One of Kelley Williams’s most boasted memories of his recent tour was the night that his band, Back of a Car, played a show on the roof of a trophy-engraving center in Arlington, Texas. “There were like forty people who came. It was really cool,” he says.
These are the kinds of tour experiences that resonate the most with Williams: well attended, personal and obscure. But, of course, they’re difficult to come by. Back of a Car’s status as a post-hardcore emo group based out of Las Cruces, New Mexico, means that booking tours around the country entails a lot of pavement-pounding, word-of-mouth connections and Facebook searches.
“For a lot of people that I know, and myself included, booking a DIY tour is one of the most difficult things, for sure,” Williams says.
Imagining artists like Williams calling friends of friends, poring over Facebook and carefully wording e-mails to venues makes you wonder if he’s behind on his technology. Is this really still how independent artists get booked? Are cold calls and mass e-mails still the best way to make a tour happen?
That was the sentiment that sparked Patrick Quinn’s work on a new product, Backline. Watching his younger brother’s own struggle with the business side of becoming a full-time Austin-based musician showed Quinn that there was likely a market for helping independent artists book tours in a rather simple way.
“For too long, the people who were in charge of the music industry were not the people making the music,” Quinn explains. “And right now, as technology becomes more prevalent and as the music industry shifts, people like my brother are getting to make more decisions on their art and on their career in music. I think that’s really cool, and I want to help that happen.”
The product hasn’t even reached beta stage yet, but the concept is this: Touring independent bands use the web-based tool to create a profile that they fill with the information that venues want to see — press kits, tour stats, songs samples and general band details. This centralized information allows bands to contact venues in other states in a more streamlined manner, as well as connect with other independent bands around the country to fill their bills.
“If you think of all the things the music industry has created — all of the support systems from a manager, an agent, a booking agent — they’re all there for a reason,” Quinn says. “But these independent artists don’t have the tools to help manage the business of being in a band. So that’s what we started to do.”
Aaron Walker, Backline’s director of product communications, likens Backline to a sort of LinkedIn for bands. Just like LinkedIn guides users to input the necessary information to get job offers, Backline will help artists provide the stats needed to get booked.
The product will be free, which should be a good fit for unsigned artists, right? Some independent bands still have questions about this sort of business model. For example, the distillation of a band’s information into a single web-based profile raises some uncertainty for Williams. He fears that relying on stats without interacting with the musicians will give venues a limited view of a band, allowing them to partake in a sort of Tinder for venues. “Emo band?” they might ask. “Swipe right. These touring stats? Swipe right.”
“As a band that plays our style of music and doesn’t have a lot of notoriety, I would be pretty wary of using a [product] like that,” Williams says. “It seems like it could quickly turn into your band just becoming a name with a potential draw number for how many people you're going to get to the venue.”
It’s clear listening to Williams that he finds something almost sacrilegious about this way of booking shows — as if using a product like Backline would turn his tours into just business deals to boost booze sales rather than a "by the people, for the people" sort of craft.
And Williams’s view isn't an anomaly among indie groups. Joe Ziegler of Denver-based band Leftmore offered his thoughts from the road of his current West Coast tour.
“Could I use some help?” Ziegler says. “Heck, yeah. But booking is fun for me. I get to call up my friends and figure out where we're going to host a party. Those personal connections are what bring good shows together.”
While both Williams and Ziegler admit that they might use Backline as a secondary tool for booking tours, they both maintain a level of uncertainty at the impersonal business that the product might entail. Because while booking shows across the country is difficult and often profitless, their independent status gives them complete creative control, allowing them to avoid promoters who don’t have their best interest in mind.
Quinn, however, seems to find this approach to touring a bit irresponsible. “I think in that scenario, you’re not giving enough credit to venues and their artistic vision for what they want their room to sound like,” he says. “No venue that I’ve talked to has said, ‘We're strictly playing a numbers game here.’ That is not the equation, and, frankly, we don’t want that to be the equation.”
But Quinn does want bands to be realistic about their numbers. Knowing how many people an artist can draw to a particular venue on a given night is important — not because it gives those cigar-smoking venue bookers a way to tally drink sales, but because it gives a venue valuable information that could work in the band’s favor. For example, the number of people that an artist can bring into a venue can simply dictate which night they play and who they open for.
“There’s a place for that numbers conversation, and you should know those numbers, and you shouldn’t be afraid of them, because it’s a good benchmark,” Quinn adds. “Do we want it to be the be-all and end-all? Absolutely not. But it’s actually more of a positive than many artists realize, and I think it’s underutilized.”
But the greatest concern with a product like Backline is users. Most touring bands find show prospects through connections on Facebook, largely due to its immense user base. So what Williams and Ziegler want to know is, why switch to a networking tool that has fewer users?
“We’ve absolutely thought about that,” says Quinn. “The group makes the product valuable. We have a plan to get it in front of a lot of people, but we’ll totally admit that it’s roll of the dice.”
Quinn’s plan is to reach out to more established bands in music hubs like New York, Los Angeles and Nashville. With these bands involved, Backline can more successfully implement a show-trade aspect of the product.
The show-trade model is based on the idea that a touring band has a better chance of playing to a full venue when it opens for a local band in the city that it plays. So, for example, a Denver band touring through Chicago agrees to open for a Chicago-based band, and in return, the Chicago band is promised an opening slot when it comes through Denver.
The concept of show trades isn’t new to artists like Williams and Ziegler, who use Facebook and word of mouth to do trades. But Ziegler maintains that show trades in particular should occur only in the deeply personal, appreciative interactions that separate indie touring bands from those who tour with the apparatus of a major label.
“Show trades are fun, but they shouldn't be a button on a booking platform,” Ziegler explains. “Show trades occur when two or more bands really love each other and want them to visit their home town. There is no debt accrued, there is no expectation of the proper amount of promotion; there is just music and appreciation.”
Maybe Williams’s and Ziegler’s hesitance to use a product like Backline could be considered a simple inability to adapt to the times. Maybe it’s a result of the unconventional art that they’ve chosen — art that insists on its value, refuses to become a number, and is nurtured by personal interactions and hard work. In this sense, maybe being “behind the times” is commendable, but Quinn and Walker insist that independent artists can maintain a personal relationship with their music while appealing to more business-minded venues. And with the product being free to artists, Quinn’s question is, why not use it?
Those interested in sampling Backline's Beta version can visit the website to request an invite. Beta release is expected late December 2016-early January 2017.
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