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Martin Atkins: Teaching Bands To Tour Smart

Drummer Martin Atkins spent the 1980s and 90s performing and touring the world in such bands as Public Image Ltd., Killing Joke, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails and his own band Pigface — bands that have both packed stadiums and struggled to fill the tiniest of clubs. Through all of that, he's seen firsthand the pitfalls awaiting all naive rockers — everything from poor gas mileage on tour vans to getting stiffed by club managers at the end of a set — and he has come to know the basic rules that apply to all touring musicians.

In his recent book, Tour: Smart, and its companion DVD, Atkins has compiled his experiences to create a valuable resource for any aspiring touring musician or band. Atkins is now touring the country himself, telling bands all the things they don't tell themselves. He spoke with Andrea Seabrook of All Things Considered about the book.

"The basic rule that I'm finding now," Atkins says, "is I'm trying to let everyone know that they are completely and totally screwed. But if they can just accept that fact, then they might not be."

Atkins doesn't see the digital world of MP3s and music theft as the main cause for alarm, but as a way for new bands to spread their music.

"I'm old enough to remember some horrifying, outrageously illegal device called a blank cassette tape, and people used to make mixtapes for each other. Having owned a record label for the last 20 years, all you ever dream of is 'I just wish that more people could hear this music.' So I don't think that MP3s and downloading have affected anything. People just need to understand that they're not going to make the money they thought they were going to make from releasing one CD anymore. What do they need to do? They need to tour."

Atkins teaches the business of touring at Columbia College in Chicago, and says that it's through touring that bands can find and develop their audience, often one album and one person at a time. His book, which he describes as "part basic knowledge, part math, part poetry, part alchemy and part understanding of your limitations," was originally intended to be a textbook for bands, but quickly morphed into something different.

"I got wrapped up in geography, math, and all the poetry, the risk, all of that was missing. So I started to add that in there, and then I realized — unusually for the owner of a record label — that I might not know everything"

Atkins reached out to more than 100 people for their knowledge and opinions in their particular areas of expertise.

"I think that got a real good balance — the bus company saying, 'this is what you need to watch out for with the bus,' the journalist saying 'this is what we don't like from some smartass,' the promoter saying 'it would be nice if a band would do this."

Atkins says he also included pieces from agents, stage techs, sound guys, people in bands, managers and even drug addicts.

"There's a fantastic piece from one of the guys from Sheep on Drugs talking about playing bass guitar on acid, and his ears aren't working properly because of the drugs. And I didn't know that about acid. It's a beautiful piece about drugs. I don't think it will make anyone want to do drugs, but it's good information."

Atkins says the math part of touring — the general demographics and geography — is also important for a band.

"If I draw a line from Minneapolis to Texas ... 17 of the top 100 largest are west of that line. The other stuff that's west of that line are all the 900 mile drives, the exploding transmissions, the exploding bass player's head because he can't deal with the 18-hour-a-day drives, the bad shows because you don't have a soundcheck, the lack of human interaction because you smell bad and you probably sound bad. And even if there's 50 amazingly hot girls or guys at the front of the stage, you've got to drive 900 miles to be late for the next show. And that strategy, it's insane. But if you stay east of that line, the drives are 90 miles."

Atkins says the logistical strategies for building an audience in cities across the country is explored and explained in Tour: Smart. Bands, he explains, have to think of themselves as small businesses. And to be entrepreneurial, they have to take responsibility for themselves.

"You'll be paying the price for whatever hasn't been taken care of," Atkins says. "Promoters these days open the doors to venues, and they take out some ads. [But] promoters don't really promote, agents don't really book, managers don't really manage — bands need to grab ahold of their situation. And that's what I'm telling bands. They want to be U2 or whatever, I tell them success is really being able to sustain. If you can sustain, you can learn and grow and make it better and do it again."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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