Years ago, when Wilco played a show at the Chance in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., singer Jeff Tweedy greeted the crowd in the compact 748-capacity club by saying, “It’s great to be back in a tertiary market!”
It was a smart-aleck remark, but Tweedy wasn’t necessarily joking. Playing shows in smaller cities outside the major-market hipster corridors has helped Wilco and plenty of other acts build stable careers in an era of music-industry tumult. Americana duo Shovels & Rope developed a live following by playing shows whenever and wherever the married couple could, a method their manager, Paul Bannister, calls “hand-to-hand combat touring.” Earlier this month, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit announced a 19-date outing that takes them to places like El Dorado, Ark., and Amarillo, Texas—towns that aren’t tour-itinerary mainstays for most artists Isbell’s size.
“That is a strategy that we’ve had for Jason his whole career,” says Andrew Colvin, who books Isbell for the Billions Corporation. “Specifically, there are fans in those markets who are eager to go see the show, and they deserve a chance just as much as the fans in New York or L.A. or Chicago. Especially for the kind of music Jason plays, and where he comes from, we are conscious of trying to play in smaller markets.”
“If you’re only playing 10 or 12 or 15 markets, and touring is the income-generator, there’s a real temptation to play markets too often,” says Tony Margherita, who manages Wilco. “It’s a real tough balancing act between playing often enough in the same market, or market area, and playing too much.”
It’s not a new model: Artists such as singer-songwriter John Prine have been touring that way for decades, following the example of old-school country, gospel, folk and rhythm & blues artists. In the 1940s and ’50s, for example, package tours of country stars barnstormed through the South, seemingly stopping in every town with an auditorium where they could perform and hawk merchandise (sheet music and photographs, mostly). Live shows and merch are even more important today as income from record sales plummets.
“There was a brief moment in time in the late ’50s through the invention of Napster when artists could make a lot of money from their recorded music, and that’s not the case anymore, for the most part,” says Judd Hower of Ground Control Touring, who books indie acts including Julie Byrne, Kane Strang and Katie Von Schleicher. “So artists turn to other avenues, and that’s shows, merchandise. Playing shows is a big part of it.”
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Not just playing shows, though: It’s also important to be smart about the shows you play. Appearing in major markets is a necessity for most artists, particularly when touring to promote a new album. And up-and-comers often have an easier time finding a receptive audience in big cities, where there tends to be a more extensive live-music infrastructure of venues and promoters. But musicians who want to make a living on the road risk oversaturating if they play the same handful of cities every time they hit the road.
“If you’re only playing 10 or 12 or 15 markets, and touring is the income-generator, there’s a real temptation to play markets too often,” says Tony Margherita, who manages Wilco. Last year the band played in Marfa, Texas, for the first time, and returned to Birmingham, Ala., after a five-year absence. “It’s a real tough balancing act between playing often enough in the same market, or market area, and playing too much. And it’s easy, because it’s familiar and it feels safe. But at a certain point there’s diminishing returns.”
There’s more than one way to branch out into less-traveled cities and towns. Lately, Shovels & Rope have been playing small theaters in secondary markets, Bannister says. Another modern performance trend, the living-room show, lets artists connect directly with their audiences without relying on promoters or established venues. “We’ve made a lot of friends and fans” doing house concerts, says singer Lilly Hiatt (pictured left), whose tour itineraries have taken her from little rooms in Jackson, Miss., to Missoula, Mont., with a lot of stops in Iowa, too. “I’ve had so many great shows in tiny towns,” she says. “Those people don’t get shows all the time, so they’re really happy to be there.”
It’s a goodwill move that helps convert fans, say managers and booking agents, which in turn helps to build lasting careers. “It would have been really easy for us to just slide into the hipster circuit and go up and down the coasts and just hit all the major markets, but it was important for us to maintain this, because we knew it was sustainability for us,” Bannister says.
Though Bannister says he thinks a similar touring model can work for most musicians, building that initial momentum is difficult for small acts who, for whatever reason, can’t grind it out full-time on the road. The band Von Schleicher plays in, Wilder Maker, once spent more than three months on a self-booked tour around the U.S. “We all went into debt and came out of it basically homeless,” Von Schleicher told Paste last year. Now she’s looking for opening slots that will help raise her profile as a solo act, but she isn’t well-known enough yet to warrant trips on her own beyond the places where analytics from streaming music platforms show she has listeners—big cities, mostly. “I would love to play small markets here but no one’s heard of me,” she says. “I played Madison, Wisconsin—not that small—to like 10 people.”
Branching out from major markets can also be tricky for buzz bands that break through quickly into playing large rooms in big cities. “Your infrastructure and touring structure and everything that goes along with playing a show for that many people is hard to scale down,” Bannister says.
Scaling down tends to happen of its own accord over time anyway for all but the biggest and most successful of those acts. That’s one more reason to build as broad a fan base as possible. “I’ve certainly learned that you have to just stay out there, and keep putting material out,” says Hiatt, who has a pretty good role model in that regard. Her father, John Hiatt, is still touring nearly 45 years after releasing his first album. Though the elder Hiatt came up at a time when there was more money floating around the record industry, “he’s earned the career he has primarily through being out on the road and playing lots of shows and reaching out to people,” Lilly Hiatt says. “It’s grown and grown and grown.”