What happens when beloved local acts hit the road in search of success?
Every weekend throughout the metroplex, dozens of bands that aren't native to the Dallas area come through town, hoping to commandeer the attention of a few ears and attach themselves to the memories of area concertgoers.
For many a traveling band, the only way they will ever be able to come back through the fertile live-music soil of North Texas is to make a distinct enough impression as the oft-ignored opener for a well-known headliner, or perhaps as a little-known headliner playing a Wednesday night gig in front of a dozen people who are paying closer attention to the television above the bar than to what's going on around the stage.
The same goes for some of this region's favorite bands, too. Many groups that have come to be well-regarded around here eventually and understandably seek approval and acclaim in other parts of the country. Comfortably performing as a local band in front of familiar and sizable crowds is great, but to become a road-tested touring band that is greeted by fans who haven't seen them grow up is a brass ring that's not only difficult to grasp, but that requires a commitment above what most bands are willing to make.
For Smile Smile's Jencey Hirunrusme, hitting the road as an opening act for well-known headliners has been a fortunate development, even though such slots are often equipped with their own challenges.
"When we've toured with Bob Schneider, we got lucky and were able to travel on his bus and he took us under his wing," says Hirunrusme. "Because of that, he really encouraged his fans to embrace us more than what you typically see for an opening act. Of course, Bob's crowds are rowdy and we've had to adjust our sets to fit in with that type of crowd."
Smile Smile has toured the country on multiple occasions in the last year, and especially after their latest album, Truth on Tape, saw its release. Getting exposure in front of the crowds that have come to see Schneider, Metric or Bowling for Soup—acts that Smile Smile has opened up for in recent times—is only worth so much, though, if a band isn't determined to quickly go back to a city in order to build on that momentum.
"We just like to get out and play in front of new audiences," Hirunrusme says. "As a touring artist, you can't stop. If you go through a city, you have to go back soon or they forget about you."
Another area artist who has recently sampled life on the road is Chris Johnson, lead singer for the band that had last year's top local album, Fort Worth's Telegraph Canyon. He also understands the value of seizing the opportunities that may arise while touring—especially when those chances are unexpected.
"We played a show in Chicago with Rhett Miller and there must've been a thousand people there," Johnson says. "After the show, we had to haul ass to get back to Texas. But, before we got back to Texas, we had a show in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It wasn't for much money, but that night, a guy from The Netherlands who had directed a documentary was in town for a film festival and came to the show. That guy also happened to be the MC for the largest music festival in The Netherlands and he bought a CD to take back home, where his friend, who runs a radio station, began to play our stuff. And then they invited us to play their festival. They were able to help us get an agent there, and within three or four days, we had five dates booked in Europe."
Johnson explains that the money involved doesn't always indicate the success of a show.
"At first," he says, "that Hot Springs show might've been one that we didn't want to get out of the van for. But it turned out to be really awesome. Our guarantee was around fifty dollars that night, but it was worth it."
Planning a tour is often as difficult as actually going out on one, though. For Chelsea Callahan, who not only books talent for The Double-Wide in Dallas but also operates Manhandler Booking, a newly formed agency that specializes in helping area bands book gigs in other markets, a band being able to book a show in any club in any city may come down to something as logical and unsexy as which dates a club might have open.
"Touring bands usually need a specific date, and 75 percent of the time, that'll make or break it," Callahan says. "Actually, I have to say no 10 or 12 times a day. Most venues book months out in advance, so that's a big factor for any band looking to tour."
Callahan also notes that every club has its own set of circumstances that may prove to be helpful or harmful to a band planning its tour. To be certain, established relationships and a band's history in a given area will make future tours easier, even if it means the first tour is rather painful.
"Anytime a band goes out for the first time, it's going to be hard and no one's going to know who they are," Callahan says. "If they can keep getting money for gas and sell a few CDs and gain a few fans in each new town then, that's pretty successful. It's just hard."
But for Hirunrusme and Johnson, the positive results from the tough times on the road have begun to show themselves in tangible and emotionally gratifying ways. Both artists derive satisfaction out of something as simple as looking down and seeing a fan from a new town actively engaged in a song that was written far from the stage they're performing on.
"It's amazing to look down and see people singing along," Hirunrusme says enthusiastically. "It's really not about the crowd size, but about the people that are really excited about seeing you."
Johnson agrees, and takes his appreciation for a sincere crowd connection a step further. Knowing that he and his mates aren't likely to get rich anytime soon, Johnson finds immense value in the individual experiences that make up life for him and his band when away from home—even when there may be only 15 people watching.
"Some of the coolest shows are the ones where we're on the road and there are less than a hundred people," Johnson says. "I'm always thinking about how I can turn the show on its head in order to make it great. I think I have to do that, because more often than not most bands are used to not playing for anyone."
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