line, just before our touring began, was when we volunteered to produce and direct two radio series (thirteen 1-hour programs) sponsored by the Society of Composers, Inc. (SCI) in the early 70s. This brought us into intimate contact with dozens of composers submitting works for the series (many of whom had access to funds at their school for visiting artists), both series subsequently being aired over NPR. These relationships formed the nucleus of a jump start to our touring path. There was never an overt quid pro quo involved with any of this. It's just that, when people work intensively together, the subject of a possible performance just naturally comes up. That's the way it works.
Some personal background
Just as one example of many, it would be helpful to touch on the contents of our tours. Basically we tour each year for 3 months, mainly in the USA but also on occasion internationally as well, producing one big lecture/concert and a couple of smaller lecture/demo events, all involving stereo sound and video and (with the big concert) virtuosic and difficult live performance. On the same tour we produce three audience-interactive installations, often for several days. Finally, I present MAX/MSP workshops with a program I've developed called the "Composers Playpen." All of our live concert and installation work is also now firmly embedded with MAX/MSP, a lifesaver for us as we require several different software configurations to power our diverse programming. Although our concert work all starts out initially as improvisation, by the time we present it to the public it is solidified so that it has the predictability and rigor of a notated work (while hopefully retaining the excitement of improvisation). We typically present a concert for 3 to 5 years, allowing us the luxury of refining and improving and setting a high standard for performance. Often, our work is nature- based, using gesture and textural transformation and organic sound mass as important constituents. All of our presentations are now 100% accompanied with visual elements.
Touring strategies behind the above
It can be said that every decision above, besides being the result of an artistic vision, is also tied to a sustained touring strategy. Of course, some of these may not fit the readers' particular style or creative vision, so I offer it only as a personal statement to be used as one sees fit.
CALENDAR: Our 3 month tour is in the spring (late Feb-early May) for two reasons. First, weather. That is, we begin by immediately heading south, usually in mid March (with a few local engagements earlier where we can control our driving better). We then swing north in late March -early April. Second, the reason we do not tour in the fall is due entirely to the fact that a critical number of venues do not have their budgets in place by then, or are undergoing year to year staff changes, which mitigate against their being able to make a decision about a fall date very far in advance. And keep in mind that we are usually driving, so we need to string together a critical mass of venues in a (more or less) straight line in order to be able to garner enough venue density to make it worthwhile.
TYPES OF PROGRAMS: This same criterion -- venue density -- is why we have such a variety of programs to offer. Diversity is the key, which means the ability to appeal to not only the high tech computer music program, but also to a community arts center or an environmental studies program, or a general audience college concert, or a religious school who has never experienced classical electroacoustic music. Our interactive installations not only empower people but also allow us to stretch a visit with a multi-day residency, thus achieving our goal of venue density.
SETTING DATES: We are often asked how we go about scheduling tours that may stretch across the USA from the Northeast to California. National touring presents special challenges, especially when in any given year the venues are so far apart. In order to make it economically feasible, the venue density must be preserved. And so, in setting dates, we reserve local dates within quick driving distance from our home for February or late April, outside our sustained tour time. We next try to set dates for the farthest venue we can expect on our sustained tour and work backwards. Or, we might secure a large residency anywhere in the country and set those dates first, knowing that even if another venue were not to materialize nearby, we would still have the economic viability of the extended stay. Then we gradually fill in dates going backwards in distance from both directions in time. When all these dates are set, there may still be gaping holes in the schedule, and so at this point we contact all those in the path of a potential dead zone to offer them a full price but without our usual transportation fee. Of course, this means that the venue must be flexible and the date offered may not be ideal.
SOUND SYSTEM: We employ only stereo sound because we have found it impossible to maintain the high quality we demand while fussing with extra speakers with an unfamiliar hall and sound system, all of which take tremendous amounts of time if the channels are balanced properly. We have learned this the hard way, having presented many 8 channel and quad concerts in the 70's and early 80's.
LIGHTING: We have found theater lighting with elaborate spots to be not the best use of valuable tech staff time, especially when all of our work involves either multiple slides or video. I can't count the times that crucial tech support has had to wait on the setting of spots.
VENUE FLEXIBILITY: Eliminating the need for theater lighting has also made our program available to a number of venues such as recital halls that would otherwise not be able to host us. Often the hall availability is equally important with price in determining whether or not we secure the performance. Similarly, all of our installations can be set up and run in any medium size room, be it classroom, auditorium stage, black box theater, gym, cafeteria, museum utility room, etc. Venue flexibility should be of paramount concern to artists setting up a tour.
When taken together these criteria -- program diversity, tech flexibility, and flexibility as to the type of space, can make the difference between having a sustained tour or not.
Over the years, we have found that, unlike the savvy hosts of electroacoustic music programs, most other audiences do not understand why there are technical glitches and may feel uncomfortable with them. And so that is why our setup and level balancing routine before a concert is extremely rigorous, to the point where every single level we change and set is heard by one of us in the hall and marked on a special sheet for change during the performance. This alone takes much time. We also spend a fair amount of time rehearsing the transitions between one work and another to ensure seamless segues. For our main concert, total setup time from loadin to concert start is 6 hours. From the time we arrive at the hall for loadin until the concert is over, we never leave the hall for dinner, etc., due to the need to maintain our concentration. In case of a complete breakdown, we now bring with us a complete duplicate set of computer, interfaces, and supporting equipment, all loaded with identical software (not the case with the keyboards, which are too bulky and are more readily available locally). This has resulted in the reduction of technical glitches to c. 1 or 2 per season. Of course each artist has to make his/her own determination about these issues, based on what the particular audience expects. In parting, I have found that no one remembers after the concert or event the difficulty of the tech setup. All they remember is how the event went.
It seems that a current trend in electroacoustic performance is paring down to just a computer and an interface, to make it easier to travel. If it were only that simple for the sustained touring artist attracting a multiplicity of audiences, my back would be in much better shape. We have found that our general audiences do not care a whit about computers or technology. They want to see us sweat, and they want to see unusual visuals and instruments. Therefore, we tour with such exotic artifacts as amplified bicycle wheels, hybrid woodwinds, found objects (turkey calls, balloons, etc.). These provide a fascinating dimension to the performance and impart a magic, as unlikely instruments are transformed into musical ones. And finally, our live performances not only may be difficult (or not), but they certainly do APPEAR difficult. Of course the computer is still the main instrument, as all of our live work is now done with MAX/MSP, but the audience rarely knows that.
A question we find continually posed by colleagues and students is "how do you manage to do it, year after year?" My first answer would be to refer to the insights above which focus on our approach to audiences. The following operating strategies may point to some answers as well.
PUBLICITY: Each venue has its own schedule of when budgets and calendars are decided, and often if the mailing arrives when they are not ready to consider, they will bypass it. And so we will send three identical mailings from February through next September. We have found that the hiring process continues all the way from February straight through the summer into October, and there is no one month that stands out in this regard. Our mailings are supported by a suite of web sites, dedicated to program descriptions, reviews, our own articles for university classes, CD and book offerings, our current schedule, comprehensive list of programs and fees, all targeted toward the type of venue (university, museum, alternative space, community arts center, humanities program, multicultural program, environmental studies program, etc.). Our philosophy about web sites may vary from that of many artists in that we are simple in our front page approach and complex in the detail that is available one click away on other pages. We ask ourselves, "what do the potential venues wish to receive from our site?" First of all, they want clear access, quick loading, and gobs of information immediately accessible. In the near future, we plan to offer both broadband downloads of audio and video demos, as well as streaming equivalents of these, all from our web site. The people who approach our site are already curious about our work and are only trying to derive information. They want to see reviews, fees, lists of events offered, tech considerations, list of prior performances, etc. Our goal is still to make the site able to load in 5 seconds or less with a typical dialup connection, and to have all the basic links accessible immediately on the front page, while equally striving to provide the broadband streaming and downloading capability with an additional click. We have found that potential venue directors simply do not have the time to spend while a site heavily laden with graphics, frames and flash material loads, and they will exit faster than you can say "click."
Once we have an expression of interest, we offer to send on loan DVD and CD demos of our work, and ask for their return in 3 weeks (or longer if they let us know). It is important to secure their commitment to return these using their own mailing and postage. We have painfully found that venues who do not respond to this simple and reasonable request (unless they are peer organization conferences), are often not worth bothering with. In fact, the commitment of a venue to return demos at their expense is often a very good positive indication that they are serious about hiring an artist. Speaking of venues, we have a firm policy of never renting a hall or performing for a percentage of the gate. Experience has taught us that these venues are usually the least rewarding in terms of audience and event support.
PRICING: For many years we have adopted a one fee for all policy (for a given program), only recently having to modify this a bit. Since its adoption, we have found the negotiations infinitely more comfortable for all sides, since there is a sense of fairness. But what if a venue can not afford the fee? Our solution is to not negotiate the fee, but rather offer a variety of programs each with its own fee, with discounts for multiple stays. We have found that, if a venue really wants us, they will either find a program within their budget, or will miraculously come up with the extra funds. The "modification" has been added lately due to the rise in gasoline and motel costs. And so, once we have arrived at a program with its set fee, we will usually need to add a surcharge based on a number of criteria such as geography, the number of other potential or real venues within easy driving distance, or the day of the week (it seems that everyone wants us to do a small event on a Tuesday in Sandy Bank, North Dakota). Usually we try to schedule the driving so we can drive long hauls during the weekend when concerts are not scheduled. This fee business can entail some subtleties. For example, we ask for lodging and meals separate from the performance fee. This works for several reasons. Often the venue's budget has a separate slot for these items apart from the performance fee and they can better accommodate the artist. Sometimes the cost of lodging and food (such as at a university guest house and student dining meals tickets) is even free to the venue. And so it makes sense to consider this as a separate item as we quote a fee.
THE CONTRACT: We have found it essential to spell out in detail items in the contract beyond just the event, fee, time and place. It seems as though every year a situation typically arises where there is a dispute over services or fee and the contract is brought out to settle the issue. This happens, for example, when a new administrator is hired for the new school year, an occurrence that is common. Additional essentials in the contract would include tech support, parking, food, lodging, permission to display CDs, services provided by host (publicity, hall preparation, help in load/in-load/out, concert support personnel, printing of program, etc.), services provided by performer (sending photos, press release, program data, W-9 forms signed), as well as specifying time in hall for setup. We do not include a clause for host being responsible for security of our equipment, since they are simply not able to fulfill that. I would be happy to email anyone a draft copy of a typical contract to anyone wishing more detail and invite them to use whatever portions they could.
SECURITY: This is a paramount issue which trumps all others when deciding, for example, whether or not to leave equipment in a room overnight, or in the car in a big city, or even to accept or refuse the engagement to begin with. Experience has formed a number of general rules which we believe to be practical guides for touring artists. First, believe that security is the artist's responsibility, period. This responsibility can not be delegated since others do not have the same interest in safeguarding equipment that the artist has. Always be on guard, even in the most friendly circumstances. We have never carried insurance, since we have found the expense to be prohibitive. We have investigated a number of policies, which all seem to evaporate under the cold reality of practicality. When driving, we have generally found that leaving the equipment in the car overnight in a motel or lodging is safe, provided it is covered and that it is not in a big city or bad neighborhood. We store everything in very beat-up suitcases, which further discourages thieves. Do not ever leave equipment in a car on a street. Rather, park in your lodging under a good light, with equipment covered with a tarp. Do not stay in the cheapest of motels. If you are parking overnight in a city, remove your equipment to your room. Parking garages are sometimes ok, provided they are monitored, even with good hotels in some big cities. As for leaving the equipment in a room at the venue overnight, one should ask if the room is secure. This means there should be no other activities in the room, there should be no janitors cleaning (they seldom lock the door afterwards, even when requested to do so), and that there should be few faculty keys accessing the room. The safest venues are museums, libraries and galleries, which have a very tight procedure for access. Next would be black box theaters, private spaces and classrooms that are single-use. The worst spaces are theaters, multiple use rooms, churches, and recital halls where many people are coming and going. We never have our equipment out of our sight in these spaces, irrespective of the host's assurances of safety. We insist that, when we are installing in a room that absolutely all activity, including janitor cleaning, cease while we are occupying the room. Any exception (such as a rehearsal or class) would mean that we would need to be physically present in the room. For those instances where security is not good, we will set up the guts of our equipment on an audiovisual cart all plugged in, and after the event will wheel it into a secure office or closet. Despite complaints that we are cluttering up the stage during a concert, we never leave anything of value backstage, including equipment cases. These are always stored right on stage where we can have visual contact at all times. Since 1974 we have had three thefts. All three were in what we would call comfortable situations where we were at ease (one in a Unitarian church, one in a school where we formerly taught and left jewelry backstage briefly, and one where a piece of equipment was left out, unpacked, behind stage during an orchestral concert where we were soloists in a venue that had engaged us numerous times in the past).
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM VENUES: We have found a comforting consistency in the support that venues will provide over the years. Sometimes in small departments we have to suggest to the music chair that this equipment is available through its media services department. What follows would be the minimum that we have come to expect with few exceptions from all sorts of venues, from university to community arts centers to museums:
Personal: Payment of a fee, food and lodging provided, parking.
Technical: Decent stereo system, video projector and screen, person to set it up, 2 slide projectors and bulbs, tables, chairs, a decent performance space with enough time to set up, help in unloading/loading.
Office: Printing and distribution of programs, publicity, audience control (with installations), concert support personnel when appropriate including lighting.
Music stands may not be available from museums, libraries, drama programs, etc. A special exception also would be in some local public school or library events where we provided our own modest sound system and slide projectors at additional cost ($50) to the grateful venue, since these types of entities really often do not have the wherewithal to provide them.
Of course, it is crucial that the artist make these or similar needs crystal clear to the venue via a tech sheet. We send out our tech sheet with a questionnaire, which, if the venue follows it carefully, will ensure that the tech support will be forthcoming. We would never just send a tech sheet and assume that it would be followed. I would be glad to send out sample tech sheets and questionnaires via email if they might be of help to the reader.
Although we have performed in many large and midsize cities in the USA, it is true that urban concerts present special problems of all sorts (low pay, bad security, parking, tech, lodging). For this reason, although we don't refuse concerts in some large cities, we have ceased sending publicity to these and a few other locations because of the problems encountered in the past.
Although the future of the ability to undergo sustained touring depends to some degree on the health of the economy and the arts scene, to a much larger extent it depends on all of us artists in the electroacoustic/media community. First, unless we begin to value the music itself more than the technology that underpins it, we will continue to fail to engage the larger concert community in our adventure. And, as program directors of the venues, we must do everything we can to PAY for guest artists. Imagine an orchestra or piano or string quartet academic program at a university with no chance of a professional, paying career awaiting the student upon graduation. But this is exactly the kind of situation we in SEAMUS, ICMC, and EMF have endured, nay even encouraged, by promoting festivals and "opportunities" galore in which there is not only no payment, but the composer is required to expend his/her own financial resources (I am not referring here to the basic peer organization conference such as our own SEAMUS national). The end point in virtually every other performance discipline is a career in professional, full-time performance outside the university. We in SEAMUS must change direction, and do everything we can to nurture a professionalism in the post-graduate environment, and in the community. I suggest that the SEAMUS board make this a topic of discussion, and that it institute a board position to facilitate and encourage this kind of development. No other USA organization is in a position to do it. With this in place, then the future for electroacoustic touring is bright. Without it, we are all headed for extinction as any kind of vital force in our arts culture. No performance discipline has ever existed on a long term basis only in the university, or in the community as an unpaid amateur situation. Even in the folk art community of indigenous music, there is a significant migration from the remote village to the nearby university and then to then professional national and international touring ensemble, in country after country, as the unpaid, amateur artists dwindle in their local culturally evolving communities. In each instance, the resultant paid professional performers can be said to have raised the level of performance greatly. Would we expect our finest orchestras to perform for free? What kind of performance quality would we experience if this were so?
In my own experience of working with hundreds of hosts over the 23 years of touring, I am certain that the problem is not usually one of the university not being able to afford an electroacoustic performance, since so many university departments and community venues can and continue to fund our own concerts and installations. As further evidence, I can't tell you many times we have been refused a performance at a venue year after year, the director (although expressing enthusiastic support) citing lack of funds, only to have this person eventually leave and the new director magically come up with the monies. The only difference was in the directors' culture of expectations. Of course, the opposite has happened as well. This situation underscores the culture some of us have inadvertently fashioned – a culture of unpaid opportunities. Once we in the SEAMUS community can change this culture, then it will be as easy to find the funds as it is to fund a visiting professional string quartet or other guest artist performance. To do any less would be to mark the dwindling and increasing irrelevance of our cherished field in the culture of the arts in America.