In August, we loaded our backpacks and emptied our savings to follow my son and his band on its first-ever European tour. Whichever adjectives coax to mind any simultaneously challenging and wildly rewarding experience, they all apply. Including the band’s four members, our group numbered ten in all. Before any of us were ragtag groupies and before they were an act with a European following, we were all just friends and family. The tour was a beautiful reminder of how important those ties are, particularly when you’re far from home and in unique circumstances daily. We learned, or re-learned, a lot about each other.
We also learned a little about surviving an ambitious D.I.Y. music exercise. In all, the band’s tour included more than a dozen countries, two festivals, 25 shows in 30 days and one 12-hour detention by the British border patrol. There were some mistakes and many right steps that made it easy to compile a list of Do’s and Don’t’s to share with any act set to conquer Europe for the first time. Here’s a list of tips to make your first trek Over There a smooth and memorable one.
DO: PLAN AHEAD
This should be the most obvious, dum-dum advice among these entries. Its inclusion underscores how critical it is to know what the hell you’re getting into. From the simplest things, like purchasing the voltage converters you’ll need to charge electronics in the UK and mainland Europe (two different types of electrical outlets, two different converters) to knowing which country uses what currency (Pounds? Euros? Francs? Kunas?), the more you know the easier and better your experience will be. Buy and read guidebooks, follow the news in the countries you’ll be visiting, use all the travel apps your smartphone will hold (especially Google Translate). Most importantly, create a budget and steadfastly stick to it. Make a plan, a backup plan and an “aw hell” plan for every conceivable circumstance.
DO: KNOW THE IMMIGRATION RULES FOR VISITORS
If you plan to perform overseas and get paid for it, you may need credentials which allow this to occur. The best, no-questions-asked solution to any immigration issue might be to apply for working visas. That can be expensive, though; and, it might be unnecessary. Depending on how long you’ll be touring, how much money you’ll earn, whether your shows have a sponsor and are considered permit-free cultural events, you may not need a working visa. European Union countries seem far less concerned with permitted music activities for visitors than the United Kingdom. Musicians’ stories about being questioned, harassed and banned by the UK Border Agency are plentiful. Our best advice is to check with the UK Visas and Immigration International Enquiry Service. You’ll get to explain your plans to an actual person and get a case number, which may prove helpful.
DO: GET HELP BOOKING YOUR TOUR FROM THE LOCALS
Someone takes the business lead in any band, and the band member who handled the tour we followed did an outstanding job. It took her about a year to piece together what she could. She was also smart enough to reach out for help to groups that book shows in Europe. In our case, Pumpkin Records did an amazing job setting up shows, promoting them, making band accommodations and just being there in general. Find someone who knows the local music scenes and the audiences best suited for your music to enhance your band’s chances at a successful tour.
DO: INSIST ON THE BEST DRIVER AVAILABLE
Trains, planes, ferries — you will likely need them all to move around Europe; but the best option is to drive. If you have driver duties in your band, encourage your bandmates to give you a break and hire a driver. Why? If you’re driving in the U.K., you’ll have to master a) the steering wheel on the passenger’s side of the car; b) driving on the left side of the road; c) maneuvering the roundabouts; d) not drifting into curbs because you’re not used to driving so near oncoming traffic; and e) teaching yourself to drive stick (much cheaper to rent than automatic transmission) with your left hand. In mainland Europe, everything is as it is here in the States, only twice as fast (“Move, Bitch” is the theme song for the German autobahns).
Seriously, just hire a driver like Holly, the badass Brit who drove for and befriended the band. She was fearless in getting a massive van filled with incorrigibles from Texas from one gig to the next and tolerated none of their shenanigans (unless she too was ensconced in them). Or, Jack, who made all the right turns by day and got turnt by night. These professionals knew where they were headed and kept everyone safe - their basic duties. All the fun we had with them besides was an added bonus.
DON’T: BOOK ONLY BIG CITIES
Berlin, London and Paris might sound appealing, but focusing only on the large European cities will hamper your chances at reaching people in the fundamental way that helps you grow an audience. Some of the best places we visited, and some of the most fervent audiences, were in spots like Tubingen, Germany and Diest, Belgium. These smaller cities also take you off the tourist track and give you a clearer view of how people live elsewhere.
DO: LOWER YOUR INHIBITIONS AND HEIGHTEN YOUR EXPERIENCE
My wife is no princess, but she is used to sleeping in a bed, at least. Over 30 days, I witnessed this woman sleep on train-station floors, in airport terminals, in tents, in the car we rented, in an abandoned school-building hallway and in a squat that was doomed for demolition, which the showgoers assisted with by breaking massive windows with sledgehammers and tearing down walls while she slept. Because she didn't insist on the Hyatt every night, our experience was enthralling. One night, we unfurled our sleeping bags in the outdoor, hillside garden of an Italian home we were invited to, under a star-filled sky. The next morning, we woke to Dolceacquan church bells and in the shadow of a thousand year-old castle. Doesn’t that sound better than sleeping at Motel 6?
DON’T: FORGET YOU ARE A TOURIST
You’re not really a tourist, but you should plan to see a few of the sites if you can. Know which landmarks are must-sees and plan accordingly to visit them.
DO: REMEMBER YOU’RE AT WORK
You’re there to do a job. Be on time. Be on point. Be a good guest who will be invited back. Be gracious for the assistance you will undoubtedly get from the many beautiful people you’re going to meet. Have merchandise available and give your best effort every night.
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DON’T: STOP PROMOTING SHOWS LIKE YOU WOULD AT HOME
Your band has a social-media presence (if it does not, read this). This is how you promote shows at home, where at least some people have probably heard of you. It’s paramount to do the same overseas where you’re trying to cultivate a following. Remind showgoers you’re worth their money and especially their time by posting music, videos and band news to the event pages. Don’t count on venues to do all the heavy lifting for you.
DO: MEET PEOPLE
Whatever the endeavor, the best reason to travel anywhere is to encounter the friends you didn’t know you already had someplace else. Whether music or something other is the vehicle, this is the grandest destination one can reach. Last month, we sat up many nights having extended conversations about life, death, the pursuits of chemically-induced and naturally-occurring happiness, politics, “ethical taxidermy,” parenthood and, of course, music, with some of the most genuine people we’ve ever encountered. Fellow musicians, venue owners, barflies, music lovers — talk with them about what you’re doing, but take time to listen and learn something from them. That alone will ensure your tour was a success.