Not many musicians realise the potential of playing the European live circuit. Nigel Humberstone, whose band, In The Nursery, has built up a substantial European following, lets you in on some of the secrets of technical and business survival in Europe.
For artists and groups starting out and dissatisfied with the poor facilities offered by the UK's live music scene, the opportunities of playing live in mainland Europe are a serious and often viable alternative. I write from experience because my own band, In The Nursery, have managed to build up a good fan base and reputation in countries like France, Germany, Italy and Portugal, by playing at any number of European venues — from small (and I mean small) clubs, working our way up to headlining the first night of a German open‑air festival in front of 6,000 people and being invited to perform at an ampitheatre in Sicily. But the varied experiences have been worth it, largely because of the audience reaction and their enthusiasm. I've found that, in general, European audiences are more open and receptive to experimental and 'alternative' music. People will go to see a live band out of interest, and it is evident that their preferences are not dependent on the views of the music press.
This phenomenon is highlighted particularly within Germany (Europe's largest popular music market), where there exists a burgeoning underground youth culture, unaffected by what is or is not fashionable and trendy. Labelled as 'Gothic' or 'Dark Wave', this underground scene has been developing for many years and can be traced back to influential groups like the Sisters Of Mercy, Cabaret Voltaire, DAF and The Cure. Electronic dance music of the mid '80s, like that of the Human League and the Industrial Funk scene that followed, are historical markers, but where enthusiasm waned in the UK, dedicated fans kept up the interest in Germany. The music, though specialised in some areas, is now fairly diverse and, along with the hugely popular techno scene, is becoming integrated with parts of mainstream culture. Thus there are all the associated fanzines, record labels, promoters, agents, venues and merchandisers that exist to supply the steady demand for this market.
If your music is avant‑garde, uniquely alternative or just plain bizarre, there is a whole network of live venues throughout Germany and the former Eastern Bloc. You can't just suddenly step in, but once you've built up a reputation, the market is there. Many readers are unlikely to be familiar with names like The Legendary Pink Dots, And Also The Trees, Nitzer Ebb, Front Line Assembly, Death In June, Bourbonese Qualk, Current 93 and The Anti Group (Clock DVA), but these bands are nonetheless acknowledged throughout the live network in Europe. I have often been amazed by the European audience's knowledge of underground and alternative music.
It is also my experience that touring bands are treated better in Europe. Things like drinks and refreshment riders (which are unheard of at many small venues in the UK) are pretty much standard. Get yourself a good tour agent and they should help to ensure that all your specified technical requirements are met — and hotel accommodation and meals provided. In some countries, such as Holland, the state has helped subsidise live venues and clubs, but as the recession took hold in Europe, this kind of support began to fade away. Now I think a lot of it comes down to sheer enthusiasm for music in general and a kind of respect for the artist — otherwise I find it hard to explain the anomalies between conditions in the UK and mainland Europe. It's a situation I'm often asked to explain when foreign interviewers learn that In The Nursery attract very little press attention in England.
With computers so dominant in the making of music these days, it's inevitable that some bands need either backing tracks or pre‑programmed sequences in order to recreate their sound in a live situation. The easy option of a DAT player, on top of which live vocals, and perhaps some percussion, are added has become a tried and tested method. It certainly offers many advantages — 'DAT bands' are easy to soundcheck, easy to transport, and do not require as many musicians. But even though countries like Germany are awash with bands like this, they are not always what audiences want to hear or see. A challenging alternative advocated by bands like Nitzer Ebb and Sheep On Drugs is live sequencing. Although home and studio computer systems have been taken on the road, they can be highly unreliable, unstable and frustrating. The best method is to download your song sequences to a MIDI data recorder, such as the Alesis DataDisk, or even make use of the new MIDI file playing options on Akai's 3000‑series samplers.
With my own band I have been using a trusty Elka CR99 (a unit which is no longer produced). It works in much the same way as the DataDisk and allows the merging of other 'live' MIDI data. Of course these MIDI players only record and play back basic data information, therefore luxuries like multiple MIDI outputs and real‑time control have to be sacrificed.
The system I currently use live has one of the Elka CR99's two identical MIDI outputs driving Emu Proteus 1 and 2XR modules, while the other feeds the Akai S3000 and Emax keyboard sampler. A Roland S10 keyboard is set up to transmit on MIDI channel 15 and used to play sounds from both Protei. In addition, my other MIDI controller is a Yamaha WX11 wind synth which I use to play an edited oboe preset on the Proteus 2. This device only transmits on MIDI channel 1 — a minor point, but one which needs to be taken into consideration when programming the backing tracks. Organising your MIDI channels so that only the sounds you want to hear are played may appear obvious, but it is amazing what last‑minute changes will be needed, and it is best to make those changes during rehearsals rather than realising your mistakes during precious soundchecks.
System Exclusive MIDI information is used extensively — a burst pre‑empts each track to set up all the relevant parameters on the Protei. This would ensure, for example, that the WX11 does not play any other sounds on other modules. The MIDI map facility on the Protei is also used to allocate desired presets following a program change from the S10. This MIDI information should be saved, in case of future disasters, on a separate disk, along with a backup of user and factory presets.
ITN's live set is a real mixture of old and new material — older tracks are nearly all played live (mainly because they were written that way before we had a computer), whilst more recent tracks are heavily sequenced, with only a few extra parts to be played on top. Around all this we mix ITN's live orchestral drums. We have three fibreglass Academy Timpanis, two 30‑inch orchestral bass drums, basler drum (a marching rope‑tensioned tom), two marching snares (one fixed on a stand, the other worn on a sling), various cymbals, tambourines and orchestral hand cymbals. The marching snare is of the high‑tension variety favoured by pipe bands, which, in order to give our drummer (called 'Q') more mobility, has been fitted with a clip‑on AKG C408 micromic. Our presentation is very visual (we also use two automatic slide projectors, showing random prepared images on the two banners that are strapped to the trestle bass drum stands) and dynamic, especially with the orchestral timpanis and snare drums which have become our trademark.
Simplifying your live sequencing setup is very important: the less that can go wrong, the better — though admittedly I have not managed to stick completely to this rule. Indeed, in order to have individual control over the various sampler and module outputs, I'm running between 13 and 15 channels (depending on mixing desk restrictions at many smaller venues). I considered routing the whole lot through a keyboard mixer, with just a stereo mix being sent to the FO(Front Of House) desk, but that just didn't give our sound engineer the necessary control over individual EQs and effects. Consequently we utilise 15 DI units (10 supplied by ourselves in rackmounted form). Obviously, not many PA companies carry this many DIs, and those that they carry can often be, at best, suspect — so always be prepared.
In order to have individual control over channels, I run each output into a DI unit and then take the parallel output back from the DI into our Tascam MM1 keyboard mixer. I then use this mixer to balance the band's onstage keyboard mix, sending a simple stereo feed to either the monitor desk or FO(in venues where there was no dedicated monitor desk). The advantages of having instant control over crucial monitoring levels is invaluable and can easily be altered depending on various monitoring systems and venues. This kind of setup also means you do not need to employ your own monitor engineer and cuts down on those frustrating communication problems, where you're trying to tell the monitor engineer, mid‑song, to turn up channel 3 of the Akai sampler.
On reflection, I feel the system that I have been running, although flexible, is a little too complicated for touring, and I'll be considering new options in the future. The possibility of using an ADAT is high on the list.
Making the most of a PA's monitoring system is crucial to a successful live sound — in both large and small venues. Smaller club venues (2‑300 capacity) will generally have simple 'in‑house' PA systems where the monitor mix is operated by the FOengineer. On stage you'd have perhaps three or four wedge monitors (of differing audio quality) and a larger box for the drum fill. Usually, there will only be two separate mixes, with certain speakers 'paired', so you need to work out which band members can share. Positioning the cabinets can make a lot of difference; in a loud live situation in a small club you're going to be hearing a lot of sound reflections from all over the venue — so make sure that your monitor is at the right height (placing it on a beer crate can make a great difference) and giving you optimum coverage.
With medium‑sized venues (500+) you may be lucky enough (though don't bet on it) to have a PA with a separate monitor desk at the side of the stage. You may even have 'side‑fills', which give better overall coverage on stage. But having a fully dedicated system is not always better — because then you need to consider the option of taking your own monitor engineer — or be prepared to instruct the venue/PA company's engineer for every show. Once again, simplifying your needs and knowing what everyone needs to hear and where they need to hear it, really helps in saving time. For example, our vocalist, Dolores Marguerite C, has a quiet voice, so in order for her to hear herself she chooses to have just her vocals in her wedge monitors and relies on the overspill from other stage monitors (and side‑fills when used) for music cues. Experience will show which songs are causing the most problems in the monitors, so make sure to soundcheck these. Taking your own FOsound engineer is preferable, and they should be able to talk you through checking your monitors. Sometimes it's best to completely turn off the main PA and concentrate on what you want to hear on stage. The FOsound will have some effect come peformance time but you cannot and should not rely on that for timing. From my experience, every venue is different and has its own characteristics, which will in turn influence a band's live sound. Many venues are wholly inappropriate — buildings that I would refer to as 'acoustic nightmares', with sounds rebounding off untreated surfaces, booming bass traps and disconcerting reflections. When you play for the first time at any venue, you're taking a risk — the stage area may have a low ceiling, confining side‑walls, reflective and non‑reflective surfaces — and all these factors affect how you hear your sound and, ultimately, your performance.
Taking on tour an engineer with knowledge of your band's music and current live set is really essential. The role of such a person should not be underestimated — in most cases he or she will smooth out all the problems just waiting to happen at the FO(often by just making friends with the 'house' PA engineer). He/she will cover tasks like taking notes of the desk's EQ, special effects, graphic settings and so on, after soundchecks (regardless of whether you are a support band or not). And any sound engineer worth his salt will be aware of the differing acoustics of each venue, especially the fact that when the venue begins to fill up with people, certain frequencies are absorbed. If your engineer hasn't compensated for this, he/she will frantically be boosting and 'livening' up the sound as soon as you hit the stage. Most clubs and concert venues are geared towards 'Rock' bands — meaning the standard guitar/bass/drums setup. Invariably this is shown in the graphic EQ frequency settings of the PA rig — often very 'sharp' and abrasive. But not all music is the same and adjustments may be needed to suit the acoustics and the style of music being played. The two engineers we work with (Mark & Kirky — they deserve a namecheck) have often spotted mistakes in the PA, such as mid‑range speakers not working and bass cabinets being out of phase! And they're always there when that particular ringing frequency needs to be taken out of the main vocal monitor.
With European borders now open, the opportunities for small up‑and‑coming UK bands to tour the Continent have never been better — but of course there are a number of rules.
PREPARATION: This really comes down to what any sensible touring band would do:
- Ensure that all your equipment is in good working order, preferably flight‑cased or well packed.
- Take essential spares (fuses, drum skins and sticks, etc).
- Work out your power arrangements so that the minimum number of Euro plugs will need to be attached. (Note that Germany and Holland use the same power connections).
- It will also help to forward, along with your PA requirements, a list of technical equipment required, including microphones (state a preference) and DIs. A stage plan (see diagram example) would also be an advantage for any venue preparing for your arrival — especially if you're late!
- It may seem blindingly obvious but it's worth getting a visual check of everyone's passports before you set off, if only to make sure that they're all still valid.
- Although documentation for the temporary export of musical equipment is no longer required when performing in EU countries, it is still advisable to take along an itemised list of all you equipment, including the serial numbers and original receipts, in case you come across any difficult border guards.
- It is still feasible to enter some non‑EU countries without documention (otherwise an ATA Carnet can be obtained from your local Chamber of Commerce; however, this is not cheap — around £200, depending on the value of equipment taken — and takes a little time and effort). Some former Eastern Bloc countries, such as The Czech Republic and Poland, may ask for a deposit or surety, which is returnable when you exit the country.
- Be prepared for Austria and Switzerland (either playing in or travelling through), which still have some of the most stringent non‑EU border controls.
- Personal travel insurance is a sensible option to consider, but you can also cover yourself against any unexpected emergency medical treatment by simply picking up a DSS E111 form (available from any Post Office). This then enables you to get most medical charges either waived or refunded.
- For the average first‑time touring band, specialised van hire, such as 'Splitters' (specially adapted vehicles with room for personnel and equipment) and tour buses are not cheap and may be out of your financial range. Expect to pay around £80‑100 per day for a tour bus and £130‑150 for a Splitter. (Contacts: Bandwidth, on 0181 748 5942; Stardes, on 0114‑251 0051.)
- A workable alternative, depending on the size of the band and the amount of equipment being taken, is to hire a a minibus and request that some of the seating be removed. Both 12‑ and 15‑seater buses can then be used. But be aware that not all rental companies supply vehicles fitted with tachographs (now an EU regulation), and in many cases will not let a vehicle be taken abroad without one.
- Green Card Insurance and AA 5 Star Insurance will also be required. When booking a van, remember that diesel versions will save you an awful lot of money, especially with long distances involved.
- When you're planning the tour, either through individual contacts or with an agent, try to keep daily travel to a maximum of 450 km between each day's venues. Inevitably there will be the odd 'hard drive' on some days, but consistent high mileage above this figure will induce stress and travel fatigue amongst the band, as well as jeopardising your chances of keeping to 'get‑in' schedules.
- Take into account the fact that countries such as France and Italy have road tolls on major routes — and this extra outlay can easily eat into your travelling expenses. Minor roads are useable, but could almost double your travel time.
- A further option is to hire a sleeper coach or 'nightliner'. In this case, the venue will pay you, or your agent, the accommodation costs, which then go towards the nightliner hire. For serious touring, when there are very few days off and long distances involved, this is a good option. But my experience reminds me that nothing can compare to a well planned and co‑ordinated tour using light transport and, more importantly, with a welcoming hotel room every night.
- Ferry Travel: general routes into Europe are Harwich to Hook of Holland for Holland and Germany; Dover to Calais for France, Belgium and perhaps down through into Spain and Portugal. The night sailing from Harwich, although longer and more expensive than the other routes, is potentially economical if you think of it as one less night's accommodation to pay for (tour agents will generally only pay for accommodation on the night of a performance — any 'off' or travel days are left for the band to cover).
FINANCES AND FEES
- Tour agents generally take a 15% commission on your fee. When you're discussing figures, check exactly what you'll be receiving.
- At some venues there may also be the option of a percentage 'on the door'; this is a share of takings which you get when more than a certain number of people attend the venue.
- It is preferable to ask for an advance fee before you leave the UK (this then helps with the outlay on vehicle hire and travelling costs), but not all agents (particularly smaller ones) will be willing or able to do this. A contract, however simple, is therefore essential, and it should outline the agent's guarantee of a minimum number of concerts, with all fees, which should be payable on the night of the concert. Don't let anyone say that you'll get it at the end of the tour. A contract should also identify who is financially responsible for the printing and distribution of tour posters (usually the agent, although they will normally seek some recompense from either the artist or record company), along with responsibility for fuel and travel costs, food and accommodation on days off, and so on.
- Germany, France and Holland have respectable tour agencies, but places like Italy in particular have bad reputations for non‑payment (especially if you're playing in the south). Advance payment is therefore preferable.
- It's fair to say that merchandising can make the difference between a tour that loses money and one that makes a profit. Taking along cassettes, CDs (vinyl is even less in vogue in Europe than it is in the UK, though still collectable) and T‑shirts will provide the band with an essential source of income — so make sure that you realise its full potential.
MAKING THE TOUR WORK
- Touring can be very stressful for everyone involved and arguments will inevitably happen, but to make things easier it is best to designate one person as the band's spokesperson and intermediary. Then leave it to this person to liase with all the various contacts (stage managers, security, tour agents, local promoters and press), ensuring that things like meal times and travelling arrangements are known, so that no‑one is left hanging around. This means that the rest of the band have a single reliable source for information, without everyone getting in on the act.
- If you have a manager, he or she will no doubt cover this role, but it wouldn't hurt to have someone keep an eye on them as well!
IN THE NURSERY's re‑make of the Sabres Of Paradise track 'Haunted Dancehall' is released in early 1995.
For gathering together a list of contacts, the only real production guide I've found which caters for both the UK and Europe is the Showcase International Music Book (formerly Kemps International Music Book). The latest updated '95 edition lists venues throughout Europe.
The Showcase International Music Book (£30) is available from Showcase Publications Ltd, 12 Felix Avenue, London N8 9TL Tel: 0181 348 2332; Fax: 0181 340 3750.
- Elka CR99 MIDI Recorder
- Emu Proteus 1 (with Protologic upgrade)
- Emu Proteus 2XR
- Akai S3000 sampler (18Mb)
- DAC R4000II removable hard drive
- Emu Emax 1 HD keyboard
- Roland S10 keyboard
- Yamaha WX11 wind synth
- Philip Rees 2M MIDI merge
- Tascam MM1 keyboard mixer
- ARX DI‑6 rack unit
- Hoyer Bass guitar
- Carlsbro Rebel 8 Combo
- Alesis Quadraverb
- Electro Harmonix 'Big Muff' fuzz pedal
- 2 x Premier 25‑inch Academy Timpani
- 1 x Premier 28‑inch Academy Timpani
- 2 x 30‑inch Orchestral Bass Drums
- Premier HTS200 marching snare drum
- Basler drum
- Premier 14‑inch marching snare drum
- Maya 22‑inch Orchestral hand cymbals
- Expect to start organising dates with tour agents and promoters at least four to five months in advance. The best periods for touring are between March and May, and again between September and December.
- Forget about the summer months — many venues close down.
- Send demo tapes/live videos to tour agents.
- If you haven't already got one (or the use of one), get a fax machine. They are essential for communicating with European contacts, receiving contracts/maps, sending stage plans/technical lists, and so on.
- If your music is more performance based, consider approaching an organisation like the Arts Council (0171 333 0100) for exchange trips or funding. They also publish a book called Who Does What In Europe.
- Treat yourself to a short trip to somewhere like Frankfurt, Hamburg or Berlin — even Prague. Do some groundwork — visit local record shops, radio stations, venues, pick up some fanzines and make contacts that way.
- Be prepared to play low‑fee support shows and cut costs by all the usual means, like staying with friends, or friends of the promoter, rather than insisting on paid accommodation at first.
- Getting that first foot into the circuit is the most important thing; from there you can build up a reputation.
Yamaha's new low‑priced digital mixer offers an excellent opportunity for hi‑tech bands wanting to overcome mixing problems in a live situation. For the many dance‑based acts, the ProMix 01's facilities mean that dedicated EQ, levels and fader movements (via the unit's motorised faders) can all be effortlessly memorised, recalled and repeated night after night, whilst being controlled with MIDI. A simple stereo feed to the FOdesk is all that is required for that ultimate automated live mix.