In his recommended new book Tour Smart and Break the Band, about the real deal of touring as a band or artist, longtime drummer Martin Atkins (PiL, Killing Joke, Ministry, Pigface, etc.) tells it like it is to be on the road in a rock band, or in any band for that matter. These days the busy author runs a record label, invents new types of drums, books bands, and teaches a univeristy course in Chicago at Columbia College about the business of the arts! The 592-page book (which is in stores Sept. 1st but available online now) exhaustively explores every aspect of touring. The highly informative and entertaining how-to book is written and edited by Atkins, who invited about a hundred music biz experts (from bus drivers to bass players) to voice their tales and experiences of life on the road for touring artists. Topics include making contracts, sketching itineries, pros and cons of drug use on the road, the importance of merchandise, sound checks, and dealing with everything from club sound checks to handling radio interviews and driving a tour bus 330 miles in unfamiliar conditions at 4AM after just leaving a gig. Atkins' guest contributors include Henry Rollins, Steve Albini, and Kevin Lyman of the Vans Warped Tour. Lee Frasers of Sheep on Drugs describes the difficulty of being on stage tripping on acid and playing his guitar, which felt to him like it was made of sponge rubber, and trying to somehow keep in the (onstage) moment.
I recently caught up with author Martin Atkins via email, to ask him about the book and also the exhibit entitled The Religion of Marketing that he just wound up in New York City at Fuse Gallery on 2nd Avenue. It featured items that are included in the illustration-heavy Tour Smart.
AMOEBLOG: What exactly was at your recent exhibit in New York that tied in with the new book?
MARTIN ATKINS: It was an interesting hybrid of art and memorabilia I think -- some large scenery pieces I made for the Killing Joke/"Money is Not Our God" video (one of my first screen printed scenery projects), bits and pieces from my time with PiL (like the Mickey Mouse watch we used on "Banging the Door"), the shirt I wore on American Bandstand, the Pigface scenery that came from some of the small sculpture/collages I do, the dot screened Madonnas etc, the dot screened Newcastle Brown Ale bottle caps from the 1994 tour. Some people just like the art, some people just want to see bits and pieces of memorabilia -- some of the pieces are arranged with small video screens running loops that place the items in context.
AMOEBLOG: What are the best and worst things about touring?
MARTIN ATKINS: I think the worst thing might be someone not realising how fucking privileged thay are to just be out there doing it. If there is an audience there, it's so much better. I love the sound my drum kit makes when it's in a large room (1000-ish capacity) and it's cranked through a PA by a competent sound guy. I like one couple of thousand watts of monitors so when I hit the bass drum the air wants to push me off my seat -- that is a fucking privilege. Throw in a few crew guys and a tour manager that cares about you, and you are in heaven! Some kids fuck around in insecurity and think that they have to play it all off like it's expected and normal; by the time you realise it isn't, it might be too late. I've been very lucky to experience some very high highs, then some lows, then some high highs again. The best thing, I think, is the routine of it, then the ability to walk on hot coals -- there was a time with Killing Joke where I was really pushing myself -- long shows that I really went for. One day I thought that I had sneezed or something like that -- actually, I had stood up and thrown the kit across the stage.
AMOEBLOG: What is the common mistake that first time bands on tour make?
MARTIN ATKINS: Oh fuck. OK, re-creating a tour that they saw on the back of their favourite band's t-shirt from when they were growing up. Demographics change (Colorado Springs is becoming a destination now). A Chicago band can play out of town without going to LA! The other side of this coin is bands overplaying their home city too much. I suggested that a good guide would be for a band only to play their own city when they have a new t-shirt they can sell. There are so many other mistakes...waiting for an agent, doing ANYTHING an agent or manager suggests, not paying attention, not having a range of merch, not havig an e mail list, thinking that because they have a MySpace account that they are really pushing the envelope. NOT doing anything, not taking responsibility, shooting for the moon...
AMOEBLOG: What gave you the idea to write Tour Smart? Was it as a textbook for your class?
MARTIN ATKINS: I started to write a PiL coffee table book. Then I thought -- because I'd started teaching -- that I should add in a couple of chapters about touring. Then, BANG -- that side of it took over! I'm still putting the PiL book together. I looked around for a text book 4 years ago -- there was nothing. There are a couple of books, but they are both written by lawyers -- one of them actually says in the introduction "the most important creative decision you will make as an artist is choosing your attorney!" Give me a fucking break! When was the last time you heard of a band breaking up because they chose the wrong attorney?! These books are all recommended by David Geffen -- quite who is reassured by his seal of approval is beyond me.
AMOEBLOG: I understand that it is a university course on the biz of touring that you teach. Was that your idea that you pitched to the college? And if so,: how hard a sell was that?
MARTIN ATKINS: It was an accident. I went up to Columbia here in Chicago to tell them about one of the package tours I was putting together so that I could get armfuls of free intern help...I did a quick presentation with all of the materials -- posters, postcards, shirts, promo cds, sponsorship stuff, etc, and they said, 'Great! when can you start??" I was in the middle of booking a tour with 4 bands and three buses; the class started 4 days after my meeting...but I knew that it was a great opportunity that I might not get offered again, so I agreed, and that first class, I made up as I went along. It turned out that thinking about all of the things I have done and lessons I have learned actually made me learn those lessons more indelibly than I actually had. It was weird-- I'd have mini revelations halfway through class. I'd allow the class to go off in any direction as long as everyone was engaged, and I'd manage to tie it all
together and hopefully channel a bit of Eddie Izzard in there too to keep everyone entertained. The first class was 6 hours! But, I guess that all of my spoken word performances and bullshitting were useful after all!
AMOEBLOG: How did you decide out of the 100 or so contributors to your book whose insights to include?
MARTIN ATKINS: Well, there's over 100 -- there were just a few people that I wanted to get information and opinions from but couldn't get to... EVERYONE in there has something great to add; Lacey Connor (she's currently on VH1's Rock of Love!) had great stuff to add...yes, it's about being careful with filthy video tapes of sex on the road (dont' let your dad's friends watch them), being careful about mixing drinks, and invaluable advice about RV's. The problem with the music business is that it is so cut throat, and there is a lot of insecurity, so it's rare to have anyone admitting they ever made a mistake anywhere. I came sraight out in my first Suicide Girls column and told people I didn't sign Disturbed!!!
AMOEBLOG: I liked that you included all the drugs stories and advice.
MARTIN ATKINS: Well, my experience has been that it is a huge part of touring, and the music business; even if YOU aren't on something, someone or everyone else probably is. It just seemed like it would be ridiculous to not put it in there. Like writing a book about George Bush without several chapters on stupidity, dishonesty and oh, drugs! Many people glorify the drug aspect – and that’s understandable to a degree – it's cool , it's anti – whatever…but the reality is that if you are (for instance) a DJ and you get busted smoking weed in your car, it's going to fuck up your chances of flying around the world and having a fantastic career. I don’t see anyone talking about the common sense side of it – there is so much at stake!
AMOEBLOG: What is the most messed up drug induced disaster you witnessed in your years on the road (you don't have to mention names)?
MARTIN ATKINS: Pil was bad at times. At different periods one of our staff was our dealer, then one of our crew. We HAD to get something called a turbo grinder in the early 80's in LA -- we were getting carpel tunnel syndrome from chopping up all those rocks! (What sad Miami Vice fuckers we were!) But, it got bad, this was when I started to try and stop everything -- drinking too. I think i was lucky to see the horrible effects of heroin on the most amazingly talented Keith Levene [PiL's first guitarist]-- it just made it a no-brainer to never go near heroin. Later, when I was on the road with Ministry, there was so much H around I nearly left the tour. Everyone has a few horrible cautionary tales; the trick is to still be alive to apply the lessons learned. And not to be a preachy fuck.
AMOEBLOG: Since you started in the music biz 30 years ago a lot has changed. Looking back over just the last twenty years, what do you think is the one big difference?
MARTIN ATKINS: I have a piece of scenery I made for Test Dept's last tour of the US. It says 'the only constant thing is change'...they still haven't made a decent drum machine. Maybe one really big change is the fragmentation of the listenership -- it used to be that I thought a BIG difference between the US and the UK was that in the UK, EVERYONE would listen to Radio One, watch the same TV shows at the same time and then talk about them the next day. The US was different because of the size, and all of the different markets, college radio stations, etc. NOW, wherever you are in the world, even in a minivan, 4 people in the vehicle can all be (and probably are) listening to or watching something different. It seems like it will be harder for a HUGE superstar band with any longevity to emerge again -- the U2's, etc, come from a different era. Another big difference is cell phones, the internet -- EASE of communication. No more rolls of quarters to make phone calls and book the next few gigs!
AMOEBLOG: I've read that the Rolling Stones are currently the #1 touring act and U2 are number two (in terms of grossing cash). How do they pull that off?
MARTIN ATKINS: Well, they are running their businesses -- I know that the Rolling Stones cancelled a UK tour because the exchange rate changed dramatically and they didn't want to take the hit on their profits (because of the way the deal was structured). I mean, C'mon! It's like writing a protest song about First Class travel not being all it's cracked up to be (ooops, Jaz Coleman did that before I made him change the lyrics)!
AMOEBLOG: Is the Internet and the changes it has made upon music biz a blessing or a curse. Are they the kick in the ass it needed or just another obstacle for struggling artists to make a buck?
MARTIN ATKINS: Anything that helps get music out there is a blessing – remember mix cassettes? That's how I first heard (I mean really heard) Killing Joke – driving across the US (I’d seen them a few times in London but nothing memorable – probably more me than them). So, if ONE of the many, many really important problems facing a band is getting heard by someone – then anything that helps, eerrrrrrrrr, HELPS! If you are trying to make a living by selling your three cds on line – you are totally fucked. Adapt, re-create, open your eyes! Most bands that get it are ON THE ROAD now, fine tuning their machinery. Prince is all over it – he has ingested the newest state of play and is working on the next one. Ticketmaster and Live Nation are looking at the next idea too – for some reason it seems to take the smallest, most flexible units the longest time to adapt and change – (ie: bands and artists). Some are still entrenched in the 1980’s, blaming the label- manager- -agent-producer mentality. The biggest obstacle to struggling artists making a buck is the artist themselves.
AMOEBLOG: And where do you see the biz five years from now, in terms of generating cash flow for artists?
MARTIN ATKINS: Well, I don’t know. People should stop being so afraid...they’ve been making drum machines for 25 years now. They can tweak all they fucking like but it's MY BRAIN that turns rhythms inside out, that hears off time stuff inside of Mickey Mouse watches – none of their threatening new advances (from any time in the last 25 years) is threatening to real originality. Be more of what you are (or hope to be). Stop being afraid of getting a JOB – at some point – you HOPE – that the music business will be one – so get some practice! You’re going to need to work 24 hrs straight (and sometimes 36+ hours, 7 days a week non fucking stop if you want to get anywere close to MAKING IT...watch Deadliest Catch on Discovery Channel – touring is like that. Stop crying, put some insulating tape on that horrible cut, smile and get back on stage!